Pilots are not made for normal audiences.
When you make a television pilot, your audience is a group of network executives who make final decisions and test audiences who are used as a barometer of how America will respond to said pilots. It’s why pilots tend to be bigger, and broader, and in general more attention-grabbing—for better or for worse—than episodes that come after.
In this way, Amazon’s “democratic” pilot process—in which they make their pilots available online for audience voting before making final pick-up decisions—is not necessarily out of the ordinary. Writers and producers have always known that their work would need to meet dueling expectations of executives and audiences, so we have yet to see a completely new approach to television pilots emerge from the process.
However, the way each of this year’s comedy and drama pilots—I’m excluding the kids’ shows—engages with the specificity of the Amazon experience has been particularly fascinating for me, even in its subtlety. Part of this stems from the overdetermined nature of the audience feedback within rhetoric surrounding the series: in Amazon’s universe, customers are selecting what shows go on the air. Forget for a moment their Golden Globe-winning Transparent drew the least customer votes and scored the lowest customer scores during its pilot process—in Amazon’s mind, this is about the audience, and so it makes sense for producers to angle harder in that direction and play to their assumed test audience.
Yet this is further amplified by the fact that there is even less clarity than usual regarding what precisely Amazon is looking for. Whereas working with a broadcast network or established cable channel gives you a basic sense of brand identity and programming strategy, Amazon has been all over the map, making it up as they go along. While we can start to see trends in their focus on Transparent’s awards success, we still have no clear sense of who their perceived audience is, or what their demographic priorities are. Do they want shows for men or women? Are they privileging comedy or drama? We don’t even know how many shows they’re willing to pick up, given that they have no “schedule” with empty slots, and have theoretically bottomless pockets from which to fund their move into original programming.
It’s plausible that those creating this cycle of Amazon pilots know more than we do about Amazon’s plans, but the fact remains that the audience is the clearer target, and there are a range of strategies that the pilots unfurl to ensure positive responses and high scores in the areas that they believe count most—or at least count a little—with Amazon.
When NBC launches its fall lineups, its shows have the potential to be very different from the shows that were originally sold to advertisers and sent to critics when they were picked up in May.
This is not uncommon. It also doesn’t mean that the shows in question were outright terrible to begin with. But the reality of creating a pilot and the reality of mapping out a season of television are often at odds with one another, and in other cases new producers are brought in to take over a series and have different perspectives on where the series should be heading. At the same time, though, the public nature of this retooling inevitably places those pilots in a different category than those pilots that go through no such “public” changes. When Alexi Hawley departs State of Affairs as a showrunner, or Liz Brixius steps in to take over Bad Judge, or Constantine trades out its female lead for another female character entirely, it creates a different conversation than for shows with more subtle post-pilot changes that would logically occur when a writer’s room is in place and the experience on the pilot has revealed spaces for subtle inflection.
Fall 2008 Pilot Preview
[As per pilot screener regulations, this is a preview and not a review. The content of the series may change between now and the show’s official airing, so all thoughts are of a preliminary nature pending said changes. For a full review, tune in for the show’s September premiere.]
Having recently made my way into Six Feet Under’s fifth season, I’ve started to better understand the work of Alan Ball. That HBO series was known for its dramatic performances, its death-riddled plot points (Seriously, a lot of people die), and also its inability (for better or worse) to keep a consistent tone. One moment you’re laughing at two characters, and the next you’re getting punched in the face by a cold reality. It’s a visceral television experience, and one that I’m still kind of torn on. I’m capable of appreciating the work I’m seeing, but there’s something that keeps me from really engaging with it, likely out of fear of “getting hurt” in the process.
That left me at least mildly tentative heading into Ball’s latest project, an adaptation of the Southern Vampire novels by Charlaine Harris. HBO’s True Blood is the story of Sookie Stackhouse, a young waitress with a special power who is making a living in an exciting time for America. Vampires have “come out” as it were, emerging as real citizens with their own lobbyists after the Japanese were able to manufacture synthetic blood that “suits their dietary needs.” It’s a strong setup that seems like it’s got a lot of broad potential, but it’s intriguing to see that its trajectory is far more fantastical than I had imagined.
And that, I think, is a good thing considering Ball’s history in television.
I have a confession to make: I’ve never actually sat down and watched the Terminator movies. While I’ve been catching up on television over the past few years in terms of what I missed in the days before my obsession, films have yet to receive the same treatment. And so, James Cameron’s films (I’m ignoring T3) have basically no resonance on my opinion of FOX’s new drama series, Sarah Connor Chronicles, which extends that universe into the world of television.
And so, when I offer my opinion, I can only do so as someone who has no idea if it’s destroying the mythology or ruining the franchise even more than T3 did. What I do know is that the pilot is a fast-paced adrenaline ride that creates the proper breeding ground for an action drama series that hasn’t quite actually grown yet, and that I don’t think it can possibly keep up this pace.
Therefore, let’s just say right now that the pilot is an entertaining 43 minutes of television drama, well-directed by David Nutter and generally well cast. I had a few quibbles with the writing in terms of Summer Glau’s female Terminator, but these are more or less quibbles in the grand scheme of things. The action feels real, the pacing seems right, and the plot that is revealed is neither too daunting nor too miniscule to drive interest in the series.
But, the important question is, where to we go from here? The pilot opens a whole host of doors for the series, and yet it gives absolutely no indication of which one it will enter. Let’s investigate these doors, and then we’ll try to piece together where the series goes from here.
Via Variety, word has broken that FOX is shuffling its fall schedule to, well, I don’t really know why they’re doing it. On the one hand, their new schedule certainly seems like it will be more competitive. However, at the same time, I don’t believe that the switch from new programming to reality programming is going to do much good for the network’s pedigree.
Variety: Fox Shuffles Fall Schedule (Aug. 2nd)
New Amsterdam, FOX’s crime procedural about a 400+ year old man who will only be able to age when he finds his true love, has been shelved until midseason. It will likely debut in the Fridays at 9pm timeslot that it would have been moving to in January anyways thanks to American Idol.
Why is it moving? My guess is a combination of retooling (The show isn’t shutting down production, but certainly they’ll be slowing down a bit) and perhaps it just isn’t coming together very well. It should be interesting to see whether more news breaks about this in the coming days.
Bones, meanwhile, is moving to find itself a new timeslot away from a rather tough Wednesday 9pm lineup (Private Practice, Criminal Minds, Bionic Woman). The FOX forensic crime procedural will be moving to New Amsterdam’s timeslot of 8pm on Tuesdays (Starting on September 25th) before itself likely moving to Fridays at 8 in January.
Why is it moving? Well, it’s more because of what else is moving, but more importantly it gives the show its own timeslot in its chosen genre (The only competition being NCIS, which skews older). So, considering they want it to survive on Fridays in the Spring, they need to give it a boost.
The other news deals with two reality shows.
When Josh Schwartz created The O.C., he became a household name due to the show’s success and the pop culture phenomenon that developed. He was the young writer-producer who was setting television on fire, and the world was at his doorstep waiting for him to emerge victorious again. However, The O.C. ran into some trouble, and all of a sudden Josh Schwartz was behind a losing property that limped to its fourth season finale.
What this has given Josh Schwartz is one less steady pay cheque, perhaps, but also a new lease on life. The O.C. remained a credible formula for Schwartz because he balanced the oversexed teenage promiscuousness with witty and sarcastic banter, and those two parts stayed relatively intact following its demise. And so, like the sensible and smart man he is, Josh Schwartz took the oversexed teenage promiscuousness and channeled it into “Gossip Girl” for The CW, and took the witty and sarcastic banner and found a home for it on NBC.
The resulting show is Chuck (Premiering on Monday, September 24th at 8pm on NBC), an action-thriller comedy series that places Schwartz’s sharp dialogue into a setting more acceptable for the Seth-like viewers the show is trying to reel in. The result is a series that is sharp, funny, and certainly one of the most potential-filled pilots of the 2007 Fall Season.
[Regardless of what I think about some of the fall pilots, there are three comedies that each deal with prominent cultural stereotypes to very different degrees. Rather than review them individually (I’d be overly mean to some of them if I did), I figure I’d run them down in relation to their ability to deal with these sensitive cultural issues.]
Culture in Question: Prehistoric Man (Cavemen)
Yes, Cavemen deals with the stereotyping of a non-existent culture, and there is a distinct problem with this: the writers are not capable of forgetting real cultural stereotypes in the process. The entire series basically boils down to stealing every single African-American sitcom joke and just transferring it to these hairy neanderthals. The Cavemen feel out of place at a country club, they feel that their crime is more reporter than white crime, and they worry about interracial marriage.
Cultural Impact: Setting the clock back decades. By presenting a culture of exclusion to a level not seen since the 70s, it’s basically making North America out to be this cultural dead zone incapable of accepting other cultures. And while racism is still a serious issue, ignoring any of the past three decades of advancement is just insulting to the efforts of the civil rights movement.
The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
Culture in Question: Geek Culture
While certainly not attempting to prescribe a moral to the state of geek culture, The Big Bang Theory does attempt to represent it. In the process, however, the geek turns into a complete sitcom stereotype: they play World of Warcraft, they watch Battlestar Galactica (w/ Commentary) and they don’t know how to talk to girls. This, in the mind of sitcom writers, is a geek in a nutshell.