Best Deaths in Pilots

Inspired by i09’s Death Week* and more specifically, their re-posting of Charlie Jane Anders‘  Ten Coolest Death Scenes in Science Fiction History, I got to thinking about how many characters bite the big one in pilots. Death often marks a beginning — often for the survivor learning to carry on, but sometimes even for the dead getting on with the afterlife. So, going to the great DVR in the sky makes a good event for a first episode. Here are some of my favs, in no particular order.

Major spoilers after the jump.

*Conveniently the week that saw the death of science fiction icon Ray Bradbury. Coincidence? io9’s tagline is “We come from the future.” Continue reading

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Revenge

I finally had see what all the hype was about. I found Emily VanCamp first endearing, then later super annoying on Brothers and Sisters. (The pilot of which I really  must write about at some point.) This show has been billed as the ushering in a new era of prime time soap operas to rival the heyday of Dallas, priming us, of course, for that reboot. Continue reading

Best Pilots of All Time

Having been writing this blog for more than two years now, and in the year-end tradition of “best of” lists, I thought it time to look at the best pilots of all time.

Now, I consider myself far from qualified to determine what are the best pilots of all time because 1. Of all the pilots ever made, I have seen only a small fraction of them, and 2. All time is long a time, and implies that it encompasses the future, too, and I haven’t figured out time travel yet. (Where are you, Dr. Tom?) I previously made a list of My Five Favorite Pilots of All Time, which is probably due for an update, but for a broader view, I decided to comb the interwebs.

The following is a list of links to various sources, written over the past few years, listing the best of the best in pilots. Continue reading

Veronica Mars Season 4

So this has nothing at all to do with pilots, aside from the fact that the show in question has one of the best pilots ever, but it is so completely awesome that I had to post it. It’s unaired footage from Season 4 of Veronica Mars. No, there never was a Season 4, but this gives us a little taste of what might have been after that incredibly frustratingly open-ended series finale. I guess it’s been hanging around the web a while, but I just discovered it.

Our little girl made it to the FBI–and what a great frakking premise for her first assignment!


I guess the world will never know whether Keith was elected sheriff.

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.

Hellcats

You might call it lazy to have the entire setting and premise of a show laid out via voiceover from the protagonist right at the start of your pilot, but it’s not as bad as having cheerleaders practice in front of a really obviously green screened college campus. Hellcats does these two things in its first minute. Not a good first impression. The protagonist in this case is a gorgeous blond law student who we should take seriously because she rides a bike everywhere and helps her mom make ends meet during these rough economics times. But we’re shown that she has a heart because she acts slightly concerned when a cheerleader eats it during practice.

Lest you think that I watched this pilot just to hate on it, know that I had hopes. I love cheerleader related stuff—Bring It On is one of my faves—and as a huge Veronica Mars fan, I do not believe that a low budget CW show can’t be great. Getting into the predictable story, Hotty McBicycle (still haven’t caught her name) is about to lose her scholarship and has to find a new one stat. She expresses her desperation to someone in the administrative office thus: “You know what gets me through? Hope.” It gets worse: “You kill my hope, you kill me.” The dialogue hurts. It hurts. But not as much as the way she teaches herself to cheer. Are you ready for this? She watches Bring It On. For the uninitiated, this underrated San Diego-filmed movie is all about how cheering should be taken seriously as a sport. Hotty must have fast forwarded to the cheering parts.

Hotty gets into it with the head cheerleader, Savannah (Ashley Tisdale) early. This gives the plot a conveniently-placed obstacle. But at the try-outs, Hotty, oh yeah, it’s Marti, wows the coach by ignoring the choreography and busting out her own routine. She doesn’t know gymnastics terminology but can tumble like Mary Lou Retton. She makes an offhanded reference to “training” since she was 16, but it’s not remotely believable that she gets put on a college cheerleading squad. Later it comes out that she did gymnastics in high school, but it’s too little too late.

Marti has to move into cheerleader housing called Cheer Town, leaving her devoted but obviously irresponsible mother behind. This sets up potential future mother-daughter strife story lines. We get to know the coach, her boyfriend, and her ex-lover who is also the new football coach. Their story holds some at least some possibility for being interesting.

Marti makes nice with the head cheerleader, and her real nemesis turns out to be the girl who got injured in the opening. So that’s kind of a twist. Marti attacks her with, “Do you invent your own catty metaphors, or is there like a book?” Ow. Ow, it hurts. At the other end of the spectrum, she catches the eye of strapping male cheerleader Lewis.

Glee has convinced us that cheerleaders live in their uniforms. The Hellcats wear their uniforms to practice. Why is this necessary? Yeah, they look good in them. But do the producers have to spoon feed us everything in the pilot? What’s even more annoying is that they spontaneously, somehow, know a complicated routine complete with lifts, at their first practice. Speaking of Glee, this show is its antithesis. Do we really think that a whole group of high school kids have the pipes of Broadway stars and can learn 3 or 4 songs a week, and always have appropriate costumes at the ready? Yes! Because Glee draws us in and convinces us that we’re watching a musical, where the joy of the moment overrides our skepticism. Hellcats is just plain contrived. I don’t care how plucky you are or how small your waist is, you can’t just be a cheerleader because you watch a movie. Gahhh!

Party Down

So excited: I have been searching for a way to watch this show since I heard it existed! I don’t have Starz, but I finally tracked it down online. It shares creators, producers, and actors with Veronica Mars, one of my all-time favorite shows, and has been cited as one the best shows of 2009.

The show opens with a chipper, tuxedoed man (Ken Marino – Tony from Reaper) reciting the really long motto of Party Down Catering. The guy, we learn, is Ron, and he’s in charge of the catering crew getting ready for a party. He is manic about succeeding and earning a great feedback card from the client.

Ron has his work cut out for him; two of his staff are already eating the client’s cheese while rehearsing for an audition. Another is late. Still another was recently fired for masturbating on the job. We know early on that nothing is going to be held back, here.

Henry (Adam Scott) is the new guy. In a pilot, you need a new guy. He and Ron are old friends. We sense right away that Henry has recently experienced some kind of major life setback, but we’ll get the details gradually.

The crew of incompetents making Ron’s life hell include the ever-hilarious Jane Lynch (Glee), Lizzy Caplan (the underrated Related), Ryan Hansen (playing pretty much the same character as he did on Veronica Mars), and Martin Starr (Knocked Up, Superbad). The characters are all showbiz wannabes. Ryan Hansen’s character, Kyle, is perhaps the most fervent in his ambitions, and the hardest to watch, in that he’s so committed to being obnoxious, you’re embarrassed for him (think Michael Scott).

Once the party gets started, we find Kyle hitting on the client’s daughter and Jane Lynch’s Constance having water gun fights with some young guests. This may not be their dream job, but they’re doing their best to have fun at it.

Enrico Colantoni plays the husband of the party-thrower, and he is totally over suburban family life. He drinks to cope with his uptight wife and the smug neighbors and winds up skinny dipping in the pool, to the guests’ horror. He jokes about trading places with Henry, which I’ll take as a hint at things to come in the series.

Eventually we discover Henry’s secret, that his single claim to fame is having appeared in a beer commercial, where he popularized the catch phrase, “Are we having fun yet?” (Sort of his answer, I suppose, to “Whaaazzzz up?”) Now he’s given up acting, and wants desperately to remain anonymous.

In fact, desperation is the name of the game for these cater waiters. Desperation to succeed, to escape, to slog through one more party. And that’s a good premise for lots of funny situations. While this pilot wasn’t fall-on-the-floor funny, it sets us up. We know everyone’s desires. It’s hinted that romance may lie ahead for Henry and Lizzy Caplan’s unhappily married Casey. Cuz you have to have sexual tension. And Ron seems very close to snapping. And a Joey Lauren Adams guest appearance awaits. Plus, knowing that people like Paul Rudd, Dan Etheridge and Rob Thomas are behind the scenes, I am eager to keep watching.

UPDATE 1/10/2012: Megan Mullally has confirmed that a Party Down movie is in the works!

Veronica Mars

This is hard for me to believe, but I had never seen the pilot episode of Veronica Mars in its entirety until today. I started watching in prime time with episode 1.2—with a healthy dose of cynicism—when I was assigned to write about it for a local paper and interview Enrico Colantoni. I had written it off in advance as another Dawson’s Creek-type teen drama. But I fell in love. VM ended up being the first show I can remember that I made sure not to miss, and re-watched episodes, and talked about to friends and co-workers. I worked as an extra on it twice, and an episode was taped where I work. I love this show. And I love pilots. So I have no logical explanation for why I’ve never seen episode 1.1 until now. I write about it with full knowledge of who killed Lily, and all the other secrets that will be revealed, which makes the early hints that much more exciting.

Right away, the theme gritty song, “We Used to be Friends,” grabs you. (Hated when they remixed it for Season 3.) Veronica gives us a succinct and color introduction to Neptune, the town where she lives. It’s populated with the over-privileged and those who work for them.

She’s tenacious: She alone steps forward to help a boy who’s been taped, naked, to a flagpole in front of the high school. She’s smart: She demonstrates thorough understanding of the assigned reading even though she’s dozing in English class. She’s a smartass: When cops come to search her locker, she’s comfortable telling their dog to back off. She’s bitter: Her family isn’t rich and important like the others in town. The bitterness continues as Veronica explains how she used to be in with the cool crowd. Now it looks like her only friend is the new kid, Wallace—the one she freed from the flagpole. There a couple of blue-tinged flashbacks to reveal what her life used to be like, full of parties and BFFs.

After life at school, we see life at work; Veronica’s dad’s P.I. office. Her dad, Keith used to be the town’s Sheriff. (There are lots of “used-to-bes,” in keeping with the theme song.) Currently, V. is trailing Jake Kane on assignment from his suspicious wife. Veronica used to date their son Duncan, and her best friend was their daughter Lily. Lily was murdered, Keith accused Mr. Kane but couldn’t prove anything, was removed from office by recall, and V.’s mom left them. To add insult to injury, people believe it was Keith who leaked a video of the crime scene all over the internet.

The new sheriff immediately found evidence incriminating a Kane employee, and the matter was put to uneasy rest. Also, Lily’s boyfriend, the rich, spoiled bad boy Logan Echolls really, really hates V. In another subplot, V. reveals that she lost her virginity while roofied at some party the year before. This won’t be unraveled until the end of Season 2, but clues are revealed in several episodes along the way. I love when a show asks for a viewer’s long term commitment for payoff.

But wait, there’s more. V.’s mom appears to be shacking up with Jake Kane. The Veronica-Wallace friendship is a little sappy, but it lets the audience see that V. still has a heart, and gives us a look at her mad P.I. skills and twisted sense of humor. She ends up with the local biker gang in her camp, defending her from Logan. It’s a delightfully tangled web. Every little detail will come back in later episodes. Of course, you don’t know that. But the kicker: Keith is still investigating Lily’s murder. That alone lets us know there are plenty of juicy revelations to look forward to.

V. leaves us with this declaration: “I will find out what really happened.” Rest assured, she will.

Weird note: I once saw the first 10 minutes or so of this episode online (in French) and the scene where V. is camped outside the Camelot Motel in her car was the cold open. Here there is no cold open, and that scene takes place mid-episode. Hm.

Here’s an article I wrote about this show early in its run, including an interview with Enrico Colantoni.

UPDATE 8/14/10: For a more thorough analysis of this blog then you probably ever dreamed of, check out this blog.