Ways and Means

Pilot Script Review of Ways and Means

Patrick Dempsey returns to broadcast TV in this promising political drama.
  • 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.

    It's been five years since Patrick Dempsey exited his longtime role as neurosurgeon Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd on ABC's Grey's Anatomy. If it were to be picked up to series, Ways and Means would mark his first regular role back on broadcast television since.

    Developed and sold to CBS with Dempsey attached, Ways and Means comes from former SEAL Team showrunner Ed Redlich, Republican political consultant Mike Murphy, and Nina Tassler & Denise Di Novi’s newly founded PatMa Productions, a company focused on amplifying diverse voices under a pact with CBS Television Studios. Redlich has a long history with CBS, where he co-created and executive produced the Poppy Montgomery-starrer Unforgettable and was an executive producer on Without a Trace. Murphy has advised such Republican politicians as John McCain, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

    WRITTEN BY: Mike Murphy & Ed Redlich
    DRAFT DATE: 2/1/2020 (Revised)
    PAGE COUNT: 67 pages

    SCRIPT SYNOPSIS: We open on the Capitol Building, the beating heart of the US Congress. We instantly feel the electricity as staff and members bustle about. Suddenly CONOR BYRNE (50s) emerges from the light. As the House Majority Whip, he owns the Hill and it shows. A nervous rookie Congressman HEADLEY is at his elbow. Conor lopes through Statutory Hall as Headley struggles to keep up. Conor gently asks him to vote "no" in an upcoming vote. Terrified, Headly nods. They arrive in the Rayburn Building's judiciary hearing room, full of reporters and staff, and are greeted by HARRISON "PANCHO" WELLS. Conor realizes two seats on the Committee are missing their occupants. "JURASSIC JOE" CHAMBERS (80s) is lost somewhere and WENDI PURCELL is having surgery that she couldn't postpone. It means two fewer votes. They're still in control by one vote. The Democratic Minority Leader CHARLIE AVERIL (40s) glides into the room. Ten minutes later, Charlie starts his speech. They are here to vote on a gun control bill, and it doesn't sit well with Conor and the Republicans overall as the election is in 5 weeks. When it's his turn to speak, Conor calls what Charlie and the Democrats are trying to do as a cynical media stunt and a direct assault to the Second Amendment. A sparkling debate ensues, with the bill ultimately dying. Conor played it brilliantly, as always.

    Later that day, in the House members-only gym, Charlie and Conor meet again. Turns out they're close. In fact, they're longtime friends. It's light and fun. They remember how they both wanted to change the world a long time ago, and how they clearly failed. They talk a bit about their families. Charlie about his wife Sarah, that he still loves deeply. Conor about this estranged daughter who doesn't want to have anything to do with him anymore, for reasons unknown to us. Meanwhile, young Congressional candidate CLAIRE KERKMANN (28) eats at a restaurant with CAM TORRES (27), her shy and inexperienced campaign manager. They're having good time until TWO JERKS appear. They're supporters of Claire's political rival Congressman LARRY LUDAMAN, and one of them tries to bait her, comparing climate change to "chicks getting hotter and qucikly," Claire just can't handle their provocations anymore. She already has a long day. In a blur, she turns, rotates his wrist and disclocates his shoulder. There's a shocked silence. iPhones everywhere are recording. A new political star is born.

    COMMENTS: Since the end of long-running Madam Secretary, CBS hasn't had any political dramas on its air anymore, and apparently they'd like one. They developed a few this year, and Ways and Means is the project that came out strongest at pilot script stage, triggering a well-deserved order. It has a beloved star in Patrick Dempsey, and a complex setting and introduction. There's some promise that this could be a great show, but we'll have to wait for episode 2 to be sure of it. That's a risky strategy.

    The first ten pages are filled with people walking and talking about things we mostly don't understand. It's a bit much, and the show runs the risk of losing curious viewers rather quickly. Hopefully they'll find a way to enhance and intensify the introduction. Also, unless you're a political junkie, it takes a little time to understand who's who, where they sit on the political spectrum, and how it all works in the Congress. In that sense, Ways and Means isn't trying to hold our hand like network dramas often do, and while betting on the audience's intelligence is always welcome, we could also argue it's better to hold hands first before letting go. I do wonder if the audience testing is weak because of the show's level of complexity, if they might choose to send it to Showtime or CBS All Access.

    The pilot script takes a turn after the introduction, and becomes much more exciting, moving things forward in a clever and efficient way. There's plenty of meaningful dialogue, some unexpected twists and a few big bombs. Ways and Means stops short of veering into Scandal territory with never-ending OMG moments, but there's a bit of that paired with a bigger chunk of more serious political drama. There's also a nice balance between the Democrats and the Republicans in terms of space given to both on screen, and fair amounts of optimism and skepticism on both sides. While the alliance between "the whip" and our heroine only begins at the episode's end, it's full of promise and leaves us excited to see what comes next.

    Dempsey's character boasts a mix of qualities found in some of Americas's most famous political animals. He's not exactly aspirational, but he's not an anti-hero either. He's multi-dimensional, and a bit of a mystery at first, although the actor's good looks and popularity will likely make people root for him no matter what. Meanwhile, Claire (played by Troian Bellisario of Pretty Little Liars) is a newly elected, idealistic freshman Democratic Congresswoman who leads with her intelligence and straightforwardness. She’s going to have to figure out how to merge her idealism with her ambition — she will either change Congress, or Congress will change her. The show's other principal female character is Jerlene Brooks is a progressive activist, a formidable Democratic congresswoman and a rising star in the political arena. She wrestles with an inner turmoil regarding the price of power and struggles with her progressive roots versus the demands of leadership. The show is clearly leaning into the 2018 House freshmen class for inspiration, with both women coming from diverse backgrounds (Claire is of Filipino origin and appears to be styled after Alexandria "AOC" Oscasio-Cortez, while Jarlene is African American). And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the show's sprawling cast of characters. I won't list them all here, but many have potential, with some predictably being the sort audiences will love to hate.

    FINAL RECOMMENDATION: An at times complex political drama, Ways and Means probably won't be CBS' most popular candidate in the pilot season's race for series pickup, but a strong script and a popular star in Patrick Dempsey make it a dark horse worth betting on.

    [   ] PASS
    [   ] CONSIDER

    BEST FIT: Following 60 Minutes at 8pm on Sundays.

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