Pop a squat class, ‘cause Professor Xander is about to drop some knowledge!
ED! U! MA! CA! TION! A! BLE! NESS! No, we’re not going to be discussing that guy who flies the airplane. Instead, we’ll be talking about the first entry in every television show. What’s that? You already know what a pilot is? Well aren’t you so fly and I’m loving your tie? Why don’t you go leave a comment below describing how slick you are and get yourself a new bass guitar! Mention my blog’s name to your music teacher and you’ll find yourself thrown out of her class faster then you can play smoke on the water. Anybody left? Alright! Let’s get started.
The pilot, or the pilot episode, is the first episode of a television show. If a network approves an idea for a television show during the conception phase, then the network will invest money in producing a pilot. Once the episode is complete, the network and a couple test audiences watch the pilot to deem its quality. If it doesn’t do well, then the network won’t order more episodes. If it’s a hit, then the show is green lit to continue making episodes.
It may seem simple to write the first episode, but there’s a lot riding on it. You get one chance to explain the premise of your show, introduce the characters, and all the while creating an engaging story for the viewers. A couple of wrong moves and the show will never see the light of day.
So what makes a good pilot? To answer this, let’s take a look at pilot done well: Chuck.
I’ve said before that I love this show, its number 10 on my top 10 TV shows list. I understand if people read the premise and are not interested, but I recommend watching the pilot because it’s a great example of a pilot that hits all the right notes.
First, it establishes its characters well. In the very first scene we learn a lot about the main character, Chuck, through the fact that he’s awkward enough to want to sneak out of his own birthday party. Couple that with his encounters with multiple single women, and we learn his backstory as well as his lack of drive. The two other main characters, Sarah and Casey, are also set up well, but don’t reveal their full hands just yet. Casey is the tough, manly, and gruff NSA agent and Sarah is a more compassionate, level headed, yet manipulative CIA agent. We don’t learn everything about them, but that’s good because it creates mystery and intrigue. It makes the audience want to know more. And if the audience wants to know more, then you’re more likely to get more episodes…
Second, we get a general idea of what the show will be like. Based on the fact that Chuck was able to diffuse a bomb using a virus ridden pornographic website, we understand that the show is an espionage action drama with comedic elements. Being able to convey what your show is about in one episode demonstrates the show’s aptitude for storytelling as well as serving as a promise of what else lies in store as the episodes progress.
Third, it’s an enjoyable and engaging episode. If you were to take the plot of this pilot, gave the creators twice the amount of screen time, you’d have a good basis for a standalone movie. Not all pilots need to accomplish this, but it demonstrates the quality of storytelling. A major flaw in most pilots is they put too much emphasis on the promise of events happening in future episodes rather than focusing their efforts on the first episode. It’s fine in small spurts, like with Sarah and Casey, but too much dilutes the episode. If you’re promising more interesting stories, then why not tell an interesting story in the episode designed to get viewers hooked?
Sometimes the pilot that we see on TV isn’t always the first pilot made. In some cases when a pilot is created and doesn’t do well, the creators don’t just give up. They’ll take the feedback they received, reinvent some of the show’s elements and story choices, and then create a new pilot. For a good example, take The Big Bang Theory, arguably the most popular TV show as of today’s blog post.
Before we got the pilot we’ve seen on TV, there was a pilot made before it that was much different. Leonard and Sheldon were in it, but instead of Penny, Raj, and Howard, there was Katie (played by Amanda Walsh) who is basically Penny’s character and Gilda (played by Iris Bahr) who is a nerdy friend of Sheldon and Leonard, the latter she has a secret crush on. Not only that, but Sheldon was not as asexual as he was in the beginning of the show. In fact, he had a fetish for women with…large bottoms.
As you can see, even the most popular TV show can start off with multiple pilots. I recommend looking up the unaired pilot; it’s around here and there on various YouTube channels and it’s certainly an interesting watch.
The Back Door Pilot
In some cases, an existing TV show can serve as a pilot for a new TV show. This is called the back door pilot. The show made from this particular pilot is usually called a spin off and exists in the same world that the show spun off from. A good example is how The Flash started off on Arrow.
Before Barry Allen became the Flash, he appeared in two episodes of Arrow (great episodes that I’ll be covering eventually in my retrospective). In those episodes, he establishes his character as well as his connections with Team Arrow, he provides insight into what his show would be like, and a well-written and engaging story is told. What’s funny is that The Flash rode the popularity of Arrow to get its start, and now its more popular then Arrow! Funny, how things work out.
Whether it takes one try, a bunch of tries, or the support from others, pilots are an integral part of creating a television series. It’s a gamble like most things in life. You put a ton of effort and money in creating something that may never see the light of day. But with persistence and good writing, then you could end up with a jackpot.
But hey, what do I know? I’m just some guy on the Internet.
So what do you all think? What are your favorite pilots? Any good examples of a back door pilot? Leave a comment and get this conversation rolling. Until next time, this is Professor Xander signing off.