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

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Pilots that Never Flew

There are more pilots that never get picked up than most people ever stop to think about. It can be funny or horrifying, or in the case below, a bit sad, to imagine a show that the world was robbed of seeing. 

A couple of days ago, Bleeding Cool posted a clip from a 1969 clip of a Jim Henson-created Wizard of Id series, based on the comic strip by Johnny Hart. It looks like the plan for the show was simply to recreate individual comic strips with Muppets, rather than to create half-hour plotlines. Still, you can see the creativity at work here from Henson’s mind. And see if the Wizard’s voice doesn’t tug at your heart strings.

Here’s a list of seven other pilots that never got picked up, from OMG Lists. (It’s a couple years old, but there are some gems.)

Reboot!

It seems like you can’t go a day without hearing about another upcoming reboot of an old movie or TV show. Currently, viewers of the small screen are speculating about new takes on Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman, Beavis and Butthead, Dallas, Miami Vice, Teen Wolf… there’s even been the threat of a Bryan Fuller-helmed Munsters remake.*

A pilot for a reboot has a unique task. There is the assumption that most viewers are already familiar with the property, and there is going to be a niche audience that is much more than familiar. The diehard fans are poised to critique every detail.  So what makes a pilot for a reboot successful?

There are two ends of the spectrum when it comes to approach. At one end, the pilot could say to the viewer, “Forget everything you knew about previous incarnations of this property.” The story basically starts over, in the present day. V is an example. Viewers need not have a clue about the 1980s mini-series and following TV series. In fact, they might be better not having seen the original and having the whole lizard reveal spoiled for them.

At the other end, a pilot can dive in to a storyline already in progress. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles does this really well. We last saw Sarah and son John in 1991, when John was about 12 years old, so the show now has to bring us up to 2008, when it debuted. The pilot opens in 1999 and, staying faithful to the timeline set forth by the movies, John is introduced as a teenager. We learn in the opening scene Sarah is haunted by the same nightmares of worldwide destruction that we remember. In order to get us to the right year, the writers have the new Terminator, played by Summer Glau, bring the characters forward in time to 2008. If you’re actually new to this, it’s likely you just won’t care about these characters. It’s also likely you’ve been living under a rock.

On the lighter side, 90210 stuck with the timeline set forth by its predecessor, Beverly Hills 90210. The newer show had some fun updating viewers on the lives of characters we once knew, even bringing some of them back so we wouldn’t always be stuck remembering them with hideous hairstyles.

According to Ramon Rodriguez, who has been cast as Bosley, the new Charlie’s Angels is set to go in a new direction. However, the movies already took a big step away from the camp of the original series. So what, exactly, are they moving away from? And do we care? Does a show’s pedigree matter, or only that it’s good?

There’s still a long way to go with all of the aforementioned reboots, and no telling how much restructuring they will go through on their way to the airwaves—if they even make it that far. Then will each one be a 90210? Or a Melrose Place? Once they debut, fans will no doubt have their expectations well in place.

*Here’s an update on the Bryan Fuller Munsters remake, 8/11/11

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.