The Year of Flying Dangerously
Are these good series, or are they just interesting ideas?
By Brian Lowry -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/19/2004 8:00:00 PM
Television pilots have always been a colossal crapshoot, creating their own rich folklore and superstitions. My favorite involves the myth about the airborne contaminant—perhaps over Kansas—that reduces prototypes that showed promise in Los Angeles into dreck en route to New York.
Still, with the new TV season about to begin, it's hard to remember a year when more pilots told me less about their prospects, a fact peculiar to this new batch of shows but also reflective of the audience's shifting tastes.
ABC's Lost and Desperate Housewives, The WB's Jack & Bobby, CBS's Clubhouse and UPN's Kevin Hill have all impressed many critics. There has even been grudging admiration for the workmanlike NBC drama Medical Investigation and Friends spinoff Joey.
Although I enjoyed many of these pilots, in most instances I found myself asking the nagging question that's always the elephant in the room during development season: namely, "So what do you do in episode 3?" Ideally, pilots are supposed to provide a template for the series to come, but with several of these shows, prognosticators are flying blind.
This is hardly a minor consideration, and it's a question articulated too rarely among media buyers before they start producing voluminous analyses of the new prime time lineups and plunking down their clients' money.
In today's talking-head culture, opinions are cheap, and everybody has one. Moreover, the pressure is on networks to make the best impression possible right out of the gate, fearing they won't get a second chance at fickle viewers.
All of this makes it extremely difficult to handicap new programs. Seldom, in fact, have so many people ostensibly knowing so much yielded such questionable predictions, particularly when it comes to forecasting which TV shows will survive past Thanksgiving and which turkeys won't. The most honest response when asked how some of these shows will do is a limp shrug, which isn't exactly a formula for getting invited back to appear on Entertainment Tonight or even CNNfn.
To be fair, rarely have premiere episodes offered less help in this process of divination. To cite one maddening example, take Lost, the expensive ABC drama about survivors on a mysterious island God-knows-where. ABC has promoted the series heavily all summer, and on paper it sounds like a winner.
Still, we've sailed a long way since Gilligan's Island, and I'm skeptical that viewers have the patience for an open-ended series that, in success, almost by definition can't resolve its biggest riddles.
Think back, too, on all the sizzling pilots of the past decade or so that didn't fulfill their initial potential. Remember Fox's Millennium(whose serial-killer-of-the-week setup grew tedious), CBS's American Gothic (did the Devil make him do it? We never got to find out) and ABC's Murder One, a noble experiment that presaged the current fascination with celebrity trials.
In hindsight, those programs are notable not only because they dared to be different but also because they offered an intriguing concept that ultimately couldn't be sustained over an entire series. Call it the curse of Twin Peaks, which would have made a brilliant eight-episode limited series but devolved into an incomprehensible mess when ABC tried to extend it for a second year.
As network ratings continue to erode, the narrowing gap between broadcast and cable makes it more feasible that prestigious series might hang on, such as Fox's decision to gamble on a second season of the little-seen Emmy-nominated comedy Arrested Development. All of that provides a modest ray of hope for some of these intriguing pilots, which don't necessarily have to smack the first pitch into the bleachers to earn a spot on the roster.
The more immediate challenge, however, is to prove these pilots weren't a fluke—that there really are stories to tell beyond the opening hour or half-hour. As easy as it is to forget, this remains TV's most vexing dilemma and its most unique strength: the ability to satisfy an audience week after week, slowly moving the plot forward not just through the upcoming presidential election but through the one that comes after it.
Ultimately, only time will tell how many of these producers had an honest-to-God series in them, as opposed to just an enticing prototype. What's clear is that unless several of them have an answer for that question about episode 3, the survivors on that aforementioned island won't be the only ones feeling lost.
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