Monday, August 28, 2006

What sorts of pilots do you like?

This is just the first part of what could end up being a lot of thoughts on pilots (the episodes of television series shot as "samples" for networks that are usually aired as first episodes), but since I'm rather exhausted, it hardly seems the time to try to write my ENTIRE thoughts on pilots.

Besides, Denis McGrath has done much of the work for me here.

The point is, there are two types of pilots -- the ones that show you how everything came to be (premise pilots) and the ones that drop you into the middle of a new world and expect you to keep up (we'll call these catch-up pilots, since I don't see another name for them). The two types, of course, crossbreed (with one famous blend we'll get to in a moment).

The trend in recent years has been away from premise pilots. I think this is probably because The Sopranos and The West Wing dropped us so believably and immediately into their respective universes in their pilots (the President's staff has been on the job for a year in The West Wing pilot and Tony Soprano has been a mobster for decades in The Sopranos pilot -- though it's arguable that that's a partial premise pilot since he goes to therapy for the first time in that episode). The idea is that the audience is more sophisticated -- they can figure out what's going on all by themselves. Of course, there are some shows that just don't work without a premise pilot (no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't think of a way to open Lost three months after the plane crash).

It's very easy, however, in a catch-up pilot to overwhelm your audience with too much backstory -- think of how the Veronica Mars pilot almost derailed because of all of the STUFF Veronica had to relay to the audience. It would have been untenable to start right before Lilly Kane's murder, but the exposition bordered on clumsy.

But here are some examples of the two types of pilots from recent years.

Premise pilots:

Lost -- The plane crashes. The survivors begin to realize the island they're on is full of crazy stuff and mysteries and such.

Arrested Development -- While the Bluth family exists much as it always has, this is the first time they're seeing each other in years. We find out (as they do) that George Bluth, Sr., has been engaging in criminal behavior. Responsible son Michael is recruited to hold the family together.

My Name Is Earl -- Earl is hit by a car after winning the lottery, and he learns of karma and decides to reorder his life thusly (notice the amount of backstory dropped here though -- from Earl's ex-wife Joy to his brother Randy).

Battlestar Galactica -- If we accept the miniseries as the pilot, then this is the premise-iest of them all. The world ends. A low-ranking cabinet official becomes president. One battleship stands between humanity and oblivion.

The Wire -- McNulty tells a judge about how the police department isn't getting its job done, and the judge leans on people, which results in the creation of a special unit to investigate the crimes McNulty was talking about (interestingly, the formation of the unit doesn't happen until episode two).

These are all situations where it behooves us, the audience, to jump in to the story as early as possible. We should be along for the ride to figure stuff out with the characters.

Catch-up Pilots:

Weeds -- We open months after the death of the main character's husband. The drug-dealing business is the main thrust of the pilot.

24 -- All of our terrorist fighters are in place. The only thing that's new is the terrorist threat, which, honestly, is nothing new for these people.

Veronica Mars -- Our heroine has gone from popular to goat, and her attempts to understand how her best friend died aren't helping.

Gilmore Girls -- The mother/daughter relationship, as well as the town relationships are all in place. The frosty relationship between the grandparents and mother is established, though we never quite find out why.

Rescue Me -- Sept. 11, the cataclysmic event that sets off the chain reaction of events that leads to Tommy Gavin's depression, is long in the past. Gavin is trying to hold it together.

In a catch-up pilot, it behooves the audience to come in to the story just when it's going to get dramatically interesting. We don't NEED to see Lorelai give birth to Rory -- we can see that in flashback years later. We don't need to see the World Trade Center attacks again -- we're already familiar. By incorporating just enough backstory to keep us intrigued, a catch-up pilot can drop us in to a world with a minimum of confusion.

There IS a way to blend the two, though it has become almost cliche -- the first day on the job pilot. In this sort of pilot, every character but one is in place, and that one character joins the team. We see the world through their eyes, giving us a chance to get some much-needed exposition. While this is a favorite of workplace dramas (CSI and Without a Trace both used one), you'll find its basic structures buried in other pilots (often in surprising places).

Such as. . .

Alias -- Really, all of the characters but Sydney are in place. Jack is a double agent. Sloane is evil. Vaughn is working for the FBI. But Sydney uncovers these things piece by piece and we are drawn in to the world with her -- her first day on the "job" is really a first day of awareness about her own life.

Deadwood -- The camp is already there, but we see it through the eyes of Sol Starr and Seth Bullock, who have just moved in.

The Shield -- Our eyes into the Strike Team is a man who's working to bring the team down. But then, he's shot and killed at the end of the episode by the main character, the "good guy."

Of course, the vast majority of "first day on the job" pilots use the tried and true structure where someone joins the team and learns everything about it (a good example of how to do this well is Scrubs).

There are plenty of examples of all three of these types this pilot season. As we come upon them, think about what you like about them and why. I prefer a good catch-up pilot, but I respect a premise pilot that knows it needs to start at the very beginning. The first day on the job structure is so familiar that I often feel turned off by it initially, but it can win me over.

So what do you think?

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