As the fall TV season gets under way, it’s important to remember an unassailable truism: every year, an overwhelmingly high percentage of pilots range from just okay to really, really bad.
This is doubly true for genre shows, where the creators have to introduce viewers to worlds that are frequently complicated and unfamiliar — and tell a great story — in less than an hour. But don’t give up on a show with a premise that interests you after one episode, because a crappy pilot often tells you little about the eventual quality of the series.
Not buying it?
Okay, let’s think about genre pilots over the years. You can probably count the number of very good-to-great sci-fi show pilots on two hands. It took me way too long to come up with four (!) from the last 25 years – Lost, X-Files, Orphan Black, and Game of Thrones (although GoT had the luxury of being 62 minutes long). I’m sure there are others if I really think about it, but those were the ones that stuck out.
Ready to dive in? Let the disagreements begin!
Joss Whedon shows are notoriously slow starters, and Angel probably isn’t the worst offender. I could just as easily have put Buffy here. The others don’t count because they either never became great (Dollhouse), didn’t last long enough and were great from the beginning anyway (Firefly), or aren’t really a Whedon show (Agents of SHIELD).
So why choose Angel? Because the pilot struggled so much through trying to reinvent him and lay out all of the exposition they apparently felt was necessary. The commentary also talks about the idea of Angel as Batman and giving him cool tools like spring-loaded stakes. Really? He’s a super-strong vampire — he doesn’t need gadgets. Plus, Doyle is just not a good foil (yes, it rhymes) to play off against Angel’s angsty brooding. The first half of the below clip is from the unaired pilot (sorry, clips from the real one don’t seem to exist) and the exposition is even worse here, but you get the idea.
Like most Whedon shows, though, Angel rewarded viewers for sticking with it. As a more “adult” show than Buffy, it got to explore corners of the Buffyverse that its sister show wouldn’t dream of, frequently depicting a world that was far more gray than black and white. Plus, the show transforms fumbling, bumbling Wesley into a total badass, spends several episodes in a medieval fantasy world and includes a singing demon as one of the main characters. Oh, and demonic puppets. Can’t forget demonic puppets.
Wait a minute, you’re saying, Fringe has a two-hour pilot. Isn’t that cheating? Yes. And it’s why I can’t include things like Battlestar on the list of good pilots. But even with the advantage of that extra hour to set up the world and premise, Fringe does a horrible job of making me care about this world or these characters. I won’t reward longer pilots, but I’m happy to punish them.
What’s wrong with the Fringe pilot? The characters. Olivia is a cipher and not in an intriguing way. We’re supposed to care because her boyfriend is in danger, but jeez, be a little less boring. Peter is fine, but feels like a cliché more than a person. Walter is fun, but he’s not enough. Everyone else is basically wallpaper.
Thankfully, the pilot is not all we get to see of this world, because, over the course of five seasons, Fringe delves into some truly deep, complicated, hardcore sci-fi. Unexplained phenomena a la X-Files. Parallel realities — with alternate versions of characters. Time travel. Potential overlords from the future.
It’s like Lost, except that questions are actually answered in a mostly satisfactory way that adds to your understanding of the show and the universe. And the characters do grow into their roles… Mostly.
Speaking of growing into a role… With all due respect to the actor, the best parts of the Arrow pilot are when Stephen Amell is silently trying to survive on the island. I’m actually halfway convinced that they used an Amell robot for the present day parts of the show because he’s so stiff and wooden. David Boreanaz brooded; Amell glowers.
And even if you take this away, it all just feels sort of silly. Everything is super-serious and full of portent, even (perhaps especially) when it doesn’t really make sense — I’m looking at you, every single scene with Laurel.
Much like the other shows on this list, though, Arrow decided to run full steam ahead and delve into storylines that most shows would have saved for future seasons. We’ve only been with the Arrow (Hood? Vigilante?) for a few episodes when the police figure out his identity and arrest him. Wait, what?
That’s only the beginning of the fun, and as things move along, Amell’s acting not only becomes less off-putting, but starts to feel like a choice — a smart one. He’s Rambo in First Blood: Part 1 , coming home after facing horrors and unable to let himself become more human.
The writers also do a fantastic job of playing the long game in terms of storytelling, not only having an amazing payoff to the end of the first season, but smartly using it to set up things for season 2, where Arrow as a show really takes off.
Kevin Williamson made his name with Scream and Dawson’s Creek , two worlds full of ridiculously wordy teens. It worked in Scream, and some people like Dawson’s Creek, but in this pilot, it’s just cringe-worthy. The fantasy-horror stuff is fine, but most of it feels cliché and recycled. And the supernatural romance is only (maybe) a step above Twilight.
This, however, is not a show that pulls punches, nor is it afraid to blast through plot points quickly. I haven’t watched for a while, but I’ll put the first few seasons up against pretty much anything in terms of watchability and surprising twists and turns.
Within just a few episodes, main characters have been killed or turned to vampires, “bad” guys display shades of gray, and the plot just hums along. Plus, the actors really grow into their roles, making previously grating dialogue surprisingly fun and amusing.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
The pilot itself isn’t that horrible — though it does include Picard being a dick, Riker whistling at Data (I’m sticking to that description), and Wesley clumsily falling into a stream — but it’s certainly not great.
In fact, the entire first season is pretty blah. My joking rule of thumb with TNG was that it doesn’t start to get good until Riker grows out his beard. I mean, look at that ridiculous smile when Picard tells him “welcome aboard;” he’s giddy!
Q is awesome, though, and only gets better as the show goes on. When you add in the interactions with the Borg, the ever-growing awesomeness that is Geordi, Worf and Data, and the fact that there’s an episode where Picard lives an entire lifetime in 42 minutes, only to learn it wasn’t real, this was a show that definitely grew into itself.
If you watched the first few minutes of this pilot and switched to something else, I completely understand. Seriously, I did the same thing. And why wouldn’t you? It begins with exposition from Clarke, the main character, telling us she lives on a space station because Earth is radioactive, and she’s in jail for a crime. Adults who commit crimes are just “floated” into space, but juveniles are imprisoned and retried at 18…. And are you bored yet?
Then all of the jailed teens are put on a rocket to Earth to test whether it’s safe to live there, and hijinks ensue. “Cool” teens battle the more serious-minded teens to see who’s going to lead. A character we’re told spent her entire life hiding and not interacting with anyone but her brother is somehow a badass and tries to use her feminine wiles to get a guy’s attention instead of, you know, freaking out that there are actual people everywhere. More than anything else, the pilot plays like a sci-fi horror movie, and most of it comes off as kind of ridiculous.
Something happens if you keep watching though. Actually, a lot of things happen — fast, so I apologize for spoilers and you can skip to the next show if you want. The teens learn (in the hardest way possible) that there are survivors on the planet. Someone who appears to be a main character is murdered… by a 12-year-old girl… because another character advises her to “kill her demons,” and in her mind, he’s the demon because his father had her parents floated. Then a character gets rid of a radio to protect himself, directly leading to the deaths of more than 300 people on the space station who would have been spared had they known that the Earth was habitable.
Characters are constantly put into horrible moral dilemmas, and you can pretty much bet that if you have the thought, “They’re not really going to do that, are they?” you are painfully, horrifyingly wrong.
Like a number of other shows on this list, Supernatural is great at playing the long game. Unfortunately, that was not at all apparent in its pilot episode, where pretty much every moment feels cliché and overdone. Dean’s a badass, but he’s not the brightest bulb. Sam’s the broody smart one (i.e. he can use a computer) who just wants to be normal.
And, of course, exposition rules over everything because this is a pilot and that’s what happens. In fact, the only parts that do work are the scary ones. Creature effects are mostly well done, and the show knows how to use silence and tension to get to you. Overall, though, it just felt like a story stuck in neutral, happy to introduce new monsters each week, and equally happy to dispatch them.
For most of the first season, this was the case, but slowly an overarching plot began to develop. They were after a yellow-eyed demon who killed their mother, and so was their dad. But it turns out there aren’t just demons — angels exist, too — and they’re not just gently playing harps. Something big is going on, and Sam and Dean are right at the center of it in some way.
The show also grows more and more willing to poke fun at itself, benefiting from sillier episodes and character interactions that are more loose and relaxed. Once you hit season 6, things start to get dicey again, but those first five seasons just get better and better.
And that’s my list, which by definition is not in any way definitive. Are there other genre shows you can think of that started out bad but got better and better over time? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
Josh Weiss-Roessler worked in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles for almost a decade, and has written about it for even longer. His work has appeared on Tubefilter, PinkRaygun, Tor.com, and more. In his "real" job as co-owner of WR Writing, he helps all kinds of businesses create useful and relevant content that enables them to connect with people and just plain be more awesome.