The West Wing

This show definitely needs to go on my list of Top Character Introductions in Pilots. While the whole episode is about the main character, the President of the United States (Martin Sheen), we only meet him in the last five minutes. His entrance is unforgettable; and his character is classic Aaron Sorkin.

When you’ve seen one or two pieces of Aaron Sorkin’s work, it’s easy to spot another one. Unless The West Wing is your first introduction to the genius behind A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Sports Night and yes, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, this pilot screams “Sorkin wrote me” the whole time. Continue reading

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30 Rock

It must be fun for TV writers to write about TV writers. Someday someone should write a show about TV writers writing a show about TV writers.

Tina Fey could not be a more perfect choice for the writer/actress around whom to build a sit-com about television writers. Not only is she a riot without being a stereotype but she was the head writer for the most well-known late-night sketch comedy show ever, airing on the actual network portrayed in the show. NBC’s willingness to parody itself and its longest running show gives this show comedic possibilities that it would not have otherwise. (Their parent company really does make ovens.) Continue reading

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.

My Five Favorite Pilots of All Time (So Far)

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.)

2. Heroes

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.

5. Glee

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.