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First Impressions Count: The Importance of TV Pilots

Sam Lindauer
The West Wing

It’s one of entertainment's must cutthroat tryouts. The modern TV viewer knows what they want. Failure to deliver on such expectations can spell doom for a new program.

Pilot season represents an exciting time in the television world. Writers have spent hours creating a universe inhabited by, what they hope, are interesting characters that can carry a program for years. Unfortunately, all the hard work boils down to that first episode. In fact, a show is lucky to have its first episode air on television at all let alone be picked up and then later renewed for more seasons. The first episode of a series is always amongst its most fascinating because it reveals most of not only the program it represents, but the changes television shows ultimately go through.

There are a few common elements that are necessary when constructing the start of a series. Establishing the main cast of characters and overall tone of the show, introducing the world in which these characters inhabit and giving fans a reason to come back next week are the most important aspects to a pilot’s success. It’s one of entertainment's must cutthroat tryouts. The modern television viewer knows what they want. Failure to deliver on such expectations can spell doom for a new program.

For example, two neo-classic shows that have well structured and developed, yet incredibly differently toned, pilots are Aaron Sorkin’s long-running political drama, The West Wing and Bill Lawrence’s comedy Scrubs. Both provide different techniques to introducing a series. First, looking at Scrubs, it is clear that the introduction to the show’s universe is employed using in a common practice as seen in the title of the pilot, “My First Day”. “First days” in workplace programs allows for easy introductions to a main character that needs to meet a large cast. Scrubs employs this device by having the main character and show’s narrator, JD (Zach Braff) walk into the hospital as a fresh-faced intern who is terrified of all the things that can go wrong as a doctor, especially the prospect of someone dying on his watch. Starting the main character on his first day immediately forces the audience to identify with JD while discovering the world along with him. This is the hook. We meet a love interest, the best friend, the mentor and the jerk. This is made all the more clear as we have JD’s internal monologue literally telling us who is the good guy (Dr. Cox played by John C. McGinley), who is the bad guy (Dr. Kelso played by Ken Jenkins), and who he wants to have sex with (Elliot played by Sarah Chalke).

Giving us this perspective sets the tone for the series, as much of the show delves into wacky fantasies that cut in the middle of real-world problems at the hospital. We get our first taste of this when JD internalizes the competitiveness between the new doctors by imagining himself racing his love interest, Elliot, through the hallways of the hospital ending with a photo finish. In addition to letting the viewer know how off-the-wall the show can be, the perspective from JD gives off the principal reason to watch the show next week. We want to come back because the show tells us that there is so much for him to learn. In fact he won’t be a fully realized doctor (or character for that matter) for years (seasons).

Ideally for the network and everyone who worked on the show, the viewer would want to take this journey with him and the other young doctors. At Scrubs’ best moments, this was what viewers saw. The show could be wacky with JD’s cartoonish fantasies and heartfelt when patients were dying and relationships were forged. But as the show grew older, this equilibrium began to lean heavily to the side of goofy. The tone and aesthetic became much lighter. The conflicts seen in the first few seasons, and the first episode for that matter, were often rammed into a veritable clip-show of crazy JD fantasies.

On the other end of the spectrum was Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, which was also a work place show. It skewed much more towards drama than comedy, but was still often hilarious. Sorkin’s introduction of the series goes against the “first day” grain. In fact there are no audience proxies or any one main character for that matter. Sorkin opens by giving each of the supporting players equal screen time. We meet CJ (Allison Janney), Sam (Rob Lowe), Josh (Bradley Whitford), Leo (John Spencer) and Toby (Richard Schiff) who are each in a separate character-specific setting that gives the audience a clue into who they are. Also, each character is introduced receiving the same message about their boss: “POTUS was in a bike accident.” They each respond in their appropriate way, CJ falls off a treadmill which is the only personal time she has the whole day, Sam finds out while locking eyes with a beautiful woman in a bar, Toby finds out while on a plane and makes a fuss over the fact he can’t use his cell phone, Leo is naturally at work in his office and Josh is passed out asleep under mounds of paperwork. It’s a simple yet effective way to give a glimpse at who these people are and the person that links them all.

Sorkin throws the audience into the deep end as it is no one’s first day and you need to listen close to catch the mile-a-minute quips characteristic of his writing. Thomas Schlamme’s directing along with the script quickly establishes the show’s tone as the famed walk-and-talk debuted here which gives the sense of movement and urgency to everything these people do. It makes the environment more believable. After all, this is The White House and there is not much time to take a seat for a relaxing conversation.

Schlamme sets the template for the look and energy of the show as almost all of The West Wing offices have blinds that cast shadows most often seen in '50s noir than a late '90s political drama. Sorkin’s script shows that in this universe, everyone is astoundingly smart, funny and full of dizzying references (Alger Hiss is namedropped in the first two minutes). The one big name missing from all of this is the head honcho himself, The President. This is where the show gives its viewers a reason to come back week after week.

Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen) only appears in about the last five minutes of the pilot episode. His spotlight-grabbing smack down of right-wing religious leaders, who want Josh’s head after he made less than diplomatic remarks, makes it clear why these characters work so hard and why they believe in what they’re doing. This episode establishes the liberal fantasy world that these characters would toil in for seven seasons, but the pilot needed to show that this was a place the viewer wanted to escape for an hour every week.

There is a relationship between the viewer and the television program. Like all interactions, a first impression is important. If someone sees potential they will stick around, and spend hours of their time in front of the screen. The pilot has to make it seem like it will be worth it. Like most first impressions, they show off just the surface of something that is much more complex. As shows go on they inevitably grow from what they presented in the pilot. Characters and plot points sometimes exceed expectations and sometimes they disappoint, but there’s nothing like a great first impression.

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