55 minus 29: One-offs, part 3… pilots

Posted: 19 July 2019 in 55 minus, pilots, television
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(For part 1 of ‘one-offs’, about individual television episodes I will rewatch whenever they’re shown, click here; part 2, about individual issues of comic book series, is here.)

In the posts above, I’ve mentioned ‘baddie of the week’ tv shows or long running comic book series, and that an individual episode or issue will… stand out… for some reason; the guest star will knock it out of the park, the writing or art on that issue will particularly impress, the specific plot will reward rewatching or rereading.

And of course I’ve previously written of Budgie’s Law of Popular Television: y = x + 2.

But in that latter post, I kind of breeze past the shows I do like, while mentioning that if it’s got a great pilot, that’s a very good sign; if not, a good omen in a different way.

Its not conclusive, of course, but it’s certainly indicative: if the pilot doesn’t grab me, chances are good that I won’t stick with the show. Not guaranteed, of course, any more than if the pilot does impress me, it’s a guarantee that I’ll love the show, and stay with it despite the occasional bum episode every show has.

But as a rule of thumb, it’s generally paid off.

And since the past couple of weeks on a Friday, I’ve written about individual episodes, individual comics, that have impressed me, here are ten tv pilots that definitely impressed the hell out of me. And in all bar one example, I stuck with the show.

Pilots are an odd thing. They have to introduce the characters, and the plot, set up the rest of the first season, make you care about each of those elements… and still tell a story that entertains. All in an hour¹.

Some pilots cheat with the ‘make you want to come back next week’ by slipping in a final 30 second scene cliff hanger… Hill Street Blues jumps to mind. After an entertaining hour¹, the final few seconds show two beat cops we’ve come to know, and individually like or dislike, entering a building looking for a phone. But its a drugs den… and then guns are pulled and we see them both shot several times… they fall to the ground… fade to black.

Not the first show to pull that stunt, but probably the first to become famous for it.

As with the individual episodes and issues, there are far too many to give an exhaustive list; but here are ten that spring to mind without even breaking sweat; seven dramas, three sitcoms.

Warning: there are spoilers in the rest of this post, of course.

The Blacklist
One of the best pilots I’ve ever seen, bar none. The concept is a clever one, the setup explained in the first few minutes, and it’s an ‘everything changes’ moment. And from that instant, it’s non-stop. The number four on the FBI’s most wanted list – a facilitator for criminals – walks into the FBI and surrenders; states them he knows about a terrorist attack that’s about to take place, and he’s there to tell them all about it but that he’ll only talk to a named newly-qualified FBI profiler. the attack attempt duly takes place, it’s averted… and then he says “that’s just the first”. He has a list of criminals – the Blacklist – the FBI don’t even know about. And the FBI work with him – on occasion, it seems for him – to capture them. Great concept, great writing, so bloody much happens in the first episode of the series, you have to pay attention. But it’s the performances of James Spader and Megan Boone as the criminal and profiler that make this pilot something special. It’s their show, and their performances keep your attention throughout. Spader is having the time of his life, and acts everyone else off the screen. Everyone apart from Boone, that is, who somehow manages to hold her own against him. Both of their characters have secrets, both discover yet more. And yes, there is a ‘WTF? Ccome back next week…’ moment right at the end. I’ve seen the pilot loads of times and there’s not once I’ve not spotted something new in the rewatching.

 
 
The Last Ship
I can’t recall another show where so damn much happens in every episode. It isn’t so much that there’s a twist in every act of every episode, although there are a lot. More than the writing is so dense, the military dialogue is both enthralling and delivered crisply. I’ve no idea how accurate it is, by the way. I don’t care it seems accurate and that’s good enough for me. And the actors are aided by the military setting in that respect. Every line either tells you something about the characters, or advances the plot; not a wasted line, nor a wasted gesture. So what makes the pilot so damn good? Because it starts as it means to go on: a routine military exercise testing equipment in radio silence for months at the South Pole, while a couple of scientists research bird populations. Everything’s going normally. Until Russian helicopters and snowbikes turn up, try to kidnap or kill the scientists. And then The Reveal: a virus has swept across the planet, killing half the population. The scientists are looking for the original strain of the virus, that one of them believes is in the permafrost. It’s perfectly timed, perfectly acted, gorgeously written. I don’t think I’d like to know any of the characters in person; none of them are particularly likeable but damn, they do know their jobs. And again, a ‘WTF? Ccome back next week…’ moment right at the end.

 
 
24
Reaching back into pre-history here. Or at least it seems that way. I recently rewatched the pilot of 24, the very first time they’d tried the ‘events occur in real time’ stunt, writing around the ad breaks, starting at midnight, and following characters through the next 24 hours. If two or more things were happening simultaneously, you got a split screen, and it was often used as a technique to move from one scene to another, or to reopen the action after the ad breaks. The main character, Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, wasn’t yet the ‘superhero’ he later became. He wasn’t as prepared to break every law going ‘for his country’. Not quite as prepared to go for the torture-first-ask-questions-later. He was a good agent, not a great one. And that showed. He made mistakes. He found himself being used… and panicked as he didn’t know what to do. And while the good guys weren’t all good, the bad guys were pretty much all bad, and mistakes had consequences. But we didn’t know that in the pilot. We didn’t know much at all. But that ticking clock (or beeping clock, anyway) kept the tension high from about ten minutes in.

 
 
House MD
Gregory House, as introduced to the audience, was unpleasant from the off. He was rude, in pain, older than he wanted to be, didn’t suffer fools at all, and was brilliant at what he did. And he didn’t give a shit about patients; he wanted to cure the disease. Actually, that’s not true, either. He wanted to figure out what was causing the patient to be ill. Once he knew, curing them was just what he had to do to keep his job. I’d say the pilot made it clear that he delegated ‘caring about the patients’ but he didn’t. not really. He viewed the junior doctors in his department with mild contempt for caring about the patients as much as the disease. The pilot sets all of this up, sets up the conflicts, has a great medical mystery, and a suitably great guest star as the patient. But it’s Hugh Laurie who steals the show. As the lead character, he’s almost instantly unpleasant, brilliant, and a character you care about almost against your better instincts. I can take or leave most episodes of House, the overwhelming majority in fact, but I’ll rewatch the pilot whenever it’s on.

 
 
True Detective
Certainly one of the more original pilots on the list. Takes place in two time periods, present and past, the latter being revealed in flashback while two retired detectives are being interviewed on camera by current day detectives about an old case. The two retired detectives haven’t spoken for years, and make it plain they never actually liked each other much. The acting is the thing here. Oh, the writing is glorious, the dialogue wonderful, but it’s the acting of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, playing effectively two different characters each, their characters in 1995, and again in 2012, when they’re very very different people. (Later in the series, they also portray the characters again, as they were in 2002.) But there’s no doubt at any point of the convincingness of the portrayals in any time period. I find it impossible to not watch to the end of the episode once I’ve started watching. And every time I watch, I’m more impressed with both the acting, and especially how generous both Harrelson and McConaughey are in their scenes, with each other and other actors. And even the “WTF’ moment at the end, perfectly delivered by McConaughey seems so casually delivered that you wonder what the hell this is… but you know you want more.

 
 
The Crossing
This is the one. This is the one that tested my “if it’s a good pilot, I’ll stick with the series”. And ultimately failed the test. Great concept, good writing, good enough acting. And at the end of the pilot, I wanted to know ‘what happens next’. Setup is a couple of hundred people are rescued on a beach from the ocean; when asked where they come from, they tell the lcoal sherif and authorities they’re escaping from the war… a war that hasn’t happened yet.. As I say, great concept. And yet I gave up after four or five episodes. It felt like all the smart writing was done in the pilot, and even the actors knew it. Could have been great – the pilot still is great, but oh my.

 
 
Jonathan Creek
An hour and a half – it’s BBC so it’s genuine 90 minutes, not 70 plus ads – a fella who designs illusions for a magician gets caught up when his boss is interested romantically (for want of a less discreet term) in someone involved in an ‘impossible crime’ mystery. And then teams up with an freelance investigative journalist to solve it. and it just works. Most of the clichés are subverted, the ‘it’s simple when you know the trick’ often isn’t, the kind of mind that thinks up this stuff isn’t necessarily someone you want to know, and both lead protagonists aren’t really that sure – in the pilot – whether they even respect each other, let alone like each other. At one point, challenged to do so, Creek – Alan Davies – makes scale models to prove that the victim’s ex-wife could have committed the murder undetected. And then reacts with scorn when the journalist – Caroline Quentin – exclaims ‘so she did do it!’ Of course not, Creek says. There were so many ways it could have gone wrong, so many times the plot would have fallen apart.. he did it merely as an intellectual exercise to see if the ex-wife could have. The dialogue sparkles, Davies and Quentin are a delight on screen and Anthony Stewart Head as Creek’s illusionist boss, the guy on stage, is delightfully repulsive. I was hooked from the start, and stayed with the show for years.
 
OK, so those are the seven dramas. Now for the sitcoms. Sitcoms can go one of two ways, in general. They can go the ‘everything has changed; this is the start of a journey for a character, or set of characters’ way.

Frasier did that, introducing the characters to the audience as well as to the protagonist as he moved across country. But they had to; as a spin off, there’s no other way of marking the series as something ‘new’. Same as they did with Rhoda, a spinoff from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. They did it in The Good Life, showing the character first in one situation, then changing the circumstances and seeing what happened. Same with Man About The House. And then there’s Dad’s Army, where you show the characters meeting and seeing how the situation develops. These are the true situation comedies, where the comedy arises from the situation in which the characters find themselves.

Or… the audience can join the characters mid-situation. Nothing’s changed… except that now the audience is being invited to observe. Most ‘family sitcoms’ rely on this, whether you’re talking about Steptoe and Son or Roseanne.

Of course, sometimes, rarely, sitcoms manage both; a familiar situation except for a new character joins at the same time as the audience. But in these, still, it’s the situation that brings forth the comedy.

No surprise then that two of the three pilots below go that route; it’s the smartest – to me – way of doing it, with the most comedic options.

But sitcoms still have the same problems to solve as dramas, only in half the time: they still have to introduce the characters, and the plot, and leave you caring enough about both that you want to come back next week.

Cheers
The best sitcom pilot ever. I’ll brook no dissent on that. If you think otherwise, then either you’ve not seen the Cheers pilot or you’re wrong.

Every important character gets their moment, every character gets their laughs. Not one of the characters can be mistaken for another, and not one of them has the same speech patterns cadence or style as another. Four main characters, two or three minor ones, a couple of whom get bigger roles as the series progresses. But for the pilot, just the four main: a former ball player who owns the bar; his former coach – getting on in years, mentally; a waitress; a woman abandoned in the bar by her cultured professor, (who’s her boss and fiancée) in the first episode… (he goes back to his wife). She takes a waitress job at the end of the pilot (offered mostly out of pity) while she figures out what the hell she’s going to do now. The gags start in the first minute of the show, and keep going every bloody moment throughout. The introductions for each character are spot perfect, and the casual style of the acting doesn’t imply lack of care. The actors work hard to be so causal and that you can’t fully appreciate it at first speaks volumes for their skill. Stunningly good work. And it’s a genuine pleasure to rewatch whenever I get the chance.

 
 
Just Good Friends
One of my favourite sitcoms, and one of my favourite pilots. Setup is simple and clever: two people out on separate disastrous ‘dates’ (she’s taken someone out from the office as a nice gesture; he’s out on a proper date) bump into each other, speak politely. Then the penny is dropped suddenly on the audience: he jilted her five years’ earlier, and they’ve not seen each other since. And it starts from there. Paul Young and Jan Francis are just superb as the two protagonists, both completely messed up in their own ways. she reluctantly at first still likes him. He still likes her. And despite friends interference, despite parents’ interference, they try to make whatever the hell they have now… work. The gags flow fast and furious – it’s written by the same fella who wrote, among other things, Only Fools And Horses the pacing of every scene, let alone every episode, is perfect, and you care about the characters while your sympathy shifts from one to the other and back again. And, uniquely for a sitcom, it had a cliffhanger, or a coda, at the end of every episode. The credits would role over one of the characters doing… something (lighting a cigarette, or walking across the road)… and then the credits would fade, there’d be a final couple of lines… and then the end. Every episode was wonderful, and the pilot started it all, perfectly.
 
 
Yes, Minister
Yes, well, this was an obvious one. This shouldn’t be here, really. Not really. The opening credits are awful as is the theme tune. They changed it immediately for the familiar Scarfe credits and Westminster tune for episode 2. But you have to shudder and put them to one side because the show starts as it means to go on… and the show truly, truly gets every bit of comedy from the situation: new minister, already in place civil service, the clash of the political will and the administrative won’t. Not the first sitcom set in a ministerial department, and certainly not the first ostensible servant is really the one in control sitcom or drama, but this one works because Hacker as the minister isn’t an incompetent fool. He’s a politician who’s completely out of his depth, sure. But even in the first episode, he realises that quickly, and realises both the advantage of having the civil service, while the danger of them as well. Every performer is perfect for the role they play. And even now, having watched it dozens of times, it makes me laugh.


If you’ve been paying attention, you know what’s on its way tomorrow. See you then.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-fifth birthday on 17th August 2019. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.


¹ Yeah, ok, just in case this comes up. An hour of commercial television time isn’t an hour of real time, unless you’re talking about a show that pretends it is, like 24. It’s anywhere between 42 and 48 minutes, depending on when it was made, whether it’s the US or UK. And a ½ hour sitcom is actually about 21 to 24 minutes.

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