Welcome Back, Kotter

With today’s passing of Robert “Juan Epstein” Hegyes, I am eager to review the pilot of Welcome Back, Kotter. I’m curious to see if I would even remember the pilot, because although I loved the show, I have only vague recollections of it. For the record, I always thought that Epstein was the cutest. (Sorry, John Travolta.) At the moment, I don’t have time to watch the whole thing and do it justice, so I thought I’d just mention a few details .

The show debutued in September of 1975. The pilot episode titled, appropriately, “Welcome Back,” was actually either the second or third to air depending on whether you believe Amazon or Wikipedia. The wacky order is a reminder of a time when sit-coms were totally episodic and you could figure out exactly what was going on by choosing any episode at random.

Here’s a clip:

The pilot is set on Gabe Kotter’s first day teaching at his alma mater, James Buchanan High School in New York City. He finds out that his students, the legacy of a gang he himself founded, are a bunch of aspiring young criminals. All of the main characters appear in the pilot, but I couldn’t say whether Epsetin shows up with a note signed “Epstein’s Mother” in this one. More later.

For even more fun here’s a “Where Are They Now?” for the cast.

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Titus, or Picking your Pilot

When comedian Christopher Titus got a development deal for a sitcom based on his stand-up routine, “Normal Rockwell is Bleeding” it could have been a slam dunk. Instead, his show “Titus,” despite getting decent reviews was cancelled after 3 seasons and some shark-jump-type changes that are usually a telltale sign of a show on the bubble.

(UPDATE: Please see Christopher Titus’s comment below. Network politics were to blame for the cancellation. And lest it seem that I didn’t like the show… I LOVED it. Just thought that first episode wasn’t representative.)

To say his routine is based on his true story of growing up in a dysfunctional family would be an over-simplification. Every comedian grew up in a dysfunctional family. But shows based on stand-up tend to be about family life, with relatively unattractive guys being nagged by better-looking wives and obnoxious kids, with love winning out over all manner of adversity.

In Titus, which debuted in March 2000, Christopher is a single guy still shell-shocked from what he’s been through with his insane family. (“Not as in, ‘your mom is insane,’ but as in, ‘We the jury find the defendant…'”)

It is remarkable when someone like Christopher Titus can not only survive what he went through but embrace it. If you don’t know the whole story watch “Normal Rockwell,” but suffice it to say his dad was the worst imaginable role model and his mom killed her husband and then herself. The series focused primarily on Titus’s relationship with his father, Ken, played with no redeemable qualities by Stacy Keach. His younger brother Dave (Zack Ward) is something of a sidekick, while his friend Tommy (David Shatraw) and girlfriend Erin (Cynthia Watros) round out the cast.

Word is that Titus wanted the episode “Dad’s Dead” to be the pilot. In watching the episode that actually aired as the pilot “Sex With Pudding,” you can see where the show may have gotten off on the wrong foot. It’s freaking awful. In the end, however, the show was cancelled for being too edgy. So maybe the blandness of “Pudding” was an attempt at a safer choice. It makes one wonder how it’s decided in what order a show’s episodes will air. Except in a show where the pilot involves heavy exposition and character introduction, there is some choice available. The first episode of Firefly to air was “The Train Job,” a great episode but not the “pilot.” Could a different choice have changed that show’s fate?

But back to “Sex With Pudding.” Isn’t that an awful title? The episode is not, like most of the others, set in the Titus household, the scene of so much of the referenced crime. It’s not about Christopher’s dad, or about his family at all, aside from the fact that his brother is always hanging around. It’s a stereotypical sitcom story about a jealous guy who thinks his girlfriend is cheating. It opens, as does every episode, with Titus talking directly to the camera in a dimly lit, sparsely furnished room. He talks to the camera about trust. His inability to trust, thanks to his parents, affects his relationship with Erin. But although trust is the theme of the episode, if you will, it’s a story we’ve seen a million times.

Most of the episode is set in Erin’s workplace, a bland office environment that might as well be Veridian Dynamics or Dunder Mifflin. Christopher makes an ass of himself going down there to try and gather evidence. Erin soundly reprimands him in a series of exchanges that tells us nothing about their relationship. And the big twist is, the person who has a crush on Erin, the person calling themselves “Pudding” is a woman. Shock me, shock me, shock me.

By contrast the episode “Dad’s Dead” captures the personality of the show. Christopher opens it with, “The Los Angeles Times states that 63% of American families are now considered dysfunctional. “That means we’re the majority.” He goes on to explain, “Normal people terrify me. They haven’t had enough problems in their lives to know how to handle problems when they come up.” And that’s really what makes him a good “character”–he’s been through some shit and come out stronger.

Titus arrives at the home his dad and brother share to find Dave freaking out. Dave thinks their dad may be dead since he hasn’t emerged from his bedroom for a beer in four days. See, that’s funny. Things get a little scattered midway through, when we meet a nurse that Ken is nailing, but that’s kind of a good thing. It’s not formulaic, and nothing is resolved by the end. Titus is just going to keep on living this life because it’s what he knows. And it will keep on making us laugh–and cringe a little, too. Would anything have been different if “Dad’s Dead” were the pilot?

Cliffhanger or Closure? Top 5 of Each

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.

Friends

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.

Bones

I must start by saying this is my favorite show currently on TV. It’s funny, suspenseful, well-written, and demands some level of viewer commitment to follow, to say nothing of the eye candy.

What I love about the pilot is it doesn’t feel like a pilot. Special Agent Sealy Booth (David Boreanaz) and Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan (Emily Deschanel) have worked together before. They don’t like each other much, but there is respect, and none of that weirdly forced sexual tension usually found on shows where a man and a woman are partners. (Suggestions of romance come later for these two.)

We meet secondary character Angela first. She flashes her boobs to a clerk for information at Dulles airport. Brennan is flying in from Guatemala, where she was identifying remains in a mass grave, and she gets detained by Homeland Security for having a skull in her bag. It turns out Booth is behind this embarrassing little episode. He needed to snatch her up to help with a potentially high-profile murder case.

And, we’re into the week’s (largely forgettable) mystery. Do we care who murdered a congressional intern? Not really. Do we care how this seasoned FBI agent and genius scientist are going to work together? Hell yeah; the show is now in its fifth season.

Always with this show, the B Plot is far more interesting than the A Plot. The A Plot serves as a backdrop on which to paint character traits. In this mystery, for example, we learn that Booth is tactful, even reverent, when dealing with a victim’s family. Bones would rather lay out all the facts, feelings be damned. But nothing about these character development tactics is unique to the pilot. With every episode, the characters grow. In my opinion, Booth and Bones’ relationship doesn’t even begin to hit its stride until episode 15, when Booth saves Bones’ life for the first time.

We get briefly introduced to the other “squints,” Jack and Zach, and their boss, Dr. Goodman, who only lasted one season. We have plenty of time to learn about all of them.

The pilot gives us one quintessential moment to hang onto throughout the series; indeed I believe it was used in commercials for the show throughout Season 1. Booth: “C’mon, we’re Scully and Mulder.” Bones: “I don’t know what that means.” She doesn’t. Her ignorance of pop culture is used as a joke again and again. Oh, right, the pilot also includes Bones’ ex-boyfriend showing up to reclaim his TV. We see that Bones isn’t likely to miss him or it.