AUGUST 5, 2007
by Amy Berg
Although on the surface it may not seem that way, bottle episodes are often the toughest to write. The limitations are enormous. You can only use your standing sets and your regular cast. No guest stars. No visual effects. No source music. And oftentimes the score for the episode is pieced together from the show's music library. Basically what it means is that you're trying to put together an episode of television for the least amount of money as possible. Oh, and the final caveat? It's got be good. Sounds easy, right?
Let me clarify my first sentence a little. It's not that bottle shows are difficult to write. It's that they're difficult to conceive. You have to somehow tell an ambitious story using a very narrow construct. And when your regular characters all have opposing agendas (NTAC vs. Jordan Collier and his followers vs. Shawn's middle path) and they live and work in different locations (a government installation, an annexed section of Seattle, the 4400 Center)...well, needless to say, finding a way to bring them all together is a rather difficult assignment.
So, why NTAC? Well, in the previous episode we'd already seen Tom, Diana, and Maia in Promise City so going there wouldn't have been new or interesting. But Jordan and his followers showing up at NTAC? You can immediately see the potential drama in that scenario, without even beginning to craft a story around it.
As I'm sure you've gathered already, bottle episodes require a kind of backwards storytelling. Usually when we're coming up with episode ideas we think story before setting. But in a bottle show, setting comes first. By the way, another plus about using the NTAC sets? They're our biggest ones, taking up an entire soundstage in Vancouver. If you're going to be stuck in one location, it helps to be able to move around a little.
Now before you go getting the wrong idea, I should mention that although story breaks for bottle shows can be laborious, they can also be fun. It demands that you be creative, that you open up your mind to new possibilities. You have to think outside the box to find a way to put everything in a box. That sounds lame and paradoxical as I type it, but I can't think of a better way of putting it.
I don't remember exactly who or how we came up with the "game" scenario, but I remember annoying my colleagues with what I thought would be a cool teaser opening. Everybody wakes up in NTAC with no idea how they got there. I had fifteen different scenarios about where we could go from there (which was probably the annoying part), but whatever it was that got them all there was going to stem from someone's 4400 ability.
Earlier in the season, before we knew we'd have to do a bottle episode, Ira and Craig had the cool idea that one of the theory room geeks should take promicin. It makes sense. Their job is to analyze all things promicin-related. Sure, NTAC deals with a lot of negative aftereffects of people taking the shot, but they've seen the positive side of promicin as well. Shawn can heal people with his hands. Jordan has shown the world miracles. Maia can see the future and has prevented potential catastrophes. And if your NTAC job requires you to see things from every angle, you know that there are compelling arguments on both sides of the debate. So it's not far-fetched to think that one of the three theory room analysts could be swayed to take promicin.
Okay, so now pieces of the puzzle are starting to come together. We knew we wanted everyone to wake up at NTAC with no idea how they got there. And we knew it was going to be the result of P.J.'s ability. So why is he doing it? Is it on purpose? Yes is clearly the most interesting answer to that question. But we've established P.J. as a decent human being who cares about other people, which means his intentions are unlikely to be nefarious. Then what's his motive? Well, with the creation of Promise City and the government's subsequent attempt to assassinate Collier, P.J. might be thinking that things are spiraling out of control. So what if he's bringing everyone together in an attempt to mend fences? Okay, that sounds good, but what the hell is his ability exactly? Well, we need stakes. So even if the scenario we create isn't real, it has to feel real to the players. Players? Now that's interesting. What if P.J.'s ability is that he can create a virtual reality in which people are like players in a game? And like in any video game, players can be eliminated if certain goals aren't achieved. Wow, that's pretty high stakes. That's good drama. That's an episode of television. And that's how we came up with "No Exit."
Despite all the limitations placed on this episode, I think it turned out really well. There were some great character interactions, even some fun bits between characters that haven't gotten a lot of face time with each other this season (Diana vs. Isabelle, Tom vs. Jordan, Shawn vs. Kyle). And how about Isabelle as an honorary theory room geek? Good stuff. For me, though, the most compelling scenes were between Tom and his son, Kyle. Wow, did those two pull at our heartstrings or what? We also saw some further development in the blossoming friendship between Tom and Meghan. Perhaps these two care about each other more than either of them is willing to admit. I just loved their hug at the end. Very sweet. Although not entirely professional. A sign of things to come perhaps?
One last thing before I go. I just want to point out that tonight's episode was written by Adam "Hardball" Levy. Adam is our long-suffering writer's assistant. And this is his first produced credit. Congratulations, Adam! We love ya!
That's all for this week, folks. Next up is "Daddy's Little Girl." Ira and I are really proud of that one. We hope you enjoy it, too.