What makes a good pilot?
It’s the introduction to a new world, a case being made for you to watch, an invitation to sit around the campfire and hear a story. No doubt a recommendation for a “great” TV show can sometimes come with a disclaimer—”You can skip the first episode.” So what’s the magic of creating just the right atmosphere?
Often a pilot can end up feeling a bit too aware: “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” would reach some pretty great highs of comedic brilliance during its first season, but “Kimmy Goes Outside” is overbearingly a pilot; running through plot points like it’s checking a box. I’d argue that’s not inherently a bad thing—if the show can get away from it. Which “Kimmy” would go on to do over the course of its run.
“The Walking Dead,” however, would be the flip side of this, with a pilot that’s truly cinematic setting a (thus far) unreachable high-water mark. “Days Gone Bye” is a uniquely abrupt introduction to the zombie-ridden universe, showing and not telling in a way only stories like it can. To tell such a desolate story the production quality rose to new heights. Something the show’s mixed bag of quality hasn’t ever seemed to return to.
Of course there’s no way I could make the definitive comment on a subject this vast, but to me it’s that the pilot is what the show’s going to be—but it’s not going to eclipse all it’s going to be. It’s nice when weave an introduction to the world semi-organically; like the pilots for “Rick and Morty” or “Firefly” (take your pick of pilots here, I suppose). But it doesn’t have to be. The pilot for “Veronica Mars” seems to check off all the no-no’s for pilots—heavy exposition, voiceover, etc.—but it melts into the universe, and gives the audience a pretty biting first-look at the tough blonde detective.
It helps when the concept is strong out of the gate: “Veronica Mars,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Lost;” they all threw themselves headfirst into their concepts and it shows in the strength of the writing. The first episode of the “The Americans” isn’t the strongest episode, but it establishes themes and characters in a way that the third season is still picking apart. Some shows take a bit longer to find their equilibrium (I’d argue that “Archer” or “Parks and Recreation” have pretty good early episodes that are only eclipsed once you see how good the show could be), or really iron out what they can do (see “BoJack Horseman”).
I frequently find myself sitting with TV shows I don’t necessarily like, just so I can be in on the cultural commentary. But not everyone is like me. Some give a show a couple of episodes (or even just one) to see what happens.
Oddly enough, in our more-expansive-than-ever TV landscape this can mean some people won’t have the patience to stick out a show with a weak pilot. It can also mean that quirkier, more diverse shows, are saved from the chopping block that took so many of its brethren when there was less to choose from (“Wonderfalls” they hardly knew ye). And society’s embrace of binge-watching means that pilots can now be closer to whole seasons (From what I hear, this is what “Bloodline” is like).
These days everywhere you look there’s more content. But to get quality, you might have to look a little harder.