Let’s face it, we don’t watch a pilot without attaching bias to the actors. (Except when we do. See my forthcoming post on Pramface.) So nobody but nobody is going to watch Go On without at least one prior Matthew Perry role in mind. And yes, his characters are all strikingly similar. If you’ve taken any notice of this show, you’re probably acquainted with its premise, so I won’t rehash it. So let’s talk about how casting choices influence our enjoyment of a pilot. Continue reading
“I’m sick of my generation being called the TV Generation. ‘All you guys did was watch TV.’ What’d you expect? We watched Lee Harvey Oswald get shot live on TV one Sunday morning. We were afraid to change the channel for the next 25 f***ing years.” – Dennis Leary
Martin Tupper, as the main title sequence of 1990’s Dream On demonstrates, is squarely within Dennis Leary’s “TV Generation.” We see the legs of a 1950s housewife as she plops her baby down in front of the black-and-white television set. Three different kids play the growing Martin, as he stares transfixed at the set over the years. Continue reading
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.
- Chuck Versus the Intersect
- Welcome to the Hellmouth
- Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire
- Days Gone Bye
- Space Pilot 3000
- The One Where Monica Gets a Roommate, a.k.a. The First One
- Sex and Violence (actually a second pilot, whatever that means)
- Everybody Lies
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.
How have I not written about this before? I practically have it memorized. But let’s be honest , the first season (or 2) of Friends was pretty bad. But clearly it resonated way, way back in 1994 despite all those atrocious hairstyles and the need to shove each character into a stereotyped package. (Ross is a nerd, Rachel is spoiled, Phoebe’s a flake, Joey is a womanizer, etc.) It took until season 4 to round it out to “married a lesbian, left a man at the altar, fell in love with a gay ice dancer, threw a girl’s wooden leg in a fire, lives in a box.”
Eventually, each Friend become a well-rounded human being who we watched grow over a decade, but it was like the writers didn’t give us viewers credit for having the patience to get to know them. Who knows, maybe we wouldn’t have.
This pilot is so pilot-y. We are bombarded with back story, character quirks, and strained jokes. Everything is over the top: the hairstyles, the coffee cups, Joey’s accent. On the off chance that you haven’t seen it, the plot is that Ross (David Schwimmer) has just split from his wife, just as Monica’s (Courteney Cox) old high school friend Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) leaves her husband-to-be at the altar and runs off to Manhattan to get away from her suffocating suburban existence. Ross has had a thing for Rachel since puberty, and now the possibility of a relationship finally exists.
One thing we can observe from the pilot of Friends is that, although it’s purported to be an ensemble show, it’s really about Ross and Rachel. Always was, always will be. In this opening episode the other four are basically just comic relief. The jokes were pretty bad, too. Even Chandler is unfunny, for Chandler (Matthew Perry). The only part that makes me laugh out loud is when Rachel is on the phone to her father. She is all disheveled, still in her wedding dress, pleading with him for understanding. To paraphrase, she describes how everyone has always told her she’s a shoe and today she’s realized she’s a hat. There’s a pause, then: “No I don’t want you to buy me a hat. It’s a metaphor, Daddy!” So although she’s an ingénue, she’s wacky, and a solid comic actress (who gets funnier each season). You may have heard the story about how she originally auditioned to play Monica.
If for some reason you haven’t seen this, just watch one of the 500 channels that carry the show in syndication and you’re bound to catch it.
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.