Arts & Culture

Jews Watching TV: Pilots, More Like Mild-Lots

How great is it that TV is back, you guys? Like super great, right? Right! I cried TWICE last night apropos of nothing—I just missed these silly guys. Read More

By / September 23, 2011
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How great is it that TV is back, you guys?  Like super great, right? Right!  I cried TWICE last night apropos of nothing—I just missed these silly guys. Oh, how I missed Abed’s expressionless face, which alone carried Community’s C story last night. Or Andy’s trademark confused…confused…confused, and then excited like a giant puppy, who wants to throw Pepto at the wall, face. Forget if the episodes were good or bad or weird (they were mostly B+’s), I simply could’ve watched cutaway reaction shots from 8:00 to 9:30PM last night and been happy. And now there are all these new shows to add to those old shows, and they have their own funny faces to cutaway to, like Maya Rudolph’s and Garret Morris’s and Joe Lo Truglio’s. Which is why it’s too bad they made us watch their pilots.

Pilots are dumb. More specifically, they’re a dumb way to try to hook viewers. A comedy pilot must introduce all the shows major players, it tone, and the scenario that sets the plot in motion*. Also it’s supposed to be funny. All the pilots that have premiered this season suffered to squeeze enough jokes through its pounds of exposition. For example, Up All Night’s pilot ran through a truckload of plot points that normally would be episode-length, and almost got crush under the weight of it. This Wednesday’s episode appropriately stuck with one situation, and though it wasn’t perfect (they still haven’t figured out how to justify the screen time and second billing of Maya Rudolph and her character), it was tons more enjoyable and definitely more funny**.

Backstories, like how the Up All Night’s Brinkleys responded to finding out they were pregnant or how The New Girl’s Jess found out her boyfriend cheated on her, won’t matter that much as the shows continue and becomes more purely episodic. Take Happy Endings (whose second season premiers next week), its pilot was so boring and trite that the show almost never recovered. It took awhile for people to check back in on it and realize how crazy funny and actually fresh it felt.

Sitcoms are not about the set ups as much as the execution. Seinfeld famously joked it was a show  “show about nothing,” while winking at the inanity of the pitching process and the supposed emptiness of the show itself.  But really that’s what every sitcom is about once it gets going. Seinfeld was about four friends doing things, Friends was about six friends doing things. In that vein, beyond their respective framing devices, in reality here is what the pilots that have debuted will actually be about:

Two Broke Girls – Two girls are friends. They are different.

The New Girl – One girl is a friend with three boys. They are different.

Up All Night – One girl and one boy have a baby. Their friend is the girl’s boss. They are different.

Free Agents – One boy and one girl are friends and have sex. They work together with coworkers who are their friends. They are different.

Whitney – One girl has a boyfriend. She also has female friends. They aren’t different.

That’s why the success of the shows both critically and commercially will come down to writing jokes not how these people met. This reflects the other big issue of pilots; they are created in nowhere near the same way as the series itself will be. TV has long been considered a writer’s medium but with comedies, even more so, they are a writer’s room medium. Yet the pilot is usually written alone, often years before its shot, leaving it a reflection of a showrunners ability to write, where a series is a reflection of their ability to hire. Both Parks & Recreation and Community are shows that had weak pilots but started to kill it once they were driven by their respective staffs.

By my count there have only been two shows with great pilots in the past ten years of American*** sitcomery, Arrested Development and How I Met Your Mother. Both had narrators, which made exposition a zillion times easier to a point where it’s almost cheating. If they are in fact the exceptions that prove the rule that pilots cannot be good, why do pilots exist at all? Why don’t stories start “in the middle” like scenes should?

The obvious reason is financial. Networks need to be spoon-fed shows and characters to be able to judge them, and since they already paid for that pilot to be shot, they’re going to air it****. Still, considering, the amount of money dumped to promote these shows—try to find a billboard bus-side in this country without Zooey’s straight brunette bangs or Whitney’s similar yet swooped ones on it—you’d think the networks would want to air the best product, which would get viewers to wanted to continue watching. Add in the fact that critics’ review series based on their pilots and it seems like a disproportionate amount of weight is given to something that poorly reflects the actual show.

So, since its 2011, the solution must involve the Internet. Dan Harmon in an interview with New York Magazine argued that networks should throw every pilot online and let the public vote for the shows that get series orders.  And even though, “the public” loved the clunky hipster joke factory known as Two Broke Girls*****, this does seem to like a compromise. It would allow the show’s background to exist like a preface detached from the series itself.

But all of these almost funny, poorly paced pilots are behind us anyway. Time to just sit back and enjoy some TV. Parks & Recreation had the strongest episode this week, which possibly hinted at the show becoming less episodic with a more sustained narrative. Also we got to see to the glories of Ron Swanson’s trembling moustache:

*It should be noted that dramas often have great pilots since they don’t have to balance jokes with exposition. The Killing’s pilot was so good it tricked a lot of smart people into watching one of the worst shows of the year.

**In contrast, Free Agents seemed to take a step backward. Its cancellation rumors are already being whispered.

***Because British shows have such short seasons they can written more like a dramatic mini-series and are able to avoid much of the mentioned trappings of American pilots.

****Yes, sometimes networks will air seasons out of order, effectively burying the pilot somewhere in the middle. However, this is usually only reserved to shows they assume will get canceled.

*****Deriding a “hipster” for wearing his knit hat because of Coldplay is an inexcusable pander to the middle and the most failed joke of the week. “Jokes” like this left Whitney as the more watchable of two shows created by Whitney Cummings that used laugh tracks as crutch. Whitney didn’t have many laughs but it didn’t have those terrific swing and misses that marred the Two Broke Girls pilot.