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Television Collision: Twice As Long Ain’t Twice As Good – A Comment on Pilot Episodes

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

A few weeks ago in the “Television Collision Podcast Extra” (always found at the bottom of these columns) I briefly talked about a trend I have been observing in the world of TV for a while now and this week I want to address it in more detail: the trend of the feature-length pilot or double-episode premiere event.

As I had also mentioned in said podcast, I am unsure how I feel about this development of flinging two episodes of a new show at us in one fell swoop, though I think I am coming down more and more on the side of not endorsing it. But let’s start with the basics.

We all know that television is a business, as much as us critics sometimes like to pretend it is an art form. It can be that, too, but mainly it is a business, which means the makers of television generally approach TV shows in general and singular episodes in particular from an angle of ‘functionality’. In other words, they ask themselves “What is a pilot episode of a TV show supposed to do?”

There are many easy answers to this question and most of them center around some form of ‘introduction’ and ‘exposition’. Even when a show starts with a cold open that throws the audience right into the thick of things, eventually every pilot episode will slow down for a minute to let us catch our breath and sort through the characters we have met so far. Everything in a pilot is new to the audience (except for maybe the info they got from trailers or previews), so they need to be introduced to the setting, the characters, the plot, the atmosphere, the tone, the visual composition, the pacing… you get the idea.

That’s a lot of stuff to cram into one episode. And the whole ordeal becomes even trickier when you consider that not only does the audience need to be introduced to all of this, they also have to be left “wanting more”, so they will tune in again. All of these introductions need to be compelling enough and hint at enough deeper levels, yet to be discovered, to pique an interest in the viewer. Yes, the conception of a good pilot episode is one of the touchstone tests any maker of television has to pass and many fail.

In the literary world there is a certain little saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. The same should apply to the world of TV, “Don’t judge a show by its pilot”. Plenty of good shows opened with a fairly terrible pilot (I am looking at you, Buffy), but found their footing quickly. What’s important to remember is that often the show’s creators won’t have a clear picture of where they ultimately want to take a show either and particularly pilot episodes are often shot months in advance of any other episodes, simply to give the networks something to look at and decide whether or not to even order more episodes. (This is also why there are so many “unaired pilots” floating around the net of all the shows that never even made it to a network order.)

Given then how complicated it is to conceive a pilot episode that is enticing enough to network executives to order a show to series as well as being appealing to audiences, one can understand the urge within the show’s creator to expand the pilot episode beyond the usual 40-44 minutes. I believe in many cases, the network execs even encourage this, because then they can promote the whole thing as “the two-hour premiere event”, which just sounds so much cooler in the ads.
And then you end up with something like that Necessary Roughness pilot two weeks on USA, which felt like a shortened TV movie (in this case also particularly because the story arc came to such a neat conclusion, seemingly), but not like the kick-off to a summer-long TV show.

A slightly different, albeit arguably even worse approach – of which the showrunners are absolved, they have nothing to do with it – is simply airing two episodes back to back, which is a network scheduling decision. They unceremoniously cut out most of the credits from the pilot episode and dump the audience right into Episode 2, which is something neither the audience nor the showrunners greatly appreciate. Even if a pilot episode is muddled in its execution, most of the time the last scene is one laden with over- and undertones, hinting at more without giving it yet and coaxing a very specific emotion out of the viewer. Maybe there’s even a cliffhanger. In any case, a lot of thought goes into that ending scene, possibly even more than went into the opening scene of the pilot. Dumping the second episode right at the end of the pilot destroys any hope the final scene of the pilot had of leaving a lingering impression. Because how are we supposed to find out if something had lingered with us if we are immediately bombarded with more content?

The main problem I have with feature-length pilots or “double-episode opening events” is this: I think it demands too much commitment. No, I am not a commit-o-phobe, thank you very much, and yes, I am usually the one arguing against “instant gratification” and for more patience in TV viewing. However, “patience” does not mean “willingly sitting in front of your screen twice as long, because the network thinks you should”. The kind of patience I usually call for is one that applies to the stories that our shows are telling us and the pacing they use to do so.

What I mean by “demanding too much commitment” is easily explained when you think of it as a social interaction. Here is a stranger (the TV show) introducing themselves to you with all the pleasantries and the flirting that (might) go into it. Now, if you’re anything like me, you don’t want to hear their whole life story crammed into the next 80-88 minutes, in fact, you’d think that would be overkill. Instead, you appreciate the fact that they make a few jokes, flash you a smile, drop a hint that there might be some interesting stories they could tell and then they leave you with a pleasant “See you around sometime, hopefully”. That’s the kind of interaction you want from your TV pilots, too.

TV pilots should flirt with you, instead of hitting you over the head. And frankly, when you ask me to commit to 80 minutes with people I have never met and I am not even sure I am going to like, you are asking too much of me, “series kick-off event”.
Of course this is embedded into the larger trend in the world of TV that shows have to be a hit from the get-go, there is very little patience (ah, there’s that word again) for audience-building these days. Best case scenario: a new show comes with an already built-in fan base, such as True Blood or Game of Thrones came with the readers of the books. If the show is “original”, then it better establish its voice and approach on the spot, so the audience can immediately call a spade and spade and be sure what they are in for if they watch. And if by Episode 3 your numbers have flat-lined, then you might as well pack your bags and go home, especially if you’re a summer show.

However, throwing Episode 2 down the chute right after Episode 1 doesn’t do anyone any favors, because mostly it just screams “We know our pilot is no good, but please, take a look at Episode 2 and you will see how great our show is”, i.e. it reeks of desperation. These days I appreciate shows even more that are confident enough to just run with a pilot, even if it is flawed. I am much more likely to forgive such shortcomings if I am not immediately bludgeoned over the head with the hastened afterthought of Episode 2. I took much more kindly to ABC’s 40- minute pilot presentation of Combat Hospital than I did to USA’s 80-minute launch for Suits or AMC’s “two-episode event” at the beginning of The Killing’s run.

If I was in any position to give advice about TV, it would go something like this: If you’re the creator of a TV show and you feel your pilot isn’t getting your point across and you would love to have five minutes of airtime after its run to address the viewer directly and explain how great your show will become if they just stick with it, then go back and make a better pilot. And if you feel the urge rising to make a feature-length pilot, then stop thinking in terms of “once I get the exposition out of the way, I can start telling my story” and instead make your exposition your story. It won’t just improve your pilot, it will improve your entire show, believe me.

If you’re a network executive who has ordered a show to series based on a mediocre pilot and a lot of supplementary talk by the show’s creator about which great direction the show is going to take as soon as the exposition is “out of the way”, then resist the urge to throw Episode 2 away on a whim by airing it right after the pilot. If the pilot sucks, people are very likely to just switch to another channel, hence they will never see Episode 2 and if by accident the next week they tune into the show again, they will be lost, because they are now watching Episode 3. And the viewers who actually stick around for Episode 2 might just be insulted at your demand for such a high level of commitment (there are other shows on other networks they may want to watch at the same time, instead of your two-hour event) and hence not come back for Episode 3 next week. Either way, you lose viewers.
Instead, make retrospective positivity work for you. To wit: yeah, the pilot may be terrible/mediocre, but the course of the week will mellow the audience’s perception and memory and by the time Episode 2 is airing, they will shrug their shoulders saying “It wasn’t THAT bad last time” and tune in.

Many great TV shows started out with mediocre pilots at best, but in the end their overall quality won out. If only there wasn’t such a clamoring for “instant appeal” and “instant viewership” and “instant coffee”, TV could actually be more of an art form and judging by how much that Picasso painting was auctioned off for last year, art can also be quite the lucrative business, if you let it. It’s not about how good your pilot is, it’s about the vision you’re selling. Make it a good one, and we’ll watch, bad pilots be damned.




Need more TV coverage? Listen to a new “Television Collision: Podcast Extra”, Episode 12 below.

Topics include True Blood (yay for Amnesia Eric), Combat Hospital (yay for Canadian TV), Franklin & Bash (yay for witty banter) and Breaking Bad (all-shattering yay!).




Join the discussion by commenting below or following us on Twitter: @cc2konline and @PhoebeRaven!

Author: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

Born in Germany, lived in the US, now in the UK. Always taking my love for TV and writing with me. Life participator. Blogger. Gaming enthusiast.

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