Perception

Before Perception returns for a third season Feb. 25, you may want to know whether it’s worth watching. I did. As adorable as Eric McCormack looks with a 5 o’clock shadow, I needed convincing. There’s no shortage of shows about eccentric geniuses, or their sub-genre, cop-with-eccentric-genius-partner shows. So Perception, for all its charm, needs its pilot to break the mold.

Eric-McCormack

How cute is he?

Perception suffers from the threat of another presupposition. No matter how many roles he plays, Eric McCormack will always be Will Truman, the character who made him a household name. The first thing I saw him in following Will & Grace was Dead Like Me, and I luh-hoved seeing him play a character so diametrically opposed to the previous one. So I know he’s capable of surprising an audience, but didn’t expect him to do it again, this time in a starring role. I was just waiting for this show to bore me. Continue reading

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Saving Hope

As Saving Hope heads toward the light, not a lot of people will mourn its passing, according to the ratings. It did so poorly this summer that NBC isn’t airing the final two episodes of the lone season. Viewers have had to watch online to find out if Charlie, a charismatic surgeon, wakes up from his coma. The finale goes online Sunday.

Saving Hope is a kind of Dead Like Me meets Grey’s Anatomy — and those two show probably don’t have a ton of audience overlap. Continue reading

The Munsters

Growing up, I’m sure I caught reruns of The Munsters now and then but they didn’t make much of an impression. I basically thought of them as the other Addams Family. The two shows actually ran during the same two seasons (1964-1966). Guess they were the Once Upon a Time and Grimm of their day.

The show was produced by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, creators of Leave it to Beaver. They seem to have drawn on their background with that show, preserving the familial love, but hightening and spoofing it.

The premise for The Munsters doesn’t need much explanation; it’s about a family of old horror movie-esqe monsters. As the pilot opens, we first meet Marilyn (Beverly Owen), a normal, pretty blonde young woman, kissing her date goodnight on the front porch. Marilyn explains that the couple she lives with are her aunt and uncle, with whom she has lived since she was a baby. She frets about introducing her date, Tom, to her family, and Tom invites all of them to a party his parents are throwing. Continue reading

Cliffhanger or Closure? Top 5 of Each

Pilots, when well executed, make the viewer want to come back for more. However I’ve noticed that pilots fall along a continuum in terms of how they leave you feeling at the end. Some just get the action going, and then abruptly end. They leave you chomping at the bit for episode 2 because you just have to know what happens next. Some shows, say 24, couldn’t work any other way. (That show is such an obvious example it’s not worth listing below.)

Other pilots are more self-contained. Sure, they introduce characters and situations and, ideally, make you want to keep watching. Yet, they wrap up neatly and can be enjoyed again and again like mini-movies.

Still others lie someplace in between. Here are five of the best at either end of the spectrum. It’s by no means an exhaustive list; as I’ve said before I don’t claim to have seen every pilot, or even every great pilot out there! (BTW, spoiler alert.)

What else should be on the list? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

Best Pilots that Leave You Hanging

Veronica Mars – So. Much. Stuff. Happening in this pilot. We just get a taste of the Lily murder, which will keep us guessing even after it’s solved.

Heroes – Again, this pilot just scratches the surface of everything that is set to happen. Absolutely no questions are answered.

Jericho – The ending of this pilot scared the bejeezus out of me. You see the map of the U.S. with all these pushpins marking places that were nuked and ask, “Just how bad is this disaster?”

The Walking Dead – Did the sight of Rick in that tank and the sound of the voice over the intercom not make you just want to hit the fast-forward button to the following Sunday?

How I Met Your Mother – This leaves you hanging not for a week, but for… well, it’s been five freaking years. How did you meet their mother for f’s sake?

Best Pilots that Can Stand Alone

The Simpsons – It’s a Christmas special. Need I say more?

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – This was so good, it is inexplicable why the series went so far downhill. It was a prodigal son (or sons) story that wrapped up beautifully.

Friends – It’s a happy ending to a story about a woman who walked out on her wedding. It offers possibility—will Ross get Rachel?—but it’s a happy ending.

Glee – This necessarily had to be good all by itself because it aired way before the season actually started. And it wildly succeeded.

Dead Like Me – This pilot delves deeper than it needs to, explaining the whole back story of the character plus the rules of the show’s world all in one go. But even with all the change she’s just faced, George gets a sense of closure by going to see her mom.

Dead Like Me vs. Wonderfalls

Dead Like Me castThe pilots of Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls warrant an old-fashioned, English class compare-and-contrast. Both were created by Bryan Fuller, who has a clearly defined style and a cult following. Despite being a consulting producer on the awesome first season of Heroes, Fuller seems to have earned a reputation as the creator of brilliant but cancelled shows.

Each of these two shows could be called a “genre” show. Or as an acquaintance of mine put it, “the kind of show that people who go to ComicCon like.” Their premises required a strong suspension of disbelief, which probably would have been strained over the course of three, four, five seasons. (Just look at Heroes. How many times is the world going to need saving, for Christ’s sake?)

Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls both feature young, smart, misanthropic, take-no-shit, female protagonists with male-sounding names. By the ends of their respective pilots, both George of D.L.M. and Jaye of Wonderfalls have acquired super powers. Okay, powers. Neither of them understands why she was chosen to wield these dubious abilities.

Jaye is given assignments by inanimate animals come-to-life. George is tasked with helping souls leave the bodies people who die in grisly accidents. Both start off “refusing the call,” a step in the hero’s journey, but find that acceptance is not optional. Each has the Gen-Y apathetic thing down pat. The pilots find Jaye using her degree from Brown to work an hourly retail job, and George, a college drop-out, grudgingly accepting a job at a temp agency.

Both shows introduce casts of relative unknowns, with the exception being Mandy Patinkin in D.L.M. The supporting characters are all pretty flawed, but you might say the ones on Wonderfalls have more redeeming qualities. Those on D.L.M., being dead, have no incentive to overcome their narcissism, substance abuse issues, or general assholery. (Not that they’re not likeable.) Even George’s parents, still alive, are jerks. This is a good place to mention that each protagonist is completely misunderstood by her upper middle-class parents.

Each show opens with a legend; the Maid of the Mist and the frog that unleashed death. Both skirt religion despite having supernatural themes. (George mentions god in the legend, but specifies that it’s with a lower case “g.”) Both shows achieve, somehow, a moral middle ground. We end each pilot wondering whether the transferring of souls or the obedience to talking chotzkies is good or bad. There are no villains, and our heroes aren’t particularly heroic. Things just are as they are. Destiny. Maybe that is why these shows didn’t generate sufficient viewer interest. People like black and white.

Both shows have a “look” that I don’t know enough about television technology to explain properly. Something about the lighting and camera work reminds you that you’re not dealing with Desperate Housewives.

Now for a few differences. D.L.M. uses a New Kid on the Block approach, where the world of the show (death) already exists, and the character is introduced to it along with the audience. Since the character is clueless, everything can be explained without making the script feel too heavy with exposition. Wonderfalls jumps right in. Something changes in the life of the protagonist on this particular day, and we don’t know why it happens when it does. We don’t understand what is happening any more than she does. You have to stick with Wonderfalls for a while to figure it out, a quality I personally enjoy in a show.

D.L.M. had the advantage of being on cable. You just know both of these protagonists have potty mouths, but only George gets the satisfaction of throwing the “f” word around. And it’s so damn dark. The pilot finds George having to reap a kindergardener. A kindergardener. Yet, amidst all the death—the body count is at least 5 in this one episode—the pilot ends on a hopeful note. In death, George may find a way to make peace with her family and her identity.

Memorable quote: “I excel at not giving a shit.” – George

Wonderfalls

WonderfallsWonderfalls aired for just four weeks in spring 2004. So clever, so misunderstood; much like the show’s heroine. It was created by Bryan Fuller, the man behind Dead Like Me.

We open with the legend of the “Maid of the Mist,” a Native American Princess who sacrificed herself to Niagara Falls to satisfy an angry god. This tale of destiny will become a theme of sorts. The story is recounted by protagonist Jaye (Caroline Dhavernas), an apathetic, 24-year-old sales clerk at a gift shop at the falls.

Next, we have the convenient plot device of an old high school classmate dropping by. This gives the audience the chance to learn that Jaye was uncool in high school, majored in Philosophy in college, and has wound up “over-educated and unemployable.”

We get to the show’s premise when a tiny wax lion figurine come to life and talks to Jaye. She faints, and soon her WASPy family swoops in to shunt her off to a shrink. At the shrink’s office, a monkey-shaped bookend follows suit with the lion figure.

And, we’re off. Inanimate objects talk to this chick. We’re never told exactly why—in the pilot or ever. Is she crazy? Gifted? A modern version of the Maid of the Mist? Dr. Dolittle meets Joan of Arc? Do these talking things want her to commit good or evil? We keep watching to figure it out. It’s all so weird, and coupled with the snarky dialogue, this makes for engaging viewing. 

The love interest character, Eric (Tyron Leito, lately of Being Erica), has an intriguing back story, too. He has run away from his cheating new wife to hide behind a bar in Niagara Falls. Will he go home? Will his wife track him down? Will he fall for Jaye? More importantly, will she fall for him, or will she be too distracted by her newfound powers/psychosis?

The look of this show is great. Shot on location, it feels very real and unglamorized. You can practically feel the damp, cold weather. The grey backdrop makes the animated figures and shlocky, colorful souvenir shop pop.

By the end of the pilot, Jaye loses a promotion to a mouth-breathing dork, gets yelled at by a customer, makes a UPS guy cry and later, almost kills him, gets arrested for disorderly conduct, is busted stealing from the shrink, and has her mother advise her to “do something” with her hair. It’s a pretty shitty week. Some good comes out of it; Jaye has a bonding moment with her polar opposite sister, and begins to accept was is apparently her destiny.

People love an underdog. Especially one with smarts and a matching smart mouth. It all makes Jaye a great character and her journey a fun one. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. The premise was probably too far-fetched to be sustainable beyond one season, anyway.

Here’s the UNAIRED pilot.

Lamenting Cancelled Shows

Image from Cheezburger.com

There are lots of lists floating around out there of TV shows that were cancelled before their time, but it does seem that Fox is responsible for a disproportionate number of them. Family Guy has alluded to this trend at least twice (I expect they’re already writing jokes about the cancellation of The Cleveland Show, but more on that later.) Topless Robot recently posted their list of the 20 Greatest Show Cancelled by Fox Before Their Time.

I have not seen all of the shows on the list—I don’t even remember a couple of them—but that’s part of the fun in lamenting cancelled shows. You feel a certain sense of ownership when you can say you just loved a show, and most people have never heard of it. Case in point, Wonderfalls, which ranks #7. This was a brilliant, clever, funny show by the guy behind Dead Like Me and Pushing Daises–other brilliant, cancelled shows. (Oh, Bryan Fuller, you’re so misunderstood.) Given that it only aired for four weeks before being pulled, it’s understandable that it is little remembered. There were 13 episodes filmed, though, and they are available on DVD. A post on the Wonderfalls pilot is high on my to-do list.

I have to wholeheartedly agree with Topless Robot’s # 1 and 2 picks, Firefly and Futurama, respectively. Both had fantastic pilots that pulled the viewer into a whole new world. Both lived beyond cancellation, Firefly as the film Serenity, and Futurama in a series of straight-to-DVD movies and a forthcoming reincarnation on the Cartoon Network. And any Comic-Con attendee can tell you both of these properties inspire mad loyalty from fans. So check back here in the future for posts on all three of these kickass shows.