Fall TV 2016: The 4-1-1 on Pilot Episodes
I watch a lot of television and for a while I even dabbled in screenwriting. My favorite part of any TV show is the first episode or “pilot.” It is supposed to serve the dual purpose of introducing characters and plot elements important to the show while also showing the audience the kind of show one can expect week after week.
The first purpose is pretty straight forward. Are we following one protagonist or an ensemble? Do we like this people and want to root for them? Is there a Big Bad for us to hate? Is there a fatal flaw that a character has to overcome? Generally, if you grab our attention and hold it for the first few minutes, you will have done your job by the end. But characterization only looks easy. No one, in a script or in real-life, walks up to you and spells out their backstory in an exposition-heavy monologue.
The second purpose is trickier. Focus too heavy on your characters, their relationships, and a show’s plot and mythology, and you run the risk of not spending enough time on plot. Or worse, it’s a world-building episode without a genre. By the end of the pilot we need to know if we are dealing in a buddy cop drama, a teenage musical, a medical show, gritty anti-terrorist action, etc. And we need to know if the show is serial or episodic. While serial dramas are all the rage, especially on the cable networks, broadcast television still has its share of one-and-done shows (like NCIS, Chicago Fire, etc.).
Tons of pilot scripts are drafted. Some are ordered by the network and re-polished. Some of those are turned into an episode. And some of those become the new shows the networks hope we’ll watch. How they decide what to put on the air is a mix of marketing, trend guessing, an evaluation of the supply (whether the final pilot is actually any good), business deals, and connections. (More questionable or downright awful shows get put on the air because a big name actor or director is “attached” than because of its merits.)
Every once in a while, Hollywood gets into a tizzy over one sub-genre or chasing some new “fad” they think will be a monster hit. Six years ago, it was fairy tales – both ABC and NBC launched shows (Once Upon a Time and Grimm, respectively) based on public domain fairy tales. The real surprise is that both survived. Several years before that, it was self-referential meta-shows, with the characters being the cast and crew behind a variety comedy sketch show (NBC’s Studio 60 and 30 Rock). This year, 2016, we’re getting time travel – no fewer than 4 shows across the big networks are coming for us. And almost every year, but 2016 seems to be an excessive reminder of this trend, Hollywood tries to mine old shows or movies and “reboot” them as the basis for new TV. How or why these fads are chased when their success rate is no better and (for the reboots especially) arguably worse than original content will remain a mystery.
Despite all these reasons to be cynical and disgusted by the sausage-making process, I still enjoy watching the pilot episodes. After so many years of being late to the party on awesome hits like Chuck and How I Met Your Mother, at the very least, by watching pilots, I’m giving myself a chance to see if any new show is worth my time.
By the end of October, by my estimation, there are as many as 13 shows I may be sampling. I have various levels of enthusiasm for each show. I like one of the leads on the new TGIT drama Notorious, and both leads on NBC’s heavenly comedy The Good Place. And of the 2 time traveling shows to premiere in the fall, Timeless looks the best (if primarily because the other, Frequency, is a ripoff/reboot of a movie). Like last year, though, I hope to blog about them all, the good and the bad.