Can you tell if a TV show is going to be any good based on its pilot? io9’s Charlie Jane Anders recently posted How to Tell from a Pilot if a TV Show is Going to be Any Good and offered some insightful tips on how to tell. She makes some great points, like how writing oneself into a hole or having a boring “thing of the week” is a recipe for failure. But quite simply, the answer to the question above is “no.” Continue reading
The premiere episode of Glee, airing in February of 2009, was one of the great pilots. Which might leave you to ponder, upon the conclusion of the dramedy’s third season… WTF?
Glee wouldn’t be the first show to start off strong and then squander audience goodwill in a sea of contrivances and guest stars (Chuck, anyone?) And actually, it is still hugely popular and considered a success by many measures. The cast has sold more records than The Beatles. Maybe I’m the only one who hates it. Well, I can’t be the only one, as evidenced by this blog, Glee Sucks. Yes, you really have to compare the Glee of the pilot to — let’s call it post-Gwyneth Glee — to appreciate the magnitude of its decline.
The pilot was no less than groundbreaking. It aired after the Superbowl, months before the show would officially premiere. It was so wacky and in-your-face and, dare I say, life-affirming. I still have the New Directions rendition of “Don’t Stop Believing” on my iPod.
Here are the top 5 (but by no means only) ways that Glee has let us down since its pilot: Continue reading
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a pilot that convinced me that the ensuing show was going to be something different. American Horror Story employs a lot of conventions we’ve seen before, yet this episode completely held my attention. I can’t exactly say I loved it–it’s no The Walking Dead, the brilliance of which I will never shut up about–but it has that thing. I can’t help but compare it to Locke & Key, which was screened at Comic-Con this year but never actually made it TV. The powerful aesthetic of American Horror Story (on FX) further convinced me that Locke & Key failed only because it was shopped to the wrong network, but I digress… Continue reading
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.
You might call it lazy to have the entire setting and premise of a show laid out via voiceover from the protagonist right at the start of your pilot, but it’s not as bad as having cheerleaders practice in front of a really obviously green screened college campus. Hellcats does these two things in its first minute. Not a good first impression. The protagonist in this case is a gorgeous blond law student who we should take seriously because she rides a bike everywhere and helps her mom make ends meet during these rough economics times. But we’re shown that she has a heart because she acts slightly concerned when a cheerleader eats it during practice.
Lest you think that I watched this pilot just to hate on it, know that I had hopes. I love cheerleader related stuff—Bring It On is one of my faves—and as a huge Veronica Mars fan, I do not believe that a low budget CW show can’t be great. Getting into the predictable story, Hotty McBicycle (still haven’t caught her name) is about to lose her scholarship and has to find a new one stat. She expresses her desperation to someone in the administrative office thus: “You know what gets me through? Hope.” It gets worse: “You kill my hope, you kill me.” The dialogue hurts. It hurts. But not as much as the way she teaches herself to cheer. Are you ready for this? She watches Bring It On. For the uninitiated, this underrated San Diego-filmed movie is all about how cheering should be taken seriously as a sport. Hotty must have fast forwarded to the cheering parts.
Hotty gets into it with the head cheerleader, Savannah (Ashley Tisdale) early. This gives the plot a conveniently-placed obstacle. But at the try-outs, Hotty, oh yeah, it’s Marti, wows the coach by ignoring the choreography and busting out her own routine. She doesn’t know gymnastics terminology but can tumble like Mary Lou Retton. She makes an offhanded reference to “training” since she was 16, but it’s not remotely believable that she gets put on a college cheerleading squad. Later it comes out that she did gymnastics in high school, but it’s too little too late.
Marti has to move into cheerleader housing called Cheer Town, leaving her devoted but obviously irresponsible mother behind. This sets up potential future mother-daughter strife story lines. We get to know the coach, her boyfriend, and her ex-lover who is also the new football coach. Their story holds some at least some possibility for being interesting.
Marti makes nice with the head cheerleader, and her real nemesis turns out to be the girl who got injured in the opening. So that’s kind of a twist. Marti attacks her with, “Do you invent your own catty metaphors, or is there like a book?” Ow. Ow, it hurts. At the other end of the spectrum, she catches the eye of strapping male cheerleader Lewis.
Glee has convinced us that cheerleaders live in their uniforms. The Hellcats wear their uniforms to practice. Why is this necessary? Yeah, they look good in them. But do the producers have to spoon feed us everything in the pilot? What’s even more annoying is that they spontaneously, somehow, know a complicated routine complete with lifts, at their first practice. Speaking of Glee, this show is its antithesis. Do we really think that a whole group of high school kids have the pipes of Broadway stars and can learn 3 or 4 songs a week, and always have appropriate costumes at the ready? Yes! Because Glee draws us in and convinces us that we’re watching a musical, where the joy of the moment overrides our skepticism. Hellcats is just plain contrived. I don’t care how plucky you are or how small your waist is, you can’t just be a cheerleader because you watch a movie. Gahhh!
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.
This is no attempt to list the “best five pilots of all time,” as there are many thousands of pilots I have not seen (yet!) but I felt like a list was called for. Perhaps it will change in time… who knows.
In no particular order, these are my five favorite pilots.
1. The Simpsons
The pilot was also a Christmas special. What’s not to love? Having never seen the Tracy Ullman Show, I at this point only knew the yellow-skinned quintet as “the Butterfinger family.” Their commercials were funny, so why not check out their holiday antics? Over 20 years later, the pilot, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” still holds up. There was something a little looser, a little wackier about the Simpsons in those days, in the animation, the voices, and the story lines. You can make a drinking game out of the continuity problems. But what better setting in which to teach us all we need to know about a TV family than their Christmas holidays, split between a school recital, a shopping mall, and a dog track? Priceless.
Memorable line: “If TV has taught me anything, it’s that miracles always happen to poor kids at Christmas. It happened to Tiny Tim, it happened to Charlie Brown, it happened to the Smurfs, and it’s gonna happen to us!” (Quoted that from memory, thank you very much.)
This was show that you HAD to keep watching. Not so much these days, but that pilot was so, just, wow. Peter was immediately endearing, and you’re thinking he might just not be crazy in wondering if he can fly. And Claire throws herself off that railroad trellis. And Hiro is so darned determined to be a super hero. Oh, and I guess the Jessica/Niki eye candy didn’t hurt either if you happened to be male. You were like “where is this thing going?” We had seen super hero shows before, but not like this. On a side note, the actual pilot, which was screened at ComicCon and is availble on DVD, is not as good. Ted was a terrorist. Much too low-hanging fruit for such a creative show.
3. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
See my previous entry on why this rocks.
4. King of the Hill
Okay, I know you’re like, “really?” The show, despite running for 10 years, went steadily downhill, either on its own or by comparison to other emerging animated entertainment that has raised the bar considerably. But it was fresh and unique. I can remember sitting around at school the day after the pilot aired and talking about it, so it obviously made an impression on people. It wasn’t the Simpsons, and it certainly wasn’t Beavis and Butthead, Mike Judge’s previous show. It walked a line between edgy and family friendly. That moment when Joseph appears on screen and you see he looks nothing like his white father and a lot like his mother’s Native American “friend” is ROTFL-funny.
I laughed. I cried. It was better than Cats—way better; Cats is lame. This is musical theatre for the 21st century. While I can just picture the starry-eyed teenagers at home shrieking over Finn, or wanting to sing just like Rachel, for us grown-ups, there’s the Emma-Will-Terri love triangle. (And isn’t it weird how there are three former Heroes cast members in this completely different show?) The pilot did a great job of capturing the whole mood of this show and now, having seen the five additional episodes to have aired, it was right on track. It had the snark of Veronica Mars, the pathos of My So-Called Life, and the embarrassing-to-watch moments of The Office. It’s a feel-good show, but it’s not sappy. Okay, it’s sappy. But not in a Cats way. More in a Wicked way.