Thursday Five: TV Pilots

A big part of getting a commission for a major television series these days relies exclusively on producing an exceptional pilot that introduces a fascinating scenario with a bevy of characters who draw in the interest of the viewer. Compile these two components with a range of artistic and evocative imagery and your series is a-go-go. Particularly in America, recent years have shown that an excellent pilot that draws viewers in the millions is the only way to guarantee your show doesn’t get cancelled, while anything below that standard will see your show go belly up in no time. The Playboy Club on NBC lasted just three episodes this past fall, and it’s this impatience with channel executives that makes it all the more important to achieve a critically and statistically acclaimed piece of work. Here, I’ll look at 5 pilots from recent years that have helped TV shows get off the cutting room floor, and onto the television screens for an extended period of time.

1. Lost

Arguably the most successful and popular television of all time, Lost crashed onto our screens in 2004 and lasted for six seasons after that to critical and financial acclaim. What made this pilot such a success was a combination of the chaotic crash scene of the opening, a host of interesting characters and a sense of mystery that everything wasn’t as it seemed.

The pilot established a number of integral parts of the story early as well, with the relationship between lead characters Jack and Kate being thrust to the forefront and concepts regarding the core mythology of the island introduced at such an early stage. The action scenes are exciting and well executed and the drama is touchingly relatable. Despite the complicated and muddied later seasons that confuses the narrative and frustrates the audience through not giving much away throughout, it’s no wonder this show did mammoth ratings numbers with a start as crisp and thrilling as this.

2. True Blood

True Blood came onto the scene in 2008 at the absolute height of the recent vampire boom and did so on a mission. Stepping away from the teen romance aspect that had dominated the genre, True Blood focussed far more on blood and gore with Sookie and Bill’s love a backdrop for the violence and sex that made the show’s name.

The pilot itself remains exceptionally true to the series as a whole, with the story moving at rapid-fire pace and delving into the dirtiness of a supernatural southern state. While some pilots are vastly different to the following episodes due to the crew not having found its voice yet, True Blood knew exactly what it wanted to be, and that is why it is still so successful today.



3. Luther

Delving into British television for a brief moment, the pilot of Luther is definitely one to seek out if you haven’t seen it already. Starring rising star Idris Elba as a mentally unstable police detective, the grittiness of tone and darkness of subtext make this the most psychologically stimulating hour of television produced as a pilot. The sinister Alice and the crumbling of John Luther’s life make for gripping TV in what was to become one of the more successful UK shows in the last decade. If you don’t have time to watch the whole pilot, you’ll make time after watching this clip:


4. The Walking Dead

Cinematically speaking, The Walking Dead’s pilot was by far the most impressive. In terms of evocative imagery and its grim, moody tone, Days Gone Bye sets up the premise spectacularly, with the audience going on the journey through the mysterious zombie apocalypse with the show’s main protagonist, Rick Grimes. Pregnant with a lonely sense of dread, this pilot is different from the others in this list in that what makes it so good is its reliance on amazing cinematography and its character work being the supporting strut to emphasise the isolation that exists for Rick at the beginning.

5. Mad Men

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes was the pilot for AMC success story Mad Men, and lit the way for the years to come for the show. As a set-up for the series, this is absolutely pitch-perfect, establishing the tone and relationships between characters to such a degree that you feel as though you’ve known they existed all along. The mystery of the character Don Draper and the inherent suave sophistication of Jon Hamm in his portrayal of the former makes this one of the most engaging pilots of all time.

If there’s one thing Mad Men can be criticised for is setting the bar too high for other shows and the subsequent flock of copycat shows such as Pan Am and The Playboy Club, each trying so hard to be as tremendous as Mad Men. Oozing cool and that X factor which sets exemplary television apart from average television, the first time Don Draper graces the screen lets you know you’re watching a classic.


Next Thursday, I’ll be tackling 5 less effective pilots and the problems that gives a show from the beginning.


~ by jrhett on January 19, 2012.

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