Rethinking how we judge TV -- Does a strong pilot help or hurt a TV show's chance at success?

The television industry, you hear a lot these days, is in a bit of a panic. It seems we’re not glued to that glowing box as steadfastly as we used to be. It doesn’t matter that Tom Brokaw is now guaranteeing us an Exposé every week or that Cop Rock‘s incessant blare has been mercifully silenced, replaced by the more appealing Equal Justice: The networks’ share of the viewing audience is declining. People just don’t want to spend a lot of time figuring out whether or not to get hooked on a new series.

Consequently, the TV industry feels compelled to wow us the very first time out with pilots that look like feature films. While the average hour-long TV show costs a little more than $1 million to make, it’s not unusual for a production company to spend almost three times that on a pilot. The one for CBS’ sleek superhero show The Flash reportedly cost more than $6 million; the recent two-hour premiere of ABC’s family-spy thriller Under Cover was a densely plotted globe-trotter with production values comparable to a current theatrical film such as The Russia House.

It’s not just a matter of money — there’s the thought that goes into the writing as well. The hour-long pilot that Linda Bloodworth-Thomason wrote for her new CBS sitcom, Evening Shade, was probably the fall season’s most sustained feat of comic bedazzlement — the episode was exhausting, packed with well-turned lines and bits of funny business.

People who make pilots these days are really giving it their best shot, because they know it may be one of the few shots they get — a poor initial showing in the ratings and a couple of losing episodes in a regular time period, and they’re history. But this situation has yielded what might be called the Pilot Problem: After a dazzling debut episode, the series settles into its run, and the quality drops off drastically.

Take, for example, Under Cover. Following that promising debut, the series’ first two regular episodes have been woeful disappointments, cloak-and-dagger gaggers that barely beat Mission: Impossible for plausibility. CBS’ WIOU, whose pilot was engagingly clever, rapidly devolved into a nattering nighttime soap. And while Evening Shade is still a charmer, it hasn’t quite achieved the excellence that Bloodworth-Thomason has shown herself capable of attaining week in, week out on Designing Women.

This sort of glaring disparity has been going on for a couple of seasons now, the most notable example being the fall 1989 debut of The Famous Teddy Z. When the pilot for this sitcom, created by Hugh Wilson (WKRP in Cincinnati), was first screened for television critics, they went justifiably gaga. The show, about an aspiring young Hollywood agent, was witty and fast and sly. Rave reviews were churned out by the ream; here, said many critics, was the year’s best new show. Then we saw the second episode. Ker-thud. The show had collapsed — the jokes were lame, the characters bland.

Critics are, to be sure, part of the problem. Most of the time, we are obliged to review a series only on the basis of its pilot, without any idea whether a show will live up to its initial promise or improve significantly after a dull debut. This season, for example, NBC’s Law & Order premiered with a well-acted but rather clichéd pilot — most of its reviews were respectful but mild. Since then, however, the show has just gotten better and better — and viewers have responded, driving the ratings up steadily. This sort of thing should be noted more often; critics should be writing follow-up reviews to keep pace with both the programming and its audience — something we’ll try to do here more often in the future.

In the meantime, the networks would be well-advised to solve the Pilot Problem. A splendid-looking debut followed by formula junk doesn’t work anymore. TV viewers, at once increasingly sophisticated and restless, now insist on more than a minimal amount of quality-control in the shows they tune in every week. This phenomenon may be an immediate headache for the networks, but in the long run, it’s good for our pop culture.

Equal Justice
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