Every year at this time I'm reminded of an old television industry joke about the Devil trying to persuade someone to go to Hell. He shows him a video that makes it look like Heaven - beaches, beautiful women, perfect weather, wonderful gourmet restaurants, etc. It looks so good the guy jumps at the chance to go there. But once there, it's worse than his worst nightmares. When he asks the Devil what happened to all that great stuff in the video, the Devil grins and says, "That was the pilot, this is the series."
I've been analyzing television programming for almost 30 years, and have seen many good pilots flop and a few lackluster pilots become excellent long-running series. We need to keep in mind that pilots are essentially sales devices to market the show to networks and advertisers. They throw in everything but the kitchen sink (and sometimes that too) in an effort to get the show picked up.
As the upfront season is getting underway, I will be watching all the new network pilots over the next few weeks, as Shari Anne Brill and I finish our Fall TV Preview report (to which the broadcast networks, several major cable networks, studios, and some media agencies and advertisers subscribe).
People are always asking me what I look for when evaluating a pilot. Here are some guidelines.
Comedies should be funny due to the characters, not the plot.
Is it basically a one-joke show or can it be maintained as a weekly series?
One of the funniest pilots I've ever seen was for a show called The Famous Teddy Z. It starred Jon Cryer as a guy who worked in the mailroom of a major talent agency. Through a hilarious string of events he becomes the top talent agent in the company. But is was essentially a one-joke show. What made the pilot so funny was gone by episode 2, and the series couldn't be maintained on a weekly basis. We often see the same type of thing in romantic comedies where the two main characters meet in the pilot. By the second episode, it's a different show.
Some of the other funniest pilots I remember were The Cosby Show, Golden Girls, Cheers, Roseanne, Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Modern Family. But I can't recall what any of them were about. They were funny because the characters were funny and compatible with one another, not because of anything that happened in the pilot. The casts had strong chemistry, and people wanted to see them interact week after week.
The best and most successful comedies all have this in common. It's very difficult to write 22 strong storylines in a season. People tune in for the characters, not the plot. They're called situation comedies for a reason. People want slight variations of the same situation week after week. In comedies, people don't necessarily want the characters to change too much or grow over time.
What will a drama's third episode be like?
It's relatively easy to write one compelling medical, courtroom, or police drama (well, not for me, perhaps, but for seasoned television writers). The question to ask is what will subsequent episodes be like? We need to consider the potential strengths and charisma of the lead characters and ongoing themes of the series beyond the pilot's storyiline and guest stars. In other words, is the pilot a good one-time movie or will it make a good weekly series?
Shows make stars, stars don't make shows.
The number of failed TV series with major stars attached are too numerous to list here. In most cases, it's the show that makes the star, not the other way around - particularly for younger skewing series - think Cheers, Friends, Lost, Grey's Anatomy, The Office, House, Modern Family, or Glee. Even star-driven titles like Seinfeld, Roseanne, and Everybody Loves Raymond, would not have succeeded without strong, compatible supporting casts - many of whom became stars in their own right.
Some stars, such as Tom Selleck, can bring long-time fans to the show, but again, without a strong supporting cast, the show would not succeed. Established stars usually bring certain viewer expectations, which are often hard to live up to. This is one reason why stars from long-running shows have trouble succeeding with a new show right away.
Most series look better in a theater or conference room, or on a dvd than in your living room.
Typically when I see a pilot or clips from a new show, it's in a theater environment, in a conference room, or it's on a dvd sent to me by the networks that I watch at my leisure. There are no commercials and no distractions. When the show finally airs, of course, it will be on following some other program, opposite some other programs.
Scheduling and the competitive landscape are often just as important to a show's success as the quality of the show itself.
All big hits are accidental
My track record of predicting new series hits and misses is pretty good. At least 9 out of 10 shows I think will flop do (it's easier to pick a miss than a hit). I'm also pretty good at predicting which new shows might win their time periods. But the big-time hits always come out if nowhere.
Anyone who says they predicted E.R., Friends, Law & Order, CSI, Criminal Minds, Grey's Anatomy, American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, Lost, or Modern Family would be instant hits is simply lying. You just never know what's going to click with a broad spectrum of viewers. The next Modern Family or 24 is right around the corner, but we won't know it until after it debuts. That's what makes this business at once so exciting and exasperating.