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

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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

Continue reading

Project G.e.e.K.e.R.

You’d be forgiven for having never heard of Project G.e.e.K.e.r., an animated sci-fi series that aired for just three months in 1996. And, you wouldn’t be crazy for thinking that the protagonist kinda looks like a worm; or that he sounds an awful lot like Philip J. Fry. Actually, the only two reasons worth watching this little show are that Doug TenNapel of Earthworm Jim fame created it and Billy West voices Geeker.

The animation is after school quality. After school in the mid-90s quality. We didn’t demand much from our animated series until later in the decade when we started to see more of it in prime time, with shows like Futurama and King of the Hill. Futurama fans watching Project Geeker today may get a brief second of déjà vu; both pilots open with a voiceover by the main character (played by the same dude, you remember) pontificating, “The future…” before explaining things to the audience. (Of course, in Futurama, it’s a goof, as it turns out that Fry is explaining a video game. Have I mentioned that Futurama rocks?)

As with a lot of kids’ shows—I’m assuming kids were the target audience—the premise is explained fully in the opening so the pilot could just as well be any random episode. The plot of this one doesn’t matter. Something about a destruct sequence. The overall plot of the series is that an evil genius, Moloch (Jim Cummings, most recently of Gnomeo and Juliet), is trying to track down the AI he created. The AI is Geeker, or Project GKR, and he wasn’t quite fully baked when he was stolen. Now he is in the hands of a voluptuous cyborg whom he calls Becky but who calls herself Lady MacBeth (Cree Summer, of a million different projects including Dragon Age: Origins). Brad Garrett, who I didn’t even realize has done a ton of animation, plays a big talking Tyrannosaurus who hangs out with them. The trio runs around trying to escape the reach of Moloch, while Geeker shape-changes, getting them in and out of various scrapes.

What else can I say? It’s a kids’ show. There’s a lot of noise and color and predictable jokes. The bad guy talks like a Bond villain. Geeker is kind of loveable, though. He’s one of those unlikely heroes who succeeds by screwing up. Kind of like Jar-Jar Binks. Wait, I said loveable. I don’t know, it’s a weird show. In prime time it could have been edgier and echoed the brilliance of the original Earthworm Jim game.

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.

Futurama

Futurama fans are rejoicing. After being cancelled from Fox, then revived in the form of some straight-to-DVD movies, and given another shot with reruns on Comedy Central, the little animated show that could has returned with new episodes. And we didn’t even have to order any Subway footlongs. In celebration of the return (and the fact that the new episodes are hilarious, at least so far), I thought I would take an overdue look at the pilot episode of Futurama. I read once where someone referred to this as “the perfect pilot.” If not perfect, it’s pretty close.

When Futurama aired it was “the new Matt Groening show.” Fortunately for us and Matt Groening it is nothing like the Simpsons. The Simpsons does its thing—well—and Futurama does its just-as-witty- but-totally different thing. In fact, Futurama is more original. The Simpsons basically took an existing TV formula and animated it. Futurama mashed up situation comedy, science fiction, 20-something slackerdom, political satire and Y2K fear.

In the pilot we meet Philip J. Fry (Billy West), a pizza delivery boy with slouching shoulders and gravity-defying orange hair. His life is as miserable as we, the viewers, have ever thought ours were. He finds out his girlfriend is leaving him as she drives by him in a cab with her new man. He’s good at one thing at least, a 1980s-era video game that allows him to fly through space and shoot stuff. For anyone who ever fantasized that their gaming skills would come in handy in the real world someday, Fry is about to live out their fantasy.

Tonight it’s new year’s eve 1999. A newspaper headline reads, “2000. Doomsayers Cautiously Upbeat.” (It’s these simple little gags that fill every moment of the show with humor and make it worth watching over and over.) Fry, as the victim of a crank call, is delivering a pizza to a cryogenics lab when he falls into a cryogenic chamber set to thaw in 1,000 years. A montage of the next millennium shows us Groening’s satirical prophecies for the human race. New York rises, falls, rises, falls, and rises once more. There are many details worth slow-mo’ing.

Fry finds himself in the year 3000, in an unfamiliar New York City. The future has many of the things you would expect—robots, space travel, and flying cars—and many you wouldn’t. It’s got celebrity heads in jars and suicide booths. One of the funniest and weirdest scenes ever takes place when Fry meets the wisecracking robot Bender. “Well, I don’t have anything else planned for today,” Bender declares, “Let’s go get drunk!”

Next we meet Leela (Katey Sagal), whose job is to program other people with a chip that determines their vocation. Apparently their system is pretty accurate, because it labels Fry as a Delivery Boy. Leela is kinda hot considering she’s got one giant eye in the middle of her head, and there is no denying that she’ll be Fry’s love interest for the series. (We’re told she’s an alien, but a later episode will reveal otherwise.) We also meet Professor Farnsworth, who hires Fry, Leela, and Bender as his new flight crew aboard the Planet Express. And, voila, Fry is a delivery boy again. Context is everything; he couldn’t be more excited. Thus, Fry and the audience are off on a series of adventures.

It is brilliant how Groening can say so much about our own time with a story set a thousand years in the future. Bits of what happened since 1999 are filled in here and there like little warnings. And yet, some things never change. Human beings—and other species as well—will probably have the same neuroses in the future that they have now.

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.