Your Pilot Speaking

In the meta-textual disappearing act that is the season 4 finale of Seinfeld, real comedian Jerry Seinfeld introduces his fake eponymous sitcom in the world of his real one to a studio audience (who may or may not be real), asking ‘Does anyone know what a pilot is?’. A self-satisfied heckler responds ‘Yeah, he flies the plane’, receiving a half-laugh for a gag which is clearly meant to be funnier than anything in the butler and insurance themed meta-sitcom that follows. This self-referential scene makes a good point. Pilot episodes are generally made for the television industry not its audiences.

A show about butlering

Many pilot episodes are not even broadcast to the public but instead shown to executives to help them decide whether or not to commission a series. Those of you who are selling a house imminently or coming into an inheritance will be able to purchase the exorbitantly priced Twilight Zone box set where you can watch the non-broadcast pilot in which producer, writer and host Rod Serling does his best Don Draper in a filmed introduction that addresses network sponsors directly. He assures them the programme will hold audiences just long enough to decide which of their products to buy.

For those of you without a dowry, here’s the episode:

Making up that shop window for prospective buyers often detracts from what viewers will grow to love about a programme. It is why there’s too much Rob Lowe in the pilot of The West Wing at the expense of characters who will become the heart of the show, and crucially the President himself, here envisioned as an occasional speechifying Martin Sheen cameo. Going back to a pilot can also be a jarring and disconcerting experience for long-time viewers. The characters are uncooked, the details are all wrong, the tone is as yet uncertain. Sometimes the actors aren’t even physically identifiable.

‘Hold him there Toby while I deprive him of screen time’

Take the pilot of The Sopranos, for example. There’s no doubt it’s one of the best out there, for reasons I’ll go over later, but it’s still an incredibly alienating watch for fans. The lapse in time between filming the pilot and the series means that the actors look considerably younger than in even the first season. Star James Gandolfini still has a majority hairline and Nancy Marchand as his mother has yet to develop her decrepit ferocity. Jamie-Lynn Sigler as Tony’s daughter Meadow had a nose job before resuming season 1 filming and looks like her own sister here. Irksome differences from the series abound. The meat market Tony uses as a cover operation has a different name, Father Phil is played by another (more anonymous) actor and Silvio’s backstory is different from future episodes. The pilot needs resolution so the signature pleasures of serial narration are unavailable.

Of course it’s entirely possible to make a great pilot though a very different discipline from penning the perfect episode. Classic episodes thrive on their distinctiveness, their ability to transcend the humdrum of series fare, and fulfilment of the show’s potential. Pilots have the rather more onerous task of encapsulating the premises, ideas and tensions that will run through the entire series while hinting at the direction the show may take. Pilots have the additional burdens of doing all this work without guarantee that any of it will actually come to fruition and within a severely restricted episodic time frame.

The Sopranos pilot was originally a nature documentary

This last limitation is probably why so many pilots are in the form of feature-length episodes or prologue mini-series. Both are something of a cheat though I have sympathy in certain instances. How does Quantum Leap demonstrate the formula of Dr. Sam Beckett jumping into the bodies of different historical personages each episode in one instalment? The decision to stretch the pilot to two episodes with a short leap at the end of the second part was probably a good compromise. But why LA Law needed a 90-minute film (complete with Hitchcockian cameo from producer Steven Bochco) is beyond me.

Similarly I’ve got mixed feelings about starting a programme with an expository mini-series. Yes, in Battlestar Galactica a lot has to happen to get us to square one and being science-fiction more care is needed to introduce us to the laws of the fictional world, not to mention casting off the legacy of the campy 70s original. But a 3 hour serialised pilot? It’s like the feeling you get ordering a starter of garlic bread with tomato and cheese in a pizza restaurant. It’s enjoyable and you wanted a starter but it’s also what you’re getting for the main course.

It’ll be the future by the time the pilot’s over.

The Sopranos had an hour to establish the series (generous by network standards but still bound by the clock) and created one of finest pilots ever seen on TV screens. Every emotion, thought and theme expressed in the next 7 seasons of the programme is present in that first hour. It signals all the forthcoming character clashes and antagonisms first time round and invests the show with the tonal complexity that carries it to greatness. A mere 50 minutes is available to introduce Justified, a modern-day western law series based on the writing of Elmore Leonard. Frankly, it nails the tone of the piece before the opening credits have rolled. All good pilots have that ‘trigger’ moment, an event that brings the show into being and catalyses everything that follows. Here it is a ‘justified’ shooting that sends a federal marshal back to his hometown, racked with tension and inevitability.

 

 

 

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