Anatomy of a Pilot

First, an overview of pilots is in order.

A pilot serves several important goals, besides the overarching one, to get a show picked up by a network and to get a share of viewers large enough to ensure continuation.

These goals, as I see them, are:

  • To introduce most, if not all of, the main characters
    • Naturally we need to know who the characters are right away. We usually get a sketch, with just a few of their key traits, that often end up as stereotypes. (The pilot of Friends comes to mind.) Often there is one major character held back until a critical moment in a later episode. Viewers can sense whether this late-comer is planned part of the story, or a “jump-the-shark” addition.
  • To set up the world of the series—the atmosphere, rules, protocols
    • This is especially critical in science fiction or period shows, where the viewer isn’t familiar with the time or place.
  • To demonstrate tension between characters
    • There have to be sparks. A typical scenario is two complete opposites now have to live/work/play together. Bonus if they used to sleep together.
  • Set up potential problems/hurdles for characters to overcome
    • One or more main characters either start or end the pilot with some new challenge in front of them—an intense new job, a new pregnancy, a new relationship, the death of a loved one, the death of themselves… just about anything will do.
  • Leave space for changes or developments
    • Naturally, the pilot can’t sum everything up too neatly. There has to be someplace to go. Some pilots can stand alone as great stories, but the idea to is to keep viewers coming back.
  • Raise questions
    • Just what is this guy really up to? Why did that woman say that cryptic thing? What secrets does this creepy place hold? Is character 1 in love with character 2? (probably) Will she have the baby? (definitely)

 I think it is fair to say that most shows do most of these things. There are always exceptions. But exceptions are risky in television. So let’s get to it…

Why Pilots?

I love television. There, I said it. I used to be one of those television snobs who simply didn’t have time for such a small-minded diversion. Actually, in college, in the early 90s, I really didn’t have time for television, what with 21 credit hours and up to four jobs at a time. After college, watching television just wasn’t part of my routine, so it took a while for me to catch on.

Now it seems there is too much to watch. Of course, there is more to watch, with cable venturing into drama and comedy series, and the internet making shows from around the world accessible. It has been suggested that television writing has improved in the past several years, in part due to a broader supply of programming. Writing has become more sophisticated, and plots more involved.

So where to begin soaking up all that programming? With the pilots.

The pilot is almost a genre in itself. (I am using “pilot” to mean first episode, not necessarily the episode used to sell the show. I realize that, within the industry, there is a difference.) The very embodiment of ambition, a pilot attempts to encapsulate all the glory promised by a series into one 23- or 44-minute episode that says, “This is going to be a great show! Please give us a chance.”

As a former English major, I love to dissect a written work. So that is what I intend to do with pilots. This is not a review site, per se; I will not give anything stars, thumbs, or tomatoes. I will voice opinions, but the aim is essentially to muse on the very nature of pilots—what makes a good start to a series, or a bad one, and what makes a good start to what turns out to be a flop, and vice-versa. So please enjoy Anatomy of a Pilot.