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Don't Judge a Book By Its Pilot

By David Michael Wharton     October 03, 2005

Dominic Purcell and Wentworth Miller (right) on PRISON BREAK.
© Fox
This hasn't been the greatest season for pilots. Don't get me wrong: there have been several that I think will develop into worthwhile shows, assuming they survive long enough to do so. We've seen a bumper crop of high-concepts (PRISON BREAK) and genre concepts (take your pick), but not one of this season's offerings has been as fascinating, as surprising, or as instantly addictive as the pilots of LOST, VERONICA MARS, or even DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (whether or not you like what it does, it does what it does very well).

Maybe it's because of those very shows' success. At least part of the reason LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES made it to air was because, in the wake of the reality-TV bubble bursting, ABC found itself…well, desperate. And if necessity is the mother of invention, then desperation is the mother of network creativity. When your ratings are in the toilet, suddenly you're more willing to take chances. Suddenly you're willing to greenlight a pricey, convoluted, heavily serialized island drama because, well, what else have you got going for you? People can only see Regis Philbin so many nights in a row before blood must spill.

This season's shows didn't benefit from that same atmosphere of risk-taking. Instead, they had to make do with an atmosphere of "it worked for them, maybe it will work for us." Suddenly everyone wants a LOST of their very own. Self-contained procedurals are out; give us ongoing plotlines! Give us science fiction concepts! (But not too science fiction, our studies show men aged 18 34 don't like spaceships, just look at poor SERENITY.) While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, that doesn't automatically mean the flattery will be as engrossing as the flattered.

From what I'm hearing from you fine folks, the feeling seems to be the same all over: everybody has this or that new show they've latched onto, everybody has a few they hate, but none of the shows seem to be inspiring the same wide-eyed fanboy glee that the early episodes of LOST, VERONICA, or BSG did. Over the next few weeks, we can expect to see a few of these shows meet the bitter fate of cancellation, and those that survive will face the challenge of hanging onto the viewers they've wooed.

So, does this general malaise mean none of these new shows are destined to become genre classics? Perhaps. Perhaps not. After all, there's no shortage of spectacular shows that began their run with mediocre pilots. Even recently, PRISON BREAK's pilot left me criminally uninterested, but that show has turned things around from the second ep on. And then there are the cases of two of the best SF shows ever, for both of which the term "humble beginnings" would be far, far too kind.

"The Gathering"
Premiered: February 22, 1993
My first lesson in not always judging a show by its pilot came from J. Michael Straczynski's introduction to the galaxy's last, best hope for peace. "The Gathering" is a case of small moments of promise poking through a whole lotta mess. Michael O'Hare, a veteran stage actor, does his level best to bring his A-game to Commander Sinclair, but the acting style that excels on stage comes off as alternately over-dramatic or dramatically stiff. O'Hare's Sinclair would gradually begin to feel more organic as the season progressed, but on first viewing it's a hard first impression to overcome, especially when comparing his performance to other famous space officers such as Kirk and Picard. His first officer, Laurel Takashima (Tamlyn Tomita), doesn't help matters; she does a fairly convincing 90-minute impersonation of a length of particleboard. Londo's hair…well, let's just call it a "work in progress", and since Delenn was originally intended as an androgynous character, poor Mira Furlan spends the entire time buried under approximately 250 pounds of makeup.

And then there's the Muppets. The less said about the original incarnation of the "alien sector", the better, but I would hope that as our species evolves and expands into the depths of space, we have a little more tact than to stick any alien ambassadors we may encounter into what amounts to a zoo exhibit. Yes, yes, I know, JMS said the idea was that the "cages" were the ambassadors' "front porches", but still.

Straczynski was on record almost from the beginning as being unsatisfied with the way the pilot turned out, so it's no surprise that when given the opportunity, he re-cut the pilot to better match his original intentions. Sure, George Lucas may have given "Special Editions" a bad name, but in this case it was nothing but improvements. Even after being reworked, even with the benefit of a Christopher Franke score to match the rest of the series, "The Gathering" still incites an involuntary wince or two, but it certainly shows more of the promise the show went on to realize than the original cut.

Even with all its weaknesses, some of the elements that made the show work were already at play in the pilot. JMS's writing, already beginning to set up plot strands that will play out two, three, and four years down the line. The SFX, dated by today's standards, were revolutionary at the time, and departed from the TREK standard by using CGI rather than models. The first taste of the long, strange relationship of Londo Mollari and Citizen G'Kar. My favorite character, Michael Alfredo Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle). And it was thrilling to get a taste of well-written space opera that didn't have Gene Roddenberry's name anywhere in the credits.

Premiered: March 19, 1999
The lesson B5 taught me was that if a show displayed any hint of promise, sometimes it was worth sticking around to see what it evolved into. That's a lesson I didn't take to heart with FARSCAPE's pilot. The adventures of starlost astronaut John Crichton were just a little too frenetic, a little too odd, to win me over on first viewing. What was with the Muppets? What was with the toilet humor? I mean, a floating Muppet who farted helium? What were these writers, ten years old? That big guy was soooo obviously a Klingon rip-off, and what the hell was wrong with his nose? Wait, he can shoot people with his tongue?

I could have stuck with it through all of those elements, however, but what finally drove me away from the show by the third or fourth episode was this: FARSCAPE is just really freakin' weird, man.

After the pilot, I missed a few episodes, but rejoined the show in time for "Back and Back and Back to the Future." I distinctly recall reaching the halfway point of the episode and saying to myself, "What in God's name are these people smoking?" It was just too much. The protagonist spent the entire episode convinced he's crazy, he kept hallucinating broadly comedic sexual escapades with that tentacled broad, that damn hairy Muppet was still flying around on his air-scooter, and my brain just checked out. Was it supposed to be a comedy? I didn't know what it was these FARSCAPE guys were trying to sell me, but I wasn't buying. So I bailed.

Eventually, for whatever reason, I gave it another chance. And, for whatever reason, this time, I got it. Maybe I originally came to the show expecting something a little more in line with the prevailing model of TREK, not some lunatic narrative gumbo that owed as much to the adventures of Bugs Bunny as it did to those of Luke Skywalker. Maybe I came in that second time without those expectations to poison my viewing experience, or maybe by that time I was missing BABYLON 5 and desperate for some new story to shepherd me through strange new worlds. Maybe I had had time to process the show's more eccentric trappings and so was able to see past them to appreciate the show's flawed, deeply human characters; its wild, schizophrenic creativity; it's gleefully juvenile sense of humor; it's fearless willingness to try damn near anything once. I'm glad I checked back in with Crichton and company, because what a wonderful trip I would have missed out on if I hadn't.

Characters that really, truly surprised you, and that really, truly changed. As with BABYLON 5 before it, problems weren't solved with a narrative band-aid that restored the status quo by the end of each episode. No one was the same at the end of season four as they were at the beginning of season one, assuming they were lucky enough to have survived that long. D'argo, initially written off as a Worf-clone, made the journey from stereotypical warrior to being the heart of the show, a reluctant man of war who in the end wanted nothing more than to protect his family, both biological and adopted. Crichton went from fish-out-of-water doofus to killer to madman to the potential architect of doomsday. And in John and Aeryn, the show's writers not only shaped one of the most honest, passionate, painful love stories ever to grace the small screen, but they traced the path of that relationship twice. Not many of us have had to try and win the heart of our true love while she's busy grieving over our recent death. And you thought you had it rough that time you forgot your anniversary…

FARSCAPE is an acquired taste to be sure, a show that can shift tones on a dime, truly spanning the sublime to the ridiculous to the heart-breaking, and back again… and sometimes all at once. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

Premiered: January 14, 2005
Just kidding. Sometimes garbage really is just garbage

Two of my favorite shows ever. Two of, in my humble opinion, the best SF shows ever aired. And both sporting pilots that, but for my giving them a second chance, I would have missed out on. Does this mean there's a diamond or two lurking in this season's apparent rough? Not necessarily. Could be, this season's crop of shows will prove to be just as blah as they first appear. But there's always hope, so keep your eyes glued to your shows of choice and keep your fingers crossed that they survive long enough to build a legacy worthy of nitpicking and debating and designing costumes from. And in the meantime, drop a line to yours truly with your own stories of which shows underwhelmed you at first, only to seduce you later. Send all questions, comments, and anecdotes about how MAX HEADROOM changed your life to Keep your head and hands inside the television, folks…

The Week Rerun

At least I can take comfort in Martha Stewart's misfortune - The San Francisco Chronicle's Tim Goodman plays Cancellation Bingo.

I Think the Most Compelling Reason is "a $10M Opening Weekend." - Slate's Seth Stevenson on why Joss Whedon should stick to television. And before you Browncoats start hammering together a gallows, I'd love nothing better than to have seen a $75M opening for SERENITY, so don't hurt me. It would only detract from time better spent thinking unpleasant thoughts about the Universal marketing department.

I, for One, Wouldn't Mind Seeing Chucky Dismember the Residents of Wisteria Lane - DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES' Marc Cherry is teaming up with the creator of everybody's favorite homicidal doll, "Chucky", to create a murder mystery/suspense drama for ABC. It's called KILL/SWITCH, and may feature "a lead female character who's dead." Haley Joel Osmet has already faxed over his resume.

That's 11 Less - 24 creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran are developing a modern film noir dubbed THIRTEEN for Fox. The show will unfold over a 13-episode arc per season, and promises "more sexuality than 24 allowed for." So in this one, Kim Bauer won't get snared in any bear traps, but she might find herself lashed to a bed by an ill-tempered dominatrix. And I, for one, think that's fabulous.

A Good Day for Inmates, Cubicle Monkeys, and the CIA - Sure, Tim Rogers says ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT may not be long for this world, but at least fans of PRISON BREAK, THE OFFICE, and AMERICAN DAD have shiny new full-season pick-ups to put a smile on their face. Plus, 4400 fans can look forward to a third season.

What's Good for the Gervais is Good for the Wilson - HBO continues to expand its comedy slate, with Owen Wilson coming onboard to co-write and exec produce a new laffer about a stand-up comedy team.

* * * * *


ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (7 PM CST, FOX) "Forget Me Now." Charles is in charge of the Bluth family's wrongs and their rights as Scott Baio replaces Henry Winkler as the family lawyer.

SURFACE (7 PM CST, NBC) A new discovery links those nasty little undersea critters to global warming. And the oil companies breathe a sigh of relief.

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (7 PM CST, TCM) Between this and CAPE FEAR at 9, you've accounted for about 80% of the Sideshow Bob jokes on THE SIMPSONS.

KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL (7:30 PM CST, FOX) "Dinner Date with Death." John Larroquette guests as Jack's mentor, who wants to partake his final meal in Jack's restaurant. May I recommend the Fugu?

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER (7:30 PM CST, CBS) "The Sweet Taste of Liberty." An evening spent trying to pick up women at the airport ends with Barney and Ted on a plane bound for Philadelphia with two prospective dates.

PRISON BREAK (8 PM CST, Fox) Will the doc meet an unpleasant fate at the hands of a bunch of screaming inmates? No, probably not.

MEDIUM (9 PM CST, NBC) "Time Out of Mind." MEDIUM does its take on the old "she wakes up and it was all a dream" cliché.


GILMORE GIRLS (7 PM CST, WB) "Always a Godmother, Never a God." But if they did become a god, why would they need a starship?

MY NAME IS EARL (8 PM CST, NBC) "Randy's Touchdown." Earl sends Randy back to high school to atone for fixing a football game. And yet Randy is still less sexually experienced than most of his new classmates.

SUPERNATURAL (8 PM CST, WB) "Phantom Traveler." The brothers hunt a spirit that causes plane crashes. That'll teach them to make the undead fly coach.

THE OFFICE (8:30 PM CST, NBC) "Office Olympics." After last week's episode, I can't help but wonder what precisely the Standards and Practices regulations are regarding appearances of sexual blow-up dolls.

BOSTON LEGAL (9 PM CST, ABC) "Schadenfreude." The black widow's fate hinges on Shore's closing arguments. And no, it's not a DAREDEVIL crossover, sadly.

NIP/TUCK (9 PM CST, FX) "Derek, Alex, and Gary." Christian repairs the aftermath of a hazing gone wrong. I hope they didn't do that thing with the fraternity pen and the brick.


LOST (8 PM CST, ABC) "Orientation." The rafters are in the captivity of the Others, and Jack, Locke, and Kate are learning Hatch-secrets over ice cream and cookies with Desmond. And how many of you spotted the symbol on the tail of the shark last week?

VERONICA MARS (8 PM CST, UPN) "Driver's Ed." Tonight's episode boasts appearances by both Kevin Smith and Steve Guttenberg. Which may just make this the coolest damn episode ever.

GHOST HUNTERS (8 PM CST, Sci-Fi) "Winchester House/Queen Mary." TAPS visits two infamous California locales.

INVASION (9 PM CST, ABC) "Watershed." Jesse gets attacked by another one of them orange-glowy underwater thingies.

OVER THERE (9 PM CST, FX) "Orphans." The team is ordered to clear out an Iraqi orphanage, prompting a moral crisis for Scream. Fortunately, he's able to consult his copy of CIDER HOUSE RULES for guidance.


ALIAS (7 PM CST, ABC) "…1…" Sydney investigates the death of a friend and Balthazar Getty joins the cast as a new agent. Let's just hope he gets a warmer reception than Doggett did in latter-day X-FILES

SMALLVILLE (7 PM CST, WB) "Mortal." Three superhuman convicts escape Belle Reeve and kidnap the Kents, blackmailing Clark into doing a bit of thievery on their behalf. Faster than a speeding security camera.

EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS (7 PM CST, UPN) "Everybody Hates Sausage." Julius buys a crate of cheap sausage, which then becomes the basis of every meal in the Rock household.

NIGHT STALKER (8 PM CST, ABC) "The Five People You Meet in Hell." Kolchak investigates a string of murders that seem to be tied to a blind imprisoned killer. I don't mean physically tied. Then he wouldn't be able to walk around the prison very well.


GHOST WHISPERER (7 PM CST, CBS) "Ghost, Interrupted." Melinda and her breasts help a drowning victim save her sister from a psychiatric hospital.

MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE (7:30 PM CST, Fox) "Health Insurance." Hal panics when he realizes he missed an insurance payment and the family may now not be covered.

THRESHOLD (8 PM CST, CBS) "Shock." Things become much worse when Molly learns that the alien signal can be replicated with human tech. What's worse, it's already on CD and being sold at a Starbucks near you, packaged with the latest from Michael Bolton.

NUMBERS (9 PM CST, CBS) "Obsession." Charlie and Don tackle the case of a stalker who's turned his attentions toward a pop starlet. I wish I knew if the character was trampy, because then I could make a "pop tart" pun. Oh well.


TEEN TITANS (7 PM CST, Cartoon Network) "Trust." Robin globe-hops to Morocco to try and foil the evil schemes of the Brotherhood of, um, Evil.

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: WRATH OF THE DRAGON GOD (8 PM CST, Sci-Fi) Yep, they really made a sequel. Nope, I'm not surprised it's premiering here.


CHARMED (7 PM CST, WB) "Run, Piper, Run." Piper is arrested for murder and Phoebe has premonitions of earthquakes. Or maybe she just wishes someone would make the Earth move for her.

DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (8 PM CST, ABC) "You'll Never Get Away From Me." Bree's exasperating mom-in-law lands her in legal trouble.

ROME (8 PM CST, HBO) "Pharsalus." That sounds like something your doctor would have to prescribe. "If you're suffering from lagging sexual performance and hair loss, try new Pharsalus!"

EXTRAS (9:30 PM CST, HBO) There's simply no excuse for my having neglected to mention Ricky Gervais' new HBO comedy. The good news is, HBO will inevitably be repeating the episodes 20,000 times over the coming weeks, so Tivo that sucker!

This concludes our broadcast.


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