Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Better Pilots than even Captain Sully

Back in September of last year, TV Guide came up with a list of the 10 Best TV Pilots in history. While the list would have been more fun if they populated it with the likes of Jack Dalton from MacGyver, or the old (or new) Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, they instead chose to rank that other, less respected form of TV pilot...the kind who, more often than not, crashes and burns on takeoff...the series premiere.

Having recently watched the pilot for FOX's "Dollhouse," Joss Whedon's newest foray into television, I was reminded once again how utterly difficult it is to craft a compelling pilot. This was Whedon's fourth television pilot (Buffy, Angel, and Firefly preceded it) and, similar to the first three, it was exceptionally weak. Whedon is a fantastic storyteller, but he's a storyteller in the true sense of the word. He takes his time to weave elaborate character arcs. He plants seeds which only sprout years later--and at just the right time. He knows how to artfully balance wit with wisdom, and he's never dull. Except in his pilots.

A good pilot has many tasks to balance. It must:

a) Introduce characters
b) Introduce setting
c) Introduce the narrative style
d) Entertain and give viewers a reason to watch episode #2.
e) Convince the network to purchase the show so that there IS an episode #2.

For a procedural crime show, pilots are easy. In most instances, as with your CSI's and your Law & Orders, the pilot IS the show. Those shows stick so close to a tried and true formula that the audience is already up-to-speed by the first commercial break. There's a body, there's an investigator, there's science, there's a trial. The learning curve for procedural shows is almost non-existent...which is why there are so many of them (and why I can't stand them).

But imagine trying to sell a multi-layered serialized drama, especially one that's innovative and different from what has come before it. It's not easy to balance the many demands of a television pilot and still produce something which is both representative of the show to follow and commercially viable. To this end, here's the list TV Guide came up with:

1) Lost (2004)
2) 24 (2001)
3) The Shield (2002)
4) The Sopranos (1999)
5) 30 Rock (2006)
6) Football Wives (2007)
7) Desperate Housewives (2004)
8) Saturday Night Live (1975)
9) ER (1994)
10) Alias (2001)

It's not a bad list at all, but mine will only feature three of these shows...and Football Wives ain't one of them. Yes, beginning this week, I'll be counting them down...Kraig's list of the Top 10 Television Pilots in History.

It's the definitive list.


Blogger JMW said...

Eight of their 10 are from '99 or later? And one that isn't is a sketch comedy show?? Weak.

I look forward to your definitive list.

March 3, 2009 at 1:07 PM  
Blogger Kraig Smith said...

I'm still vetting my list--wrestling whether to include sitcoms at all--but it looks like at least 6 or 7 of my shows are pre-1999, so I've got that much covered at least.

March 4, 2009 at 3:33 PM  

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