Thursday Five: TV Pilots Part 2

Last Thursday I commented on the importance of pilots to a television show’s enduring legacy and listed five strong and effective pilots that set up the premise of their particular show spectacularly. However, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the kind of pilot that is much less successful and sets the show with an uphill struggle to pull the viewer back round. This doesn’t mean a show won’t turn the negative around, but in a time when show’s are cancelled faster than you can blink an eye, it may hold merit to explore pilots that aren’t as critically captivating or as impressive from a statistical point of view. For the purpose of this week’s Thursday Five, I’ll be looking at poorly executed pilots of commissioned shows of recent years and ignore the countless pilots that don’t get picked up by TV channels.

1. Camelot

Looking to emulate the style of success story Spartacus: Blood and Sand, the Starz network attempted to tap into the rich mythology of King Arthur and his kingdom in Camelot. However, the explicit sex scenes were absolutely unnecessary and gratuitous, and not in a good way, in that it added little to nothing to the narrative and was merely a distraction from what should already be a compelling story about the destiny of a king. The formula for Spartacus does not apply here, as Camelot is a completely different entity, and those at Starz were apparently unaware of that.

On top of that, the endless talking between characters about subjects of little interest or importance meant it was hard to hold any sympathy for the characters, particularly a horribly miscast Arthur and anirritating Guinevere. Arthur should look like a king, not a weedy little boy even in his youth, yet Jamie Campbell Bower apparently showed no attempt to add any muscle mass to his frame and thus was entirely unbelievable in the role and looked like a weasel for stealing his champion’s woman Guinevere in a dialogue style riddled with aspects of teenage angst rather than cool, complex, adult emotions. This underlines the problem of the show, in that its main sin as seen in this pilot is that it made the mythology of Arthur and Camelot boring, which is unforgivable and perhaps the main reason it didn’t get renewed.

Despite a shaky pilot, Camelot did grow over a bit of time, though that was really due to the fact that it became a guilty pleasure of sorts, with plenty of unintentional humour abound in future episodes. The shining light of this show is undoubtedly Joseph Fiennes as a crazed magic addict update of the Merlin character, and is perhaps the sole reason for checking this show out.

2. The Killing

Having the liberty of remaking a particularly popular Danish show should mean that the blueprints in place for making a hit were all there for AMC to capitalise upon when producing 2011’s The Killing, yet amid much furore and hype, the pilot was undoubtedly a letdown and a clear sign of things to come.

With about a million characters to become familiar with, each as bland as the last, and an unexciting, meandering exploration through a crime scene that weaves through personal and political spheres, The Killing was crippled from the beginning with a pacing that can best be described as painful. Where the original orchestrates a carefully cerebral plot where all characters are potential suspects, the American version just seems like they’re killing time rather than building suspense to a satisfactory climax. In hindsight having watched the whole series, the pilot is indicative of the entire series wherein not a lot happens and the killer is supposed to be who you were meant to think it was all along. Then, they retcon all the evidence and set up a conspiracy plot for the next season. If ever a pilot was an extremely accurate portrayal of the series as a whole, it is this one, but keep in mind I’m not saying that as a compliment.


3. Skins

Being from the UK, I was forced to endure everyone around me saying how brilliant the original UK Skins was and how it’s accessible drama for youngsters and teenagers. I disagree with how accessible it is as I struggled to get through its pilot, as I see enough preening, self-satisfied young people walking through my town centre.

This makes the list as it is an example of a show whose reputation far outweighs its actual content, being a glorified soap opera designed for young people dressed up like ‘adult drama’. It’s nothing of the sort, merely one step on from vacuous soap Hollyoaks. From the pilot, you get the sense that the characters all have a smug sort of look on their face as though the drivel they are fed actually means something of importance. Also, the ‘edgy’ material such as sex and drug use amongst the teenage characters by the end of the episode was boring and uninteresting, due to its blatant and transparent abuse being more a marketing tool to ensure the audience would come back than actual narrative substance. In this sense, I suppose the pilot is a success in that it drew and maintained a fan-base, but then I’m not sure sacrificing story coherence and likeable characters deems this a roaring triumph.


4. The Playboy Club

Blink and you’d have missed the run of NBC’s The Playboy Club, which I mentioned briefly in last week’s Thursday Five. Starting in the fall schedule of 2011, this show made it three episodes in before being cancelled, which is probably more of a damning indictment on the current state of American television network’s decision making in their craving for instant ratings smashes than the show itself. However in this case, it was in all likelihood the right choice to put this show to sleep after an uninspiring pilot.

Derivative and painfully dull, The Playboy Club is an example of a show that is trying way too hard to be cool and to have people like them, but just isn’t anywhere near good enough. A lame, uncool protagonist and a bizarro world understanding of how to empower female characters meant that by the time the first ad break comes and you’ve seen your eight hundredth bunny and the novelty is worn out. Add to this the unashamed mimicking of the tremendously superior Mad Men which knows how to write both for female characters in the oppressive 60s and for a far cooler leading man, and it’s no wonder it died a short, relatively painless death. I just hope this obsession with 60s America ends soon, because no one will create a show that supersedes Mad Men, and the blatant copycat shows are becoming embarrassing.

5. Heroes

This one will be controversial, as there is still a huge fan-base for this smash hit of a show. But I maintain that the pilot of Heroes was terrible. I don’t know how they did it, but they managed to make a show about a group of superheroes and made it so agonizingly boring. In much the same way as Camelot, the premise pretty much writes itself yet the execution is so unbelievably dull that it surpasses the imagination.

The major problem in this show again is characterisation. The pilot introduces a wealth of characters, yet it’s hard to relate to them as they are so whiny and unlikeable. It’s understandable that they wanted to introduce the majority of their cast in the first episode, but shoehorning them all in with so much going on and so little linking them from their vast location differences makes for a bad start. Despite how busy the pilot is in introducing the characters and the premise, it’s amazing how bland and superficial it all seems.

And that’s where the problem lies; the show takes itself far too seriously and is trying too hard to emulate the mythology and captivating pilot produced two years earlier by Lost. What follows is an uninspiring and unoriginal story with a dearth of compelling characters and ultimately, a dreadful pilot. However, the show went from strength to strength and was met with both critical and financial acclaim, showing that a bad pilot does not always add up to a bad run on screen.



 From this week and last week’s Thursday Five, I think the conclusion that can be drawn is that a pilot is definitely not always the best indicator of whether or not a show can be a sustained success, as drama needs to be left to simmer and develop over time. However, you can definitely tell whether or not a show is worth anticipating the next week’s episode within the first episode, and can often be considered as a critical time for the make-or-break of a show. It’s obvious that new show’s need to make an impact quickly and effectively to pull viewers in, yet you have to be careful not to give too much away. It’s a balance, and it’s no coincidence that the more successful shows often have stellar opening episodes that find that parity, and in a time when networks cancel shows at the drop of a hat, it’s all the more important to get that balance just right.


~ by jrhett on January 26, 2012.

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