Five Ways to Ruin Your Pilot

I’ve been trying to think of a good reason to write a post on this topic for a long time. The Mindy Project is as good a reason as any.

The Mindy Project has everything going for it, with Mindy Kaling having amused us for years as both an actress and writer on The Office. She plays a doctor; we haven’t had a good doctor comedy since Scrubs. As much as I hate the term “adorkable,” she is that, a point not unnoticed by executives who scheduled her show back-to-back with New Girl. She’s got B.J. Novak on board as a producer and a director (Charles McDougall) with The Office and Parks and Recreation cred.

The pilot was released a month early, along with those of some other Fox shows, on Hulu. Some people like it. I do not. Here’s why. It commits a number of sins that are sure to damn a pilot straight to hell.

1. Try to shock us.

Many great shows have surprised viewers in their pilots; take The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Archer or Wilfred. Shock is good. I’m saying don’t try to shock us. If it happens naturally, great. If your show is about, say, a guy in a dog suit, it’s bound to happen. But having your main character (Mindy) make a drunken ass of herself at her ex’s wedding, ride off on a bicycle (for some reason) screaming “I am Sandra Bullock!,” then fall into a swimming pool and get arrested all in the first five minutes is just gratuitous. I must say, my hopes rose just  little when the Barbie doll started talking to her — I thought we were on the verge of some cool psychedelic fantasy à la Wonderfalls. I was wrong.

Another great example of a semi-recent offender in this area was House of Lies. It opens with a shot of Don Cheadle and a woman sprawled on a bed completely naked, then moves on to a protracted strip club scene, and then some lesbian sex in a public bathroom stall. And it’s a half-hour show. The problem is, none of these events is necessary for plot or character development. We get it, you’re on Showtime. No amount of lesbian bathroom sex could make these characters any more worthy of our attention.

2. Cast a bunch of guest stars just for the pilot.

Bill Hader is in this? Cool. Ed Helms, too? Sweet. Oh, wait, they’re only in this one episode? It’s a shame, too, because Ed Helms’ character was the most likeable one in the whole thing.

3. Lean too heavily on cultural references.

We all love a reference from one pop culture property to another. Generation X is probably the most susceptible; we will gobble up a John Hughes reference with a spork. The pilot of Community did referential humor really well. Others, including New Girl, Breaking In, and Hellcats have done it horribly. Where it goes wrong is when alluding to a well-known property is used as a shortcut to developing your character. We need to be shown what a character is like. Simply describing her in terms of what movies she grew up watching is just pandering.

4. Make your protagonist totally unlikeable.

This one is complicated; characters don’t have to be likable. You might even say we’re living the age of the anti-hero. But we have to give a crap about the protagonist to take time out of our day to watch a show. Don Draper is a sonofabitch, and yet we root for him to convince the impressionable public to buy cigarettes. And how do you explain the success of something like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a show whose very premise is jackassery? I’d argue that, in the pilot, Dee comes off an innocent victim of the guys’ idiocy. She’s at least one character we can connect with as we shake our heads in disbelief at Mac, Charlie, and Dennis.

Mindy’s life is a mess. She hasn’t found a husband (which, according to the show’s romantic comedy ethos, is the goal all women are supposed to aspire to, but that’s a separate issue). She has occasional friends-with-benefits sex with some jerk at a work. Clearly, she can’t hold her liquor. Based on her behavior, though, we have to think that many of what she considers her problems are her own fault. She’s flat out bitchy to everyone she meets — colleagues, patients, even a little girl. We’ve all been in tough places, made mistakes, been assholes, etc. We can relate to screwing up. We like to cheer a character out of a bad situation into a better one. Which brings me to my next point…

5. Give us no hope for the future.

If we actually believed Mindy were on the cusp of a new path in life, that would be interesting. “This is not really who I am,” she says. Oh, yeah? By episode’s end she’s gone right back to her regular pattern. People don’t change overnight, but pilots are all about new beginnings. It doesn’t have to be something as obvious as the first day of school or the day a relationship ends — although it often is — but there should be some sense that these characters are about to lead us on a journey. Mindy seems like she might just lead us around in circles. For all we know, she gets drunk and falls into swimming pools every week.

Now, granted, a lot of people will give a show with a bad or so-so pilot a chance and keep watching for a few episodes. Often they are rewarded. As someone who admires pilots as their own art form, I’m being highly critical. That’s why God made blogs. Feel free to share your thoughts.

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One thought on “Five Ways to Ruin Your Pilot

  1. I’ll be curious to see if this one flies. I have a girlfriend working on it – so for her sake, I hope she keeps her job…I agree with a lot of your points – but let’s definitely give Mindy a shot. She’s earned it. We’ll see… 😉

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