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
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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.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
This is the pilot that interested me in pilots. I watched it twice before proceeding with the series. And, though I did make it through the whole series, it went steadily downhill. The critics tend to agree. Still, I can go back and watch the pilot as a stand-alone story. It’s compelling, it’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s dramatic. Now, any time I hear David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” I picture the final scene of this episode.
This pilot uses what I call the Prodigal Son Formula. It’s about someone—in this case, two someones—returning to a place they used to call home, changed and matured, for better or worse. In addition, it uses the New Kid on the Block Formula, featuring a person beginning a new job (which could as easily be a new school, new neighborhood, etc.).
Even before we meet the aforementioned Prodigals and New Kid, however, we have The Crisis. We are onstage at the start of the taping of a live, weekly, sketch comedy show akin to Saturday Night Live, called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. As an actor whips the studio audience into a frenzy, the Producer, Wes (Judd Hirsch) is arguing backstage the head of Broadcast Standards and Practices over whether to include a controversial sketch in tonight’s show. In the first two minutes, we know that the show (the fictional one) is flagging and the Producer is near the breaking point.
Then we get glimpses into the control booth, the dressing rooms, the hallways… a tone of frenetic energy is set. There is a quick intro to a page who will come into play later in the series. Amid it all, Wes is incongruously calm. Then comes his meltdown. On live television. It’s a scathing diatribe on all-that-is-wrong-with-network-television. It’s uncomfortably funny and horrifying and train-wreck riveting. We see the pressure on Cal (Timothy Busfield), the control booth guy, to pull the plug. The suspense builds to…the opening credits.
So in just nine minutes, we’re pumped and ready to go. Then, we get introduced to the main characters. We meet Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), the new President of the NBS network, who ominously predicts, “Nothing bad is going to happen on my first day, right?” We meet Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber), her new boss.
As the live (fictional) show continues, damage control is in full effect backstage. We can’t help but feel that writer Aaron Sorkin is giving us his personal take on the shortcomings of the industry.
Seventeen minutes in, we first hear the names Matt Albie and Danny Tripp. We know there’s history, potential controversy. At minute 19, after the second commercial break, we finally meet them: Matt, played by Matthew Perry and Danny, played by Bradley Whitford, recently off of the success of The West Wing. They are immediately fascinating characters with huge back story; for starters we learn that Matt and his longtime girlfriend, Studio 60 actress Harriett Hayes recently broke up because of the Star-Spangled Banner.
The downfall of this show may simply have been there was too much back story. Every line, every look, conveyed something about these characters and their history. The whole thing takes place in one night, and there is just so darn much happening. It’s totally engaging. But maybe too much for viewers who want to fold the laundry or pack their kids’ lunches while they watch. We get Matt and Danny’s relationship, their relationship to Jack and to Wes. We get a taste of Matt and Harriett’s relationship. We learn about the sketch that was cut from the show that set off this whole fracas—and that will become symbolic of the show’s themes.
The characters end the pilot with a world of new possibilities before them. This is the way to end a pilot, with room for all kinds of things to happen. The moment is illustrated strikingly and poetically by the theatre house full of people—cast, crew, and staff—sitting expectantly before Matt and Danny, their new producers. And “Under Pressure” boiling up. It’s a great moment.