I included this one on the checklist earlier this week, but it never got a piece of its own, so here you go…
What I did find fascinating were the DVD commentaries. Though recorded long after the cancellation, Whedon was still bristling with rage about the fact that his two-hour pilot was aired out of order, in favor of starting with a train-robbery episode. He kept derisively quoting from the network notes about how the pilot was nothing but exposition, while the train robbery was fun, and if viewers couldn’t get caught up while starting with the second episode, then the show was never going to work anyway. The problem was that I found myself agreeing with each note.
That pilot is indeed a long, hard slog, as we gradually get to know this bizarre universe and meet a huge case of stowaways, all with massive backstories of their own. Even though we have two hours, by the time we’ve got all the players in place, there’s barely time for an actual story. It’s only in second episode that we really get it: Oh, okay, this is really an outer space Western. There are going to be train robberies, but with cool sci-fi gadgetry. This looks fun.
The problem, in the end, was that neither episode made for a good introduction to the show: the first was all set-up and no fun, and the second was all fun and no set-up. It was too hard to figure out what was going on. But when the network had to choose, I still think they made the right choice in starting with the second.
A pilot needs to move like lightning, because in much less screentime than a movie, it’s got to establish a fascinating new environment, set up a whole ensemble (who all need to have more long-term potential than movie characters) and then it’s got to cram in a whole plot with a beginning middle and end…and that plot has to be appealing.
Think of how tempting it must have been to spend the whole “Breaking Bad” pilot just getting Walt to the point where he’s ready to cook. It’s amazing enough that creator Vince Gilligan manages to get this meek little chemistry teacher through an epic journey from milquetoast to drug cook in one episode…but then he goes much further, getting Walt all the way through his first botched drug deal and murder by the end of the one-hour pilot!
Gilligan knew that he didn’t just need to establish his world and his character, he needed to show what was going to happen every week: Crime! Desert showdowns! Frantic improvisation! Chemistry-related killings!
Now is the perfect time to rewatch that pilot: How quickly are Walt, Skylar, Walt Jr., Hank and Marie established, including the flaws and strengths of each one? How well are Walt’s problems established? What about this week's plot? And how it all goes wrong? They couldn’t have pulled that all off if any of those scenes had an ounce worth of fat. That's how fast a pilot has to be.
Are you going to run through a bunch of pilots? If you are it would be interesting to see some that didn't get picked up as well as ones that did. I am not sure of any good suggestions on the didn't get picked up front though other than some British shows that they made US pilots for like Red Dwarf.
I first heard about Breaking Bad because writer blogs were freaking out over the quality of the pilot, and particularly the opening sequence. Oh man were they right. Those five minutes grip your shit better than almost anything ever made on teevee.
SF is so heavily rooted in playing with different worlds that its fans are trained (or self-select) to find world-building inherently shit-gripping. Folks who work in that genre need to remember that if they want crossover success, they have to know that most people find world-building of slight interest. Historical fiction has the same problem - how much do you need to "recreate the time" before you bore people, and can you fold it into the ongoing drama?
You know what would have made the pilot for Agents of SHIELD a hell of a lot better and more memorable, without requiring a tear-down and rebuild of the script? One word: MODOK. You put the Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing on primetime teevee, even for a brief shot at the end of the episode, and people will talk. People will be intrigued. And people will focus less on the stock characters and the hacker with the improbable hairdo.
The end of the episode, with the classic SHIELD Flying Car, was supposed to evoke wonder and a sense of adventure. Flying cars are kinda nifty, but they aren't eyeball-grabbing, and the show didn't build up that sense of "anything can happen, the future is an adventure!" Imagine if instead the episode ended with the appearance of the new head of Advanced Idea Mechanics, MODOK, who says something cryptic, cool, or amusing about SHIELD. A little cheesy, yes, but dude, the impact on regular viewers. Better than a flying car. Promise adventure and menace.
MODOK makes everything better. Yes, as Steranko himself pointed out, the pilot desperately needed a scare element. Networks have introduced at least six failed 8PM "family friendly" spy shows in the last ten years, and every one has the same problem: a lack of menace. Spies can't exist in a vacuum: they have to be organized around a huge threat. That's why "Alias" was the only one that succeeded (though it didn't really fit at 8PM, and got moved)
It's been years since I've seen it, but I remember the pilot for The Wire being intriguing precisely because not much happened. It moved really slow, but wow did those characters seem like real people.
Yeah, the Wire is a big exception. The premise of the show wasn't really established until the third episode, if I remember correctly. But keep in mind that that first seasons got rock-bottom ratings. It was kept on the air by critics, who, crucially, are always send the first four episodes for their first review. It was only when new viewers were able to binge-watch it on DVD that people really fell in love with the show, and the ratings began to creep up.
This post seems to be saying that there's really no such thing as a pure "premise" pilot. If you can't set up your characters, your world and the set of circumstances that puts your hero(s) on the journey while telling an entertaining story that showcases the narrative pleasures viewers will be in for in the weeks (and hope, hope months and years) to come, then you ought not to write it.
About BREAKING BAD, I'd certainly be curious, now that the show is complete to read whatever thoughts you have on the lessons of the whole run, and also on the way the show ended. Not just the last episode but the very deliberate arc of the final season.
Yes, that's pretty much what I'm saying.
I'm sure more rules will be gleaned from "Breaking Bad" as I have more time to digest it. Some are occurring to me as I type. Rest assured, I (mostly) loved the ending.
Glad to have your blog up and running again! Even gladder to hear that I'm not the only one who didn't dig "Firefly." Like you, I gave the series two chances, but in the end, I just didn't care ...
Yes, I would love to hear your other thoughts on the problems of Firefly. Joss Whedon has done an amazing job with ensemble casts, but this one was missing something.
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