CT&D #74. Dan Harmon’s Story Circle Technique: Analyzing TV Pilots

Please watch a pilot episode of one of 2016’s new fiction (drama or comedy) series.

Using the Dan Harmon “Story Circle” structure, try to identify TWO stories within the show: the episode story that is taken to completion in the pilot episode (even serialized shows have some kind “resolution” every week), and a longer story arc that the series pilot suggests (i.e., a storyline where the character is maybe only just beginning to want something or leave his/her comfort zone at the end of the episode). Upon writing:

1. Title your posting with the name of the show you are analyzing and write a summary of the main story that is resolved in the pilot episode, describing the action in terms of the 8 parts of the “Embryo” structure.

2. Write a summary of a longer story arc that you think may be suggested by the first episode. You don’t have to guess what will happen after the pilot; you just need to point out the arc that may be set up.

3. Lastly, write whether or not you think Dan Harmon’s “Story Circle” system works as a universal storytelling system. If you don’t think that his structure works for the show that you reviewed, talk about the differences. If you think that his structure worked, talk about why it worked.

Main Story: plain text
Story Arc(s): underlined
Dan Harmon’s 8 points: in parentheses

TV Show (pilot covered):Second Chance”

This near 45-minute pilot episode (which premiered back in January on Fox) focuses on a 75-year-old ex-police sheriff who gets resurrected after being murdered. The sheriff’s name is Jimmy Pritchard and the episode kicks off with him lazily lying by his couch, long unemployed due to his womanizing and disgraceful behavior that led to his resignation from the police force some 15 years prior to the start of the series (#1). His son, who is seen around this time, works as a detective in law enforcement and is dismissive of his dad’s lack of care towards his family. Eventually, Jimmy visits his house and encounters a robbery; the criminals ambush Jimmy and throw him off a bridge. This is later (incorrectly) interpreted as a suicide due to lack of evidence and due to the nature of his death.

Meanwhile, a wealthy and genius sibling duo are shown to be looking for an individual whose DNA would be the basis for curing cancer (one of whom who has the disease: Mary). They stumble on Jimmy’s dead body and use it to age him backwards using an experiment that Otto created. It miraculously works and Jimmy is now transformed into a much younger version of himself due to his “unique” DNA that allowed the experiment to be successful in the first place.

Jimmy, who is unaware of his newfound fate, seeks to know what happened to him. Eventually, he is told that he was brought back from the dead to aid in the siblings’ aspirations for curing cancer but NOT before he uses his regained youthfulness to find and apprehend the people who murdered him. (#2 & 3). Mary allows Jimmy to accomplish his goal, but on the condition that he stays with the siblings to further their cause.

It doesn’t take too long for Jimmy to adapt to his stronger and more quicker self (#4). In addition, the experiment enhanced these reflexes even more to the point where his body will need to recharge after a certain time (in the same chamber that was used to revive him). Also in the very beginning, Jimmy’s memory was faint; only until the middle of the episode does Jimmy remember who his murderer was: his son’s partner in crime (who’s record of robberies is documented by a detailed bank report given by Mary who does research on him). Armed with this information, he finds his son and attempts to connect with him without knowing who he really is. This obviously leads to awkwardness and suspicion on his son’s part (and by extension, anyone formally connected to Jimmy prior to his presumed death). Jimmy tells his son that he knew his father personally.

By the last quarter of the episode, Jimmy’s son approaches his partner and questions him on his thievery only to be held at gunpoint and smuggled in the same manner as his dad in the beginning of the episode with an accomplice. Jimmy, using his senses, knows exactly were his fate will end up and arrives at the same bridge that brought his own death. He knocks out the men who were about to kill his son (#5); his son immediately demands to know who he is but before answering, his body shows signs of shutting down (#6). Jimmy attempts to travel back to the siblings but is unable to fully do this. The end of the episode reveals that Mary successfully teleports Jimmy’s unconscious body back to their lab (#7). Nonetheless, for the first time we see as viewers of character we know so little about in Jimmy, he accomplished a good deed given in his “second chance” bestowed by two creators who played God (#8).

Also known as Frankenstein, The Frankenstein Code, and Lookinglass while in development.

Overall thoughts & embryo system findings

The plot for this episode, though initially two-fold, is rife with details that would lead to a multi-episode explanation as to why things happened as they did. As I was watching, the pilot made it its goal to explain Jimmy’s personal struggles in reconnecting with his family while rectifying the situation he had with his death as opposed to him just being a pawn in someone else’s plans. This would be the major story arc (at least within the confines of the pilot) and despite being shown that Mary’s and Otto’s plans were seemingly harmless and noble, their Frankenstein approach to creating a stronger version of a deceased person suggests otherwise for episodes that lie ahead. Furthermore, Jimmy’s son not knowing who he is dealing with leads to a smaller story arc, likely to be resolved within a season’s span by revelation or some other plot device.

Lastly, as for Dan Harmon’s embryo system, I found that it definitely applied to the pilot I watched. Being that the show in question is a drama, I strongly feel that we need to witness characters be flushed out in regards to their highest highs (accomplishments) and their lowest lows (setbacks). The embryo system is brilliant actually and it would be a great exercise to test it for countless pilots and shows (sitcoms and dramas) that seemingly employ predictable storytelling structures. Should I consider the Story Circle to be universal? I don’t know. I doubt it. I can’t see it working for TV series that use unorthodox storytelling approaches, especially in certain genres and in older works around the advent of television itself.

Back to Second Chance, episodes in such a drama genre almost always focus on a central conflict, with some positive aspects that a character has to experience and learn from to handle said conflict, if not an outright moral. Jimmy’s journey in “Second Chance” fits all the criteria laid out by the embryo system / story circle from having him live in a zone of comfort in the start of the pilot (as disgraced people often are comfortable in their own skin if they have rejected or been rejected from a former way of living) to him having changed by doing his job properly with his family in mind. Granted, the pilot isn’t too on the nose about that (if anything, the aspect of creating a superhuman to find a cure for a disease still lingers in my mind as a complex and overarching premise of this series) but I speculate that the emotional tone would be built up in future episodes. And obviously if we will get to know whether or not a cure for Mary’s cancer is found through continued experimenting on Jimmy. (Well, the 11 episodes that apparently exist before its cancellation after only 3 months on the air…). Oh well.

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