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Pilot Script Review of Snowpiercer

Can this futuristic thriller overcome its own behind-the-scenes drama?
  • An image from the 2014 Snowpiercer feature film, directed by Bong Joon-ho. (Radius-TWC)
    Editor's Note: Ever wonder how TV executives wade through the dozens of pilot scripts they're pitched each year? They have staff script readers, who provide what's called "Script Coverage," an executive summary and a recommendation for each script. Now, thanks to Primetimer's own resident script reader, you too can preview some of the season's most buzzed about pilots. Note that all opinions are our own, and all plot, casting and other creative details described here are subject to change.

    Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette (which was previously adapted by Bong Joon-ho for his acclaimed 2013 movie starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton & Octavia Spencer), Snowpiercer the TV series has a bit of a tortured history. Having been in development for almost four years, the show has faced a number of delays arising from creative differences between the series’ creative teams and the network. Not a good sign if you see the glass half-empty, but you could also see it half-full: it may just mean they’re taking great care with the property.

    About that tortured history: Original writer and showrunner Josh Friedman was fired in January 2018, and replaced a month later by Graeme Manson (Orphan Black). Reshoots of the pilot were ordered, but the original director Scott Derrickson refused to proceed, saying: “The 72-page Snowpiercer TV pilot script by [Josh Friedman] is the best I’ve ever read. The feature-length pilot I made from that script may be my best work. The new showrunner has a radically different vision for the show. I am forgoing my option to direct the extreme reshoots.” James Hawes joined the series in July 2018 as an executive producer and a director to oversee the reshoots. A few days later, Netflix picked up the rights to stream the series outside of the United States and China. The show is currently slated to start airing on TNT in the summer 2019.

    Please note that this review is based on the original version of the pilot script, before the rewriting and the reshoots. I don’t know what’s been changed, although I do have my ideas.

    WRITTEN BY: Josh Friedman
    DRAFT DATE: 2016-07-07
    PAGE COUNT: 72 pages

    LOGLINE: Seven years after the world has become a frozen wasteland, the remnants of humanity inhabit a gigantic, perpetually moving train that circles the globe.

    SCRIPT SYNOPSIS: We open on the image of a snowstorm and text on the screen explaining what happened on planet earth before it became frozen. We quickly see the massive snowpiercer train, which is leaving a frozen city in the midst of the storm. Then we look into the eye of a cow, which has the number 18 written on its forehead. She’s with a dozen of other cows. Welcome now to the tail section of the train, a place of starvation and hopelessness. We follow a little boy named Fergus, who’s playing with rats, and a man named Layton, who may or may not be his father. A woman’s voice is heard over the loudspeaker, wishing the passengers good morning on behalf of Wilford Industries and Transport.

    We’re introduced to five workers who are stripping off their filthy work clothes under the supervision of security guards known as “The Brakemen.” Their skin is covered with industrial waste. They enter the tail section, where they’re reunited with their families. Fergus hugs one of them: it’s his father, Ian. We then meet the Anderson family: Jack, Lilah and their teenage daughter LJ. They’re eating breakfast peacefully, in a pod that looks nicer than the tail section. Once he’s done eating, Jack joins the agricultural supply car, through a railed transportation tunnel. Turns out he’s a farm worker, soon to feed our cow number 18. Meanwhile, Lilah goes to her job at a high-end nail salon. A client is waiting for her, and it’s Melanie Cavill, the voice of the train announcements. She’s a member of the train’s First Class and she’s fascinated with the other half.

    It’s naptime in the Brakemen’s car, but two of them, Bess Till and John Osweiler, are awake. They’re partners and they seem close. They move toward the prison car where Pixi Aariak has lived for 3 years. She’s screaming, agitated. Till and Osweiler help her on her way out. After a much-needed shower, Pixi is sent to the Nightcar where’s she welcomed by Miss Audrey with warmth and kindness. A few minutes later, the passengers are warned to brace for impact. A large iceslide is blocking the track, and the train will have to smash its way through.

    COMMENTS: So does Snowpiercer live up to the hype? Is it in fact the best pilot script I’ve ever read? While I wouldn’t go that far, one can’t help but marvel at this new world and each section of the train as its revealed. The wide shots of the ice-covered landscape should be magnificient, and I can’t wait to see what the Aquarium Car looks like (complete with a sushi bar!). It’s a rich universe, and writer Josh Friedman makes the best of it at a good pace. You get enough time to enjoy the different atmospheres you’re brought into — to really feel them — but it’s never boring. There’s a good balance between the every day life of the train and the extraordinary events that occur. Spoiler alert: at one point, someone is murdered and one of the first ongoing stories will be about the investigation that ensues. That may not sound particularly original, but in this context, with these characters, it’s interesting.

    The characters themselves are also introduced in a compelling way, with enough time given that we learn in a nutshell who they are, and what their role is in this giant puzzle. Some of them are instantly appealing, while others will need a little a more time, but they all have something going for them, whether they’re coming from the tail section or first class. A few of them are mysterious and others are not who you think they are. Like the movie, Snowpiercer the TV series is about conflicting human impulses, social organization, disparities and power. It’s not a highly political show at the outset, but it’s poised to become one.

    You can tell a lot of effort has been made to honor the source material. The series format gives more time to explore areas that were only hinted at in the movie, and it’s pretty captivating. It also answers a few questions, like: how do they make love in the tail section? Can they? (Answer: they do it quietly in a dark corner.) The show clearly wants to be smart entertainment, but it’s also dark, and at times very adult. I suspect that’s the part TNT tried to soften, to ensure it can reach a wider audience. At one point we’re introduced to a group called “the hand”, which is a “family” of adults engaged in one big polyamourous relationship. We meet them in a scene that’s described as “pastoral, like Monet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe“. How great does that sound? But unless those characters are supposed to stay in the background, I wouldn’t get too attached to them. I can’t find their names in the list of the regular characters, so they may not have made the cut.

    FINAL RECOMMENDATION: Ambitious, smart and at times dark, Snowpiercer is the type of show that runs the risk of being lost in the endless shuffle of Peak TV. And if it were only TNT airing it, I'd be genuinely worried, but with Netflix in the loop for international distribution, there's a good chance it can reach the wide audience it deserves. The pilot script is everything you want from a futuristic, post-apocalyptic thriller. Is it in the right hands? Will this train go in the right direction? Only time will tell, but here's hoping it's not just the pilot, and that the budget is as ambitious as the storytelling!

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