Lessons from Pilot Season 2009 (And Late Premiers)

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Lessons from Pilot Season 2009 (And Late Premiers)

Before we get into some overall thoughts on Pilot Season, here are thoughts on some late premiers.  (And, if you missed the previous posts on Pilot Season, they can found here, here and here.)

White Collar

The Pitch: Sneakers meets 48 Hours meets Catch Me If You Can

The Set Up: Peter Burke works in the white collar division of the FBI.  Neal Caffrey is a brilliant forger who Burke put away three years ago, and has a name suspiciously nearly identical to Robert De Niro's character in Heat.  When Neal breaks out of prison for seemingly no reason a few months before his sentence is up, Peter is taken off his current case and is called in to re-capture Neal.  Which he does, and then Neal gives Peter a clue on his current case.  So, they strike up an unlikely partnership and, with certain rules in place, forge a white collar crime fighting bromance like you've never seen.

Cringe Factor (out of 10): 3.  What?  A USA show that's actually watchable?  I can't believe it!  And you shouldn't.  Here's the thing: this pilot is really fun.  It's balanced well, the plot moves, its crime-related stuff is mostly interesting, the characters and performances are ok, and even the Act IV faux-twist works alright.  Here's the problem: it's not a good series.  The pilot is good, but the second episode blows.  It doesn't give us anything new, and the dude-on-dude Moonlighting shtick gets really old really fast, and white collar crime gimmick goes out the window two minutes in when the embezzler they've been tracking kills someone.

Over/Under for Cancellation: 13 episodes.  But then again, USA has kept Burn Notice on the air for like four years, so who knows.

The League

The Pitch: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia meets the fantasy baseball draft scene in Knocked Up meets Bill Simmons' life.

The Set Up: A bunch of dudes who are bros deal with the stress of their jobs, their wives and their kids by saying really mean things to each other.  Also, they're in a fantasy football league together, and that sometimes informs the action, like when two characters trade a work favor for the number one pick.

Cringe Factor (out of 10): 2.  Surprisingly gross and hilarious, but definitely not for everyone.  Gags include a mid-coitus rectal exam (hat tip to Road Trip) and a joint rolled with public hair.

Over/Under for Cancellation: 24 episodes.  FX has been looking for something to pair with Always Sunny for years and may have actually found it.

The Jeff Dunham Show

The Pitch: Chappelle's Show meets Hell on Earth meets a Pop Culture Reference Machine

The Set Up: Jeff Dunham is a ventriloquist who is also supposedly a comedian, but I don't buy it.  His show is a combination of live bits in front of a studio audience and pre-taped comedy pieces, i.e., the exact same format as Chappelle's Show.  Dunham has four dummies, one of whom was destroyed on 30 Rock, a few days too late, I'm afraid.

Cringe Factor (out of 10): Infinity.

Ridiculous Pop Culture References: The first joke is about youtube.  How 2006.

Over/Under for Cancellation: For some inexplicable reason, this show was one of Comedy Central's highest rated half-hours.  I don't get it either, but it means that this show will probably be on the air for four years, unless Dunham goes insane and jumps the country first.


The Pitch: V (the original 1980's miniseries) meets Independence Day meets Battlestar Galactica meets a whole shitload of talking points

The Set Up: Aliens show up and claim to be "of peace" but are actually evil reptiles.  Also, they've been here all along!

Cringe Factor (out of 10): 8.5.  The show opens by asking two very important questions: Where were you when JFK was assassinated? (answer: at Margaret Sterling's wedding) and where were you on 9/11?  And it actually went downhill from there.

There's been some chatter in the last 48 hours about how this show is about these false prophets who appear when the country (and the whole planet) are in dire straights claiming to have all the answers we need to heal us (they even understand and use the phrase "universal health care"), meaning that it's about Obama.  Or, the Visitors could be representative of religious extremism, it's noted that their most powerful tool is "devotion."  I don't particularly buy either, since the show is so closely tied to the mini-series that it is a re-imagining of, but I'm sure, as always, people will see what they want to see.  As long as I don't have to see any more of this show, then it's all good.

Ridiculous Pop Culture References: Aforementioned talking points include plunging stock markets and housing markets.  Also, they mention Independence Day by name. 

Over/Under for Cancellation: Either 4 episodes or 13 episodes.  For some reason, ABC has decided to run the first four episodes of V and then put it on hiatus until the Spring.  If the show doesn't take off immediately, it might not come back.  Why they are doing this makes as little sense as airing a third high concept sci-fi series.


Now that we've taken care of that bit (for now; actually, there are two more pilots of note that premiere in the near future - Men of a Certain Age on TNT, which promises to be a mix of Everybody Loves Raymond, the Mind of the Married Man, and the short-lived BBC series Manchild, and AMC's third foray into original series, a reboot of the Prisoner starring Ian McKellan and Jim Caviezel, plus the inevitable mid-season replacement or two - look for reviews when they hit the airwaves), let's take a wider, more expansive look at Pilot Season 2009.  What did we learn?  How have we grown?

It seems that the trends of the last few years mostly hold true.  The quirky character-based procedural remains a strong archetype, with this year's shows White Collar, the Forgotten and NCIS: LA being particularly reminiscent of the genre that previously delivered hits like House, the Mentalist, and Monk.  And, the usual attempt to re-invigorate the sitcom fell flat.  I don't know why the networks simply can't make a standard sitcom work, but they can't.  This year, Modern Family and (for reasons I can't explain) Cougar Town are doing really well, but they're both non-traditional in tone; both are single camera shows that aren't shot on soundstages, plus there's Modern Family's meta-reality show conceit.

One interesting thing about this season was that ABC went with much less subtle attempts to rip off Lost.  In previous years, they produced an "everyone is connected show" (Six Degrees) that didn't work and a "playing with the narrative show" (the Nine), lifting those elements of Lost's storytelling technique to rope viewers in.  This year, they scrapped that and went for more straight ahead high concept sci-fi pieces to help them fill the void that Lost will leave when it concludes this SpringWhat's interesting to me is that this makes five big budget, high concept sci-fi shows that the networks have tried in the last year, starting with the Joss Whedon show Dollhouse on FOX which premiered last Spring and has been just barely hanging on since, and two aborted astronauts in the future shows Virtuality (on FOX which was never greenlit but they aired the pilot as a two-hour TV movie) and Defying Gravity (another ABC show that was left off the schedule so they could bring back Brothers and Sisters)Though V owes as much of its existence to Battlestar Galactica's success (if not more), it seems that ABC has gotten so much juice out of Lost that they're just gonna keep banging the sci-fi drum until they get a decent replacement.

All in all, this makes this year's crop of pilots pretty similar to both last year's new shows and what's already on the air.  So why do this?  What is the appeal, really and truly, of a pilot and of a month in the year when the networks roll out new shows?  Simply because there is something special about pilots.

A pilot is the whole arc of a show.  It's the show's beginning, middle and end, the same way that the series is.  It's kind of like chaos theory in that way, which, when you think about it, is a really good comparison to any and all television series and the whole television industry in general.  But a pilot is as free of the industry as any piece of motion picture art you come across.  Sure, sometimes the influence of the suits at the network can be felt, and even when you can't feel them, you know they exist, but a pilot is the closest thing you get to pure, unadulterated creativity direct from the writer.  Since its birth, cinema has been a director's medium and in the last fifteen years, the establishment of television as a writer's medium has become firmly entrenched.  Maybe that's why the best American motion picture entertainment from the last ten years has been seen on small(er) screens. 

And there's nothing like the ride of a good show, and getting on right at the beginning.  It's being there for the birth of something fresh and new (rarely) or something that's just hypnotically fun (sometimes), it's being there for the birth of zeitgeist.  It's not about feeling super cool because you were on the bandwagon first, but that does feel nice.  It's more about seeing the culture develop live in front of your eyes.  Sitting there watching something that the whole world will be writing and talking about tomorrow, and not because it's a pop culture phenomenon like American Idol, but because it's true culture, like the Wire and Mad Men.  Being on board means being able to engage actively with the rest of the world in a way that's reminiscent of parisian salons where people talked about Manet and Degas.  I love TV on DVD as much as anyone else and I don't mean to be turning my nose up at people who wait until a season has ended before delving into a show, you have to do what works for you and I would never suggest otherwise.  But for me, because I enjoy talking about a show - what works, what doesn't, where it will go - being able to watch it as it unfolds is essential.  As well, a television show, much more so than a film, reflects what is happening now, because it's been written two weeks ago, not two years ago, another reason it only feels right to watch it when it was meant to be seen.  But it's impossible to tell what might be the thing that catches everyone's attention, certainly very few people foresaw Mad Men.  Luckily, there is a simple solution: all you have to do is watch.


  • 1

    Bravo, Matt. Do you forsee the end of "pilot season" in the near future? Why do we even need a pilot season? New shows seem to crop up in the Winter and Summer these days and are just as successful as the Fall Premiers. Moreover, how will this affect your life since you have to watch every Pilot?

  • 2

    Interesting question, Wed, and thanks for posing it. I think that pilot season will always exist because of the nature of our vacation habits. Barely anyone is around to watch TV in July and August, and so while the networks need to fill their schedules during those months, they will always save their A lineups for the fall when people get back into a weekly routine defined by work and school. Even cable venues rarely start shows in those months (HBO sometimes does June, but then waits until September), and even AMC pushed Mad Men's season 3 premier back a month from last year and the year before. But, to answer your question, I don't forsee the end of a pilot season; fall is a time of renewal and it's natural that as we get back into a rhythm, post-summer, there are new shows to occupy our attention and help us get back into a work-a-day world.

    New shows cropping up in the winter and spring are very standard fare - the mid-season replacement is always a necessity when a cancellation leaves a whole in the schedule. Just because these shows are slated for a later release doesn't mean that they aren't good, just that the network suits didn't think they were good, and mostly those guys are wrong about everything. Crazy shit happens at these networks, here's a true story: Harold Perrineau almost didn't audition for his role on Lost because ABC had already rejected him for a role he wanted and he felt that they hated him and would never cast him. The role he lost was the Isaiah Washington role on Grey's Anatomy, a show that premiered nearly six months after Lost did. Anyway, the point is that release date isn't a good predictor of success.

    As for my life in a world where pilot season exists all year long, well, all I can say is that I would like to thank my DVR for not exploding. Luckily, the quantity slows down a bit for the rest of the year, and I think I'll make it through. In truth, this is the fifth year that I've watched every pilot, and I'm still doing ok. Mostly.

  • 3

    i, on the other hand, hope next pilot season our dvr explodes; that way i am not competing for your affection with yet another distraction.

    matt's girlfriend (of 6 years; 5 pilot seasons)

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