Save the Cat!® Writes for TV
is all about creating original shows and writing TV pilots—the most important things you need to add to your TV Writing portfolio. But back in the day, spec episodes of pre-existing shows were all the rage. Writers were asked to write standalone episodes of Friends and Seinfeld and even Lost.

It was easier then. Shows were episodic. Sitcoms could be enjoyed without following every episode every week. What about now? How can you just write an episode that drops us in the middle of Season 1 of Bridgerton or Episode 18 of The Boys and expect the reader to understand what’s going on (they may never have even seen a single episode of the show!)?

The key word is standalone. Standalones let you flex your structure muscles, allowing you to write a story that hits all the Save the Cat! beats. A mini-movie of sorts. Instead of big changes, standalones often deepen our understanding of a character, revealing backstory or motives that the typical series A-plot doesn’t have time for. There are a lot of ways to do this. Some feel like regular episodes, others feel like first episodes of a new season… and then there are the ones that tell stories from new perspectives. You can write them in ways where the previous episodes of the show inform the situation, but the contained story allows someone with zero context to understand and enjoy.

Atlanta is a half-hour dramedy that deftly mixes humor with poignant real-life stuff. The series follows a college dropout in Atlanta trying to make it as a manager of his buddy’s burgeoning rap career. It’s a serialized show. But then came its season 2 episode “Teddy Perkins.”

“Teddy Perkins” delivers a straight-up “scary Michael Jackson” standalone horror story in a way that draws comparisons to Get Out. It also sidelines most of Atlanta‘s main ensemble and puts the spotlight on a side character who can both recognize the weirdness that plays out, but also never gets so weirded out that he abandons his mission. Even if you’ve never seen Atlanta, you can enjoy this episode. FX originally aired this episode’s entire 34 minutes without commercial interruption.

Atlanta: S2 E6 – “Teddy Perkins”
Written by: Donald Glover
Franchise Type: Man with a Plan
The World: The amateur hip-hop scene in Atlanta
Episode Genre: Buddy Love
Platform: FX
TV Genre: Half-hour drama

Story DNA:
Hero: Darius – affable side character who doesn’t let things get to him
Goal: Purchase an interesting piano and live to tell about it
Obstacle: The weird ex-musician who seems Norman Bates-style dangerous
Stakes: He really wants that piano. He rented a truck and went on a long road trip just to purchase it. He’s getting that thing!

Lakeith Stanfield as Darius in Atlanta TV episode Teddy Perkins
Lakeith Stanfield as Darius with his U MAD cap

OPENING IMAGE (1-2): Atlanta’s side character, Darius, is on his own and out of his element, road-tripping in an empty U-Haul away from the show’s usual urban Atlanta setting. He tries to make a purchase in a store that has a bad vibe, and he spots a “SOUTHERN MADE” hat with a confederate flag. He buys the hat and a sharpie and modifies the hat to say “U MAD.” In a quick scene, we get a taste for the character and a reason to cheer him on (a Save the Cat! moment, if you will). This guy is unflappable. We see him driving while looking at a map. Isolating him. The hallmark of most horror stories and another item for his rooting resume: Darius is a fish-out-of-water, which also makes him an underdog.

SET-UP (2-6): As Darius arrives at an old gothic-looking manor, the episode quickly dishes out the horror tropes: the door that creaks open, the shadowy weird manor, and then, scariest of all… Teddy Perkins. He’s got a plastic-surgery sculpted face (emphasis on plastic), high-pitched voice, and Sammy Sosa skin (played by Atlanta star Donald Glover in an uncredited and unrecognizable role). Teddy starts eating gooey Ostrich eggs. This guy is straight-up Michael Jackson, Bubbles-the-chimp-era strange. And Darius, being Darius, just rolls with it. Everybody is weird to Darius. Darius’s patience and curiosity are admirable elements. And there’s a piano in that house that he really wants.

Donald Glover as Teddy Perkins on Atlanta
Donald Glover (uncredited) as Teddy Perkins

CATALYST (8): Teddy mentions the piano used to be owned by Benny Hope, Teddy’s famous pianist brother, who may live in the house.

THEME STATED (8): “My father used to say great things come from great pain.” This thesis is at the heart of the episode. Greatness comes from pain. Unlike a movie or even a pilot where the protagonist (i.e., Darius) would wrestle with this question and transform in the process, in this episode it’s the antagonist, Teddy Perkins, who is struggling with the father issues. And if he doesn’t figure them out, this whole thing will end in tragedy. Teddy is the one who needs fixing in this episode. This being a standalone and Darius being a regular character, he can’t have any real change. But we will get a deeper understanding of his internal workings. Standalones are often revelations not transformations.

DEBATE (10): Teddy mentions his brother Benny has a weird skin disease and needs to hide away from the sun. It’s questionable whether Benny really exists or is really living in the house. This drives the quick Debate. Is he alive? Is something weird going on here? As things get weirder and weirder, Darius decides he’s been polite enough and tries to move things along. In TV, the beats are flexible. They work as an ordered checklist more than a prescriptive schedule. There’s too much to do in the half-hour run time to spend several minutes on the Debate.

BREAK INTO 2 (11): Teddy goes off to get Darius a glass of water and Darius senses this transaction isn’t going to be easy. But he stays. He really wants that piano. And Darius is Darius.

B STORY (11): Darius explores Teddy’s estate as Teddy watches him on an array of video monitors. Darius hears music playing and follows it upstairs, seeing various photos and even one of Benny. Benny is the B Story. The mystery of Benny—is he really in the house?—and the relationship between Teddy and his mysterious brother and their father is at the heart of the theme and the backstory.

FUN & GAMES (11-17): Darius searches upstairs and ultimately finds a wheelchair by a piano. Teddy catches him and grows upset. Teddy says Benny is sleeping and tells Darius to wait downstairs. Darius needs to talk to somebody about the weirdness. He steps outside the house and calls “the guys” back home (the show’s regulars, otherwise absent from this unique and oddball episode). They’re torn between laughing at his expense and coaching him up. The guys are both mentors and an outlet for his suspicions and anxieties. The exchange underscores the “real-life” aspect of the show. Death is real here. Teddy taps on the window, calling Darius back inside. It’s a shifting of the gears in the relationship and the tension.

a scene from Atlanta Teddy Perkins episode
The B Story crosses the A Story at the Midpoint

MIDPOINT (17): The B Story crosses the A Story when Teddy introduces Darius to a creepy mannequin that he refers to as “his father.” Teddy starts talking about abuse. He’s not mad that his father abused him; in fact, he thinks he was a great father. “Great things come from great pain.”

BAD GUYS CLOSE IN (17-28): We’ve gone from weird to scary. Darius again tries to move things along and suggests finishing whatever contracts and money and other stuff might be needed to wrap up the deal for the piano. When he asks if there’s a way to see Benny, Teddy freaks. This bad guy is getting combustible and dangerous. Darius goes to move the piano and sees blood on the keys. Fearing the worst and wanting to get out of there, he moves the piano into the elevator… going down. The elevator takes him all the way to the basement. There he finds Benny, bandaged and wheelchair bound. Because of his afflictions, Benny can’t talk but writes on a chalkboard: “Teddy will kill us!” Darius goes outside and finds Teddy’s car is now blocking him in. He really wants that piano, which makes Darius the perfect victim for a horror movie. Instead of running, he’s going to finish the transaction. He does take a crowbar back inside though, just in case.

ALL IS LOST (28): Inside the house, Darius sees Teddy watching a creepy old film of his dad’s abusive piano training. Darius tries to play it off. But Teddy knows Darius has seen Benny and even worse, Teddy has a shotgun. “I choose you. You’re my sacrifice,” says Teddy, who believes all great things come with sacrifice. Teddy thinks using Darius as a sacrifice is his way to move forward. We’re in total whiff-of-death territory. Darius isn’t going to get the piano! And oh, btw, he’s also going to die!

DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL (28-29): Teddy monologues about framing Darius in a home invasion. He’s going to make it look like Darius killed Benny because he was an obsessed fan. Teddy’s got a whole plan laid out that he’s really thought through. Downstairs, Teddy makes Darius put shackles on his own legs. “Great things come with great pain.” Darius talks about how all great things don’t come from sacrifice. Some come from love, he says. It’s less of a moment to remove a shard of glass than an opportunity to examine and reveal some of Darius’s internal thinking. (It’s interesting how this beat moves right into the Break into 3 and the Finale. In TV especially, the beats can come fast and furious without moving locations or ending scenes.)

BREAK INTO 3 (30): Teddy mentions his father again and it gives Darius an idea. It’s obvious that Teddy’s deadly scheme is deeply rooted in the shard of glass of Teddy’s relationship with his dead dad; maybe Darius can use that to talk his way out of the situation. Darius makes his move.

FINALE (30-33): Not all TV episodes have Five-Point Finales, but this has a great one.

1. Gathering the Team – Darius can’t get out of his binds. He’s only got one choice: to talk his way out. His weapon will be honesty and vulnerability (the perfect combo for a standalone revelatory episode!).

2. Executing the Plan – Darius has gone through “Dad stuff” too. Darius reveals his own history. Darius doesn’t feel desperate or even very scared; he’s laying down the truth and you can feel it. This is our standalone episode revelatory moment. It gives us more insight into this character’s psychology and opens another window into him going forward. Darius mentions Stevie Wonder as a positive example who makes art through love, not sacrifice. He says that Stevie sees through his music. It seems like everything might work out.

3. The High Tower Surprise – Teddy can’t agree. “That’s beautiful… but it’s wrong!”

4. Dig, Deep Down – In this case, it’s the antagonist, Teddy, who needs to change. This is the point where Teddy must remove his shard of glass to achieve victory, but he can’t! This is a tragic story. The lesson is obvious to everyone, but the hero refuses to transform and will pay the price!

5. The Execution of the New Plan – Ding! The elevator opens. There’s Benny! He rolls out in the wheelchair and kills Teddy. Then turns the shotgun on himself and pulls the trigger.

FINAL IMAGE (33-34): Cops talk to Darius. He watches sadly as the bodies are wheeled out of the mansion, along with the piano (being held as evidence). Darius drives off in the empty U-Haul in a reverse of the Opening Image, heading back to the safe confines of Atlanta.

Learn More About Save the Cat! Writes for TV>>

Watch the Jamie Nash Webinar: The First Steps to Cracking Your Pilot>>