One of My Favorite Times of Year

by Brett Battles

One of my favorite times of year has always been the fall. Not because of the weather and beautiful colors (though I LOVE them), and not because it’s football season (go 9ers, despite the slow start). It’s because it’s the start of the new network television season.

Now, things have been changing for a while on the television front. There was a time when there was just the three big networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC), and they would go ALL OUT to get viewers attention for their fall lineups. They’d do huge image campaigns, use catch jingles (often based on older song…anyone remember “Still the One” for ABC?), and otherwise pull out all the stops. This kind of all out blitzkrieg marketing pretty much stopped sometime in the late 90s. I actually worked on one of the last ones for ABC…it was the one where we had these giant As, Bs & Cs that the cast members of the various new and returning shows could play on and we filmed them. It was fun, but, honestly, there’ve been better campaigns and worse.

Anyway, campaigns weren’t what I wanted to talk about, the point I was trying to make was that the disappearance of campaign happened because the networks were no longer the only game in town, and the networks fall lineups lost some of their luster because there were so many other choices out there.

Why? Cable, of course. At first channels like FX and TNT and SY FY (then SCI FI) were just places for old movies and network returns, but then cable channels started branching out and running first run programs on their own. And they did this with zero regard to the usual show launch season.

The Fall.

That really changed things.

Nowadays shows are launched year round – January, May, June, whenever a show is ready to go (that’s not completely true, but close enough).  

But while the networks might have lost some of their edge, they have hung on to their fall tradition (admittedly with some spring shows thrown in and an emerging summer season). And since this still represents a majority of new show debuts, I still look forward to it.

You see, to me, there are few things on television more interesting than the pilot episode of a series. This is the episode that sets everything that follows up. And, quite honestly, is often the worst episode of the whole run. That said, I love to watch pilots. I love to see how the show’s creators set up their worlds, how they introduce their characters, how they set the tone and pace for the series.

I think watching these is a great exercise for writers no matter what genre or type of writing you might do. It’s a quick way to see multiple creative efforts to bring new realities to life in a relatively short period.

More times than not these newly created realities fail quickly and are yanked from the schedule. But even for the ones that do succeed, often it’s despite pretty sucky pilots.

But, as they say, you sometimes learn more from the bad than the good. So pay attention and take notes because a bad pilot is likely to have any or all of the following: cliché characters, cliché settings, cliché set-ups, and, well, just clichés, also story logic issues, undervaluation of view intelligence, poor casting choices, and just plain bad dialogue. What’s not to learn from that? (I was kidding about the taking notes part. Well, half-kidding, anyway.)

Perhaps the show pilots that have the hardest are the ones for series where each episode is basically a one-off story. In other words, what happened last week has no baring on what’s happening this week. In those cases, show producers (or, most likely, network executives) feel the necessity of establishing the ground rules of the series (who, what, where, when and why…with the occasional how thrown in) right in that very first episode. That means their shoehorning in a TON of information they seem to think you need to have now.

Sitcoms, in particular, are subject to this. And when you shoehorn something in, something else has to go. And when you shoehorn in a lot of somethings there is little room left for the show to be what its creators had envisioned. Don’t believe me? Choose a favorite series, then go back and watch the very first episode and you’re likely to see what I mean. Everything that comes after is more natural, because the show is able to breath.

Perhaps the pilots that have it easiest are the ones for series that have continuing stories, so that they don’t feel pressured to get everything out right away. In fact, some of my favorite pilots are in this category: LOST, Twin Peaks, Arrested Development, Band of Brothers…just to name a few.

But no matter how good or bad, I love pilots. They’re just…interesting to me. If you’re a writer, or just a fan of how stories are put together, I urge to watch as many of these pilots as you can. In other words, I give you permission to watch TV all week.

So, what’s your take on the first episode of a new series? Have you watched any of the ones this fall? Any loves or hates so far? And what have you learned?

19 thoughts on “One of My Favorite Times of Year

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Fantastic post, Brett, really thought-provoking. You are so right – I remember how exciting the fall season used to be, the anticipation of new shows or finally new seasons of favorite shows, and cable – and especially DVDs – have completely changed that.

    God, I haven't even turned on the TV in months – I just don't have a second of time. And I know I can pick up the DVDs any time – I prefer watching that way anyway.

    But it's so true about pilots – I learned a long time ago that you CANNOT judge a series by the pilot, you might miss something divine. It's a magical thing to see a series hit its stride, and that rarely happens right out of the gate. It's hard to say what makes me keep watching… I guess it's like falling in love. The things that grate on me at first are often the things that keep me coming back.

    I guess a main thing that hooks me – and it's often very clumsy – but when a character or situation really goes out on a limb. And often fails miserably, but that awkwardness means that the show is going to TRY for something groundbreaking, and I'll stick around to see if it works.

  2. PK the Bookeemonster

    Add to that excitement the Fall Season TV Guide that came out with all the info on the new shows. I still remember the premiere of Remington Steele. I had seen (and fallen in crush) with Pierce Brosnan from a miniseries he'd been in called Manions of America. Then to see that he was going to be in a series? Oh my, my little 7th (or 8th) grade heart just leaped with joy.
    Now, I don't watch a whole lot of scripted tv other than Rubicon and some shows that used to be good have fallen by the wayside (Chuck, The Closer).
    Fall is also my favorite time of year. There is just a smell and feeling of anticipation some how.

  3. Debbie

    Okay,a long time ago but Little House On The Prarie. My husband and I rewatched them recently; he surprised that he liked them and me, surprised by the intensity of some of the story lines. The pilot only introduced the main characters and did not even introduce the setting for the series or the family that would cause the most conflict. As a matter of fact, the pilot's conflict was in getting the main characters to the setting!

  4. JT Ellison

    That's so funny – I always feel like if I miss the pilot, I can't start watching the show – that there's some sort of clue or insight that exists there. But you're right, they're usually terribly cliche. It reminds me of proposal writing in a sense – you have to get enough of the idea on paper to intrigue your agent and editor, but no matter how well written it is, the story takes on its own life once you start writing it.

    Cool food for thought today, Brett.

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    An interesting comparison would be to read an author's book proposal and see how much the story and characters change in the final book. How many of our book proposals accurately represent the final product?

  6. Brett Battles

    Thanks, Alex! You definitely cannot judge a series by it's pilot. But, gawd, those pilots can be fascinating things to pick apart.

    PK, I remember being excited about Remington Steele, too. But not for the same reasons. I was just taken with the idea of someone acting the part of a private eye while someone else did the real work. Thought it was a great idea.

    Debbie, have to admit, I don't remember the Little House pilot, though I'm sure I saw it at some point. I'd argue that it was one of those shows that had a continuing story so didn't have to reveal everything up front.

    Thanks, JT…interesting comparison to proposal writing. I think you're right.

    Cornelia, I heard that Boardwalk Empire was good. Sadly will have to wait for the download as I don't have HBO (I know, I know, I suck!)

    Steve…good question. For me, I'd say most of my are at least loosely accurate.

  7. Tammy Sparks

    I remember fondly the Fall TV Guides where the whole issue was devoted to new (or returning) shows…I have very limited time to watch TV, so I tend to choose one or two new shows to try and get into. OK, I've found one this season already: HAWAII FIVE-0. I know, a remake, but the pilot had everything I wanted: action, pretty actors, pretty good dialog, a good back-story on which to build the rest of the season, and Alex O'Loughlin:) It accomplished one necessary thing: I will watch again.

  8. Kagey

    I remember the hype for the first Star Trek: TNG. It was such a HUGE deal that Star Trek would once again be on the small screen, in such a new way. Plus, it was syndicated, and our market was getting it a couple days later than every where else. Argh!

    The only premiere I've caught so far this fall was last night's The Whole Truth. I really like Rob Morrow and Maura Tierney, but to be honest I am not sure that TV can handle one more legal show. I like the sparks between the two main characters, so I'll probably hang on a few more shows to see if it grows beyond the obvious plots.

  9. Marie-Reine

    Don't know how I missed Boardwalk Empire. Have to do a sat-channel search.

    I remember being fascinated by one pilot, many years ago. I never saw it again, so I have no idea what my less immature mind might think of it. So much time has passed, I'm kind of afraid to watch it now. You know… to spoil the memory, because I was so… immature back then! It was the pilot of Fantasy Island, and in 1977 all insight seemed new to me. I was very taken with the plot regarding how someone's fantasy might wake a person up if allowed to achieve it– even in a played-out fantasy where reality and imagination were purposefully blended.

  10. kc

    I work in television so I make an effort to watch every single pilot. This season I'm a bit behind. Thank goodness for DVRs. So far I've watched NIKITA, HELLCATS, TERRIERS and HAWAII FIVE-O. I can see why the CW picked up HELLCATS. It's not my kind of thing, but I'm not it's target demo either. It's an upbeat and fun twist on the traditional soapy drama. NIKITA I'm a bit torn on. I loved the USA series. I think this version has potential, but I have yet to be sucked in. I'll root for it regardless because I have friends working on the series. What can I say, I'm loyal. I really liked TERRIERS. Very well done. Has that FX vibe. Solid writing, solid acting, just solid. I'll keep that in my DVR queue. I had been looking forward to HAWAII FIVE-O since they shot the pilot. I had friends that worked on it and was so excited for the premiere. I was hugely disappointed. It was awful on so many levels. The script, the dialogue, the direction, even the editing was awful. I hate to say the acting was awful because I truly believe three of the four leads are very good actors, but they didn't come across as such in this pilot. Huge disappointment.

  11. JB Lynn

    Great post! I often think that a pilot is just like the first pancakes off the griddle…they should be tossed, not offered up for consumption.

    It kills me when I can guess how a pilot for a show I've never seen before is going to end (including a "twist" if there is one forced in).

  12. Karen in Ohio

    As I know you all will discuss the new fall shows, I won't feel left out with my self-enforced TV diet. In an effort to avoid seeing nasty, fallacious, and downright idiotic negative political ads, I'm not watching any TV until after the elections. My blood pressure can't stand it.

    Honestly? I can't remember any pilots. Most TV is so schlocky that it's not that memorable.

  13. pari noskin taichert

    Fascinating post, Brett.
    The pilots that stand out for me are Sports Night (I loved that show!) and both the U.S. and British versions of Life on Mars. Really liked both of them. Enjoyed LIFE too.

    And JT is right that sometimes that pilot sets up clues that ARE important for the rest of the series. Certainly the case with LOM.

    But, since I've got such weird tastes, it's pretty much a guarantee that any show I adore will be canceled . . .

  14. Robert Gregory Browne

    Thanks, dude. As I sit here getting depressed over CBS's lineup and knowing how close we came to getting KHG on the air, you have to rub it in….

    JUST kidding. I actually love pilots, too. And what I really love are pilots that are never aired until long after the series is history. The ones that have different casts. There were several of those this year, including THE WHOLE TRUTH. Maura Tierny took over the lead after the original start dropped out.

    The son on William Shanter's SHIT MY DAD SAYS was replaced with another actor.

    The reason pilots aren't always as good as the subsequent seasons is because they're still exploring, trying to find their "formula." Sometimes they get it right away, other times it takes a few episodes. Even a season.

    THE SEINFELD CHRONICLES is a good example of this. It took a while to really develop into a great, great show. And, of course, the name was changed.

  15. Pop Culture Nerd

    I love the fall TV season! I get giddy thinking about it. Yes, I remember "Still the One" and loved REMINGTON STEELE (have all the DVDs) because Laura Holt was my idol. I started wearing hats and desperately wanted a Rabbit convertible.

    I always think I'm going to find gems among all the pilots, even though every year more disappoint me than not. I agree that pilots are usually not the best episodes but I do think the best series' pilots have some redeeming values, hints of better things to come. I didn't think the FRIENDS pilot was great but I found some of the characters engaging enough to make me want to tune in again. It's rare that a pilot is a complete disaster but somehow manages to turn itself into a great series.

    I've sampled all the pilots on network TV (don't have premium cable, either) that have aired so far this season and haven't been blown away by any of them. I think I'll give THE EVENT, UNDERCOVERS, and CHASE another try. They left much to be desired but at least they didn't outright bore or disgust me.

    Now I can't stop humming "Still the One." Thanks a lot, Brett.

  16. Chris Hamilton

    The pilot that comes to mind for me is Happy Days. Fonzie in a windbreaker. Chuck Cunningham before the aliens took him.

    That's the part that I love about pilots. I love the disappearing dogs and the characters who become completely different as the series progresses. Like Higgins in Magnum, PI.

  17. Alafair Burke

    We've tivo'd a bunch of new stuff but have only watched Hawaii Five-O, Raising Hope, and Running Wilde. I liked them all but can't tell yet which if any will stick for us the way Community and Modern Family did last year.

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