Favorite Pilots of 2016

In the spirit of year-end lists, which I love, I offer my own mini-list. I’m calling this “favorite” rather than “best,” considering there are probably lots of great pilots out there I have yet to see. Inspired by other “best of 2016” lists, I’m eager to watch Search Party, Insecure, and Westworld. But for now, here are my faves.braindead

  1. Stranger Things

Do I even need to explain? The pilot featured Dungeons & Dragons, heart-warming humor, heaps of nostalgia, a hint of government conspiracy, and a scary-ass kidnapping scene. By the end of the episode, you still don’t know quite what you’re dealing with, but you know it’s something special. Continue reading

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Pilot-Finale Symmetry

This post contains SPOILERS for the series finales of Glee, How I Met Your Mother, Eureka, Friends, Chuck, Gilmore Girls, Smallville and Parks and Recreation.

glee-series-finaleA series finale can be an oddly polarizing event. When people have invested themselves in a group of characters for years, they develop strong opinions about how a story should turn out. That’s why, when there are too many surprises, people are either really excited or really pissed.

Some series, on the other hand, have completely uncontroversial outcomes. Ross and Rachel end up together. Clark Kent becomes Superman. Lorelai realizes she belongs with Luke. That’s all fine and usually leaves the audience feeling good. Others go purposefully crazy, almost like they want the audience relieved that it’s over. (I never watched Seinfeld, but have read several accounts that such was the case with the end of that show.)

Wherever characters wind up in their personal or professional lives, what makes a finale brilliant is what I call pilot-finale symmetry. By far, the best example I’ve ever seen of this device was in Syfy’s Eureka. I wasn’t a huge fan of that show; I had only ever seen the pilot and a handful of episodes in each season before watching the finale. But my mind was blown when Jack and Zoe are leaving Eureka for the last time and they drive past themselves driving in. That, my friends, is payoff. It doesn’t change the storyline of the characters, per se, but it shifts our whole understanding of the story.

Some finales execute a smaller scale pilot callback. Chuck (Chuck), though his spy skills have grown a hundred fold, disarms a bomb the same way he did in the pilot. Lorelai and Rory (Gilmore Girls) are last seen eating at the diner just as they were when we first met them. But when I talk about symmetry I’m taking about taking something we already know and deepening it. Glee did this really well, but more on that in a moment.

Many finales flash forward, as if to oblige the audience’s need to know that everything turns out okay. This can be fun, but I think it underestimates the viewer’s imagination. I’m loathe to admit it, but I found the recent farewell of Parks and Recreation disappointing. It bent over backwards to prove to us that everyone in Leslie’s circle had a happily-ever-after, squandering precious time that could have been used to just tell a story to its conclusion. There were a few brief flashes of the pilot, but they were used as set dressing, for cheap tears. Although the final season was an absolute hoot, the ending made the show’s swan song feel like a gimmick.

Glee tried to have it both ways. The second hour was the flash-forward-everything-turns-out-peachy variety. (Seriously, everybody ended up famous?) It was the first hour that was truly creative. Titled “2009,” it told the same story as the pilot, but with a fresh perspective, by filling in action that originally took place off-screen. It tapped into the originality that made that made people sit up and take notice when the show premiered — that made it groundbreaking and unexpected — but was eroded in a deluge of guest stars and themed episodes. We found out things we didn’t know about characters we’d just spent years getting to know, most notably Kurt. Kurt has always been the “star” of the show for me, his relationship with his dad being the most moving story. We knew that Kurt had suffered while isolated in the closet, but this showed us how much.

The finale also gave us a taste of an Everyone Meets Everyone episode. Such a device could have been stuffed in as filler anytime during the course of the series, but this gave the show bookends that allowed us to focus on the original set of core characters including, significantly, one who died along the way. The initial performance of “Don’t Stop Believin'” led by Finn and Rachel blended smoothly into the “new” action.

We needed a little more of course, considering that Cory Monteith, and not just his character, died tragically in 2013. In the finale’s second half, it was impossible not to tear up when the McKinley gang dedicated the auditorium to Finn. But then, did they even need to flash forward to do that? It would have been just as touching in the present (2015).

As a pilot enthusiast, I love a finale that knows its roots. So I could have stopped watching after the first hour and been perfectly satisfied.

What makes a good sci-fi pilot?

Any fan of genre television probably has a mental list of dos and don’ts when it comes to pilots. With so many entries into the sci-fi category in the past few years, we’ve seen them all. You probably have your own. These are a few of my “dos.”

firefly-pilot-episode

Mal Reynolds. Awesome. Not crazy.

1. Don’t overdo it on the exposition.

Nothing kills a pilot like heavy exposition, but there’s a little room for forgiveness with science fiction or supernatural settings. There’s simply more that needs explaining. Still, a long voice-over that tells us a bunch of information that we’re going to learn anyway, more organically, is a waste of time. The single episode of Delirium is the best recent example of this. In addition to boring the audience, the opening VO revealed a character much more mature and aware than the one who belonged to the voice. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Orphan Black pilot, which left us saying “WTF”? In a good way. Continue reading

Pilot titles, round 3

If you’ve read this blog before, you know I enjoy titles of pilot episodes, and television naming conventions in general. Can you identify the show by the title of its pilot? Air dates range from the 1970s to just last month.

  1. Natural Selectionpramface
  2. Happiness
  3. Mark 8:36
  4. Welcome to Camelot
  5. Winter is Coming
  6. La Sicaria
  7. Ghosts
  8. Like Narnia But Sexy
  9. Phase Six
  10. The Lights of Mystery Mountain

Continue reading

Pilot titles, round 2

Script_TitlePageI did an earlier post of match-the-pilot title-to-the show, but here’s a fresh batch. Some are obvious, some are not. See if you can guess which shows’ pilots these are:

1. Give Me a Ring Sometime

2. Serenity

3. The Beginning

4. Boardwalk Empire

5. Flowers for your Grave

6. We Just Decided To

7. The Man Trap

8. Movin’ In

9. Death Has a Shadow

10. Help Wanted

Answers after the jump. Continue reading

Isaac Asimov: Visions of the Future

If you’re at all into science fiction, I don’t have to convince you that Isaac Asimov was an amazing guy. He wrote about a zillion books and imagined worlds and technology that laid the foundation for science fiction as we know it. He coined the term “robotics,” for frak’s sake. But did you know he was working on a television show when he died? He shot a pilot episode, and the footage has been collected into a four-part video called Visions of the Future.

I admit when I first heard this news, I was hoping the imagined show was a drama — something along the lines of I, Robot meets The X-Files. This is not that.

Continue reading

Merry Pilots

JesusYou wouldn’t think Christmas would be a particularly propitious time to set your pilot. Pilots usually air in the fall, or just after the holidays. And Christmas is the season for marathons of shows and movies you already know and love. But when you think about it, the holidays are rife with drama and emotion — often of the familial warfare variety. So there’s some material there.

There are a handful of pilots — that I’m aware of — that are set during the holiday season. Here’s a list. Are there others? Please leave comments if you know! Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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.” Continue reading

Episodes, and musings on “in media res”

Is it me, or has it gotten really trendy to use the device known as in media res (“in the middle of things”) in pilots? It can be a very effective way to tell a story, obviously, since it’s been around longer than dirt. But I can’t help but feel like it’s become a crutch of sorts. As television has brought us increasingly sophisticated shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, we expect more literary writing styles. So maybe certain devices get used for their own sake. Continue reading