Can you tell from the pilot?

Can you tell if a TV show is going to be any good based on its pilot? io9’s Charlie Jane Anders recently posted How to Tell from a Pilot if a TV Show is Going to be Any Good and offered some insightful tips on how to tell. She makes some great points, like how writing oneself into a hole or having a boring “thing of the week” is a recipe for failure. But quite simply, the answer to the question above is “no.” Continue reading

Battleground

UPDATE: 7/22/12 I wrote the analysis below having only watched the first episode of Battleground. I don’t usually approach these posts as recommendations for or against watching a show. Having now completed the first season, I say “Watch it. Watch it now.” This is one of those shows that the pilot does not do justice to until you can appreciate it as part of the larger picture.

For example, some of the stuff that makes you scratch your head in the pilot (like just when are these interviews supposed to have been recorded, and what the hell is Cole wearing?) are ambiguous on purpose. The final episode has me dying for season 2.

 

If you happened upon the pilot episode of Battleground, you might think you were watching a documentary. For a few minutes at least, Battleground defies the obvious comparisons to Parks and Recreation or The Office. As mockumentaries go, this one opens on a more serious note. There is a film-like look about it. Amber waves of grain and small hometown businesses flavor the opening credits. It’s a bit like the tour of Scranton that opens The Office, but without the underlying sense of sarcasm. Then… we meet Jordan T. Mosley, the show’s Dwight Schrute. But I’ll come back to him. Continue reading

Parks and Recreation

When this show debuted, viewers went into it thinking they knew what to expect. It was another The Office, with a “female Michael Scott.” In fact, this mockumentary was originally conceived by creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur and a spin-off of The Office. You would be forgiven for maintaining that assumption even after viewing the pilot, although there are hints here of greater potential. To be sure, Parks and Recreation took a little time to find its own voice, and with a powerful comedienne like Amy Poehler in the lead, it’s not surprising that it did so. Here is what audiences saw in April 2009. Continue reading

Lovespring International

jane lynch lovespring internationalWe’ve probably had enough of the mockumentary format for TV shows. We had probably already had enough of it in 2006 when Lovespring International ran for one basic cable-length season. But damned if it doesn’t make a handy format for introducing all of your characters in a pilot.

The trick is to capture the essence of each character in a just a handful of lines. If you go back to the pilot of The Office and look at Pam’s face when she says, “Jim said mixed berry?” you witness a real where-it-all-began moment. But I digress…

Lovespring International was produced by Eric McCormack of Will and Grace (who guest stars in ep. 2). It was partially improvised and features a cast familiar to fans of improv/sketch comedy. We are introduced to Lovespring International, elite Beverly Hills dating service (located in Tarzana, CA) by each member of the staff telling us what they do.

Victoria Rachford (Jane Lynch) is founder and CEO. Burke (Sam Pancake) claims to “run the place.” Lydia (Wendi McLendon-Covey, of Reno 911 and more recently the inappropriate mother from Bridesmaids) is a Relationship Consultant who asserts that she can find a match for anyone and assures the viewer that she is “married in her heart” to her partner of 20 years. Steve (Jack Plotnik, also of Reno 911), the company psychologist doesn’t mince words about his job saying he is “in charge of weeding out the crazies.” Alex (Mystro Clark) directs client videos, making people appear hotter than they are. Tiffany (Jennifer Elise Cox) is the whiny blond receptionist smacking her gum. Burke reminds us repeatedly that he is in charge of all of these people–we see more of him than anyone else.

All of these introductions might be an effective way to introduce characters quickly, but it feels a bit like spoon-feeding the viewer. Introducing the characters this way tells us a couple of things: It’s going to be an ensemble effort. The workplace is going to be a constant battle of egos. And the irony is going to stem from a bunch of so-called relationship experts who suck at relationships.

The meat of the episode happens as the agency’s top gold-level client files a complaint that too many men are falling in love with her. Victoria, learning that the agency is in danger of losing a major client, threatens to fire someone if they don’t save the account. Lydia comes up with a plan, which Burke co-opts as his own and then turns into a disaster with the assistance of Alex and plenty of booze.

The character we get the least time with, regretably, is Jane Lynch’s Victoria. She is just returning from a vacation in this ep. and it’s looking like her repeated absences are set up to become a bit.

The whole show has a sketch comedy feel that prevents the viewer (me, at least) from feeling really invested in the characters. Maybe it’s the improv element, the mockumentary format, or maybe it’s just the actors’ clowny make-up. It feels like, perhaps they might have grown on you over enough time. The Office felt really weird and cartoonish in the beginning (and the pilot wasn’t well-received), but after a couple of season you could say stuff like, “That is so Dwight.” Maybe the Lovespring crew could have grown on audiences if they had been allowed to hang around long enough.

Traffic Light

Traffic Light on HuluMaybe it’s just me, but Traffic Light seemed to slip in under the radar in early February. There was little fanfare for this comedy that airs on Fox after Raising Hope, but it had some funny moments, so checking out the pilot was in order.

The show takes full advantage of hands-free telephone technology now widely available in newer cars. The pilot opens with all three of the main characters talking to one another as they drive, and gets really funny when one of them gets pulled over. This turns out to be more than just a one-off bit. This angle allows the writers a fresh, modern take on friendly conversation—does the world need another sit-com where everyone hangs out in a bar? It also underscores an element of the zeitgeist; we’re all connected, all the time, even when we’re ‘alone.’

The three main characters are introduced as they speak, with subtitles giving their names and relationship statuses; these are completely unnecessary, as the dialogue does a perfectly fine job of filling us in.

Mike (David Denman, The Office) is married with a baby. Adam (Nelson Franklin, also The Office) is just moving in with his girlfriend. Ethan (Kris Marshall)’s only significant relationship is with his dog. Three different guys are in three different stages of life, giving the writers ample opportunity to riff on singlehood and relationships alike. One other piece of information is worked into the conversation. The 27th (of whatever month we’re in) is “Ben’s day.” There are a few more brief mentions of Ben throughout, but we have to wait until the end of the episode for payoff.

The two women rounding out the cast are Mike’s wife, Lisa (Liza Lapira, Dollhouse) and Adam’s girlfriend, Callie (Aya Cash). Lisa gets a great introduction. Mike is hiding out in his car, parked a block from his house, in order to sneak in alone time from his family. He explains this to his friends on the phone in such a way that we, the audience, don’t see him as an irresponsible jerk but rather as just a guy who wants to watch Ironman in peace. Lisa surprises us—and him—by showing up at the car to nonchalantly hand off the baby. She then heads off for a jog, shouting, “love you!”

It’s refreshing that Lisa’s not a stereotype; either a nagging wife who beats her husband into service or a hysterical prima donna who cries when he bails. So far, so good. Then, however, things start to spiral into sit-com 101. Of course, one of the characters has to be a lawyer and one has to be a journalist. Lisa starts nagging Mike to go to some work function with her, and even if she lacks in nagging capacity, Callie more than makes up for it. Nagging leads to lying and manipulating when Adam has to get out from under her thumb to hang out with the guys.

The plot devolves further with some nonsense about Mike having to dress as a wrestling clown for Adam’s boss’s son’s bar mitzvah. Finally, we get to a resolution that reveals who Ben is, or rather was, and thus the bond shared by the three guys. It’s a nice, sensitive moment, ala How I Met Your Mother, albeit with a strained metaphor for the “traffic light of the title.” Once can only hope that the attempted tear jerker won’t become the hallmark of each episode.