Problematic Pilots

I love serial dramas.  Of all the myriad styles and genres of TV shows represented in American television, the serial drama is far and away my favorite.  Despite the fact that they originally found their origin in soap operas, serial dramas have matured to give clever and involving storytelling in a continuously flowing way that keeps the audience invested.  Unlike standalone TV shows, where you can come in on any episode and follow along, serial dramas are far more cinematic (which fits in well with my love for movies).  Additionally, serial drama provides for far more character development than the typical, take-it or leave-it show.  There’s just something about the connectedness and unity of the episodes that I enjoy.  Because of the importance of storytelling in a serial drama, the premiere episode is a big deal, as it sets up the overall plot and purpose to the show in a single episode.

With all that being said, there’s one truth that I’ve learned over the years that I find very surprising—few TV shows have a very strong first episode.

"I was just thinking of that sandwich I had for lunch. It reminded me of this one time when something weird happened, and some guy died, and blood got everywhere, and it was really disgusting. Got any mayonnaise?"

You’ll notice I said “first episode” because there is a difference between a pilot and a premiere (though to the audience, this difference is far more negligible).  I’ll be brief about the difference.  A pilot episode is usually made many months before it airs (if it ever does air).  The whole purpose for a pilot is to show the studio executives (who sign the checks) that “yes, this TV show can work.”  If the show is to continue, the pilot has to be approved.  Therefore, pilot episodes are often made months before shooting resumes, even if the second episode occurs immediately after the first, chronologically speaking.  This large span of time also explains why sets often change, characters are dropped, and other characters are added to the show between the first and second episode.  With standalone TV shows, the pilot is not necessarily the “first episode.”  Instead, it is the earliest-made episode, but it is more a “typical episode” (in fact, with some TV shows, the actual “pilot episode” doesn’t even air until well into the series).  In some cases, the pilot episode may never air at all because it is quite noticeably different from the series as a whole.  With serial dramas, however, after the pilot is approved, it’s often slightly tweaked as production on the show commences and ideas are changed.  Despite this tweaking, however, the pilot often stays largely in tact, as story is a driving factor in a serial drama.  Therefore, when the premiere episode of a serial drama airs, it is often only a slightly re-tooled “pilot episode.”

Of all the serial dramas that I have seen, only two shows really standout in my mind as having really fantastic pilot episodes (Coincidentally, they happen to be my favorite serial dramas, but I think their pilot episodes are good examples of what works right).  These shows are LOST, which currently airs on ABC, and Jericho, which aired on CBS from 2006 to 2008.  When you examine the two pilot episodes of these series, you can find a few things in common.  For one, both episodes are fast-paced, but still leave plenty of opportunities for character-driven moments (Indeed, with both shows, character development plays a huge role).  Both stories are intense enough to keep the audience watching, but provide quieter, calmer moments that emphasize the characters and their relationships to each other.  Additionally, both shows have an ample supply of suspense and mystery.  While mystery is certainly not a prerequisite for a good serial drama, it often provides much of the backbone for strong stories, as it keeps the audience guessing.  Finally, neither show wastes time establishing what the catalyst for the two stories is, but doesn’t move so fast that the characters or the mystery is lost in the process.

And they thought Jack Bauer saved lives...

The weaker pilot episodes for shows tend to forget these aspects.  Flash Forward, for instance, had a strong first half of the pilot by immediately getting to the catalyst and remaining very intense.  The second half of the episode, however, floundered and stumbled as, not only was the mystery about what happened immediately solved, but the character moments were few and far between.  Once the mystery was removed, all that remained were the characters, which, frankly, did not hold up.  The pilot episode of 24 was rather forgettable, only managing to introduce us to the characters and the situation.  Because it tended to remain so fast-paced, the characters often got lost in the storytelling.  Sure, there was mystery, but it was hard to care for these characters you had just met but were shown nothing about.  The pilot episode for Fringe was weak because, while it had drama and plenty of character-driven moments, the story itself dragged, and solved in two hours what it easily could have done in one.  It was better than Flash Forward and 24 simply because it took the time to flesh out real characters, but for the time it was given, it could have accomplished so much more.  And even the show Heroes, which had a fantastic first season, had an easily forgettable pilot episode.  In fact, I still can’t remember what happens in the pilot, despite the fact that I’ve seen the whole first season twice now.

"Hi, I'm the main character of the show, and I have no personality. This is going to be a fun ride."

The question, therefore, is this: “Since the pilot episode is so crucial for the serial drama (not only for getting the story going, but also getting the series itself approved), why is it that many series premieres are often lackluster?”  My answer is simple yet multifaceted.  For one, a pilot episode is the very beginning of a serial drama.  The characters are not yet fully established, and the writers are no doubt trying to get the series on its feet.  They may know where they plan to take the series, but nothing is completely concrete yet.  The fact that it’s all new and unexplored territory means that the writers have a lot of room to make excellent decisions or big mistakes.  Many often make the big mistake of trying to pull the audience in by making it exciting, but forgetting about the characters.  Others make the converse approach and attempt to bring lots of character moments without any real reason to invest in their experiences.  Overall, however, the major reason that I feel a lot of pilot episodes are approved, despite their relatively mediocre performance, is that of potential.  Because the series is new and the writers are still getting a feel for what works (given the show’s premise), I think a lot of shows are given leeway—so long as the concept itself is strong enough.  After all, Fringe, despite its rocky start, has become an engaging, intelligent, and well-paced show.  The show 24 managed to provide some better character moments later in the first season and has since kept an audience long enough to go into its eighth season (which I personally think is far more than it actually deserved, but this whole article is my opinion, so what the heck).  The first season of Heroes turned out to be one very solid, well-told, and fine piece of programming (a compliment that, unfortunately, cannot be said of the show’s most recent two seasons—which have been average at best).  Flash Forward is a show dripping with potential, but, unfortunately, I’m still waiting for it to actually take advantage of any of it (those of you that know me know that I do not have a high opinion of the show).  In most of these examples, the show ended up tapping into some of its potential over time (some more than others), even if it didn’t reach any of that potential in the pilot episode.

Nevertheless, a lot can be devised from a show by its pilot episode.  If the pilot is strong, you can easily get the sense that the writers know what they’re doing and where they’re taking the series.  It speaks to the show’s strengths.  If the pilot is not strong, however, the season itself may have a few issues to deal with before it becomes better and reaches its potential.  I’ll end with this piece of advice, kids: If you see a pilot episode for a TV series (particularly, a serial drama), and it happens to be really strong, engaging, and solid, keep an eye on that show—for you have witnessed a rare thing.

It has a Mushroom Cloud. How could this show NOT go well??

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~ by digitallysmitten on February 11, 2010.

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