Pilot Script Review of Surveillance
Surveillance was picked up to pilot by CBS back in September 2018, long before the start of traditional pilot season. It was one of the biggest sales of pitch season, and marked a breakthrough in the relationship between CBS and 20th Century FOX Television as the network’s first buy from the outside studio in three years. A different incarnation of the project was originally set up at FOX for development last year, but didn’t make it to pilot stage. Instead, the script was reworked and the studio brought Sophia Bush and Patricia Riggen on board before taking the package out.
The project is a return to television for Sophia Bush, who most recently played Detective Erin Lindsay for four seasons on NBC’s Chicago PD, before exiting in 2017. The set of the cop drama has been described as a tough environment for Bush, who is said to have exited when it was clear that nothing would be done to make things right. In Surveillance, she’s not only the star of the show but also an executive producer. And she may have found a way to send a message or two to her old team through this show and this character.
WRITTEN BY: David C. White
DRAFT DATE: Revised Network Draft, 1/12/19
PAGE COUNT: 63 pages
SCRIPT SYNOPSIS: The pilot opens in a convenience store parking lot, with a man named JACK HERBERT leaving a payphone and returning to his mess of a car. There are laptops, cell phones, legal pads and takeout containers everywhere. We next see him cruising down empty downtown city streets, before approaching a large brick wall… and crashing right into it. The car explodes instantly. Is Jack dead? A surveillance camera filmed the whole scene.
Cut to: a hotel room. Separated from her husband and far away from her two children, this is where our heroine MADDY lives. She’s the director of Strategic Communications for the NSA. She was sleeping but is awakened her phone. She grabs it and our question is answered: Jack Herbert is indeed dead. But Maddy has no idea who’s giving her this information. Her next call is from BARRY, telling her to get to work ASAP. Barry is the NSA Deputy Director, basically her boss, but also her mentor/father figure.
At NSA headquarters, Maddy is welcomed by her close colleague and longtime friend NATALIE. Natalie oversees all active operations at the NSA, and is the first woman to do so. Maddy has a favor to ask of her: trace the call she received a few hours before, off book. Natalie accepts, but not without some hesitation. Maddy goes to the conference room, where Barry and a group of other NSA higher-ups are waiting for her. She knows all of them, except one. THE MAN IN THE RED TIE. His identity and true mission are shrouded in secrecy. They have questions for her about Jack Herbert. Turns out she met him, perhaps more than once, and she’s asked to explain what she knows about him, what he was looking for when he came to her the first time… We’re transported to that moment through a flashback and it’s clear that Maddy is lying to the committee. But why?? What is she hiding?
COMMENTS: As discussed earlier, Surveillance was not originally developed as a vehicle for Sophia Bush, and I can't help but wonder if she's the right fit. Part of that may be because I know her from One Tree Hill, where she signed brighter than most of her co-stars, and from the short-lived sitcom Partners, where she proved she could be very funny. And although I'm less familiar with her work on Chicago PD (for which she was also lauded), her character in Surveillance feels very different. For one, she's described in the script as a woman in her forties. (Bush herself is in her mid-thirties.) In addition, this isn't just a leading role, the entire show is built her character, with Maddy appearing in nearly every scene of the pilot. That's a lot to put on Bush in her first go as series lead, but clearly 20th Century FOX & CBS think she's ready. Let's hope they're right.
The first season of the series has a title -- “Operation Blackwash” -- suggesting there will be one central storyline each year, with most of the cast and characters returning for subsequent seasons, except those who will die. Because this is the kind of show where people die, a lot. And, um, un-die sometimes. This is a big conspiracy thriller, with no holds barred. But as different as that may seem from the typical CBS formula show, it's not revolutionary, either. At this point, you really can’t make a TV show about the inner workings of a federal institution, whether it be the FBI, the CIA or the NSA, without being compared to what’s been done (and done well) before. Which brings us to Homeland. The Showtime drama is definitely an influence on Surveillance, and there’s a lot of Carrie Mathison in Madeline Yardley, not only because she’s a woman in a world of powerful men -- which is resonant with Bush’s own story -- but also because she’s basically the same character: brilliant, determined, complex, and married to her job. She also has a messy private life -- is an affair going on there? -- and the requisite stress that comes with a job where a single mistake can lead to death and destruction.
The pilot plays the suspense card very well, revealing plenty of tantalizing detals along the way. This isn't Scandal -- it’s not an over-the-top spectacle with characters over-reacting to everything -- but Maddy’s job is pretty similar to Olivia Pope’s: she fixes problems, she sometimes hides the truth for the greater good, she manipulates, she bargains, and she threatens. This is serious stuff, but it’s also quite exciting. That it manages this may be the script's greatest achievement. The NSA is about people working behind desks, making phone calls, watching, listening, and taking meetings, but the script's fast pace compensates for that, and then some.
The show's secondary characters stay mostly in Maddy's shadow in the pilot script, but that's not a problem at this point. If the show gets picked up to a full network-sized season, they'll definitely need to be developed in later episodes to be more than just pawns in this wicked game but also actual human beings with their own stories.
FINAL RECOMMENDATION: Surveillance is a little risky, but it’s too good a script not to try. It’s timely and captivating, and has the potential to do for CBS what The Good Wife and Person Of Interest have done in seasons past. Poor execution or an unconvincing performance from Sophia Bush could quickly turn it into something less compelling, but let’s be optimistic!
OVERALL PROJECT SCORE:
[ ] PASS
[ ] CONSIDER
BEST FIT: Monday at 9? Thursday at 10?