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This story first appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In my career, I have sold nine pilots. Of those, I have shot two and gone to series both times. Neither show survived its first season. And then, with Fargo, I wrote a single script and was picked up straight-to-series with a guarantee that the network will air all 10 episodes I make.
I’m never going back.
The straight-to-series order has always been the holy grail of modern television. It’s the rumor of a miracle, impossible to get. And yet more and more, it’s becoming the norm. And the question is, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Let me answer that this way: If making a pilot is a blind date, then straight-to-series is an engagement ring. The prevailing emotion throughout the entire pilot process is uncertainty. You spend a year of your life auditioning for a job, pitching your idea, building an outline, writing a script, and then, if the pilot gets picked up, you spend the next five months wondering — what if we make this thing and it just becomes nothing? Which, most of the time, it does.
Compare that to the following: “Hi, it’s the network. We like your script. We want to put the show on the air. No, all of it. A whole season. Yes, we want you to break the story from beginning to end, write the scripts, and we’ll shoot it and put it on the air. No, this isn’t a joke. Hello?”
Two things vanish from the storytelling process when you go straight-to-series. The first is doubt, both creative and practical. From the start, you approach your story in a different manner. The first hour is no longer a corporate sales tool. It’s Chapter 1 of a book that you know you’re going to finish. And so you plan your arcs more carefully and write every scene knowing you’ll get to produce it. Which means that even as you write, you have to think about makeability.
The other thing that vanishes is a certain type of fear. In the pilot process, the network and studio are like the two old millionaires conducting a social science experiment in Trading Places. They make a literal bet with each other: Can one writer, through skill and/or luck, manage to assemble all the right elements (cast, director, score, VFX, etc.) to perfectly execute the script they’ve written?
But when you go straight-to-series, the network and studio become your partners. They make a long-term commitment to the show at the start and are invested in your success. This is not a test, in other words. There is no hedging of bets. You will make the show and they will air it, end of story.
Which leads me to the best part of the straight-to-series paradigm: It means that you as a writer (or director or actor) will be judged on a body of work, a complete story, not just your audition.
And in the end, isn’t that what any of us really wants?
(Fargo premieres April 15 on FX.)
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Portia de Rossi
James Gordon Meek