By Dan Burns
Here’s the teaser from the pilot episode of the TV sitcom series I’m writing, “Saving Zero.” My writing partners are Sandra Williams, theater director and Artist in Residence with the Oklahoma Arts Council, and Robert Reynolds from the Actors Studio, NYC. We’ve outlined a full-season series of 22-minute episodes and are scripting three episodes on spec. We’re looking for a producer.
I’m writing this based on my experience as a co-founder and fundraiser for a group home in Austin, Texas. In my sitcom, Josh -- father of Benjy, a 25-year-old son with autism -- intends to establish an archipelago of group homes, ranches, and villages where teens and young adults with autism can find or create jobs. But Zero, a new arrival at Hope Ranch, has no intention of working. He intends to sabotage the ranch and pursue his destiny.
Maybe you’ve seen “Speechless,” comedy series about a mom on a mission who will do anything for JJ, her eldest son with cerebral palsy. Like Speechless, my series focuses on the struggles facing staff and ASD residents at the Ranch.
EXT. DRONE SHOT TEXAS HILL COUNTRY
EPISODE TITLE: CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN
WOODED ROLLING HILLS west of Austin. Below us, among the cedars and live oaks, a pattern of intersecting farm to market roads, and a RED HONDA CRV in the distance, driving toward us, sun roof open. We’re moving toward the red CRV and descending, enjoying the rugged beauty of the landscape. Over the CHOP-CHOP of the helicopter we HEAR the VOICE OF JOSH, early sixties. We follow, follow, follow …
VOICE OF JOSH: To me, Hope Ranch is a magical place. The mountain cedars and live oaks of the Balconies Canyonlands spill through the Texas Hill Country to our back door.
We’re a little lower now, the RED CRV closer.
VOICE OF JOSH: Beneath us, the Edwards Aquifer, an underground river, rolling below the range of human hearing but tangible as a heartbeat, the rush of blood.
Along a rutted dirt and gravel driveway, a BATTERED BLUE PICKUP TRUCK, its railing up around the truck bed, bounces toward us, right angle to the CRV. We’re low enough to make out the cargo area loaded with A DOG AND HALF A DOZEN MIDDLE AND HIGH SCHOOL ASD KIDS hanging on for dear life. A CANVAS SIGN on the side of the truck flaps in the breeze.
VOICE OF JOSH: “Build it and they will come.” And they came. Autism Spectrum Disorder families, aides, supporters, seekers, believers, drawn to HOPE RANCH, a future for young people with autism.
INT. RED HONDA CRV
JOSH, the driver, early sixties, cargo pants, face etched like a map of the world, twists his CRV through the live oaks and cedars. He pushes a CD player button and we hear the Beatles “All You Need Is Love.”
JOSH: You guys ready for this?
He twists his head toward the back seat, where ride ANNIE and GOAT BOY. We see…
ANNIE, a 20-year-old ranch resident, top heavy, bird’s nest hairdo on a head that rests chinless on her shoulders, half dozen necklaces draped around her.
ANNIE (lapping up the lyric, to Josh): Yeah, I’m ready for love!
FLASH ON ANNIE'S back-seat companion, GOAT BOY, 18-year-old ranch resident, heavy-set, shaggy blond hair capped by a red bandana, T-shirt branded with “Austin Animal Rescue.” Suspenders.
SOUND: “All You Need Is Love” continues on the CD.
JOSH: How ‘bout you, Goat Boy?
GOAT BOY (the practical skeptic): I disagree with that song.
ANNIE: What else do you need, lil’ critter?
GOAT BOY: Goats.
ANNIE (thru windshield): Look out!
JOSH swings his head forward and slams the brakes. We see a baby GOAT, middle of the road. The CRV swirls, tires spewing gravel, misses the goat …
ANNIE: We’re gonna die!
… and comes to rest near a GATE, white limestone dust swirling. Hand lettered sign by the gate -- “HOPE RANCH HALF MILE. GRAND OPENING.” GOAT BOY jumps out and scoops up the animal.
GOAT BOY: It’s Clarabelle.
ANNIE sticks her head up through the open sun roof.
ANNIE: Clarabelle! Are you OK, li’l critter?
SOUND: A HORN BLARES. Goat Boy looks up and dives for cover, holding Clarabelle. The BLUE PICKUP TRUCK, loaded with a dog and kids, crashes through the gate, misses the red CRV, and GRINDS TO A SCREECHING STOP, cab windows side by side, driver to driver. We can read the canvas sign now -- “LAKE LIZARDS.”
JOSH rolls down his window to yell at …
GRETCHEN, mid-forties, gruff, flat faced, stringy hair, headstrong country gal.
JOSH: Gretchen! Got a problem?
GRETCHEN (window open, roiling): I’m locked in the bathroom with Randall beatin' on the door yellin’ he’s gonna kill me. Toilet stopped up. No pay check.
JOSH (like this happens all the time): And?
GRETCHEN: I’m through. I quit. Here’s your baby.
GRETCHEN tosses a bundle through the window to the other cab. JOSH grabs it. A shoulder-mount camera in swaddling clothes.
JOSH: Angela fired you, didn’t she.
GRETCHEN: Yeah. For the last time.
JOSH: Sorry to hear …
GRETCHEN grinds the shift into low gear and hits the gas. She’s outta there, Lake Lizards clutching the truck bed railings.
ANNIE: Goodbye li’l critters! Goodbye Tracy! Goodbye Tracy! Goodbye Tracy!
JOSH (to Goat Boy): Well, that’ll be that!
GRETCHEN (looking back, yelling): Annie, wipe your own damn ass!