See? It's Tim Daly! Who played a pilot! On TV! He's a TV pilot!

It’s pilot season again on the major networks, as they trot out their new series. Anyone who knows me knows that I enjoy watching pilots as a sort of academic experience, trying to pull out what series did things well and why, and which did things poorly and why. So to break down what I noticed:

 

Undercovers: If there’s one thing JJ Abrams has learned over the years, it’s how to grab people with a pilot. This show made a lot of promises in its pilot, including a lot of action and a lot of exotic locations (or, at least, exotic establish shots) that it will need to live up to going forward. It wasn’t afraid to introduce the show itself before the main characters, who didn’t show up until nearly 5 minutes into the show after a tonal establishment. This is something that can work better in television where a series is advertised for weeks, if not months, unless it’s named “Lone Star”. There’s less of a worry about, as Jenn puts it, imprinting like a baby duck when you’ve been told by commercials who your main characters will be and you can look for them. This had some of the least amount of what I term “pilotitis” of any of the new shows I’ve seen so far.

No Ordinary Family: Here’s the other end of the pilotitis extreme, but it’s hard to avoid that with a show that needs to set up such an extreme premise as family-of-superheroes. Especially when it’s living in the shadow of Heroes, and really any comic book you can name. The show was required to set itself apart, and that meant a full hour of the family being put in a position to get powers, discovering the powers, and using the powers. All while also setting up the secondary ideas of the “dysfunctional” family dynamic (dysfunction TV families never actually are, take the Simpsons as an example) and the therapy angle. That’s a lot of stuff to set up, a world, characters, and a story-telling conceit. That it managed any plot in the episode was almost a miracle.

The Event: Big epic story lines and pilotitis somewhat come hand-in-hand as you need to get people into the characters and the Big Crazy Event they will be living through. This show took an approach slightly similar to Lost in choosing to use flashbacks, but rather than characterization flashbacks most of them were plot related as we’ve been thrown somewhat in media res into a situation where the main characters know what’s going on much more than the viewers. This is dangerous story telling, because it creates the potential to hide stuff from the audience way too easily. Fortunately through two episodes, they’ve not done a whole lot of that. One big example from the second episode is a scene that clearly implies that someone within the CIA is one of the…whatever the Alaskans are (aliens is implied), and then an immediately flashback says who it is.

Hawaii Five-O: Bouyed by a well-known concept, and not saddled with a lot of characters, this show got most of its pilotitis out of the way in the first fifteen minutes, and then could actually focus on having a plot for the rest of the episode. That’s the power of the procedural drama. We know the world because it’s our world. We know the people because they are all insert-archetype-here characters. The biggest awkward moment was the introduction of Daniel Day Kim’s character as they went a long way into the “well as you know…” territory when explaining the past that he and another character had. There’s a power in simplicity, and really all the show needed to establish was their list of archetypes (no rules cop, good cop, falsely accused cop, rookie cop), Hawaii, and that they would still say “book em, Danno”.

Outsourced: With more half hour comedies getting away from traditional sitcom setups, there’s more of a need to have the first episode be a pilot and not just throw you into the action, but it’s harder because there’s less time in an episode, even less time to snag an audience (I’ll admit I gave $#*! My Dad Says less than five minutes) and it has to be funny in the process. Outsourced had a lot on its plate, and did mostly what it could while still getting some jokes in there. The big problem with sitcoms requiring pilots is that it doesn’t provide a lot of promises for what other episodes will end up looking like. Though for such a large ensemble comedy (I can remember seven characters who I believe will have distinct roles in the show) it did what it could to introduce everyone and give a few moments of characterization for each.

DL Thurston’s blog at http://DLThurston.com/blog is currently broken and never got updated anyway. Instead, watch him try to make sense of the War of 1812 at http://200years.dlthurston.com. Rust is available now for Kindle, ePub readers, and iBooks, coming soon to Sony Reader. He’ll stop editing this post any time now…

About the author

DLThurston DL Thurston is a writer of novels, screenplays, and the occasional short story. He has short stories due out soon in the Steam Works anthology from Hydra Publications and in The Memory Eater. When he's not writing, he also brews beer and even drinks it sometimes. Check out his exploits either on his blog or on Twitter.