Pilot Titles

How well do you know the titles of episodes of your favorite shows? Do you even give them a thought? Some shows get pretty creative. Some naming conventions are discussed here.

Pilot episodes are usually just called “Pilot,” possibly because the creators don’t know quite where the show is headed. But some shows have really cool pilot titles. Often, titles are added after the fact, possibly when the show is released on DVD.

Here are some of my favorite pilot titles I’ve come across. See if you can guess what shows they belong to. Answers are after the jump.

  1. Chuck Versus the Intersect
  2. Welcome to the Hellmouth
  3. Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire
  4. Pie-lette
  5. Genesis
  6. Days Gone Bye
  7. Space Pilot 3000
  8. The One Where Monica Gets a Roommate, a.k.a. The First One
  9. Sex and Violence (actually a second pilot, whatever that means)
  10. Everybody Lies

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Following a couple weeks of lackluster season finales, I’m contemplating shows that start out great and then go off the rails somewhere. Sometime it happens in a moment, like when a couple finally gets together and dissolves all of the show’s sexual tension, or sometimes it happens over time as the characters just run out of funny and interesting things to do. Sometimes you even know it’s going to happen before it happens, the way we know that Barney Stinson is going to get married. In a church.

Don’t get me wrong. Shows–and characters–have to evolve. But sometimes you look back on a pilot wistfully, longing for the way things used to be. Such is the case with Chuck.

Chuck really hit its stride in Season 2, with a finale so good that we were willing to eat at Subway just to resolve the cliffhanger. But you can see the seeds of that greatness in the pilot. It has it all.

We meet Chuck Bartowski as he and best friend Morgan Grimes are playing spy–attempting to sneak out a bedroom window to escape a birthday party Chuck’s sister Ellie is throwing for him. One look at these guys hanging half out a window and we know they’re total dorks. Somewhere around Season 3, Chuck (Zachary Levi) got hot, and that’s just weird. Even Morgan (Joshua Gomez) got better looking. It’s their awkwardness that makes them so loveable.

Chuck’s unease with women is illustrated nicely as he attempts to chat up women at the party, lamenting the loss of a girl who dumped him back in college. She dumped him for a guy named Bryce Larkin (Matt Bomer), who we meet in short, interspersed scenes. Despite Chuck’s assertion that “I think he’s an accountant now,” Bryce is covered in blood and running across rooftops doing somthing very un-accountant-like.  

Since you probably know the story, I’ll zip though it. Bryce emails Chuck a shitload of images encrypted with CIA secrets and they become seared into Chuck’s brain. A hot girl named Sarah comes into the store where Chuck works and asks him on a date. She’s really a super-spy trying to get the secrets back, assuming they’re sitting on a hard drive. When she and her NSA counterpart, Colonel John Casey (Adam Baldwin *drool*), realize that the secrets are in Chuck’s head, they use him to help disarm a bomb and save the day.

Here are the cool things to note. In saving said day, Chuck uses a combination of the intersect (the data in his head) and his own skills (knowledge of DOS, a particular model of laptop, and the existence of a certain computer virus). That’s what makes Chuck awesome. If the intersect ended up in someone else, this story could not have existed. (It gets even better when he flies a helicopter in Ep. 2.) Also, we’re never sure who are the “good” guys and who are the “bad” guys. Bryce is killed–apparently–by the CIA. Was he a good guy? Can Chuck trust the CIA? And what’s the relationships between the CIA and the NSA in this case? The question of who Chuck can trust lasts throughout the season, as we wonder at times whether Sarah or Casey is really on his side.

This pilot is also brilliant at giving us just what we need to know about each character, no matter how minor. We get a good sense of loving big sister Ellie and her boyfriend Awesome. The scenes at Buy More are hysterical, despite being slowed to a snail’s pace at one point while Chuck helps a dad film his daughter doing ballet. But we get a taste for Anna, Lester, Jeff, and for a moment at the end–Big Mike.

The pilot showed us that this show had heart, suspense, and tons of humor (e.g. Chuck singing “Vick-vi-vicki Vale” as Sarah enters. “It’s from Batman,” he says. She replies “Cuz that makes it better.”)

You know what it doesn’t have? Jeffster. As funny as that was once, maybe even twice, Jeffster got completely out of control. And one long-lost parent who’s really an underground spy, I can take. But not two. And, for all her talk about spies not falling in love with spies, that’s kinda all Sarah does. Sometimes shows run their course in a season or two and this one has done it. So let’s appreciate the early days.

Breaking In, or Trying to Speak Geek

Some pilots want nothing more than to convey to the viewer what the creators imagine to be the unique style and tone of the show. Breaking In, which debuted last night on Fox, wants you to know it’s for geeks. They really, really want you to know it. I can just hear the pitch meeting: “It’s a show about smart geeks who work together to foil security systems and have a crazy boss. It’s like Chuck, meets Archer, meets The Office! With a dash of The Big Bang Theory!”

I won’t rehash the entire plot since there are any number of reviews out there. Basically, a smart but understated guy named Cameron (Brett Harrison of Reaper and The Loop) is not so much recruited by as coerced into working for a security company. The gang at the company, led by Christian Slater as Oz, pull off creative and highly challenging heists for a living.

Star Wars references seem to pop up in everything these days. How I Met Your Mother and Bones incorporate them really well, making you believe the characters think of Star Wars as part of their lives. (Marshall will cut a Thanksgiving turkey with a light saber one day.) In Breaking In, the character Cash (Alphonso McAuley) is introduced wearing a Han Solo costume. His first joke wraps up a nerd joke with a race joke–about how black guys don’t always have to play Lando. It would have been funnier if he just went around dressed as Han Solo with no explanation, leaving it for the audience to notice. (Does it matter what race he is? Meg played a freaking worm in Family Guy’s Star Wars universe.)

That bit is quickly followed by one in which Cash references Avatar then asserts that he speaks Klingon. We get it-you’re a geek!

As the New York Times points out, Christian Slater’s leering coercion of Bret Harrison looks an awful lot like the goings-on on Harrison’s previous geek-friendly show Reaper. Another more subtle geek reference, and one of the episode’s bright spots, was the appearance of the nearly-unrecognizable Michael Rosenbaum (Smallville’s Lex Luthor) as Dutch. He is hilariously doofy in his trailer trash-duds and monster-sized truck. When this show crashes and burns, he could have a future on Raising Hope.

It’s not that this pilot wasn’t entertaining or have it’s funny moments. It just seems like it’s trying way too hard to tell us what it is and what it is not, without allowing us to figure it out over a few episodes. It wants geeks to know they’re the intended audience, but it doesn’t know how to talk to them.

I feel pandered to. Raise your hand if you feel pandered to.

Top 5 Character Introductions in Pilots

A pilot episode has a lot to accomplish. It has to introduce a time, a place, characters, and relationships, as well as the tone and style of the show. Every once in a while, a pilot really nails a character introduction. In a moment, an audience meets a character and just knows that character. It might be shocking, it might be funny, but it’s memorable. I am sure there are many, many examples of which I am not even aware, but here are my favorites, in no particular order. If you have other suggestions, I would love to hear them!

1. Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) on Friends

At this point in the pilot, we’ve had a little while to get to know the other 5 members of the Central Perk gang. You don’t need me to review them. Ross is on the couch in the coffee house, lamenting the dissolution of his marriage. He whines, “I just want to be married,” and in walks this disheveled, rain-soaked bride complete with full-length veil. (Chandler counters, “And I just want a million dollars.”) Rachel hasn’t said a word, but her entry makes its own statement. You see a bride out of context like that and you know you’re in for a story.

2. The Devil (Ray Wise) on Reaper

Sam has already seen some strange sh*t on this, his 21st birthday. But as he’s cruising home from work in his parents’ station wagon, the smarmiest looking guy you’ve ever seen appears out of thin air in the back seat. “Is this a car-jacking,” Sam cries. “For this?” comes the response, “If it was an Escalade maybe.” After a few seconds of this fruitless back-and-forth the stranger reveals, “I’m not a carjacker. I’m the Devil.” Sam wrecks the car, and the Devil vanishes as quickly as he appeared. And that’s the kind of crap Sam is going to put up with for the next 2 seasons. This pilot gets better every time I watch it.

3. Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) on Chuck

What is cooler than a ninja? A ninja who turns out to be a super hot chick. In the episode, we have already met Sarah when she comes into the Buy More with a broken cell phone, but her true colors are unveiled when she shows up to steal Chuck’s computer. Each and every character on this show is awesome. But nobody makes an entrance quite like Sarah.

4. Bender Rodriguez (John Di Maggio) on Futurama

I don’t what is the best part of this character introduction; that there is such a thing as a suicide booth, that there is a robot in line to use the suicide booth, or that said robot wants to rip off the suicide booth with a coin on a string. On top of that, the viewer is in the same place as the protagonist, Fry: fresh out of the year 1999, with this whole new world unfolding more and more strangely by the minute. It’s funny, it’s bizarre, and it perfectly captures the tone of the show overall.

5. Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) on Glee

“You think this is hard? Try being waterboarded–that’s hard.” This first line by the sadistic cheerleading coach, the first, in fact, of the pilot, tells us everything we need to know. Although some unexpected complexity to the character was revealed later in the season, that uber-bitch, no-mercy exterior never faltered.