Why TV pilots crash and burn
By Hank Stuever,
So many TV shows are bad right from the very start, in the first few minutes, and just about everyone can tell. It’s a horrible feeling, a sadness — even for cruel TV critics who write dismissive reviews based on a single episode. So many pilots crash and burn on takeoff. Viewers can smell the fear.
And yet someone put his or her whole heart into creating this piece of trash. Someone pitched it, someone bought it. Some actor is hoping for steady work out of it, a comeback, a big break. (See: “Animal Practice,” “Malibu Country,” “The Mob Doctor.”) Some low-level production assistant will be out of work in a month because of a bad pilot. You are witnessing a disaster (“Made in Jersey,” for any example) that layers of producers and executives, even at the top of the ratings game, felt secure enough and enthusiastic about to put on the fall schedule. Often they are thwarted by the dubious science of test screenings, which identify “problems” that are “fixed” in edits and reshoots.
And it’s terrible. You know it almost as soon as the characters start talking. But how do you know? Is it the script? Is it the premise? Is it the cast? Is it the look? Usually it’s an intangible combination of all those.
Mostly, however, it’s in the self-consciousness of the a first episode. It’s a blind date who sweats too much, knowing he’s only got a few minutes to sell you, and then trying way too hard, which only makes it worse. That is what I loathe about watching pilot after pilot after pilot this time of year — not that the show might be bad or cliche or insultingly stupid (I am, after all, paid to watch plenty of bad television), but that pilots try too hard to cover up their faults.
My real problem with the whole concept of a pilot episode? That it has to be first.
Network TV shows might be better off if they started with the second episode, or the third. The best TV shows (most of them on cable) launch themselves into what seems like the middle of a story. People have been watching TV nonstop for 60 years; surely we’ve learned how to figure our way around a basic premise and a set of characters by now. Why drag us through the unnecessary clumsiness of a beginning, an origin story?
Why not use the pilot only as a private means to persuade network executives to greenlight a series — and then use what’s left for hype, for serving up appetizing Internet clips? Use the pilot as something to show to potential advertisers and TV bloggers who insist on seeing (and posting) a little of something, anything. Shoot a pilot, but then stick it on a shelf, and air it only if the series becomes a cult hit and the fans clamor to know: How did this all begin?
Otherwise skip the pilot’s dependence on set-up and exposition, and (please!) skip the voice-over narration, in which the character tells you his or her life story up to now. This has to be the laziest way to write a TV script yet shows up in a few too many shows this fall. (Even when a pilot is charming, like “The Mindy Project,” it reveals its insecurities when the lead character starts in with the voice-over.)
Often what’s most clear from a pilot is that the people who made the show don’t trust you to figure out what they’re trying to do. Everything is overstated. The jokes are driven too hard. The premises are flattened until they are far too broad. The characters come in explaining who they are and what motivates them. The drama is overcooked and supplied with its blandly meaningful rock ballad. There may as well be a text crawl across the bottom of the screen, containing the many, many notes from an unseen army of producers: Does her name have to be Cassandra? How about we call her Alex? Should the neighbor be black? Should there be more sexual tension between the leads? Can you change this line? Can you change that one? We need to recast the little girl.
Another bummer about pilots: Often it’s all that the TV critic gets to see before he or she has to write a review — which isn’t much to go on. (Isn’t that right, “Go On”?) No matter how badly we’d love to see another episode (or two, or three) of a new series before we commit opinion to laptop screen, the fact is that further episodes usually haven’t been finished by deadline.
This is why critics feel compelled to go back and review a show again, sometimes to say that it’s worse than we originally thought. A good pilot can be such a welcome sight in the fall TV onslaught that critics sometimes overpraise the effort, only to discover that it got stale fast. (Which is probably why I overpraised “Once Upon a Time” last fall, based on its pitch-perfect pilot.) Sometimes we dial back to say that a show turned out much better than the pilot originally seemed, which is why I had to admit that I was mostly wrong about “Community.” Its pilot failed to convey (to me and others) the layers of nuanced snark and absurdity that were coming.
If only pilot episodes knew how to play it cool.
I don’t mean “cool” in the Ryan Murphy sense, though Murphy can make beautifully hip, pop-culturally-savvy pilot episodes, such as those for “Glee,” “American Horror Story” and, this year, “The New Normal.” (If Murphy created only pilots — without ever making a second episode — he would be an undisputed genius. As it is, “Glee” is still torturously on.)
By cool, I mean remaining calm. There is so little on TV now that comes across as calm and assured. Stop letting us see how nervous you are about cancellation, about the future of television, about the future of your career. Put on a show as if you don’t care that it could be canceled after two episodes. (Which is all any of us ever saw of Fox’s beautiful “Lone Star” two years ago. I like to think that by dying young it remained a fantastic TV show, which I praised in print and will happily stand behind. Had it gone on, it would surely have devolved into an outlandish soap opera.)
Be a brave pilot. Begin your story with the delusion that there will be 100 more episodes and a safe landing in syndication. Begin with the delusion that you’re the head of HBO or AMC. Begin with the delusion that television is once again in a glorious age, that it is the only entertainment medium worth talking about (still, in 2012) and that America is watching raptly. Take flight without calling so much attention to your fancy wings. Assume you are soaring right up until you hear the splat.