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.