Can you tell from the pilot?

Can you tell if a TV show is going to be any good based on its pilot? io9’s Charlie Jane Anders recently posted How to Tell from a Pilot if a TV Show is Going to be Any Good and offered some insightful tips on how to tell. She makes some great points, like how writing oneself into a hole or having a boring “thing of the week” is a recipe for failure. But quite simply, the answer to the question above is “no.”

If you’re familiar with this blog, you know that sometimes I dissect a pilot with the benefit of having seen an entire season (The Walking Dead) or even the entire run (Friends) of a show. At other times I go in blind, i.e. the way a pilot was intended to be seen. These two types of viewing experiences are very different, even when I put on my objective literary analysis hat.

If you’re geeky enough about TV to be reading this there’s a good chance you’re a fan of the Greendale Seven. But do you remember how lame they were in the Community pilot? Don’t bother rewatching it now — it’s too late! You already love them and you won’t see it the same way. (However, you can read my doubting blog post about it here and then see how quickly I changed my tune here.)

Think about it, though. The idea that Jeff would form a study group just to get a girl is not only contrived but contradicts what we’re supposed to know about his character. If he’s so irresistible to women (I mean, just look at him), he would hardly need to resort to such machinations just get laid. And the rest of the group hardly makes a likely confluence of study buddies. Their differences are, naturally, the heart of the show, and no one wants to watch a group of people who are all alike. One of the inherent challenges of a pilot with an ensemble cast is providing an excuse for a diverse group of characters to willingly put themselves in the same space. Suspend your disbelief for an episode or a few, and the pay-off can be a three-years-in-the-making Beetlejuice easter egg.

Pilots have other built-in weaknesses. If they need to introduce a lot of characters, they’ll often present them as stereotypes so that you can label them in your head within a few seconds. If they use hugely famous actors they need to immediately overcome associations with those actors past roles (unless they embrace them). If they are high-concept they need to convince you of a lot of outlandish stuff with minimal explanation and hope you don’t ask too many questions. Some shows live up to these challenges. That still doesn’t guarantee success.

There are plenty of examples of pilots that belied their shows’ true colors. Everybody hated the pilots of Parks and Recreation and The Office, and now look at those shows. People loved the pilot of the The Killing and it fell off a cliff. Don’t get me started on Glee or Heroes.

Try to remember a pilot you watched without any knowledge about where the show was going — maybe one you had never even heard of until you stumbled onto it just as it started. What was the last one you watched that made you say, “This show is going to be great!” Were you right?

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