Food for Thought – Pilots

by Matthew J.R. Kohler

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As everyone knows, the Primetime Emmys were on Sunday night. A variety of different shows won awards, but there is one category that I think the show lacks.  I think the Emmys should give out an award for the best pilot of the year.  Just like a movie, a television show is supposed to capture the audience’s attention, and leave the audience in anticipation of the next episode.  A pilot needs to be able to do this extremely well, because the fate of the show can lie with the performance of the first episode. Certain shows, such as Lost, have amazing pilots.  In the first fifteen minutes there is an airplane crash, and for the rest of the first hour of the show, the audience is continually left guessing.  From the strange noises, the guy getting suck into the turbines, to the flashbacks of Jack (Matthew Fox) as a doctor, this sets the show up perfectly, and teases what is to come.

Pilots and endings are probably the hardest thing to write, because as a writer you don’t know how to deep you want the audience to go down the rabbit hole right away.  Would people watch Dragon Ball Z if the show started with Buu?  Maybe, but probably not the fans of Dragon Ball.  When writing a pilot, you want to give a taste of what is to come.  One of the best pilots I’ve seen is The Walking Dead pilot.  The entire episode sets up the show to be much more than a horror show.  In the first fifteen minutes, you know who the main character is, and what it was like before Armageddon. (So why make Fear the Walking Dead?) (I digress.)  Then, you’re in the hospital where Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) has no idea what has happened, but to the audience, it looks like hell.  In this five minute scene you know zombies are responsible, but the audience never really sees what actually happened until he escapes the hospital.  This scene told an entire story. Unfortunately this is a rarity on that show.

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One storytelling technique which is increasingly popular is non-linear storytelling. This is seen in such shows as The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and Boardwalk Empire.  My favorite show that does this is Gargoyles.   When the show came out, Disney wanted something to compete with the other major adult cartoon, Batman.  So, Greg Weisman came up with a five part pilot called “Awakening.” The five episodes are a part of one large story, so the pilot feels like a movie within the show.  The episode starts off with Detective Elisa Maza (Salli Richardson) staring into the sky as a battle is going on a skyscraper.  We then travel 1000 years ago, when we first meet our hero, Goliath, the leader of the gargoyle clan.  The Clan is turned to stone by a magical spell and is “awakened” by Xanatos (Johnathan Frakes).  Now, the gargoyles must learn to survive in modern times.  Not only did these pilot episodes have suburb satire on modern culture, but it set up the show for how serious ,and dialogue driven it will be.

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As fall starts and new shows come out, new pilots will be all over TV. Remember that the biggest reason to watch a show and continue watching should be because the pilot is good, not the second or third episode.  If a filmmaker can grab your attention that quickly, they must be able to do it again.  Rules of thumb, if a story cannot grab you in one episode or Act 1 of a movie, don’t waste the time watching. With so much new content on TV this fall, take a little time and be critical of what you are watching. If the networks want your time, they should have to work for it.

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