Pilots tend to fit into one or more of a handful of categories. I don’t know if writers consciously choose among these when they set out to write pilots, or if it just happens organically. So this is a list of my own creation, which I will add to over the next several days. Let me know if you can think of others to add.
1. First Day on the Job/First Day of School
This is a super easy way for a writer to introduce a bunch of characters, since the protagonist is meeting them for the first time, too. Usually there will be a mentor character that tells the protagonist things that we, the audience, need to know about the setting and characters. The mentor will say a lot of stuff like “Look out for Bob, he’ll steal your lunch.” If done well it won’t sound contrived.
Examples: Scrubs, Beverly Hills 90210, Neighbors from Hell, Community, Privileged, Ugly Betty, Sit Down Shut Up, WKRP in Cincinnati
2. New Kid in Town
This can work in tandem with #1, a close relative. The character(s) might just be arriving in town and meeting the neighbors, sans jobs or school. It is especially handy for spin-offs; we already know the character but need to learn about a new location.
Examples: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, The Cleveland Show, Haven, Make it or Break It, The Riches, Joey
3. Happy Birthday, Dear Protagonist
This could actually be any significant date: the protagonist’s birthday, the anniversary of a life-changing event, or the day someone moves into a new life stage, like getting married or divorced.
Examples: Reaper, Chuck, The Brady Bunch
4. Prodigal Son/Daughter or You Can’t Go Home Again
In this one, a protagonist who has been away returns. Usually that person has changed in some significant way, or else the place that person is from has changed.
Examples: Bones*, Jericho, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Free Ride
*Bones doesn’t really fit any category I can identify. That’s why I love it. Read this post to see what I mean.
5. R.I.P. Main Character
This is most fun when the person who has died will go on being a character on the show. Otherwise it becomes a how-to-cope-with-loss story.
Examples: Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, Brothers and Sisters
5. Howdy, Neighbor
The protagonist(s) get a new neighbor, for better or worse. This could also be a new roommate or officemate.
Examples: Big Bang Theory, Three’s Company
6. The First Day of the Rest of Your Life
This one is my favorite. It gives a reason for the show to exist; that the protagonist is starting a new journey, but in a totally natural way. The pilot isn’t forced into a birthday or first day of work, it grows out of the nature of a character. (Often, episode 2 is the First Day on the Job). This can happen in two ways; either the protagonist makes a conscious decision to change his/her ways, or the universe decides for him/her. Maybe the person almost dies and decides to lead a better life. Or maybe wax figurines start talking to her. This often works along with the Significant Day, but is even better when it doesn’t. A popular spin on this recently has been people having kids appear in their lives that they didn’t know they had.
Examples: My Name is Earl, Futurama, Sex and the City, Wonderfalls, Heroes, How I Met Your Mother, Friends, Chuck, Being Erica, The Riches, Glee, Life Unexpected, John Doe, Dollhouse
Great analysis of different types of pilots, Meek. I never really thought about it this way! Glad you are sorting through these for us; not too many TV shows keep my interest these days.
You have a lot of great content here on your blog. You can get even more engagement by linking out to other blogs about TV shows, leveraging some of their posts, and developing blog relationships.
Good stuff; keep going! 🙂
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