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Writing for TV: When They See Us Pilot

Miniseries as a whole are a different animal altogether to tackle as a writer compared to a traditional television series. More or less an extended film, a miniseries requires a significant amount of attention and patience while attracting an audience immediately. Screenwriters of all levels should pay attention to masterful miniseries, with the 2019 Netflix miniseries When They See Us being a perfect example of an excellent miniseries every screenwriter should check out.

When They See Us is a drama television miniseries created, co-written, and directed by Ava DuVernay. It’s based on events of the 1989 Central Park jogger case, exploring the lives and families of the five black male suspects who were falsely accused and prosecuted on charges related to the assault of a white woman in Central Park, New York City.

Down below will discuss writing for TV, analyzing the When They See Us pilot and what made the show special for critics and audiences alike. We’ll discuss the scope of a miniseries, characterization, the message of the show, the importance of teaching an audience, and much more. Let’s get started!

Still from 'When They See Us'. Photo credit: Deadline

The Scope of a Miniseries

What When They See Us does well is understand it’s a miniseries and utilizes its four parts to tell the story. The story would be too rushed if done in a film and too stretched out if carried over several seasons. The miniseries medium allows the script to introduce Raymond, Kevin, Korey, Yusef, and Antron in the beginning before jumping to the accusations against them.

The scope of a miniseries is an interesting discussion of how a story can be told. It requires immediate action, conflict, and interest for the audience. It doesn’t have the luxury of growing over time that so many shows rely on. A miniseries can’t bounce back from a first season flop since it’s a one-and-done.

When They See Us understands this and packs the main story of the Central Park jogger case directly into its pilot. This time around, we see the case unfold from the five who were accused rather than the media depicting them as guilty immediately. It demonstrates how an event unfolds right before our eyes.

Characters Are Everything

When They See Us understands that characters are everything. Although one can argue that characters are a significant portion of any script, characters are especially imperative in a miniseries. As for a historical drama series, the show doesn’t rely on the audience’s knowledge of the case to grab them along.

It understands that people’s interest in the case isn’t enough to keep them along. A historical drama can be significantly hindered if the writers solely rely on the cultural significance of the piece. If the story isn’t told well, doesn’t have great characters, and isn’t enticing enough, no one will bother with it past the first few minutes.

Miniseries Can Carry A Message

When They See Us is more than just a miniseries detailing a piece from history. It carries the message of societal racism and prejudices against individuals solely based on their appearances without proof. It further demonstrates the effects of policing and the danger of police being pressured to close a case.

The message of When They See Us may make some viewers uncomfortable, but that’s the point. It’s a show demonstrating the perspective of five innocent kids and the effects a false accusation can have against their lives. It carries the weight of wondering what you would do in the same situation.

The Importance Of Teaching the Audience

Although When They See Us carries a message of policing and profiling, it’s a significant series of teaching the audience. People who aren’t necessarily familiar with the case or don’t understand the dangers of profiling can see how the effects of profiling can ruin the lives of five innocent kids.

It’s a part in history that’s worth discussing and troubling for people to digest who aren’t familiar with the case. Still, the show doesn’t strictly rely on the virtue of presenting a corrupt story from the 1980s. It has excellent writing, dialogue, and direction that propels into being one of the best miniseries of recent memory.

Police Interrogations and False Confessions

What When They See Us does best is show how a police interrogation can cause someone to confess falsely. In the United States alone, the rate of wrongful convictions is somewhere between 2 percent and 10 percent depending on the study. Highlighting the danger of wrongful convictions to an audience that knows the characters are innocent is a change of pace not many shows stick by.

Demonstrating Unfortunate Realities

When They See Us centers itself around the unfortunate realities of what happens to so many people every day. The truth related to Raymond, Kevin, Korey, Yusef, and Antron took years to come to fruition. Ava DuVernay understood the responsibility of telling the story without relying on its history alone to craft a great story.


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