February 15, 2013

What does the Perfect Pilot Accomplish?

Before we dig in to a series of pilot episode reviews, let’s take a look at the criteria for a perfect first episode.


“Don't you just hate exposition?” is a line (from Charmed) that really stuck with me, probably because it struck me in the heart and the wound just won’t heal. What do you mean, you hate exposition? Hate bad exposition, not the backstory-telling itself!

Even when you’re not looking for the exposition, bad story-telling will hit you over the head and ruin the show, and the pilot episode is where this is most likely to happen.

Too many dialogues between characters that don’t really need to talk about said backstory; speeches that are clearly only for the audience’s benefit; flashbacks with voiceovers; and any over-zealous narration, really, immediately kills what could have otherwise been a good pilot. It’s a lot to ask for a writer/director to come up with new and exciting ways to tell us the backstory, but the best rule of thumb is to just let it happen slowly. We don’t need to know very much about our characters and their world in the very premiere. 

I, and most audience members like me, would much rather be left in the dark, than spoon-fed. It insults our intelligence.

Introduction to the Series:

For me, there is a difference between the exposition and the introduction, particularly 
in a television pilot, where the viewer is likely to sit to the end, but whether he or she watches anything beyond that first episode is entirely determined in that approximately 60 minutes. The unaired pilot of Stark Trek, for example, lets the viewer know what kinds of, pardon the language, crazy shit is going to happen in this series in a time when space operas on television were pretty revolutionary. The aliens with the big heads in Star Trek’s pilot, The Cage, really tell the audience a clear message: If you think this is cool, watch on. If this is a little weird for you, go back to M*A*S*H.

The conflict:

If the conflict is resolved by the end, I have no reason to watch the second episode. It may sound obvious, and may be inspiring of far too many extraneous cliff-hangers, but keep this in mind: if all of the conflicts are resolved, it means, inherently, that the show will be episodic. I have little problem with episodic shows, save that I can’t re-watch a single episode of House (for some reason all of the details stick with me, removing any enjoyable tension from a re-watch), but really, why tune in next week unless I’m worried about the state of the story world? If the protagonist is already near completion of his or her quest, I’m bored now. I came out to see a fight!

I will find examples of this in pilots, for example Doctor Who almost fell prey to a resolved conflict, but for a few examples I will largely say that early Angel and late Buffy suffered from some very boring episodic episodes that ended with no movement forward.

At first I found myself wondering why Angel needed a spin-off if all he was going to do is roam LA saving one victim at a time with no character development and no arching plot. Boring! The show did not pick up for me at all until Darla… happens... in Season 2. Buffy lost me at a crucial moment in Season 6 where, despite Season 5 being the absolute climax of a show that would air another 2 years, the story stopped suddenly.

In fact, Lost did the same thing for me mid-season when I just wanted the freaking hatch to be opened already.

If all of the plot strings are tied into a tight, artfully tied bow, the audience gets very bored. Even if we must defeat the first of many evils, solve the first of many crimes, complete the first of many quests, leave just one conflict open for me, please.

The characters:

There had better be a character I love, and a character I hate, if you want me to keep watching. Although I didn’t love the premiere of Once Upon a Time, I loved Emma and hated Regina the evil Queen.

Remember the Firefly pilot? If you remember clearly enough to your first viewing, you should be able to recall really hating Dr. Simon, and a little bit hating Mal unless you don’t really care about Inara, the Shepherd, and sometimes even Kaylee, Zoe and Wash… yeah he’s pretty much mean to the whole crew, including Jayne, who you also will not really like at this point, so no one minds when Mal puts him in his place… but it’s hard to watch when he does the same to Inara and Book. Who do we like in the Firefly pilot? Probably only Wash, to be honest.
Yes... yes. This is a fertile land, and we will thrive. We will rule over all this land, and we will call it... This Land.

A boring cast will kill a good pilot, and hatred is just as good of a reaction as love in the early stages.

When Episode Two is better:
It doesn’t mean the pilot has failed when the second episode is more engaging, entertaining and lovable. In fact, it often takes a few episodes to get into any television show. Lost and Star Trek have the near-perfect pilot, but some do not.

I can, and will, easily argue that some very good shows have sub-par priemeres, such as Doctor Who and Firefly. I can, and probably will, even say that about the Game of Thrones premiere. Once Upon a Time, which I already reviewed, did not wow me from the first glance either. Take a look at my first reaction to the Once Upon a Time premiere: for me, that review is nearly scalding I don’t normally make a habit of watching things I don’t like long enough to review them, and the Once Upon a Time pilot probably got more heat from me than most anything I’ve discussed on Musings by Starlight before.

That said, a mediocre premiere is not the end of the world, or even that of viewership. The Thing You Love Most is the second episode of Once Upon a Time, and it killed me, repeatedly – laughed, cried, forgot who I was and the fact that I was really planning on not enjoying this series in the least.

The second episode of Doctor Who is a lot easier to swallow once you’ve gotten to know Rose and the Doctor, and even though The End of The World (Ep2) is even more estranging than Rose (Ep1), it’s easier to get swept up in the story and forget all of your qualms, particularly that classy part of you that hates laughing at nerdy jokes in public and thinks it’s too cool for aliens.
Everything has its time and everything dies - Doctor Who, The End of the World
I have covered a lot here and I hope to have stroked the fire enough that you will leave me a comment. The argument has been opinionated and I’m sure I’ve said something you have disagreed with, so let me know! I need some guidance on what to discuss as I review pilots over the next few weeks.

Oh and also, what are some other criteria for the perfect pilot? I definitely missed some.

Thank you for reading, and please leave me a comment!

February 7, 2013

Piloting a Series on Pilots

What do Once Upon a Time, Doctor Who, Lost,  Firefly, Star Trek, Sherlock, Battlestar Galactica, and Game of Thrones all have in common? Well, lots of things actually; stellar casts and crews, good scores for the most part, strong niche fan-bases that have grown to mass appeal, and great stories.

For my purposes, what they all have in common comes before all of that, to the very beginning: the pilot. Every show on the air by definition has to have a decent pilot, but let's not stop at the obvious -- let's take a look at what makes these particular pilots so incredibly appealing to viewers and networks alike; what gets us past episode one? How do we go from a new audience member to a completely addicted fanatic? What are the different tactics our writers and directors have chosen to keep us watching week after week, or if you have Netflix, hour after hour after hour?

Over the next few weeks, I'll re-examine some of my favorite pilots, and take a scalpel to some new ones. Personally, I tend to watch shows that make it past a season, or fail early but quickly raise to cult status, so you might not see anything new from this current season. If you want to recommend any show to me, I would love the suggestions. I watch on audience demand, these days. You can make your demand public either below, or on Twitter.
The Cage is Star Trek's unaired pilot, currently available on Netflix. It aged better than you might think – that's one good looking cast, for one thing, and the writing was unparalleled. Its well-drafted philosophies were also largely stolen by The Matrix.