Resurrection: “Pilot” - Opening Scene
The difference between a good story and a great story often lies in the degree of detail and coherence. Anyone can tell a story that makes sense and fits together, but a real work of art is elevated above other creative media in the careful construction of its smallest parts; a single scene can bear narrative weight even outside the context of the larger episode in which it occurs.
Take a look at a recent scene from a newly premiered show: Resurrection, the opening scene (00:00-02:15). The full episode is viewable at http://www.hulu.com/watch/606178.
The scene is simple, almost dialog-free, but sets up several mysteries of the series. A young boy, wearing American clothing, wakes in a rice paddy somewhere in rural China. He walks through a street, until he encounters a couple who ask him a question in what closed captioning only identifies as “Chinese dialect,” which is not subtitled. The boy asks the only line of dialog in the scene (or at least the only line in English, and therefore the only intelligible line for the majority of the show’s viewers): “Is she dead?” Then, the boy faints.
Pilots bear a heavy burden in the world of a television series. They need to capture the viewer’s interest, and tell a satisfying story, while establishing the characters, their conflicts, and the rules of the world. In the world of television development, a pilot runs the risk of being the only episode of a series ever produced, unless it wows network and studio executives and stands out amongst dozens of other pilots produced each development cycle. And after all of this pressure, the pilot must leave enough conflict open-ended that there’s room for years’ worth of subsequent seasons.
Resurrection boldly tackles these issues with a strategy that is apparent even in the opening scene. A great deal of information is conveyed wordlessly in this opening: based on the disorienting nature of the opening shots, we know that mystery is going to be an element of the show. The main character, who we later learn is named Jacob, is clearly an outsider, as the lone Caucasian English-speaking child in a village of Chinese farmers. This theme of Jacob-as-outsider becomes an integral part of the show’s premise. And the lone line of dialog, “Is she dead?” hints at the themes addressed in the show, questioning the finality of death, while also setting up plot points that will occur later in the episode regarding the cause of death for the unnamed “she.”
None of these suggested themes or plot points are explicitly stated (at least not in this scene), and a viewer may not even be consciously aware of these hints, but on some level, a person watching this episode is now primed for all of the events that will follow in this episode, and in the rest of the series.
I’m not going to spoil the episode by discussing specific plot points for the episode, but I would like to touch on the premise of the series, which according to IMDB, is “The lives of the people of Arcadia, Missouri, are forever changed when their deceased loved ones return.” People who have seen the Resurrection ad campaign know that the show will entail the dead returning to life. Viewers will probably even (correctly) intuit that this boy is one of the dead who return. However, Resurrection is a rare series where viewers who are familiar with the show’s premise and those who are not start on equal footing, at least in the opening scene. We know something weird is going on, but we don’t know exactly what, yet. We’re not even sure if that’s the right question, but we’re being guided toward the real meat of the story.
All in all, Resurrection may not be a perfect show, but its opening scene perfectly encapsulates the themes of the series while setting up several key plot points without feeling overly expositional. It draws the viewer in, giving just enough information to hook him and depict how strange the situation is, before the rest of the episode lets the situation get even stranger. Not every show has an opening season that sets up the series so effectively, but when it does, you know the show is working at a higher level: maybe even one that could qualify as art.