The Words on the Page

Off The Map

October 17, 2017

 

Off The Map

by Jenna Bans

Unspecified Draft - January 2010

Dramatic Pilot - 62 pages

 

"Oh god, she's gonna die. She's gonna die and it's my fault..." - Lily

 

A Shondaland production, Off The Map was created by Jenna Bans, a veteran of Grey's Anatomy. (While Shonda Rhimes was an executive producer of Off The Map, it is worth pointing out that she was not credited as having written any of the episodes.) Off The Map ran for only thirteen episodes in 2011. It received mixed reviews and was cancelled by ABC at the end of the first season.

 

As Off The Map took place in an isolated clinic in a third world country, I was really interested to study the impact of its setting. While the landscape was described as beautiful, it also contributed to the potential ailments the doctors had to battle as it contained poisonous bugs and deadly snakes. Furthermore, diseases that are no longer considered relevant - things like tuberculosis, malaria, and leprosy - are common illnesses here. The locals don't always trust the treatments and the doctors don't always have the medications and equipment they need.

 

In the pilot, a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants world was created. Duct tape was used to dress wounds, coconut milk was used in place of blood plasma, and, in the makeshift lab, blood was spun by hand. The clinic survives on whatever donations are given, and these donations aren't always monetary. One of the doctors received a live chicken as a thank you.

 

We're introduced to the world along with three residents who are each running away from something and have decided to come work here. Their character descriptions are snappy if not all together visual:

 

"Her outlook is positive, determined, but there's something haunted behind her eyes. She surveys the scene, then breaks into a smile."

 

and

 

"Twenties, sexy, Indian-American, grew up extremely poor but you'd never know it. She's unapologetically arrogant, talks a really good game - her only sign of weakness is an asthma inhaler."

 

(If that second character does not sound familiar it is because she was completely changed before the show was shot.)

 

Instead of relying on visual language, the script reads like it is speaking directly to us, the readers. There are some funny asides, like a reference to the night sky - "the way we never get to see it in Los Angeles." While the voice is strong, it definitely reminded me that this is a story being told. I think, if used judiciously, this direct address technique and commentary could work well, but here it felt like a bit too much as it kept pulling me out of the story.

 

There was one other choice that I felt interrupted the narrative flow. When each of the three new doctors was introduced, a short flashback to his or her "previous" life quickly followed. Since these were the only flashbacks used (amounting to less than two pages out of a sixty-two page script) and they all occurred in Act 1, the storytelling felt uneven. While one of the characters did end up sharing more of her past verbally toward the end of the script, I think that another flashback could have better bookended the experience.

 

I am going to definitely check out the aired pilot as I want to see what was changed and how makeshift this clinic ultimately looked. The mix of the tropics with the poverty presents a very interesting contrast, and the offbeat medical techniques were compelling on the page. 

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Writing for film, television, and the stage is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult - and most rewarding - art forms. The language needs to be visual and evocative as each script must achieve two important tasks...
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