Archive for seinfeld

Watching TV With Britons Part 1: Eee By Glum!

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, Local TV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2014 by Tom Steward

Goodbye! Like Seinfeld’s Elaine upon encountering a caring Jerry, selfless George and talented Kramer, I’m in the bizarro world. I started this blog as a Briton casting a foreigner’s eye over American television and the Americans who watch it. Now British television is foreign to me and the viewing habits of UK audiences are as curious to my mind as America’s once was. Those of you who read the blog regularly will know that I am now a resident of the United States (or have assumed I am the worst pirate in TV history!). While I’m still in the privileged position of returning to my homeland without the jarring feeling of alienation felt by most ex-pats, I cannot say the same about British television. It is not simply a question of being out of touch, but experiencing the TV I knew from the outside in. I see the problems more clearly, but I am less forgiving of them than a native now. Here’s Part 1 of my round-up of the TV I watched while I was back in the UK these past few weeks, which looks specifically at what I saw of and about the North while away:

BBC Northwest Tonight (BBC1)

If I had ever forgotten what a place of horror the North can be, I was scared straight by the top item on the local news about a priest who was arrested for murder. There was also a sub-plot about the various presenters switching roles that went clear over my head, and reminded me that local TV news is more parochial soap opera than neutral information source.

Remember Me (BBC 1)

Python Found In Sheffield!

Python Found In Sheffield!

Seasonal ghost stories are an overlooked tradition in British television, as is the utilisation of former Python Michael Palin as a TV actor. This Sunday-night 3-parter was a welcome return for both, and brought the haunting beauty of the Yorkshire coast to half-light. I’m always complaining about the lack of Britain’s multiculturalism in our flagship drama and South Yorkshire’s substantial Asian population should be represented in any depiction of the area, as it is here. But I couldn’t help feeling there were underlying xenophobic anxieties about immigration in the way the story unfolded (incidentally rather in keeping with the current normalisation of anti-immigration discourses in British politics) which undermined the diversity. It’s one thing to show the social harmony between the elderly white and Asian communities in Sheffield, another to envelope that in imagery concerning the vengeful spirit of an Indian colonial wreaking havoc on British shores.

Inside No 9 (BBC 2)

There's No Escape To Narnia In Inside No 9!

There’s No Escape To Narnia In Inside No 9!

Horror comedy writing-acting duo Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith may have left the North behind after the gloriously gothic sitcom The League of Gentleman, but their anthology-based follow-up to the macabre melodrama Psychoville is easily their best work yet. Classic British horror movies were as influential to the pair’s writing as the variously horrifying Northern towns they grew up in. But in this series of one-offs centred around buildings and rooms that bear the number 9, it’s easier to detect the legacy of great British dramatists like Harold Pinter and Mike Leigh than Hitchcock and Hammer.

Through The Keyhole (ITV)

This was once a beloved and genteel daytime panel show presented by British institution Sir David Frost in which middlebrow celebrities tried to guess which other middlebrow celebrity a house belonged to. It was easy-going, bland and offended no-one. To my horror, it’s been revived as a platform for crass Yorkshire-born comic Leigh Francis to showcase his abhorrent character Keith Lemon and brand of vulgar anarchy. Imagine if the cast of Jackass suddenly took over from the current hosts of 60 Minutes and you’ll have some idea of how inappropriate a mix of star and format this is. Tabloidization of classic British television standards has been and gone, but this is a new stage of perversion and travesty that befits a dystopian satire!

The Fall (BBC 2)

The Fall Of British Television

The Fall Of British Television

Belfast is a bleak yet glamorous backdrop for the most unremittingly downbeat police drama in TV history. Not even sexy elf Gillian Anderson can bring much more than the odd dry moment of wit to proceedings, as Christian Grey-in-waiting Jamie Dornan stalks the city’s streets and homes as a sexual serial killer and freelance social worker. Authentically Northern Irish, it also tops the genre for storytelling innovation. Dornan’s Paul Spector is as much the hero as the detective would be in any other cop show, making for deeply uncomfortable viewing. But, like the North, it remains gruesomely compelling.

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Reunited…and it feels so dud!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV Acting, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2014 by Tom Steward

Last week, comedy legend Bill Cosby confirmed publicly that there would be no reunion for his hit 80s family sitcom The Cosby Show. This was a relief since the franchise had already been stretched thinner than Tyler Perry on Slimfast with a deluge of spin-offs and sequels and yet still remains dear to audience’s hearts. But where is the demand for TV reunion shows coming from? There’s never been more old TV available to viewers. A large chunk of cable is devoted to re-running classic programmes and internet TV services archive a range of older series for instant access. This reminiscence fuels the public’s nostalgia and brings archaic programmes back into cultural circulation, which in turn makes them ripe for reunion rumours. Classic shows have become so popular on some channels and services that they are now a part of their brand identity and company executives try to capitalise on this by creating new episodes under their banner. There’s also never been more ways to make and watch television. TV can now be made solely for internet distribution, or pass freely between broadcast TV and online video. This gives programme-makers a wider range of options for content and delivery, which makes reunions more attractive since it doesn’t necessarily mean going back into full-scale production any more. It also makes the reunion less official and thereby received more generously, with fans enjoying it as an indulgent treat rather than criticising it for not standing up to the rest of the canon.

Bill Cosby issues a threat to any comedians considering a TV reunion.

Bill Cosby issues a threat to any comedians considering a TV reunion.

But is a TV reunion ever a good idea? Some programmes are so completely synonymous with a moment in time that to attempt to revive them in any other era is absurd and the effect like an out-of-body experience. Often, so much time has elapsed between finale and reunion that cast and crew cannot – whether due to age, health or simply lost touch – re-capture that which viewers loved so much. Whether or not fans and former viewers are willing to buy into a reunion can come down to the motivations behind it. If a reunion is a genuine attempt to create new fiction based around familiar characters and situations because of interest in continuing the story, then audiences tend to give it a (finite) chance. If the motivations are purely monetary and a cynical attempt to exploit a commodity by prolonging it unnaturally, then how can its devotees feel anything but used? Larry David’s semi-autobiographical sitcom Curb your Enthusiasm faced the problem of reunions head-on. In the show, the cast and crew of celebrated sitcom Seinfeld reject the prospect of 10-year anniversary show on the basis of how pathetic and desperate it would make them all look. Larry selfishly convinces them to do it so he can cast his ex-wife and win her back, and we see parts of the reunion episode in the season finale. David gave Seinfeld fans what they wanted without desecrating their favourite show while demonstrating he was well-aware of the dangers of reuniting.

Just don’t ask about the finale…

Seinfeld staged another reunion this year with a trademark dinerlogue between protagonists Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza shown on internet TV service Crackle as a video short for Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and on Fox at the Superbowl half-time. Again, the makers of Seinfeld made a big deal of reuniting but had deniability if it didn’t take, a sage move judging by the decidedly mixed reaction. Internet TV reunions have had fairly ambivalent receptions in general, not least Netflix’s revival of cult sitcom Arrested Development. Coming seven years after the series finale, this was a reunion sought after by fans following the show’s abrupt cancellation after only three seasons. Virtually all the cast returned and the fifteen-part series played on longstanding themes, storylines and characterisations with a new ‘story-maze’ concept complimenting Netflix’s instant delivery of all episodes. The innovative storytelling was necessary, but the rest felt too much like fan-fiction, a grotesque re-imagining of the original deviating from and souring its memory in unpleasant ways. It brought critical derision on the stars, creator Mitchell Hurwitz and Netflix executives, the latter appearing to be cashing in more than creating. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that people want reunions more than they ever want to see them happen. That’s why commercials are a happy medium for reuniting TV shows. The Danone Full House cast reunion and Radio Shack tribute to 80s TV shows bring programmes back and then move on to the next – hopefully new – show.

And Finale…

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2014 by Tom Steward

American TV seems to be in a permanent state of finale. The average season has more false endings than a Hobbit trilogy. Before the Christmas break, there’s the mid-season finale, which desperately tries to manufacture a television event out of a show taking a brief holiday. Some shows have started to invent finales and talk about them as if we somehow know what they’re supposed to signify. Fox’s The Mindy Project has just had its Winter Finale, which is apparently what you now call putting the show on hiatus for a couple of months at the end of January. Season finales only seem like a big deal because all a show’s stories build towards it as a point of climax. In reality, it’s only a matter of months before the show is back on again. Even series finales don’t preclude a show returning through revivals, spin-offs, movie sequels and reunions. The cast of Seinfeld have managed to reunite twice since the sitcom went off the air, firstly in a fictional reunion episode within the world of Curb your Enthusiasm and then in a sketch for this year’s Superbowl coverage. That’s a lot of endings for shows that never quite finish.

Seinfeld cast reunite at superbowl, which is also the name of Jason Alexander’s haircut.

I’ve been thinking about finales because American TV has just had a big one. After 23 years in the host seat, last week Jay Leno finally said goodbye to The Tonight Show. Like most finales, however, nothing is really ending. Jimmy Fallon will take over as host, which has been a forgone conclusion for years now given the high-profile and staggering popularity of his late-night NBC talk show. Few people would be prepared to believe that Leno is even giving up the show. Leno first left the job in 2010 ceding hosting duties to Conan O’Brien. Within a few months, he had clawed back the job from his successor, as acknowledged in O’Brien’s Olympic-themed jab at his predecessor on the eve of Leno’s departure. Yet everyone acted as if something was in fact ending. Leno cried, celebrities queued up to say goodbye, and Garth Brooks played – which really is the nuclear option. The Tonight Show is going back to its home in New York and is now hosted by someone capable (though bafflingly so!) of gaining consistently huge ratings for a show whose popularity has balked in the last decade. Sounds more like a salvage operation than a send-off.

You can never come back from Garth Brooks.

Another American TV finale was in the news recently. The latest season of weight-loss game show The Biggest Loser held its final weigh-in last week, with the winning contestant having undergone a loss of weight so severe that she appeared to have another kind of eating disorder. The usual Muppet-mouthed looks of aghast pride from the trainers were replaced by horror, concern and confusion when they laid their eyes on her emaciated body. The show has always been self-righteous about the good it does for public physical and mental health. Yet by incentivising maximum possible weight loss without any healthy weight caps and filling its contestants’ heads with cod psychobabble in motivational-speak, The Biggest Loser falls prey to the pitfalls of many reality shows in neglecting its responsibilities of care to the members of the public it features. The season finale is usually a cause for self-congratulation as the show parades its reduced-sized versions of that year’s contestants and pats itself on the back for helping them, all the while of course revelling in sensational images of obese people eating cake naked. But this year’s finale revealed the dangerous and unhealthy extremes that the show’s premise could be taken to.

Trainers on The Biggest Loser react to body-shock win!

It’s good to have an end in sight. TV is such a massive and sprawling thing that it’s helpful to set limits and boundaries now and again. But rarely do they actually represent something that could be actually be called an ending. Finales help TV continue, renew and keep track of itself but all their talk of being done for good needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Like The Tonight Show goodbye might just mean adieu and as we’ve seen with The Biggest Loser finales might take you further than ever wanted to go in too short a time. And with that, Watching TV with Americans enters its Valentine’s Finale followed by its mid-mid-year finale. It’s time for me to say an emotional, longwinded goodbye as I leave you…for a couple of weeks. Remember to eat in the meantime and only play Garth Brooks while I’m away.

Live of O’Brien

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV channels, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2013 by Tom Steward

Yesterday afternoon G and I went to Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank to be in the audience for the recording of Conan, the eponymous late night TBS talk show of Conan O’Brien. It’s an experience that goes far beyond the reaches of the hour that the recording takes place. Show time is 4.30pm yet the audience have to check in at the studio parking lot by 2.30pm at the latest and as early in the day as possible to get the best seats. Once checked in, you’re free to leave the parking lot as long as you return by 3.00pm. Not knowing this, and having checked in at the recommended time of 1.30-2pm, G and I had no time to do anything but aimlessly wander the vicinity of Warner Boulevard where the nearest attraction is Forest Lawn Cemetery, an area that is quite literally dead. Lest this start to sound like a yelp reviewer with a severe case of white people problems, I want to stress I completely understand keeping audience members half in the dark about check-in arrangements to ensure they arrive early and G found it entirely preferable to the Star Wars-premiere conditions of Conan’s New York show.

20130729_124424

When we returned from the land of the dead (actually we found a café with big salads so it was more Seinfeld than Six Feet Under), we were taken through a metal detector into a waiting area lined with black metal benches which had the atmosphere of a prison mixer. Actually the prison analogy remained apt as we were branded with a ‘WB’, which I believe stands for ‘Warner Bitches’, and processed through a street crossing deep with standing sewage water in a tribute to the epilogue of The Shawshank Redemption. The show even had a narc in the waiting area. One of the writers was strolling up and down the benches in search of people to turn the camera on in the ‘Craigslist Ads’ segment of the programme in which fake ads are juxtaposed with shots of the audience members who would likely post them. Lifers like me can tell the difference between a TV writer and TV viewer, although in layman’s terms this is also known as cleanliness. And he had a cup.

20130730_160828

At 3 the audience were lined up in groups and taken slowly in multiple stages through the Warner Brothers lots in scenes reminiscent of Day of The Triffids. While it was undoubtedly exciting to be where many of Hollywood’s finest movies (Angels with Dirty Faces, The Big Sleep) had been filmed, I have to say that all the Looney Tunes cartoons I’ve seen have been terribly misleading about what goes on here. Not once did I see Daffy Duck’s head being erased by an irate Chuck Jones! We arrived at a heavily air conditioned studio set, which TV expert G told me was for the lights and not as I suspected to prevent Conan’s skin from setting alight, and were seated with my urine-inflated bladder acting as an internal cushion. G and I were amazed at how small the set seemed and kept expecting a puppet version of the show to follow. The cameras magnify the set out of all proportion and it has an utterly different geography from the one we create in our heads when watching. G was especially thrown by how the guests’ walk from the stage curtain to the couch was literally a couple of steps.

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There followed multiple warm-up acts, starting with a fireman who demonstrated that the post-911 hero status of firefighters has significantly outlived that of cops (probably the lack of racial murders in the fire service). An MC discovered an audience full of drunks, meth manufacturers and slutty teens before Jimmy Vivino and The Basic Cable Band-who unlike most late-night house bands seldom feature in the programme-entertained with a lively, dad-at-wedding dancing funk and rock n roll double bill. There is an ‘Applause’ sign but it’s not the exploitative imposition that it is stereotyped as, its presence moving the show along and not forcing any reaction that isn’t already there. Not being a fan of bad sitcoms, teenage skaters and post-punk poachers the line-up didn’t do much for me. But the original segments were a TV bloggers’ dream. An irreverent ‘info’ button for programmes on a cable remote (Seinfeld: ‘You’ve seen this one’) and a clip from a new TV pilot starring alleged trumpet pumper La Bamba as a CIA assassin with limited knowledge of assembling weaponry.

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I realised that my knowledge of late-night talk shows tapings comes entirely from The Larry Sanders Show though having been there for real I can see why the prospect of a sitcom set there was so attractive. The musically-accompanied interludes between segments which are synced with ad breaks feature curious-looking interactions between guests, crew and talent not to mention the near-farcical stage invasions, all of which possesses intrinsic comic appeal. During the last of these interludes, G turns to me and asks ‘Is it nearly over?’ and I realise that as she’s always asleep by this point of the show and had never watched this far. After a bonus feature, a self-reflexive ‘end of the show song’ from the musically-gifted Conan, we were soon shuffled out into the lot, as I resisted the urge to crash through the parking barriers in homage to the final few minutes of Blazing Saddles.

 

 

 

 

TV is Balls

Posted in American TV (General), Americans watching British TV, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV, TV channels with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’m absent-mindedly glancing at the TV screens in the gym to periodically distract me from the pain and boredom of working out. The screens are usually set on sports and news channels in their rolling news phases, which don’t offer much in the way of entertainment. It’s a shame as I once did an hour on the treadmill when back-to-back Seinfeld was on. The news shown is of a fairly reactionary kind, typically Fox and CNN’s televisual garbage. The Rachel Maddow Show was on once but I think that was a mistake as the screen was turned off almost instantly.

Seinfeld: TV about working out

The point is I’m not really paying attention, nor am I listening on my headphones. I don’t want any Fox News editorials subliminally seeping into my brain like a hypnosis tape and I simply wouldn’t know what any of the laboriously paced sports discussion shows were unnecessarily shouting about. It’s safe to say I was caught off-guard when one of the screens starting showing highlights from an Oldham Athletic game, the football team from my home town who play in the 3rd tier of English soccer (‘soccer’ and ‘football’ are both English names for the sport, so suck it purists!).

Oldham Athletic: Not the team you expect to see in a San Diego gym.

It turned out not to be a hallucination brought on by loss of bodily fluids or even a bizarre coincidence like Oldham striker Matt Smith dating a Kardashian. No, apparently Fox Soccer, the football wing of the Fox Sports enterprise, shows the Saturday results feed of Sky Sports News every weekend. Apart from the shock of seeing Oldham on a TV in the USA (where Manchester is only known because of its global soccer brands), I don’t know why I’m surprised. Sky and Fox are both owned by NewsCorp, Rupert Murdoch’s international media conglomerate, so it makes good corporate sense.

Sky Sports News: Just another Murdoch enterprise in the world.

If you’re an American soccer fan, or British ex-pat, it makes sense to go directly to the source, as weirdly removed from local reality as it is watching a Northwest England League 1 team in Downtown San Diego. To those who know football from the European or Latin American leagues, watching a US soccer team play feels like the moment in Futurama where Fry finds that in the 30th Century baseball has become ‘Blernsball’, a barely recognisable Twilight Zone twist on the sport where spectators try to catch players instead of balls and giant spiders roam free through the diamond.

http://www.comedycentral.com/video-clips/4uymvs/futurama-intro-to-blernsball

For a British football fan, watching English soccer on TV gets weirder. It’s been common over the last couple of decades for veteran footballers in the English leagues to start their retirement early by going stateside to play for a US team. Beckham’s time with LA Galaxy when still in his prime is an exception attributable to his avarice. Some of them even end up commentating on TV soccer coverage. This is why I’m listening to ex-Blackburn Rovers and West Ham player-coach Tony Gale speaking over a Fulham FC game, multiplying the feeling of being at home when I’m not.

All your favourite players…from the 80s!

The locality of my new American residence helps the transition from a country where football eclipses all other sports to one where it doesn’t make the top 3. Being in a city with a large Latino community close to the Mexican border means that there’s more call for football from Latin American and European leagues on TV. And the commentators’ passion for the sport is evident from the Three Amigos vocal harmony following every goal.

It must be pretty baffling for US viewers stumbling upon the Sky Sports News feed on Fox Soccer. I don’t know what Americans would make of an interview with Crystal Palace manager Ian Holloway-hell it took us a few years to get used to his bizarre accent and analogies! It’s basically hours of places and teams they’ve never heard of, endless jokes about League 2 players from 1978 and recurring images of grim-looking fans with woolly hats and no necks walking to stadiums that look like backyards. And Kris Kamara, a Lionel Ritchie impersonator with Jerry Lewis levels of incompetence.

Anyway, back to the gym. I’ve never been so absorbed in the table positions of English lower league teams (though I’m a Blackburn fan so they may become increasingly important soon). I never thought of football clichés as my language but in a place where people struggle to understand and you them, players saying something as banal as ‘we nicked it early doors’ (translation: we scored early enough to kill the game) is oddly reassuring.

 

 

Going out with a Clanger

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2013 by Tom Steward

It’s official! The Office is now unwatchable. But since you can have this opinion any way you want on the internet-like eggs in a diner-I’ve decided against blogging about this (for the record, I blame hiring Catherine Tate, firing Mindy Kaling and too much Jenna Fischer) so instead here’s a rundown of some other US TV shows that tanked in their final season:

Catherine Tate giving an offhand lecture on how to ruin TV shows!

Northern Exposure-Season 6

A series about a New York doctor forced to take up residency in an Alaskan small-town should have conceivably ended when said doctor returned to New York. But when actor Rob Morrow, playing Dr. Joel Fleischman, wanted to leave the show, the producers decided it wasn’t the character, the performance or his rapport with the rest of the cast (including the driving-force storyline of Fleischman’s on-again-off-again romance with Maggie O’Connell) that was essential but the idea of a fish-out-of-water New York doctor in Alaska. It didn’t help that to ease Morrow out of the show the writers did a 360 on Fleischman’s character transforming him from a neurotic urbanite into a Zen wild man of the woods and that Maggie was soon randomly paired up with another of the show’s leading men.

Rob Morrow celebrates being allowed to wear a tie again

Seinfeld-Season 9

Don’t get me wrong I’ll happy sit through any episode of this final season of the groundbreaking sitcom and it’s not short of classic moments (‘Serenity Now!’, Festivus etc.). But two years after the departure of creator Larry David, much of Season 9 feels like a cartoon parody of Seinfeld, continuing to hit all the misanthropic notes that its creators insisted the show couldn’t do without (if not more) but without the easy-going naturalism of previous seasons. The storytelling relies far too much on fantasy rather than contrived coincidences, diluting the carefully crafted multi-stranded writing with lazy shortcuts. Though I’m not as down on the finale as some, the decision to make its second half a thinly disguised clip show following an hour-long tribute the previous week was deeply ill-advised.

Oh come on guys, it wasn’t that bad!

 Roseanne-Season 9

There isn’t space here to list all the mistakes family sitcom Roseanne made in its final season but here are some of the major gaffes. There’s no John Goodman. Imagine Lucy without Desi or Samantha without Darrin (the first one at least!). What’s more, Dan is written out of the show by Roseanne leaving him, which completely goes against the unshakeable strength of their marriage established in the previous 8 seasons. It makes what went before seem like a dream. And while we’re on the topic of dreams, there’s way too many of them here. Every other episode is an extended dream sequence, something we would previously get only once or twice a season. The storyline of the season is that Roseanne wins the lottery which hits the jackpot of bad sitcom ideas, the episodes are basically strung-together celebrity cameos, and the finale rivals Lost in the incomprehensible endings stakes.

I wish it had been a dream…rather than making the rest seem like it was!

ER-Season 15

Legend has it that the long-running hospital drama managed to maintain its quality of cast and writing right through to the end but those who actually watched those final few seasons-as opposed to rounding up from the first 12 years-have a very different story to tell. ER always prided itself on effectively replacing beloved cast members time and again. After all, this was the series that survived the loss of George Clooney. But by Season 15, there are no more heroes, admirable adults or esteemed actors left in the show but just a thin residue of the leftover comic sidekicks and kids, running around quipping and accidentally killing people like Bugsy Malone in a hospital. And when a series is relying on a revolving door of guest stars to fill the lead roles, it’s time to pull the plug.

‘Where did all the good characters go?’ 

Murder One-Season Two

Steven Bochco’s TV series are usually synonymous with longevity and the first season of this innovative courtroom drama which covered a single trial over 23 episodes set in motion a formula that seemed destined for ongoing success. And it probably would have achieved it had it not been for the series producers changing everything that made it great. Star and heart of the show Daniel Benzali was axed and replaced by Anthony LaPaglia, an actor with far less gravitas playing a character without the compelling presence of Benzali’s Teddy Hoffman. The season was no longer one trial but three, thus the unique selling point of the series was gone, and so was a reason for the audience to care.

We’re back…minus everyone you like!

Your Pilot Speaking

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2013 by Tom Steward

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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