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

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25 Years of Fox Pilots

Since the Fox network is celebrating its 25th anniversary on April 22, I thought I should write a blog post in honor of it. First I thought I’d pick a show that Fox prematurely cancelled, but that would be like shooting zombies in a barn.

Then I realized, I have already blogged about enough Fox shows to keep the inhabitants of Omicron Persei 8 entertained until someone decides to reboot Single Female Lawyer. So, here’s a list in roughly chronological order. Some selections fit squarely into the “cancelled too soon” category while others, deservedly or not, continue to air. I’m up for suggestions as to others I should cover — just leave a comment. Continue reading

Titus, or Picking your Pilot

When comedian Christopher Titus got a development deal for a sitcom based on his stand-up routine, “Normal Rockwell is Bleeding” it could have been a slam dunk. Instead, his show “Titus,” despite getting decent reviews was cancelled after 3 seasons and some shark-jump-type changes that are usually a telltale sign of a show on the bubble.

(UPDATE: Please see Christopher Titus’s comment below. Network politics were to blame for the cancellation. And lest it seem that I didn’t like the show… I LOVED it. Just thought that first episode wasn’t representative.)

To say his routine is based on his true story of growing up in a dysfunctional family would be an over-simplification. Every comedian grew up in a dysfunctional family. But shows based on stand-up tend to be about family life, with relatively unattractive guys being nagged by better-looking wives and obnoxious kids, with love winning out over all manner of adversity.

In Titus, which debuted in March 2000, Christopher is a single guy still shell-shocked from what he’s been through with his insane family. (“Not as in, ‘your mom is insane,’ but as in, ‘We the jury find the defendant…'”)

It is remarkable when someone like Christopher Titus can not only survive what he went through but embrace it. If you don’t know the whole story watch “Normal Rockwell,” but suffice it to say his dad was the worst imaginable role model and his mom killed her husband and then herself. The series focused primarily on Titus’s relationship with his father, Ken, played with no redeemable qualities by Stacy Keach. His younger brother Dave (Zack Ward) is something of a sidekick, while his friend Tommy (David Shatraw) and girlfriend Erin (Cynthia Watros) round out the cast.

Word is that Titus wanted the episode “Dad’s Dead” to be the pilot. In watching the episode that actually aired as the pilot “Sex With Pudding,” you can see where the show may have gotten off on the wrong foot. It’s freaking awful. In the end, however, the show was cancelled for being too edgy. So maybe the blandness of “Pudding” was an attempt at a safer choice. It makes one wonder how it’s decided in what order a show’s episodes will air. Except in a show where the pilot involves heavy exposition and character introduction, there is some choice available. The first episode of Firefly to air was “The Train Job,” a great episode but not the “pilot.” Could a different choice have changed that show’s fate?

But back to “Sex With Pudding.” Isn’t that an awful title? The episode is not, like most of the others, set in the Titus household, the scene of so much of the referenced crime. It’s not about Christopher’s dad, or about his family at all, aside from the fact that his brother is always hanging around. It’s a stereotypical sitcom story about a jealous guy who thinks his girlfriend is cheating. It opens, as does every episode, with Titus talking directly to the camera in a dimly lit, sparsely furnished room. He talks to the camera about trust. His inability to trust, thanks to his parents, affects his relationship with Erin. But although trust is the theme of the episode, if you will, it’s a story we’ve seen a million times.

Most of the episode is set in Erin’s workplace, a bland office environment that might as well be Veridian Dynamics or Dunder Mifflin. Christopher makes an ass of himself going down there to try and gather evidence. Erin soundly reprimands him in a series of exchanges that tells us nothing about their relationship. And the big twist is, the person who has a crush on Erin, the person calling themselves “Pudding” is a woman. Shock me, shock me, shock me.

By contrast the episode “Dad’s Dead” captures the personality of the show. Christopher opens it with, “The Los Angeles Times states that 63% of American families are now considered dysfunctional. “That means we’re the majority.” He goes on to explain, “Normal people terrify me. They haven’t had enough problems in their lives to know how to handle problems when they come up.” And that’s really what makes him a good “character”–he’s been through some shit and come out stronger.

Titus arrives at the home his dad and brother share to find Dave freaking out. Dave thinks their dad may be dead since he hasn’t emerged from his bedroom for a beer in four days. See, that’s funny. Things get a little scattered midway through, when we meet a nurse that Ken is nailing, but that’s kind of a good thing. It’s not formulaic, and nothing is resolved by the end. Titus is just going to keep on living this life because it’s what he knows. And it will keep on making us laugh–and cringe a little, too. Would anything have been different if “Dad’s Dead” were the pilot?

Cleopatra 2525

This show, which could have been called “Boobs in Space,” was brought to my attention by a former roommate who watched it to fill up the space between Baywatch episodes. It is so campy and awful, I was delighted to find it on Hulu. What I didn’t remember was that one of the main three actresses is Gina Torres, Zoe from Firefly!

You have to hand it to these writers—they need all of a minute and a half to show us just what a  joyride in the cheesmobile we’re in for. We open on an interior shot of the now-dilapidated Sistine Chapel. Shot of a bunch of hot people in really skimpy, “futuristic” looking out fits. Some talk about going to “the surface.” A disembodied voice prodding them to go up there. The main character snapping her buggy-looking goggles into place, saying defiantly, “Let’s do it.”

Here’s the premise: a woman in 2001 went in for a boob job. Something went wrong with the anesthesia, and she was cryogenically frozen until they could find a cure (for anesthesia?) She is now waking up—spontaneously—in the year 2525. She’s been brought to a medical lab that looks like something out of Barbarella to be harvested for spare organs, wearing a costume reminiscent of the chick in The Fifth Element. Oh, and spoiler alert, she’s a stripper.

Before we meet our heroine, Cleopatra (Jennifer Sky – who?), we follow her soon-to-be new BFFs, Helen and Sarge (Victoria Pratt), in battle. They tromp around underground in the most uncomfortable looking space armor I’ve ever seen. Their cleavage, midriffs and legs are in some serious danger should a laser battle take place. By the end of the first scene the man has turned on the women. They discover him to be a cleverly-named “betrayer robot.” Clearly the women are the only heroes here, nothing unexpected in the era of Xena Warrior Princess.

The enemies in this underground future are robotic creatures called bailies. Before they get to the level boss, though the women still have to fight off the betrayer bot. He’s got laser vision that makes Superman look like a punkass. Defeating him involves some snazzy moves designed to show off the women’s hot bods. After that, Cleo attacks Sarge for no discernable reason other than that chick fights are hot.

When Sarge asks Cleopatra, “You’re very concerned about the way you look, aren’t you?” you have to laugh. And hope that the show’s creators are not actually taking this stuff seriously. The plot of this particularly story is resolved pretty easily, thanks to a handy talent of Cleo’s that has nothing to do with her cleavage. Aaaand, by the end of 22 minutes everyone is happy and ready to fight evil together. Cleo is surprisingly accepting of her circumstances. So if she’s not going to take this seriously, why should we? Answer: we shouldn’t. If you abandon all sense of reality and logic, you might have fun with this show.

Firefly

I have been putting off writing this entry for a long time, which is in no way a reflection on my opinion of the show. It’s more like I’m afraid I can’t do Firefly justice, especially considering the rapturous devotion of its fans. If you’re a loyal browncoat you probably know the pilot backwards and forwards. If you’re not, it may be that you blinked and missed it before Fox canceled it. (I won’t rehash the whole fan outcry/Serenity story.)

It’s not like Joss Whedon invented a new genre here; we’ve seen space anti-heroes before. And I, for one, was not a Whedon fan prior to this, so I wasn’t like “Hooray, a new show from the creator of Buffy.” The show just hit all the right notes with cool setting, fascinating characters, great dialogue, and a healthy dose of dark humor.

The show opens with an in-the-trenches war scene, which could be out of any number of movies. The clue that something is different is that the aircraft flying overhead look like nothing we’ve seen before. A man (Mal, played by Nathan Fillion) and a woman (Zoe, played by Gina Torres) are leading a shell-shocked contingent against an attack. Their language is slightly heightened; in fact, the whole scene is a bit confusing the first time around. All we really need to know is that the troops are forced to lay down arms when their back-up abandons them. The look on Mal’s face and the music playing tell us all we need.

Music is huge in this pilot. The score is a twangy, gritty collection of music reminiscent of old westerns. Its juxtaposition with high-tech space travel gives Firefly its own unique tone.

We jump ahead six years from the battle scene to a spacewalk by a crew of three. The striking quality of this scene is that it is very quiet—opposite the previous scene—with sound seemingly sucked up by the vastness of space. Meanwhile the pilot of the ship, who seems to be keeping an eye on the mission, is actually playing with dinosaur toys on his console. (I may have to add this to my list of best character introductions.) “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal,” cries the Stegosaurus to the Tyrannosaurus.

From there, we start to meet the rest of the crew. There is the ever-cheerful mechanic, Kaylee (Jewel Staite). There is a “companion,” or prostitute, Inara (Morena Baccarin). And there’s Jayne (super-dreamy Adam Baldwin), all-around tough guy. The pilot is Wash (Alan Tudyk), Zoe’s husband.

The crew has to quickly shut down the ship’s power as they pass an enemy, and we find out a few details. The ship our crew flies is an out-of-date model called a Firefly. Its name is Serenity, and it becomes a character unto itself over the course of the series. The ship and its crew are, for lack of a better term, off the grid. They’re clearly hiding from something.

Captain Mal and company land on a dusty planet and pick up some new passengers, a preacher, a doctor, and a third man. A lot of characters and a lot of information are introduced very fast. The show demands your attention and is worth watching over and over, because so much happens. The dialogue is layered with character revelations and plenty of wit. The basics are, they’re short on cash, carrying stolen cargo, and on their way to seek help from a woman who once shot Mal. This is not going to go smoothly.

If you haven’t seen this, watch and enjoy the twists and turns for yourself. No one is who they seem. They all have secrets. Some violence beaks out now and again. And the doctor is transporting some very unusual cargo. Our protagonist, Mal, seems cool on the surface, even when angry, but clearly that war experience—and maybe a lot of other pain—is seething beneath the surface. Oh, and there are enemies out there in space called Reavers, to whom the crew’s reaction is bone-chilling. Just watch it.

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.