Thursday, November 05, 2009

What Makes a Good Pilot?

I wrote a version of this in the comments postings on my latest blog post on the V pilot, but I can't stop thinking about it, so I thought I'd expand it into a full column: What makes a good pilot? Many people are chattering about the pilot for V, saying based on it they'll watch it to the very end (if they loved it) or will never watch another episode (if they hated it) or will give it another shot (if they thought it was somewhere in the middle). But can we really tell from a pilot if a show is going to be any good?

The only way to really know if a pilot was any good is by looking at it in hindsight. But after much, MUCH experience with pilots, I'm not sure if they can be reliable indicators of how good a show is going to be. I've seen great pilots that basically used up all the writers' best ideas in one go, only to leave us with a limping series to follow. I've seen meh pilots that turned into amazing shows. I've seen good pilots for good shows, and good pilots for great shows, and good pilots for awful shows.

So let's look at some pilots that have (in hindsight) left a big impression on me. And for the most part, luckily, I can remember how I felt after watching them:

Lost: Possibly the best pilot episode I've ever seen. It introduced us to many characters, but didn't expect us to remember all of them, and instead focused on Jack and his relationship with the other characters. The special effects were extraordinary, and by creating utter confusion and fear in us by introducing a mysterious monster from the get-go, the show managed to make us as baffled and scared as the people on the island. What better way to align us with these characters. It was an extraordinary pilot that turned into an extraordinary show.

Buffy: It felt like a one-off episode, because it was the one that was meant to pull us in. It had great moments, like Giles plopping the Vampyr book on the library counter and Buffy backing away slowly, or like Xander overhearing the conversation, or Cordy almost being staked. It established the characters and we actually remembered their names by the end of it. But was it mindblowing when you put it in the context of what was to come? No. I don't remember being blown away by this episode, but it gave me just enough to want to keep watching, and by the middle of season 2, I was so in love with this show it hurt.

Angel: We'd just seen the end of season 3 of Buffy, and many fans were still hurting over the painful breakup between Buffy and Angel, so to see him in L.A., and to realize this was going to be less teenage angst and more adult loneliness was jarring. Cordy wasn't quite meshing, Angel was a little too broody, and the side plot of the evil vampire lawyers was boring. Most of season 1 turned into a monster-of-the-week show, but by the end of the season, the series had been lifted into a new stratosphere. By season 3, it was rivalling Buffy for my affections. I LOVE this show.

Heroes: WICKED pilot. Cheerleaders jumping off 10-storey buildings and healing. Bad guys. Good guys. Dreaming guys. Flying guys. The names were printed right on the screen so I knew who was who. The relationships were foggy, but I knew they'd be important. There were so many questions raised I couldn't wait for week 2. This show went on to prove itself again and again... until the finale. And after that it never, ever mustered the strength of its opening episodes, and instead fizzled into nothingness. What a waste.

The Sopranos: Mafia presence established. Check. Tony goes to the psychiatrist. Check. Tony has anger-management issues in front of an HMO building. Check. He's a family man, and a "family" man. But did it grab me? No. I moved onto the second episode hoping it would be better, and it was. Thus began my love-hate relationship with HBO pilots -- for the most part they're slow, and refuse to throw everything they've got into it. And for that, I now love them because I realize they're saving their best stuff for after the pilot.

Six Feet Under: One of my all-time favourite series. But the pilot? Great opening scene of a bus running into the funeral hearse. But then it dragged. Family established, quirkiness is there, but beyond that... kinda boring. I put it away and didn't watch the second episode for months. And WOW was I happy I did. Again, HBO used the opening to just introduce things. It was in the second and third episode that they pulled us in entirely.

The Wire: Another HBO outing, another opening with a LOT of information, characters who just didn't have my sympathy, humour that wasn't funny yet (because the inside jokeyness was yet to be established), and SO complicated it hurt my head... yet there was something there that really intrigued me and made me go straight to the second episode. There was no waiting this time. And it turned out to be the smartest show on television EVER, and one of the most compelling, heartbreaking, beautiful pieces of television of all time. (Anyone who's watched it knows I'm not exaggerating here.)

Glee: Fun, funny, and joyous, this show just seemed to completely nail it on the pilot and hasn't stopped. Unlike every other show on television -- possibly ever -- they rolled out the pilot on its own like a one-off movie and then sat back to see how everyone would handle it. And it proved to be the way to go. The characters have remained largely consistent, funny, and heartbreaking, and this show hasn't made a misstep yet, in my mind.

Flashforward: I really enjoyed the pilot of this one, but I wasn't head-over-heels in love with it. The second episode, on the other hand, was awesome, and then by the third episode it was dreary and hasn't picked up yet (here's hoping tonight's episode, the first one helmed completely by Goyer without anyone slowing him down, will prove to be the turning point). Too much was thrown at us in the pilot, and the rest of the series has just felt like a retread of everything we saw there.

Entourage: I hated hated hated that pilot. Hated it. I watched it, couldn't BELIEVE the hype about the show, and thought it was just a stupid stupid show for little boys who want to compare penis sizes and then brag about it. But a friend of mine whose opinion I really respect begged me to give it another chance and just get to the second episode, so I finally did (very begrudgingly) and was pleasantly surprised to see those same little boys being brought down, being made fools of, and then having to laugh at themselves, which they did. The show's had its ups and downs -- this season, sadly was a huge down -- but it's been a pretty good show, overall. And you just can't beat Ari Gold.

The Office: I was a big fan of the UK version of The Office, and I'll never forget interviewing David Denham for my Angel book (he played Skip the Wonder Demon on Angel) and we were chatting casually at the end of the interview and I asked him what else he was working on, and he said he was in a pilot of an American version of The Office. You can actually HEAR me lose interest on the tape. "Oh. Isn't that nice." (My hostility of US shows trying to adapt UK shows knew no bounds at the time.) And instead, he was featured in one of my favourite series of all time. (He played Pam's lug-headed fiancé.) But when I tuned in to the pilot, it was almost shot-for-shot the UK pilot, which apparently had been the idea, and then after that first episode they went off on their own. A REALLY stupid idea, in my opinion, because of how popular the UK one was here, and how many people -- like me -- who watched it and went, "Really? They're even doing the stapler in the Jell-O mold?!" and turned the channel. I didn't turn it back until the show was in season 2. And then I realized what I was missing...

Friends: I remember years and years ago tuning into this show for the first time, the night it first aired, and found it unfunny, staged, and ridiculous. The jokes fell flat, and there was only one moment where I smiled (Phoebe started going on and on about her mother committing suicide and mental illness running in the family or something and everyone sat there silent before Ross said, "The word you're looking for is, 'Anyway...'" and I remember thinking that was hilarious) but otherwise, I thought there was no way that show would survive. Boy, was I wrong there.

So... what does all of this tell us about V? Well, there are probably indicators in a show of whether it will be good or not. In every instance where I ended up liking the show a lot, you could tell it had a great cast and there was usually some moment in there that I liked so much I tuned in the following week. But then again, the same could be said of the shows that fell flat.

Do you think you can honestly tell if a show's going to be good on its first episode? Should shows be judged by their pilots? Or should the pilots only be judged in hindsight, in relation to what the show later became? While I loved the pilot of Lost, there's NO WAY I could have seen the topsy-turvy universe that was going to unfold later. There was no DI, no Ben, none of that juicy stuff in that pilot. But it had all the makings of that, and smartly, the writers didn't decide to throw everything at us from the outset.

What pilots do you remember being good or bad indicators of what the show would later become?


Robert said...

Glee, Modern Family and Fringe have all been recent pilots that I remember as amazing.

Since I didn't watch the UK version of The Office, I don't have the same feelings towards it. I was hooked from the very beginning and it just keeps getting better and better.

The shows that have had good pilots but disappointing yields later are Heroes and Flash Forward.

A show that I didn't love immediately but grew on me is Arrested Development, which ABSOLUTELY works ONLY if you stay with it.

To be honest, I'm also on the side that pilots have little to say about a series, but it's the consistency that really counts in the end (if networks don't get in the way, of course).

Fred said...

@Nikki: You are right in assuming that a pilot alone doesn't tell us very much about whether a show will be great, mediocre, or just bad. You have more experience with this than myself (casual viewer), but I wonder about how the executives that decide (thumbs up or down) whether to go ahead with a show is based on the pilot alone? If so, what are the executives looking at, and what is going on in their brains, considering how many flops there are?

I think one thing about a good pilot is viewer identification with a character. If you can get that alomst instant identification (be it, 'I know someone like that,' to 'gee that's an interesting character I'd waste 60 minutes with') then even a mediocre pilot can still grab. It's just like at the movies, where fans play the "what-if" game: what if it really was Ronald Reagan and not Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca? What if Jack had been killed off in the pilot, would we still be watching? Identification with main characters is important to making a successful pilot.

The other thing about a good pilot is that it has to have enough elements to develop--video games are like that. Start at a low level, get a few weapons, magic swords, whatever, and then move out into the game landscape. LOST was brilliant at this: monster, check; potential terrorist, check; love interest, check; and so on. In the movies, Jurrasic Park (first one) was so much like a video game: strand a group of scientists and children in the middle of the park; have them move through a landscape with potential threats to get to a goal and safety. Brilliant.

The other thing about pilots now-a-days is we don't need to see them. I missed the pilot to Glee (just watched it in repeat), but it didn't detract me from watching every week after it. As well, we can now watch whole series in a go on DVD or on-line (I did this with Heroes, and it was so much better than weekly appointment TV). So in that sense, even if the pilot is bleh, it doesn't matter, because you're trading continuity for weekly thrills.

A problem with pilots is when the show is tweaked to try to increase audience interest. The premise of the pilot drops out and we are really watching a new show. I wonder if that is what is going to happen to V? I don't know what the viewing audience numbers were, but if they were low, would that lend itself to changing the show after the hiatus? I guess we are going to see that with Flashforward.

As I said on the V pilot blog, TV is a domestic medium. To craft a pilot for a small screen (though they are getting bigger, which makes it possible for more movie- like qualities), it's hard to get the wow factor in CGI, and other things. TV has to rely on character, and if that doesn't come through, then I think it fails. I tend to think of movies like pilots, or at least the first 15 minutes. Movies only get one chance to grab you. Unlike TV, where we allow second and even third chances. I wonder how much cross-over of movie styles we'll see as TV moves to LED and increases in screen size lend themselves to comparisons with the big screen?

Anonymous said...

True Blood - great pilot

Seinfeld - bad pilot (no Elaine?) - actually the whole first season was pretty bad


Anonymous said...

Hi, Matthew here..

Hmmm... I have not seen all the pilots you mention, but I diasgree about how succesful Buffy and Angel were. I caught Buffy by accident. Back in the late 90s BBC2 had a slot at 6.25 that was essentially nerd TV (Star Trek and the like) which I loved. One day it was Buffy instead. I had no idea. But after the intitial triple bluff - not only is the blonde girl not the victim or Buffy but she IS the vampire - I was hoooked, and the theme song and innumerable other parts just resonated and hit me. My response was 'I will watch this again; I cannot wait to watch this again'. That had only ever happened to me once before, and that was with Twin Peaks.

Angel, I also thought, was staggering - funny, scary, intriguing... and the decision to kill thhe victim off and not have Angel save her, as well as having Angel jump in the wrong car again made me think: I have to wattch this.

BUT, these are just personal reflections that tell you nothing about whether a Pilot is or is not succesful, and certainly does address the question of whether or not a pilot can act as an accurate predictor of the series' overall quality.

I think they are much more important simply in creating the 'format' - what is the show's general tenor; what is its palette; what kind of music will be used; how is it lit... as well as more obvius questions concerning how the show's use of genre will contrubute to its format. Buffy and Angel did this reallly well - hybrid genres, directional lighting, live contemporary music; warm golds / cold blues for Buffy: and generic hybridity, noir effect lights; high super hero angles; low detective angles; dark (obviously, perhaps!)... within that format characters will develop and grow, but if the format doesn't work then you'r sunk.

Here's where all the Firefly fans go mental... FOX was right about the first pilot - at least in one regard: it did not establish the format quickly and neatly enough: The 'second' pilot opens in a fashion that is brilliant in its economy and clarity - bar room (western), clealry non-western music and costume (in part); space ship (sci fi) BUT also... the browns and ochres and rusts and reds, the knee-high camera tracking (child-like excitement resolving to knowledge as it rests on our teamm...). This pilot drew the TV public in.. to an extenet. The jokes and characters of the original pilot are more interesting, but the format is nowhere nearly as well set up.

So, that's my take - a pilot sets up the format (well or badlly) and the rest - story, theme, character starts here but we can only assess their quality later; and we will only do that if we enjoy the format enough.

Right, off to bonfire night!

asiancolossus said...

I completely agree with your assessments Nikki, particularly with Lost, Flashforward, Glee and Heroes.

I hope you totally get into Modern Family more I would be very interested in seeing what you think about the show. I think it is the best new show on TV right now (at least comedy wise). Hopefully you do love it and blog about it! So many zingers every week!

dmc said...

Did someone just write 'Seinfeld' and 'bad' in the same sentence?

Nikki Stafford said...

dmc: LOL! Yes, as in "Seinfeld's series finale was BAD." ;) I remember watching the pilot and liking it, but now, of course, I can't remember which episode that was, so maybe it didn't stick with me the way I thought it did.

Robert: Fringe is a good one. I forgot about that, but yes, that was an excellent pilot. Arrested Development is another one where the pilot was good, but not great. It gave me enough to keep me coming back, though, and I'm SO glad I did.

Fred: You bring up an excellent point: how do they present pilots to the networks? Perhaps that's why pilots are the way they are these days: in the case of Buffy, Whedon had to present a 30-minute pilot to the network and they bought it on that. HBO shows are bought as an entire season, which is why they don't have to blow everything in the first episode.

A lot definitely has to do with what network it's on. In the case of ABC, a bad pilot could drive people away instantly, and the show is looking at cancellation two episodes later. Whereas on a cable network, they've already committed to the season and it's pretty much in the can before it begins airing. So that's definitely something to think about. I wish I knew more about the actual industry side of all of this.

Nikki Stafford said...

Matthew: You raise some excellent points, and maybe I wasn't completely fair with Buffy. When I watched it, I watched the first three episodes together (I sadly can't boast that I saw it live the night it first aired on the WB). So unlike Angel, where I did watch it live, I don't have a very clear memory of exactly what the experience was like. I loved the banter, I thought the dialogue was great, and I looked forward to the second. But, for me, it certainly didn't project the depth of the show that would be evident only a couple of episodes later.

And with Angel, where I did watch it live, it was missing that teenage snarkiness. In retrospect, however, I look back at Buffy's pilot and I adore it. I'm laughing at things I didn't laugh at the first time through (because knowing the characters the way we do now changes what they are for me) and Angel seems fresher and funnier than I remember it being on the first go-round. When Angel jumps in the wrong black car, I laughed out loud the first time I saw it, but it was a moment that really stood out in an otherwise slightly pedestrian plot for me.

Anonymous said...

It was Buffy's season finale that showed me "this will work if they give it a chance." It packed humor, action, drama so nicely into one hour that I loved it.

In V's case, I think it really should have had a two hour pilot, like Lost had. I do not mean the first two episodes. I mean, take episode one and expand it. Let it breathe. Let it give us more time with the characters. Make the sequence where we discover Wash ain't so nice extra shocking because we had time to really engage the characters. The biggest flaw of the pilot for V was that I felt like it skipped beats.

The first season of Friend approaches near unwatchable levels. The only thing that was working at all were the later episodes detailing Ross trying to win Rachel and the Joey Chandler relationship. That friendship had a solid chemistry almost from episode one.

But yes, pilots are hit or miss. The Office I knew I had to wait for the second episode. It was paint by numbers and they needed a new beginning all their own. I recall Gervais saying he thought they should not use the British pilot, but the other producers thought "it worked the first time!"

Karen W. said...

I agree with you completely about "Buffy" and "Angel" and even your timeline. By the middle of the second season of each, I was deeply in love. :) I miss both shows so much.

A.G.Wooding said...

What about Fringe? I'm interested to find out how much you thought of that considering you're a fan of Lost and Alias.
But to be honest it's not just pilots we can't rely on, its the first seasons of shows entirely. Some shows continously get better than you thought they ever could (Pushing Daisies I particulary loved in its second season) and some fell flat after a complete season of brilliance (Heroes obviously).
I think if you really care about getting into a show then you should at least give it a season and if it still isnt good by next season then as a viewer you have every right to say, you had your chance and you've failed again.
For me I didn't like Dollhouse in its first season until about the last few episodes and I'm still not grabbed by this season but I'm still giving it a chance.
And then there's shows like Lost, The Wire and True Blood which are just awesome and anyone who doesn't watch them by now must be a little strange.

Anonymous said...

Firefly had a great pilot - too bad they didn't air it until the end, when they'd already cancelled the show.

Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls had pilots that sucked me in - but not what the general population wanted I guess. Same with Chuck.

As for Flashforward - I decided to stick with it and watch last night - really good episode. I have hopes they're getting back on track.

Fred said...

I have to admit I didn't warm to the pilot of Fringe. Perhaps, it was due to the expectation this was going to be X-Files redux. But given the chance after a few episodes, I got into the show, and I just love it. I think when fans love a show it's due to the chemistry between characters, elements of humour, insight, and that haunting sense of something in the background (Fringe plays these especially well). But could it have done all these things in the pilot? Nope! All those things take time, and viewers have to warm to the characters as the writers develop them in different situations.

On the other hand, good pilot, good show concept, great acting etc. still doesn't make for TV survival. Pushing Daisies was a favorite of ours, and when we heard it was getting cancelled there was a few choice words about television audiences--I mean who loves Reality shows over Pushing Daisies (probably a lot given ratings), or some of the other mediocre stuff that stays endlessly on the air, reincarnated from show to show. I guess we are not that niche market of viewers. For instance, don't have the time of day for Grey's Anatomy, and Desperate Housewives got stale for my wife, while never watched more than a few minutes of Vampire Diaries, 90210, and so many others. There is a limited time for watching television and choices have to be made. If that means not watching something that might be great, then that's what summer and DVDs are for.

Coming from Canada, I find it frustrating seeing some favorite shows disappear because they can't find a foothold in the U.S.. Personally, I wish there was a new model where American television could survive outside the U.S.. Maybe Pushing Daisies may not have been that popular in the U.S., but could it have survived outside U.S. borders on foreign airwaves. We've seen this work with Baywatch. Now that we're in a global market, why not allow American-made shows survival outside American audience's purview? I wonder how that would change generating pilots? Would pilots then be variable from country to country--imagine marketing to China, and putting references in for Chinese audiences. American viewers would never see these references (which would be edited in/out), but Chinese audiences would. Afterall, cars and other consumer goods are built for various market niches, and even now websites are gaining international script for URLs. Why not television shows? Any ideas, or is this done already?

Fred said...

I should note television advertising for shows is country specific. I especially loved the Sky 4 promos for the pilot for LOST--oh why didn't we have that here. Looking at some of the other ones from various countries were so cool. Has anyone seen different/national promos for Flashforward, V, or any of the other news pilots for this season?

Blam said...

Nikki: What makes a good pilot?
(1) Stays calm in any situation. (2) Can land plane in large body of water near metropolitan area after collision with errant geese. (3) Doesn't overshoot destination airport because websurfing turned up something kewl.
Whoops! I should've read the post first. Sorry...

Blam said...

But seriously, folks... I'm behind on FlashForward, Dollhouse, and Modern Family, not to mention the rewatch; I haven't seen the V pilot yet; I'm dealing with Blogger problems again; and to top it all off, I may have a flu of either the mundanely seasonal or porcine variety. So while I think I've seen most of the pilots addressed in this thread, this comment is just about all I can muster right now. Darn you, Nikki, and your legion of followers for being so prolific and thought-provoking! I hope to join you again soon. 8^)

Batcabbage said...

You mention some of my favourite shows in the post, Nik (I'm watching the Wire right now, and I'm completely and utterly blown away by it. It's compulsive). But for me, the one pilot in recent(ish) years that had me hooked from the get-go was Carnivale. Compelling characters, great setting, Michael J Anderson - all fantastic. It was the first show in a while that made me think 'What the hell is this all about? I must know! I must watch!' That hasn't happened to me for a while. But by the same token, they cancelled it when it was nowhere near finished (I have hated HBO because of this and the Deadwood cancellation for a while now). Cancellation is one reason why I don't go for that many new shows. I get quite angry when characters I have invested time in don't get a chance to complete their stories because of 'budgetary constraints', especially now when the DVD market is making bucketloads of money for the networks. I don't usually come across shows that pull me in from the start like Carnivale did. Damn, I miss that show.

Anonymous said...

A lot CAN be said by a pilot, but not always. As endearing as season 1 of Buffy is now and as much as it hooked me when I was 16, it does fall short of what the series became.
And, as you said, the first season of Heroes was stellar. I'm still tuning in every week, but very aware it's not a great show and not what it started as. I'm connected to the characters though, so I can't let go.
The pilot to Firefly was awesome, and we all know the world would be different if the actual pilot had been shown first!!

crazyinlost said...

Some of my favorite pilots were Early Edition (but the 2nd ep cruxed it for me), Dark Angel, Defying Gravity is all I can think of right now. Some pilots I hated were STTNG (but watched it after I was well into the series and liked it), SG1, (same as STTNG), and Sanctuary. I gave this one a full season before I said, "Nah".

I've never seen Firefly, but the way Matthew described the 2 pilots reminds me alot of STTOS and how the first pilot didnt sell, even though it was very thought provoking, and the network went with the second shoot-em-up version.

I agree with Batcabbage in that all the shows I seem to like get cancelled early on. I was sad to see Defying Gravity go so quickly in the States, but hey, Nik, are they still showing it in Canada?

As for V, I saw the 2nd ep, and now I'm just confused. Too much going on. I'll give it one, maybe 2 more try's.

crazyinlost said...

Some of my favorite pilots were Early Edition (but the 2nd ep cruxed it for me), Dark Angel, Defying Gravity is all I can think of right now. Some pilots I hated were STTNG (but watched it after I was well into the series and liked it), SG1, (same as STTNG), and Sanctuary. I gave this one a full season before I said, "Nah".

I've never seen Firefly, but the way Matthew described the 2 pilots reminds me alot of STTOS and how the first pilot didnt sell, even though it was very thought provoking, and the network went with the second shoot-em-up version.

I agree with Batcabbage in that all the shows I seem to like get cancelled early on. I was sad to see Defying Gravity go so quickly in the States, but hey, Nik, are they still showing it in Canada?

As for V, I saw the 2nd ep, and now I'm just confused. Too much going on. I'll give it one, maybe 2 more try's.