Married… with Children

Fox ran the pilot of Married… with Children in honor of its 25th anniversary, and the broadcast may have led some people to wonder what anyone ever saw in this show — which ran for eleven seasons. That’s ten seasons longer than Firefly.

The pilot takes place over the course of a single day. (Is this a sit-com pilot trope? I’ll have to think about that.) It starts as many family sit-com pilots do, with the morning routine. Before heading off to school, the pint-size son harasses his teenaged sister, while their mother delivers a flaccid reprimand. As they head out, the husband, Al enters from upstairs dressed for work with a bandage on his hand. He’s injured and, in what will become an incessant theme, his problem is his wife Peg’s fault. She’s not accepting any blame, however, ferociously defending her right to do whatever the hell she wants. 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

Will It Fly?

Source CodeWhen I first heard that the movie Source Code, which I haven’t seen but which looks pretty cool, is being developed for TV, my instinctive first question was, “What network?” (The answer is CBS.) Because, with sci-fi and genre TV, the network is everything. It will largely determine how the material will be handled and whether it will succeed. Continue reading

Bob’s Burgers

For my last post I tried to figure out what I disliked about the pilot of what sounded like a great show; now I’m trying to figure out what I love about the pilot of a show that sounds hopelessly derivative.

The first time I saw the pilot of Bob’s Burgers, when it debuted on January 9, 2011, I was bored to tears. Hearing H. Jon Benjamin‘s voice and not LMAO off is actually a little disorienting. But his character, Bob Belcher is just a dumpy, boring guy; another animated oaf with a family of five. I’ve only stuck with the show–and I’m guessing I’m not alone in this–because it’s sandwiched into the middle of Fox’s Animation Domination. Ratings are good but critical reaction is less than stellar.

Somehow, the show has grown on me, and when the pilot re-aired recently, I found myself cracking up. It’s definitely one of those shows–like The Office–that gets funnier the more you feel like you know the characters.

The pilot is set during Labor Day weekend, as the Belcher family restaurant is prepping for it’s grand re- re- re-opening. The whole family is part of the act; the three kids are left in the restaurant to welcome the onslaught of business while husband Bob (Benjamin) and wife Linda (John Roberts) grind meat–not a euphemism–in the basement. We also learn that it is Bob and Linda’s anniversary, which he has forgotten, and she optimistically reads his ignorance as a ruse. From their conversation we learn that they have worked hard for their little family business, even on their wedding night–again, not a euphemism.

One of the primary tasks of this pilot is to establish its mashup of family and workplace comedy. Many of the jokes stem from the supporting characters’ dual roles as Bob’s offspring and employees. “My crotch is itchy,” reports Tina. Bob’s response: “Are you telling me as my grill cook or as my daughter?”

Like King of the Hill, for which Executive Producer Jim Dauterive was a writer, the show has a slower pace than the Seth McFarlane panoply has conditioned us for. The charters even talk a little slowly. What’s gotten really old, though, is shows with fat guy protagonists who mistreat their wives and kids.

Bob’s kids are horrible. They were described (accurately) by an IGN reviewer as “two Barts and a Milhouse.” The eldest, Tina, (Dan Mintz) is the Milhouse, shuffling around scratching her genitals and mumbling.

Louise: “She’s autistic, she can’t help it.”

Tina: “Yeah, I’m autistic.”

Bob: “You’re not autistic, Tina.”

Middle child Gene (Eugene Mirman) is the showman, happily donning a giant burger suit and using a noise-maker to attract/harass customers. We learn that youngest daughter Louise (Kristen Schaal) has told her class at school that her family’s burgers contain human meat. Throwing a wrench into plans for a profitable weekend, a pasty-faced health inspector, who turns out to be an ex-boyfriend of Linda’s, slaps up a yellow warning sign until he can conduct a test on the meat. Only when the lovesick inspector works through his issues can the day be saved.

So, we’ve got horrible kids, a wife who’s a little off, but here’s the thing. As on King of the Hill, the husband is the grounded center around which the lunatics revolve. He’s imperfect–he forgets important dates from his wedding anniversary to his own birthday. Still, he’s basically a good, hardworking guy trying to make an honest living. He’s likable, something we cynics are so used to anymore. So, just don’t compare him to Archer, who despite sharing a voice, is his polar opposite, and you might find that he and his brood are pretty funny.

That ’70s Show

That ’70s Show has recently started airing on TeenNick, introducing the decade when we didn’t know Vader was Luke’s father* to a generation that wasn’t born yet, so it’s due for a look. Also, star Laura Prepon has been cast in the forthcoming Are You There Vodka, It’s Me Chelsea, so in case you need a reminder who she is…

The official Episode 1.1, which aired in August 1998, is about Eric Foreman (Topher Grace) inheriting his parents’ Vista Cruiser. I’m convinced there was another first episode, an actual pilot, before this. Am I crazy? I remember the pilot as an episode about Donna’s (Laura Prepon) parents going out of town and a rivalry between Eric and Hyde (Danny Materson) for Donna’s affections. And Donna had a younger sister who was never seen again. It felt very pilot-y, like the writers didn’t quite have a handle on the characters yet. Even the opening sequence was a little different, possibly with a different version of the theme song. If anyone knows what in the world I’m talking about please leave a comment! Continue reading

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.

Traffic Light

Traffic Light on HuluMaybe it’s just me, but Traffic Light seemed to slip in under the radar in early February. There was little fanfare for this comedy that airs on Fox after Raising Hope, but it had some funny moments, so checking out the pilot was in order.

The show takes full advantage of hands-free telephone technology now widely available in newer cars. The pilot opens with all three of the main characters talking to one another as they drive, and gets really funny when one of them gets pulled over. This turns out to be more than just a one-off bit. This angle allows the writers a fresh, modern take on friendly conversation—does the world need another sit-com where everyone hangs out in a bar? It also underscores an element of the zeitgeist; we’re all connected, all the time, even when we’re ‘alone.’

The three main characters are introduced as they speak, with subtitles giving their names and relationship statuses; these are completely unnecessary, as the dialogue does a perfectly fine job of filling us in.

Mike (David Denman, The Office) is married with a baby. Adam (Nelson Franklin, also The Office) is just moving in with his girlfriend. Ethan (Kris Marshall)’s only significant relationship is with his dog. Three different guys are in three different stages of life, giving the writers ample opportunity to riff on singlehood and relationships alike. One other piece of information is worked into the conversation. The 27th (of whatever month we’re in) is “Ben’s day.” There are a few more brief mentions of Ben throughout, but we have to wait until the end of the episode for payoff.

The two women rounding out the cast are Mike’s wife, Lisa (Liza Lapira, Dollhouse) and Adam’s girlfriend, Callie (Aya Cash). Lisa gets a great introduction. Mike is hiding out in his car, parked a block from his house, in order to sneak in alone time from his family. He explains this to his friends on the phone in such a way that we, the audience, don’t see him as an irresponsible jerk but rather as just a guy who wants to watch Ironman in peace. Lisa surprises us—and him—by showing up at the car to nonchalantly hand off the baby. She then heads off for a jog, shouting, “love you!”

It’s refreshing that Lisa’s not a stereotype; either a nagging wife who beats her husband into service or a hysterical prima donna who cries when he bails. So far, so good. Then, however, things start to spiral into sit-com 101. Of course, one of the characters has to be a lawyer and one has to be a journalist. Lisa starts nagging Mike to go to some work function with her, and even if she lacks in nagging capacity, Callie more than makes up for it. Nagging leads to lying and manipulating when Adam has to get out from under her thumb to hang out with the guys.

The plot devolves further with some nonsense about Mike having to dress as a wrestling clown for Adam’s boss’s son’s bar mitzvah. Finally, we get to a resolution that reveals who Ben is, or rather was, and thus the bond shared by the three guys. It’s a nice, sensitive moment, ala How I Met Your Mother, albeit with a strained metaphor for the “traffic light of the title.” Once can only hope that the attempted tear jerker won’t become the hallmark of each episode.

New Amsterdam

Since I tend to love shows cancelled by Fox, I had to check out New Amsterdam, which I vaguely remember being advertised. It’s about a cop with unique knowledge due the fact that he’s been alive a long time… like, a supernaturally long time. If John Doe and Journeyman didn’t last, what made them think this would?

From the get-go the city is a character. We open with a noir-ish voiceover by the main character, John (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) describing New York and all that he’s seen happen in it over the years. It’s reminiscent of Angel describing Los Angeles at the beginning of that pilot.

The show sets up a juxtaposition of romance and violence that could become a theme. While John tangos with, and then makes love with, a woman we don’t really meet, flashbacks of a battle scene are interspersed. In the battle, which appears to be set in colonial America*, John is run through with a sword while defending a Native American woman.

Once we have a feel for the character and his story, we learn what he’s doing in the present day. Naturally, he’s a cop. What supernatural being residing in a major metropolitan area wouldn’t spend his days fighting crime? And, naturally, he’s got a mismatched partner of the opposite sex, as TV cops tend to have. She tells us her name twice in the space of a minute: Eva Marquez (Zuleikha Robinson). Perhaps we’re supposed to hate her. We do.

As the odd couple is investigating a crime scene, John takes off after a suspect, chasing him into a subway station. John is doing this whole smooth cop thing, disarming the suspect with his fearlessness, when a certain woman steps off the train. John collapses to the ground for no visible reason, and is rushed to the hospital where the doctors try in vain to revive him. To the resounding ER chants of “clear!” we see a parallel memory of John lying among a group of Native Americans. The oxygen mask in the present is contrasted with the burning sage from the past. The Native American woman who he defended earlier explains that John will never die until he finds “the one” and their souls are wed. In the present, John dies, has his toe tagged, and then wakes up and walks out of the morgue. We surmise this has happened before.

John has a confidante, Omar (Stephen Henderson) who is in on this story. He’s a wise, old, African American bartender… can we have a bigger cliché, please? With everyone else, we assume John’s immortality is a secret, although he is pretty loose with the clues. He casually mentions 609 ex-girlfriends, or five-thousand-some-odd days sober. Apparently he doesn’t care whether anyone knows, either because they wouldn’t believe him anyway, or there is nothing anyone can do to hurt him.

John and Eva (god, she’s a bitch) continue working their case, seeking the killer of a celebutante named Chloe. This mystery-of-the-week is pretty standard, existing to let us, or the network execs, know what to expect in the coming season. John drops bombshells of personal information at the right moments, like when he tells the victim’s mother, “He was six, my son.”

The twist that sets the show apart from other cop dramas is, of course, John’s extensive knowledge of New York. He has a lot of contacts, having been around a while. There is a creepy encounter with an ex-girlfriend, now pushing 90, who holds a clue to the case.

In the meantime, a doctor from the hospital where John died—the woman from the subway—is curious where her corpse got to. She’s doing her own little investigation. Sooner or later the two are bound to meet, and perhaps that will lift the spell. The question is, does the viewer want to slog through cheesy weekly cases to get there?

Some behind the scenes information and interviews can be found here.

*According to the show’s description this scene is set in 1642, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that.

John Doe

John Doe debuted in 2002, airing on Friday nights at 9pm on Fox, a timeslot that is apparently where perfectly good sci-fi shows go to die.

The show opens with a square-jawed, naked man (Dominic Purcell, more recently of Prison Break, and so much cuter with hair) stumbling confusedly around an island. A few quick cuts and horror movie-style sound clips later, he is plucked out of the ocean by a fishing vessel off the coast of Seattle. Despite speaking Khmer and being able to tell the date and time, down to the second, by the position of the sun, he doesn’t know who he is or how he wound up in the water. As the audience, we’re as lost as the character.

Walking aimlessly down the street, Mr. Square Jaw notices a scar or a brand of some sort on his neck (which, although this show came first, reminds me of those marks the characters on Heroes used to find on themselves in Season 1.) It’s sort of a C-shaped thing with a couple of slashed through it. For reasons not yet explained, he sees only in black and white.

The nameless man quickly discovers, as do we, that he is a genius, or a human encyclopedia, or both. He puts his uncanny smarts to work in short order, first dazzling a crowd at a library by answering any question they can imagine. And, I may be over-thinking this, but there is an overhead shot of the library desk and the crowd around it that vaguely resembles the scar.

He gets himself a social security number and names himself John Doe. Before long, John is on his way to financial largesse, putting his brain to work on horse races and foreign currency. But wait, there’s more! Not only is he a brainiac, he’s musically talented, and soon stumbles into a gig playing piano in a bar. So we’re thinking he’s going to land on his feet.

At last through the set-up, we’re vaulted into action when John sees a missing little girl on TV, and her photo is the only thing he sees in color. Figuring that must mean something, he offers his services to the local police. The cop in charge of the missing person’s case lets him help pretty much right off the bat, while maintaining the requisite skepticism.

The mystery unfolds, with John seeing key people and items in color. The question that propels us through is, will John find the girl, or will the girl help him find himself?

With the forensics skills of Temperence Brennan, the learning ability of Chuck Bartowski, and the looks of – wow, I don’t know who – John has it all, as a character. The supporting characters come off as superficial, like the head-scratching cop and the really annoying-yet artistic-young woman who works at the bar with John. Everyone else introduced in this episode is a throw-away.

This isn’t the official pilot of John Doe. There was an unaired version with a different cast. But this one finds the balance needed for an action/sci-fi pilot between giving us enough to be intrigued but not enough to know what the hell is going on. Other shows have done this successfully, only to nosedive (Dollhouse, Journeyman, Defying Gravity) and this show’s fate was no better. Perhaps it was ahead of its time, predating themore successful shows referenced above. Or perhaps it got sucked into the great black hole of cop show stereotypes. I haven’t watched beyond this episode, but if it ended up being just another mystery-of-the-week show, the originality of the premise may not have held up.

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.