Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Top Pilot Study

Last week’s TV Guide carried a rather misguided list of what it considered the 10 Best TV Pilots. Obviously this led to much debate between various American television critics like James Poniewozik at Time magazine (who helpfully reprinted the TV Guide list), Alan Sepinwall who writes for New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger, and The Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan.

Not having access to the original article, which doesn’t appear to be on the magazine’s website yet, there’s no idea whether an accompanying article gave any additional reasons that led the writer to formulating the list. Without it we can only assume the ten were based on personal opinions more than anything, and it that’s the case then we can only deduce that the article’s author hasn’t watched much good television over the years.

It can be forgiven that the majority of the TV Guide ten are from the last decade. After all American television has been getting better over these many years, both on network and cable channels, rather than a simple failure of effort, but that said there are some horribly glaring omissions.

I suppose as well it depends what you’re looking for in a series pilot. Charged with the tricky balancing act, a pilot has to introduce new characters and push forward the plot, all the while engaging the audience. With competition to contend with, perhaps more importantly it has to bring something different. So, not a tall order at all.

Mulling it over, I tried to watch as many pilots available as possible over the weekend to remind myself of the impact they made. One additional factor that stood out amongst a select few is that they arrived fully formed and hit the ground running, rather than showing a marked difference between that initial episode whether in cast changes, different locales or tweaks to the storyline.

Casting an eye over the TV Guide list, I’d take issue with the inclusion of 24. Although it had an intriguing format – playing out in real time over the course of a single day – the first episode itself was quite average, with too much time eaten up with the stupid antics of Jack Bauer’s annoying daughter. I watched the pilot of Desperate Housewives on Channel 4 but came away with the opinion that it desperately wanted to be an HBO show and can’t remember anything else.

Saturday Night Live is a show I’ve never found remotely funny. I’ve seen old clips on John Belushi and tried watching a whole episode when I was in New York for almost two months in 1990. Having read Doug Hill and Jeff Weingard’s book Saturday Night, I don’t understand how the first show that went out in October 1975, with “The Wolverines” sketch kicking it off, could be considered a pilot because NBC had already committed to the series.

While 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s sitcom revolving around the making of a Saturday Night Live-style sketch comedy, was certainly more focused later in its run, the pilot appeared too garbled and rambling to belong on the list. It may be that comedies fail to produce truly great pilots because it takes a while for the writers to discover the strengths the cast bring to the roles.

Lost certainly got off to an intriguing start, with an almost silent opening that saw Jack coming round in the jungle before introducing the mayhem around the crash site of Oceanic 815. But we should remember that it took a double-length episode, featuring the invisible monster rumbling through the tree line similar to the end of Stephen Sommers’ Deep Rising, and the pissed off polar bear in the second half, before the fuselage survivors started asking what kind of crazy island they had been dumped on.

Those objections aside, The Shield certainly deserves a place on the list. A traditional staple of television, each new police drama needs to bring something new to the table so as to differentiate it from everything that has gone before. Shawn Ryan’s drama certainly did that with the arrival of the bullish Vic Mackey on the bleached out streets of LA. While corrupt cops aren’t new, past incarnations always had a line they wouldn’t cross. In the final minutes of the pilot Mackey vaulted right over it.

Alias, too brought a much needed new twist to the secret agent genre, punching the stories forward on a fast-paced adrenaline high filled with bluffs and double bluffs, double- and triple-agents before revealing itself to be a canny drama about a dysfunctional family at heart. Obviously without the spy shenanigans, ER filled the emergency room of Chicago’s County General hospital with the same breathless energy. Perhaps its chief appeal was in treating the audience with intelligence by not stooping to explain the blur of procedures.

That said, what has the list omitted? I’d place Hill Street Station on the list, the pilot episode of Hill Street Blues because it not only matched the requisite criteria, changing the face of television drama. Joining it would be NYPD Blue which, a decade on, raised the bar well beyond the next level. The early thrill of nudity and more adult language became merely adjuncts to the sharp writing of David Milch, aided by the expertise of New York detective Bill Clark, which added emotional depth to both characters and situations.

At this point it would be so easy to fill the remaining slots with police shows. EZ Streets, Paul Haggis’ morally ambiguous cop drama, would probably make the list except it has been so long since Channel 4 screened the short-lived series in its now defunct 4-Later graveyard slot that, although I recall being excited by the pilot the only clear memory I have is of Rod Steiger’s character being stuffed inside an oil drum.

Although I quickly grew into Homicide: Life on the Street, the Paul Attanasio-scripted pilot, directed by Barry Levinson, while sketching in the characters perfectly and including a prime cast that included Ned Beatty, Yaphet Kotto, Jon Polito and Richard Belzer (screaming at a suspect that he is “not Montel Williams!”) still remains a little bit obtuse for my liking. Similarly, while Robbery Homicide Division was visually impressive, which is what everyone expects from Michael Mann, and included the always excellent Barry Shabaka Henley in the cast, the pilot lifted a little bit too much from Heat and Miami Vice for my liking.

Still, I would make room for The Target, the first episode of HBO’s The Wire. Without getting all high and mighty about it, it could be argued that David Simon’s drama is simply masquerading as a police drama and is instead a savage indictment of the failure of institutions to protect the individual. Though some people feel it takes a couple of episodes to get into the show, it had me from the very beginning with McNulty lamenting the short life and quick death of Snot Boogie.

Sticking with HBO and David Milch, I’d also add the pilot of Deadwood, which breathed new life into the cocksucking Western with a wonderfully alarming jolt. Although I’ve said sitcoms take time to find their feet, Arrested Development sprang up, fully formed, with Mitchell Hurwitz’s utterly bonkers tale of the Bluth family showing The Royal Tenenbaums just how dysfunctional family comedy should be done.

By my reckoning that makes eight shows. I’m still on the fence about the ninth, struggling to chose between the pilots of My So Called Life, Veronica Mars, and maybe even The Sopranos or Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip with Judd Hirsch’s remarkable on-air meltdown kicking off proceedings. Battlestar Galactica probably has to be ruled out in all fairness because it started with a miniseries that acted as a backdoor pilot once a series was commissioned.

Of course some people may carp about British shows not getting a look in. Some probably would appear if we were simply talking about opening episodes. But we have to remember that a pilot is a different beast altogether, playing a part in a completely different commissioning process from over here.

Although there was a phase a while back of the odd pilot appearing well before the full series, like New Tricks with it’s “Woof! Woof! Bang! Bang!” line and long before that the Golden Rose-winning Cold Feet. We also had one-off thrillers like Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes being turned into a sadly short-lived series. Even with them in contention, the drama that would be tenth on my list, and in fact would be top of the list, taking pride of place as the perfect pilot, would be Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing.

Few pilots tick every box, but I thought The West Wing absolutely nailed the lot. The lead characters were perfectly sketched in and the casting of known and less well-known faces was just perfect. Like Tom Fontana before him, Sorkin showed what can happen when a playwright is left alone to write a television series.

Following ER’s lead, it didn’t talk down to viewers by feeling the need to spell out the political machinations. More importantly, over the titles, as Leo McGarry entered the White House and worked his way to his office, viewers were treated to the first of Thomas Schlamme‘s long roving takes that would become a signature of the show. The almost constantly moving camera subliminally added extra vigour to what was essentially an hour of people sitting or standing around in rooms talking.

So that would more or less be my favoured ten pilots. Which ones did I miss?


At 8:25 pm, Blogger qrter said...

Six feet under? That had a pretty good pilot, had all the characters and themes more or less in place.

I loved the first episode of Mad men, I'm not sure whether that was an actual pilot or if the series had been comissioned already.

At 9:52 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

I remember the hearse (or whatever the father was driving) getting centrepunched by the metro bus but after that I'm a bit vague on Six Feet Under.

That first Mad Men really was something. And even though its on cable, I guess they must have commissioned the pilot first.

At 3:21 am, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

The usual bias towards the recent.

And a little too much generosity towards some admittedly great shows.

The first two episodes of The Sopranos, for instance, were weak. I can still remember a Sunday Times preview urging viewers to stick with it until episode three, which was indeed a classic.

And while Arrested Development, 30 Rock and 24 are great favourites, were the pilots really that memorable?

On the subject of Lost, coincidentally, I watched the enire first season this week on disc, having resisted its charms for all these years.

(And to echo the point you made lower down, boxsets are without a doubt the best way to watch a great show.)

The pilot, and the whole series, was brilliant - cleverly written and beautifully executed.

As to why you struggled to find a British drama to add to your list, perhaps it's because the lack of investment in writing is usually apparent right from the start.

Take that Jane Austen shite on ITV. I sat through the first ten minutes out of curiosity (and to give it its due, the concept held some appeal).

Instead of crafting a few clever scenes at the start to introduce us to the characters and the world they inhabit, and instead of trusting viewers to sit tight while some questions went unanswered for a while, we were treated instead to ITV's usual retarded trick of going straight to voiceover, with the protagonist just dumping a load of expositional shit on us.

Imagine Lost made by ITV.

They'd cast Martin Clunes as the doctor, and everyone would sit on the beach for forty minutes while his disembodied voice explained to us what had just happened.

At 3:52 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Actually, if I remember correctly, Channel 4 showed the first two episodes of The Sopranos back to back, which kind of shows the confidence they had in that first episode.

Content wise, I didn’t think the pilots of 24 or 30 Rock were up to much, which is why I couldn’t figure out why TV Guide put them on the list. Arrested Development I thought nailed it right from the get-go.

Glad you’re enjoying Lost. DVD boxsets are the best way to watch ongoing dramas, but those damn things can be addictive. Because there’s been fuck all decent to watch this last week, I’ve been working my way through the first two seasons of The Wire again and the evenings have just disappeared on me. Still, I’m not complaining.

If we went through the same pilot process over here, it makes you wonder how many shows would make it. Back in the 1960s there was Comedy Playhouse out of which came Steptoe and Son. In the early 70s, Ronnie Barker’s Seven of One spawned both Porridge and Open All Hours.

Recently there was The Outsiders on ITV a couple of years back. However much money they threw into the pot it still turned out to be dead on the table before the opening titles. And, as mentioned, there was New Tricks which turned out to be a success. It’s a shame the BBC didn’t try that out with The Invisibles or Holby Blue and spared us all.

Lost remade by ITV? Jesus Christ! Martin Clunes would be taking the dog for a walk around the island while all the other survivors just lay down and died.

At 1:48 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

Mmmm, McNulty & Bunk... ;-)

At 2:44 pm, Blogger Gavin Williams said...

Not much time to throw real thought at this (got writing I'm avoiding doing), but if we're allowing shorter form and comedy, the first ep of Spaced does a great job of hitting all the characters and introducing us to their heightened, off-kilter world. Granted, a first ep of 6 not a pilot per se, but worth mentioning given uk under representation and comedies like 30 Rock being discussed.


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