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Building the Team for Your TV Pilot: 5 Case Studies

As part of developing my first TV series, designed around a multinational team of activists, I have studied a number of ‘team series’ (the fun part of being a writer) and found that the pilots of these series shared a number of elements.


Some of these were long-running series, others limited, with regard to seasons and/or episodes within a season; some have season goals, others just solve the case-of-the-week.


The elements I identified are: the team gathers - the members, their skills and some backstories are introduced - is there an internal conflict? - the team’s goal - plus the case of the week, if applicable. So let’


Criminal Minds


The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) in Quantico: a team of profilers with specific skills.

  • Team gathers: Agent Gideon (re)joins the existing team of agents Hotchner, Morgan and Reid; Elle is introduced on the case and will join as of episode 2 to complete the team.

  • Introduces members and their individual skills plus additional helpers (IT wizard Penelope Garcia); backstories begin to trickle in.

  • Internal conflict: Morgan is sceptical bordering on hostility towards Gideon because of Gideon’s traumatic backstory incident, which got several FBI agents killed.

  • Team’s goal (overall as well as each episode): identify serial killers before they can kill again.

  • Case of the week.

Bonus tip: throughout season 1, they use the ‘takes one to know one’ approach of introducing backstories of some of the agents. See if that applies to other series you know!


Crossing Lines


Under the semi-official auspices of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, an international team pursues cross-border crimes in Europe.

  • Team gathers: The team is newly assembled, first case; their leader tracks down his old American buddy Hickman to join and complete the team.

  • Introduces the team members from various European countries, plus the American and the mentor from the ICJ; their individual skills; budding couple relationships, platonic as well as possibly more.

  • Internal conflict: Tommy, the angry young (Irish)man, keeps picking a fight with Hickman because of his literally crippling backstory incident (similar to Criminal Minds, but much more aggressive).

  • Team’s goal: pursue crimes across borders and competing jurisdictions.

  • Case of the week - actually, of two weeks…

… this pilot is unusual in that it stretches over two episodes, and *SPOILER ALERT* one of the original team members dies in part 2.


Stranger Things


Now for a slightly different - but awesome! - team engaged in an epic, supernatural battle.

  • Team gathers: Eleven joins the existing team of Mike, Dustin, Lucas (and Will. But Will is abducted to the Upside-Down).

  • Introduces the members and their skills - Dungeons and Dragons! Only these kids have what it really takes to take on the monsters, the adults get in the way. Mike and Will’s older siblings Nancy and Jonathan are an interesting in-between.

  • Internal conflict: It’s been a while since I watched this… I seem to remember that at some point Lucas left the team, but that was later.

  • Team’s goal: Save Will. Stop the monster from entering the real world (and as a by-product, not a conscious goal, uncover a government conspiracy).

  • No case of the week, season storyline - see team’s goal.


Salvation


An asteroid hurtles towards the Earth and the US government enlists the help of tech genius billionaire Darius Tanz to stop or divert it.

I picked this ‘team’ because its members are not always strictly on the same side - Darius and (by affiliation) Liam don’t bother with government procedures - which is an interesting alternative.

  • Team gathers: Darius Tanz is co-opted by White House press liaison Grace Barrow and Pentagon official Harris Edwards; Darius brings in tech whiz kid Liam & his girl-friend Jillian (sadly, just as an addendum to keep Liam).

  • Intro members: Darius clashes over procedure with the ex-soldier bureaucrat Harris, communication specialist Grace is caught in the middle, and Jillian is kept in the dark. However, they all must work together.

  • Internal conflict: Beyond the above-mentioned clash, Darius and Harris are rivals for Grace’s affection.

  • Team’s goal: Stop an asteroid from crashing into Earth and wiping out life on Earth.

  • Season storyline: see team’s goal. No case of the week, but fairly clear goals per episode or sometimes over several episodes, trying out different ways to stop the catastrophe (and always failing).


The Musketeers (BBC 2014)


Saving the best for last: possibly the first action team ever assembled in literary history, and my all-time favourite.

  • Team gathers: D’Artagnan challenges Athos, Porthos and Aramis to a duel each, and they end up ‘one for all & all for one’ against a common enemy (Cardinal Richelieu).

  • Intro members: The hothead, the alcoholic, the not-so-gentle giant and the womaniser. Plus their mentor-captain Treville. Skills: well, they’re all pretty damn good in a duel! Also, to make it a little less male-gaze: introduction of the love interest Constance (who, thankfully, later picks up a gun and rapier) and the series co-antagonist Mylady.

  • Internal conflict: See above, d’Artagnan challenges everyone to a duel. Over the course of the series, this turns into constant good-natured bickering.

  • Team’s goal: Defend King and Queen with absolute loyalty (never mind that they wonder whether this king deserves it…)

  • Case of the week - well, not a case exactly, more a mission: find important letters that have gone missing.


I hope you find this helpful - remember, though, this is just a possible template, not meant to be used as a formula!


And if anyone wants to try this out on their favourite team series - feel free to post in the comments. How about Star Trek? The Umbrella Academy? Lost? Knock yourselves out!

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