Soon enough, the big television networks will offer up their brand new shows for your approval. You'll get to see the pilot episodes that producers and execs were sweating over last spring. A great TV pilot can be like a thrilling summer movie, leaving the door open to weeks of adventures afterwards.
But how can you tell from watching a pilot if you'll actually like the show, going forward? Are there any clues you can glean from the first hour or two that let you know if a show is going to be fun? Here are some ideas.
Top image: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles pilot.
We already gave you our verdicts on five new pilots that are airing in the next year, but pilots can be misleading. Sometimes, the best pilots turn into the worst ongoing shows. And some of our favorite shows of all time have had absolutely terrible, or just mediocre, pilot episodes. Making a good pilot is really difficult, and involves a very different set of skills than making a good ongoing TV series.
Often, everything changes between the pilot and the second episode, with subplots getting abruptly dropped and characters changing drastically — and in many cases, the creative team changes completely starting with the second episode. To choose a random example, if pilots were an indication of what a show would be about going forward, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would have been about Benjamin Sisko getting over his obsession with Locutus of Borg.
And yet, the job of a pilot is to set up a show and establish the characters and situations that you're going to be following every week. That's what a pilot is — the first act of the story, and a taste of things to come. So by their very nature, pilots ought to provide some indication about whether you're getting nutloaf or sushi here. (Apologies to everyone who loves nutloaf.)
So after having watched 10 squillion pilots over the years, here are some things that occur to me that can be clues:
Do they write themselves into a hole?
It's amazing how many pilots write the characters and the storyline into a hole that they'll spend a season or two digging their way out of. If a pilot sets up an ongoing situation that is not going to be all that tenable, it's a bad sign. The example that always comes to mind is Caprica, a show whose pilot goes through a lot of gyrations to get the virtual Zoe Graystone into a robot body, and the virtual Tamara Adama into a VR world. Neither character is left in a place where she can interact with the other main characters, and the show is hamstrung by having to play out that situation.
How likable are these characters?
Often, the versions of the characters in a pilot are rougher around the edges and more extreme — take the Warehouse 13 pilot, in which Pete is way more of a jerk and Myka is way more of an uptight by-the-rules busybody. At the same time, a pilot will showcase a show's main cast — at least the aired version will, since unaired pilots often have different actors playing some roles. You can often get at least some sense of whether these actors are going to have any chemistry together, and whether they are going to be able to find the humanity in their characters. Even a rough-around-the-edges pilot that features an actor like John Noble, say, will give you a sense of what Noble is capable with a role like Walter Bishop.
How boring is the "thing of the week" going to be?
If it's a show that has a "thing of the week," how much are you going to want to stab your eyes out after a few weeks of that? With Person of Interest, the concept is pretty clearly laid out — every week, there's a Social Security Number for someone who's going to be either a victim or perpetrator of violent crime. The good guys are basically investigating crime before it happens, which is a fun enough concept to keep a show spinning along. Meanwhile, Alcatraz felt limited even from its first episode — every single week, there's another criminal from the 1950s running around 2012 San Francisco. The pilot made it pretty clear how old that was going to get.
Is the setting cool?
A lot will change from the pilot to the episodes that follow — but the setting probably won't. One of the biggest jobs of a good pilot, especially in science fiction or fantasy, is to establish the setting. This is the place where the show is asking you to spend an hour every week, and it's usually focused on the handful of sets that the show spent a lot of money building (and which they now have to amortize.) So are these places going to be fun to hang out in? Is there a fun bar or coffee shop where you're going to enjoy watching some zany banter? Is there a cool HQ or control room? And so on.
Is it a fun movie with a terrible denouement?
I've seen a number of pilots over the years that are great rides, like a fun action-adventure movie. Until the last 20 minutes, when suddenly everything is pushed in a direction that's considerably less fun or interesting. That's when the pilot shifts from telling a fun story, to setting up the ongoing direction of the TV show that you're actually going to be coming back to every week. Suddenly, instead of a fun adventure, you're watching something contrived and kind of dull — and that's a huge red light. The pilot might be a great standalone story, but the status quo it's trying to leave you with is considerably less fun.
How interesting is the mythos?
This is maybe less important than a few years ago, because TV shows are slightly less focused on trying to spin out an ongoing mystery that's going to develop week after week. But even the most episodic show will have a mythos, and most pilots set out, in part, to establish some of the backstory that we'll be unspooling over the coming episodes. Is there a magic storybook that holds all the secrets? Is there a huge plot device, whose nature and origin we'll learn over time? If the bread crumbs dropped in the first episode leave you feeling curious to find out more, that's usually — but not always — a good sign.
Is there badassery, with the promise of more?
We've written before about the importance of the "fuck yeah" moment for developing characters. And actually, a pilot that includes instances of a character being genuinely badass — not just fake-badass, or vaguely competent in a staged-looking fight scene — usually heralds a show that's going to be fun to watch in following weeks. Like Nikita, for example. If the main character seems like they're going to be leaving a trail of awesome in their wake, then it's a good omen.
Are you emotionally connecting with these people?
A lot of the time, a show's characters don't "click" until somewhere during the first season — but if you do connect with the characters in the pilot, that's a great sign. When we were at San Diego Comic Con, we asked prolific pilot director David Nutter what makes a great TV pilot, and he told us:
Every year, in January, I sit down and I read eight to ten [pilot] scripts. And I look for: What's the thing that moves me? What's the show that really emotionally involves me, that I care about? What's the show that when I turn the page and turn it over and I'm finished, I want to watch the next episode? That's the winner. To me, there's nothing else involved. Lots of time, it's like with movies. [Oftentimes, people will say] "We have this person and this person and this person involved, but the script's not that good. But with their involvement it will be great." I'm like, "No, no. If it's not on the page, it'll never be on the stage." So to me, it's the best script wins. And what's compelling and emotionally involving as well as what makes me want to watch the next episode...
[Establishing] conflict's a very important part of it, but a lot of times [it's about] life choices. I'm drawn to shows where... The Roswell pilot: Three alien kids on their own trying to survive. Sarah Connor Chronicles: It's a young boy and his mother on the run. [Arrow]: Oliver Queen's coming back, he lost his father. There's broken families, and trying to mend that.... Those are the kind of things I like to see in a pilot. It's the beginning — [makes a whoosh noise] — and then it takes off from there. You feel like you're part of something, and then the series will take off.