One of the best ways to learn how to write TV pilot scripts, is by reading pilot scripts. I gathered seven pilot scripts from some of the most talked-about drama pilots of the last three years.
Click on the pilot titles in blue below to open a PDF of that script. If you’d like to read the pilot scripts for Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Lost, The Sopranos, and more, check out the 10 Most Wanted TV Pilot Scripts.
Jon Bokenkamp is a screenwriter (Taking Lives, The Call) and he had a deal with Sony. In a interview with the WGA, Bokenkamp said: “The first time I ever pitched a TV show, I went in and talked to my agent at the time about the show. I said, ‘It’s going to be so great because in the end it’s going to be…’ and told him what was going to happen. He said, ‘Okay. First, don’t ever pitch an ending on TV.‘”
As for how The Blacklist came about, Bokenkamp said, “I was kicking around ideas with John Fox, a friend who’s also a producer on the show. He brought up an idea. Whitey Bulger (Boston organized-crime kingpin) was in the news then. What if a Whitey Bulger-type criminal was captured? What if you had a TV show that flashed back on where Hoffa was buried, who shot Kennedy? A bad guy who knew all the secrets, hopping around in time and place. I spent about three months developing it, coming up with a pitch.” Everybody passed on the show but NBC.
At the upfronts, Bob Greenblatt of NBC said Blacklist testing results were, “better than all other 125 NBC drama pilots in the past decade.”
Noah Hawley has written four novels and sold a spec screenplay. He wrote on Bones, and then got his own show The Unusuals. He sold a pair of pilots to FX and then got the opportunity to pitch his take on reinventing the Coen brothers’ classic film Fargo. In an interview with the WGA, Hawley said: “What I liked about [Fargo] and their world in general is beyond the mystery and philosophy. I went into FX, and I said, ‘Alright, here; I’m pitching you this idea for the show but now I wanna talk about Mike Yanagita.’ He calls Marge from high school, and they meet, and he tells her a sob story about this girl from high school he married who died of leukemia, and he’s just so lonely.
Then it turns out that that’s totally made up and the girl has a restraining order against him. You’re watching it, and you’re like, ‘Why is this in the movie?’ The reason is – at least my takeaway from it is – that at the very beginning of the film, it says this is a true story. You include a detail like this because it’s so odd it has to be true, do you know what I mean?
Bruno Heller is the creator of Rome and The Mentalist. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he shared how he got involved. “Junior’s Deli in Burbank. I sat with [Warner Bros. President and COO Peter Roth and Warner Bros. TV development chief Susan Rovner] to talk about what to do next. I’ve been talking to Geoff Johns at DC for a few years about wanting to do something in the DC canon. I came in to pitch the idea that we’re doing, essentially, and they came to pitch me the same thing.
The nut of the idea was: What if young James Gordon was the detective who investigated the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents? And once you make that connection, it opened up a whole world of storytelling that we realized hadn’t really been looked at before, which is the world before Batman – the world of Gotham, young Bruce Wayne, and young James Gordon and the origin stories of the villains.”
When asked how he deals with all the past interpretations of Batman, Heller said, “My take on it is it’s a bit like Greek mythology. There’s a thousand stories. They all contradict themselves to a degree, but that’s the beauty of it — telling stories about characters that are larger than any one story. So that makes it much easier.”
House of Cards Pilot Script
Initially, Beau Willimon was a painter and a political campaign staffer. After being devastated when Howard Dean lost the 2004 Democratic nomination for President, he wrote the play Farragut North. The play was optioned by Warner Brothers, became The Ides Of March and Willimon was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing the adaptation.
In this interview with the Hollywood Reporter, we learn that Willimon received a call from David Fincher, Josh Donen, and Eric Roth, asking if he had any interest in adapting the two-decade-old BBC version of House of Cards. In this profile from the New York Times, Willimon shares his obsessive process and recalls: “None of us had done TV before. Fincher hadn’t, I hadn’t. We weren’t bound by convention. We didn’t even know what the conventions were.”
According to the Hollywood Reporter, “Willimon binge-watched the series, took the meeting, and soon found himself dedicating almost a year of his life to writing the pilot, then nine more months pounding out the remaining 12 episodes of the first season.”
Netflix outbid HBO and AMC in a ground-breaking deal believed to be worth more than $100 million.
Pete Nowalk co-wrote The Hollywood Assistants Handbook, and was a writer on Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. In this interview with Variety, Nowalk said: “I’m always coming up with ideas — maybe it’s because I’m unoriginal — where it’s a normal person caught in an extreme circumstance. There’s so much good TV on right now, I just wanted it to be loud and extreme and relatable. I was like, ‘What [would happen] if I murdered someone?‘
It started there and then I wanted to do something with a procedural element. The criminal defense lawyers and students committing the murder felt like the perfect little concept in order to launch the show.
I had talked to Betsy [Beers, Executive Producer] last year about certain ideas. One of them was about a group of young first year associates that work for a criminal defense attorney that get involved in a murder. That was always just the very clear, fine, loud concept and something that I found appealing.
And it wasn’t until this year that I had a moment and I was like ‘Oh, what if they’re in law school?’ A university setting felt really fun to me. Making [Davis’s character] a law professor felt really awesome. Teaching the audience also that these students can’t go into court and argue made it feel fresher to me. She has to use them as little private investigators.”
Michelle Ashford has been writing for television for many years, starting on Hollywood Beat and Cagney and Lacey, through HBO’s historical miniseries John Adams and The Pacific. In this interview with Deadline, Ashford shares how the show got to Showtime: “I had been friends with (producer) Sarah Timberman for many years, and we were looking around for a pilot. She saw in The New York Times a review of Thomas Maier’s book and said, ‘I think we should look at this book. This sounds really interesting.’
Up to that point, I knew (Masters and Johnson) existed, I knew they were famous, I knew (they) had something to do with sex. Then I read the book. It was news as to what was really going on in that relationship and the enormous impact they had. So we optioned the book. A ton of our material is based on (it).
But the reason this happened was because (Timberman) has known (Showtime president) David Nevins for many years. She saw him in an airport, and she had the book in her purse and just handed it to him and said, ‘Michelle and I are thinking of doing this. What do you think?’ We had talked to HBO, we also talked to FX, but David immediately read it, immediately got it, (and) said, ‘I see this completely.‘”
Jenji Kohan created Weeds and The Stones. Previously, she wrote on Gilmore Girls, Mad About You, and Tracey Takes On among others. In an interview with NPR, Kohan described how she started: “My ex-boyfriend said, ‘You have a better chance of getting elected to Congress than getting on the staff of a television show.’ Which was the perfect thing for him to say, because my entire career is, ‘Well, screw you.’ And we broke up.
And then I started writing. … I quit all of my crappy odd jobs, and I moved in with [a friend who] was living in Santa Cruz. And every day we would go to these little cafes in Santa Cruz, and I would work on spec scripts and study these videotapes I had recorded off television of Roseanne and Seinfeld and The Simpsons.
What ended up happening was, my sister-in-law’s father worked in a building with an agent and gave him my scripts in an elevator. And he read them, and I was on a show by spring. And it took off from there, and I never stopped working.”
When Kohan was working on Weeds, she was given Piper Kerman’s prison memoir by a friend and Kohen got Lionsgate to option the rights. “I loved the characters, the diversity, and I loved that the setting was a crossroads where every type of person could travel through,” she says, noting the vast potential for stories.
She has said that, “Piper (played by Emmy-nominated Taylor Schilling) was her “Trojan horse,” a network-accessible “cool blonde” entree into a world of characters — black, Latina, lesbian, transgender — rarely seen on television.”
In an interview with the WGA, Kohan said, “You can pitch it in such a way that it’s familiar. It’s Private Benjamin. It’s, you know, something with cultural currency that is familiar to people you’re pitching.” Kohan pitched the show to HBO, Showtime and Netflix. “The greatest thing about going to Netflix was that I pitched it in the room, and they ordered 13 episodes without a pilot. That’s miraculous.”
Want More TV Pilot Scripts?
Lee Thompson has put together an incredible collection of hundreds of TV scripts including pilot scripts, Bibles, pitch documents, and episode scripts. NOTE: Scripts go through many revisions in the course of development and production and these scripts are unlikely to directly match the show that aired.
. . . . . . . .
What pilot scripts do you want to read that aren’t on this list? Let me know in the comments. To read more from Stephanie Palmer, click here. Also, if you want to learn the best screenplays, software, websites, grants, and other resources to kickstart your writing career, click here to get the free eBook Screenwriter Starter Kit.