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.
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?