Picking Over Pilots

Let's take a moment today to think about the shifting status of the pilot episode on American television -- a worthy topic in the midst of the rolling out of a battery of new television shows across the various networks. In the past, the pilot served very specific functions within the behind-the-scenes decision-making at the networks. We might think of the pilot as functioning in television the way that a character sheet functions in comics or animation: it seeks to define the core characters and central premise of the series but it also does so by pushing them into their most extreme versions. The characters in pilots are often over-defined to the point of being reduced to stereotypes as the producers try to show who these people are, how they relate to each other, and what functions they serve in terms of the plot.

Compounding this problem is the degree to which performers have not yet fully jelled with their characters -- in many cases, they may have just received news that they were assigned these roles and been rushed into production on short notice. They are trying desperately to prove they can act so they can hold onto these parts. In the past, it was not at all unusual to recast key roles after the pilot was shot and before the series reached the air. In any case, we know that character on television is generated as much by choices made by the performer on set as they take up the roles as written and make them their own and typically it takes a few episode for the rough edges to give way to more fully human characters. (Of course, the opposite can also happen and a compelling character in the pilot can be smoothed out or compromised through the production process.)

Radical shifts in the conception of the series may occur after the pilot has been shot (see, for example, the case of classic Star Trek where Spock was a highly emotional character in the pilot and Number One, a character cut after the pilot, represented the voice of cold rationality). The pilot was almost never a particularly strong episode from the point of view of the audience but producers and network executives knew how to read pilots, or thought they did, and used them as tools to make decisions about the show's fate. It would not be rare for the pilot to get shuffled into rotation later in the run of the series (again, Star Trek is the classic example here where the original pilot got reframed and turned into a two part episode -- a flashback -- later in the run of the series). There was a clear separation between the pilot and the first episode.

And all of this took place behind closed doors. Network executives saw lots of pilots; they knew more or less which ones turned into good shows down the line and they knew what were the symptomatic rough spots experienced by most pilots. They might be anxious about innovation and shut down shows which took them in new directions; many of those shows are more likely to be embraced by at least cult audiences than network executives, but for most series, they knew what they were looking at when they saw a pilot.

Now, let's consider the functions that pilots play in contemporary television, where much of what used to go on behind the scenes now takes place in public view, and where audience participation and anticipation of series is becoming more the norm. We can start with the sheer number of pilots in circulation and public access this summer compared to previous television series. Some shows -- Studio 60 on Sunset Strip and Kidnapped -- are circulating above-ground via a special arrangement with Netflix; others could be downloaded off of the network's own home pages. Still others -- Heroes for example -- circulated unofficially through bittorrent (though in such cases, it is not clear the networks are exactly heartbroken that they have escaped their control as long as they build up buzz for new series).

And increasingly pilots for shows that have not been picked up -- think Global Frequency and Nobody's Watching -- make it into digital distribution as well and can become rallying points for audience activism with varying degrees of success. Some are even predicting a world where pilots will be distributed to audiences first over the web and those which get strong support there will be sold to the networks -- more precisely, the audiences they attract will be sold to the networks in return for money to produce more episodes. One can certainly also imagine a world where niche media properties will go directly into digital or dvd distribution and be supported by their subscribers.

The pilot faces new demands in such scenarios. The pilot now becomes the public's first introduction to the characters and their situations. And the public has less experience looking at the stereotypes and broad performances found in most pilots and knowing how to anticipate what will happen when the writers and actors have brought these characters more fully under their control. Bury the pilot midseason and people will think it was an off episode. Lead with it and they will think the series sucks.

And this new context where we have so many shows thrown at us is pretty unforgiving. I know there are any number of shows this season which are lucky to get a first glance from me. I watched pilot episodes for Men in Trees, The Class, and Standoff and trust me, I don't plan to give these series a second look, even though I know full well that some of the elements which annoyed me there may get resolved when the writers and actors develop more comfort with their roles. There are some pilots which knock the ball out of the park in terms of grabbing the public attention and never letting them go. For me, the pilot of Lost will remain the high bar mark for a long time to come -- it hooked me within five minutes and never give me a moment to rethink that decision -- and Studio 60 on Sunset Strip may do the best job this season in terms of introducing the characters and premise in an engaging way -- a mixture of biting satire, nuanced characterization, kickass writing, and performers who are strong enough that they instantly fall into a grove with each other (and even here, fans are expressing concern about Amanda Peet's performance.)

A little bit further down the food chain are the pilots for Heroes and for Jericho -- both shows I definitely plan to watch but which had uneven pilots. Jericho suffered from the problem of having too broadly defined characters but there was one really compelling sequence involving a school bus full of endangered children which suggests to me that the series may know how to balance out its elements and get down to real drama.

Heroes suggests yet another risk which pilots face at the present time -- they no longer have to introduce three or four major characters in the first episode. In an era of ensemble dramas, they have to introduce dozens of characters, help us learn enough about them that we know who they are and how they are connected to each other. Heroes and Six Degrees both spend their entire first episodes introducing their large cast of characters and provide almost no information about plot developments: we know who these people are but we don't know where the series is going. In the case of Heroes, I cared enough that I will certainly watch again -- and indeed, as I wrote earlier this summer, I have high hopes for this series. In the case of Six Degrees, I don't think the pilot gave me enough that felt fresh or distinctive to get me to tune in next week, given the high volume of good alternatives that seem to be emerging this season. Some of this no doubt has to do with my high threshold for superhero stories and my low threshold for coincidence.

In this context, it is easy for a pilot to do something unforgivable and just turn you off from the series altogether. For me, Smith hit that low mark when it had a supposedly sympathetic character kill several people in cold blood because they made fun of him. To me, this fundamentally violated the deal I make when I watch heist stories -- that I will enjoy stepping outside the law as long as it is harmless fun. I like heist stories because they feature intelligent and charming mavericks who plan carefully, minimize risks to human life, and do daring stunts: I don't watch it to see thugs and psychopaths, though I may well tolerate such characters on The Sopranos, The Wire, or The Shield, which set me up for very different kinds of emotional experiences.

Part of what inspired me to put these ideas down was a quote from critic Robert Bianco in USA Today last week about the pilot for Kidnapped:

You can easily imagine yourself settling in with Kidnapped for six, eight, maybe even 13 episodes. But 22? Sorry, no. And that, in the end, is the strange bind this season's run of one-story serials have created for themselves: they force you to decide upfront whether you want to wait a year for the answer to the question posed by the pilot. Every TV show, obviously, hopes to hook you on a weekly basis, but these shows are asking, not just for a week-to-week choice, but for an immediate season-long commitment. To make that kind of demand on an audience, you had better be incredibly compelling from the get-go. 24 was. Kidnapped isn't.

I've reached somewhat different conclusions about Kidnapped, which I saw earlier this summer, and plan to give a few more episodes to find its footing. But I get Bianco's point: it was one thing to try an episode of an episodic series, then try another to see if the series was starting to jell, and indeed, to wait a few weeks and try again based on word of mouth. It's another to have to make a decision right away which complex ensemble-cast serial drama you want to watch, knowing that the full experience will come to those of us who sign up for discussion lists, check websites, work through the secrets and puzzles together, and so forth. (And of course, it is precisely this tendency towards serialization which puts added pressure on the pilot to also be a compelling first episode. You can no longer shuffle the pieces as easily and bury a bad pilot in the middle of the season.)

The only thing which makes this scenario viable at all is the prospect that we can download episodes and catch up later if one of these things turns out to be better than our first glance and word of mouth starts to build around it. That's why rerun on demand is going to become even more central to the way television works in the years to come.