Why do TV pilots make us squirm?

10/02/2012 3:49 PM

10/02/2012 3:51 PM

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.

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 a combination of all those.

Mostly, however, it’s in the self-consciousness of the 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 shows (most of them on cable) launch themselves into what seems like the middle of a story. People have been watching TV for 60 years; surely we’ve learned how to figure our way around a basic premise and a set of characters.

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?

Use the pilot as something to show to 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 too many shows this fall.

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.

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 – “Glee,“ “American Horror Story” “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.

Be a brave pilot.

Begin your story with the delusion 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.

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