Borders Line: Anatomy of a Perfect Pilot

It shouldn't be this hard to make a good television pilot, should it?

After watching the pilot of Alcatraz this week (you can read my review here), I found myself giving the episode a pass it doesn't quite deserve. "Well, it's just a pilot. Pilots are always terrible. It could get much better." I then watched the second episode and deduced that no, it wasn't going to get much better--but even if it had, why do I always show such leniency to pilots? I've long philosophized, "Don't judge a show by its pilot," but hell, that is precisely what the audience and the networks are being asked to do! That is the fundamental purpose of a pilot.

I understand the difficulty. A pilot must introduce a universe that is already in motion and render intelligible that history, as well as create a crucial moment that changes the world as it has been and hints at the world as it will be throughout the course of the show. It must introduce characters and give us reasons to care about them, develop their relationships to each other and introduce brand new character relationships. It must thematically indicate what is to be expected from the show and close on a note of anticipation. And on top of all of that, it must be narratively engaging. If it's a comedy, it must be funny. If it's a drama, it must be riveting. 

For the purposes of this post, I re-watched two of my favorite pilots to determine why they work so well. First, the Futurama pilot, "Space Pilot 3000." Here we have a half-hour episode that sets up the universe of the main character, Fry, drastically changes that universe and develops Fry's response to that change within the first three minutes. We quickly realize that Fry is a well-meaning idiot who hates his life. He hates his job, his girlfriend dumps him, he's delivering pizzas to prank callers on New Year's Eve and his bike's been stolen. And then he falls into a cryogenic tube, because on top of everything else, he's a klutz.


Through the window, we see a millennium pass in thirty seconds of time-lapse; the landscape is destroyed and rebuilt several times over. Fry awakens in the year 3000 and realizes that his boss, his family and his girlfriend are all dead. "Yahoo!" he shouts, and the credits roll. Perfection! Those three minutes offer absolutely everything we need to know about Futurama and about Fry. The premise is developed, the character is fleshed out and the universe is engendered, all within three minutes of entertaining comedy.

We soon meet Leela, who is tasked with embedding Fry with his occupation chip; he's meant to be a delivery boy in this millennium, too. Fry's not having that, but them's the rules. Leela hates her job and feels bad for Fry, "Just a poor kid from the stupid ages," but she's not the type to screw around. "You gotta do what you gotta do." She chases after Fry despite her misgivings, because that's her job. We learn within minutes that Leela is tough and smart and decent. 

And then there's our introduction to Bender, one of my favorite introductions to any character on television: 


The fact that he intends to cheat the suicide booth out of a quarter even though he'll be dead within moments tells us pretty much everything we need to know about Bender. 

As Leela chases Fry and Bender around the city, the elaborately wacky, futuristic setting is quickly established, giving us a chance to take in the sights as they race through Old New York, the Head Museum and other landmarks. It's all quick as a flash, but there are dozens of visual jokes that will come into play in future episodes. Futurama's physical universe is one beautiful, infinitely clever joke, and the pilot doesn't waste any precious time hammering that home. But if you pay attention, it's all there.

Leela eventually removes her own chip because she's tired of doing something she hates, therein tidily solving a little problem within Leela--is she a leader or a follower? Leela is a leader, and will continue to be so throughout the series. The conflict continues, however, as the cops try to force Leela, Bender and Fry to accept their professional destinies. The three head to Fry's great-great-great-x1000 nephew's lab and meet Professor Farnsworth, who agrees to help them escape "even though [he is] already in [his] pajamas."


Wouldn't you know it; Professor Farnsworth needs a crew to man his space ship, and he has the chips from his old crew in an envelope labeled "Contents of Space Wasp's Stomach." He sets Leela, Fry and Bender up with handy new jobs. Fry's going to be...a delivery boy! But on a space ship, which is immeasurably cooler, and he's perfectly satisfied with that fate. The pilot ends in a tidy callback to the opening with the countdown to midnight, and the premise of the entire show as well as all of the main characters are beautifully, easily developed. 

I think part of what works for Futurama is that Matt Groening and David X. Cohen saved the supporting cast for the second episode. We don't meet Amy, Zoidberg and Hermes, Farnsworth's other employees, until Episode 2. It's a simple solution to a problem many pilots face, the problem of cramming in every important character within the first episode. How are we meant to understand who ten different characters are and why we should care about them in one week? Spread 'em out! It works a little differently, I'm sure, because it's an animated show with actors portraying different characters (Billy West is the voice of Fry, Farnsworth and Zoidberg, for instance) so Futurama didn't have to show off all its celeb talent at once for purposes of selling the show, but it allows for much-needed capacity to let Leela, Fry, Bender and, to a lesser extent, Farnsworth all grow on the audience. 

Another great thing about the Futurama pilot is that a future episode retcons the entire premise. We learn in the fourth season episode "The Why of Fry" that tiny, adorable mastermind Nibbler hid under the desk, waiting to push Fry's chair so he would land in the cryogenic tube and travel to the future. It wasn't random circumstance that landed Fry in the year 3000; it was all part of a grand, universe-wide scheme--and the retcon works so neatly with the original narrative.

So that's a perfect little sitcom pilot. Is that easier to do than an hour-long dramatic pilot? The writers of 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and the U.S. The Office might disagree with that statement, as those are three sitcoms with laborious, rushed and unfunny pilots that all grew into great television shows. (And in the case of 30 Rock and The Office, eventually grew back into crummy shows again). I actually watched the Community pilot live and didn't find myself at all enamored; I went back and revisited the show after everyone thankfully convinced me it that it's terrific. Another flawless half-hour pilot is the first episode of Spaced, which I recently re-watched. The episode is tight, full of humor and insight while neatly establishing the characters of Tim and Daisy and the way their future arrangement will work. 

But perhaps it's unfair to judge an hour-long dramatic pilot by a sitcom's standards. I don't know that one's easier to accomplish than the other, but they're certainly different. Veronica Mars, however, has one of my all-time favorite pilots, an episode I'll watch again and again, often allowing it to stand alone. The episode sets up so many complex plot points that will be addressed throughout the season, all in a deeply entertaining and thematically relevant episode. 

The pilot starts off with two big no-no's, two screenwriting tricks that are generally frowned upon and specifically spoken against by Film Crit Hulk, and quite rightly, in his Screenwriting 101 post. The episode, titled "Pilot' and written by showrunner Rob Thomas, begins with a voice-over and a flash-forward. Veronica sits in a car, staking out a cheating husband at a tawdry motel, thinking "I'm never getting married. You want an absolute? Well, there it is. Veronica Mars: spinster." 

Watch the opening four minutes of the pilot here (sadly, all Veronica Mars embedding appears to be disabled). 

In these four minutes, we learn that Veronica works, in some capacity, as a private detective. She has a bitter outlook: "Sooner or later, the people you love let you down." She has to take a calculus exam in four hours--she's in high school, and she's smart. She's not afraid of a bunch of toughies on motorcycles because she's quite a toughie herself. She's got an endearingly snarky sense of humor. This is Veronica Mars. She kicks all the ass. 

Why is it that the voice-over and flash-forward work here when they work so rarely? Well, Veronica Mars is a noir detective series, and those two tricks are vintage noir. The show maintains the voice-over and the non-linear narrative throughout the entire series, offering different-hued flashbacks every episode. It's not a cheap story-telling device; it's a deliberate style choice, and it suits the show perfectly. 

Flash back to the previous morning: Veronica heads to school, where if you attend, "your parents are either millionaires or your parents work for millionaires. Neptune, California. A city without a middle class." A kid--Wallace--is taped to the flagpole, and dickbag students are laughing and taking his picture. Veronica menaces one of the dickbags with a handy switchblade she keeps in her pocket, and then cuts Wallace down. "You are weird," the dickbag mutters. "Welcome to Neptune High," Veronica sighs to Wallace. "Go Pirates!" We learn so much about the school, the city and Veronica in this scene. We're also introduced, as is Veronica, to her best friend and trusty sidekick throughout the series, Wallace. 

This is my favorite scene of the entire pilot--of just about any pilot. Veronica naps through AP English until the teacher calls on her to quote Alexander Pope's essay on hope. Shaking herself awake, Veronica drowsily recites from memory, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, but always to be blest: The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home, Rests and expatiates in a life to come." When the teacher asks Veronica what Pope meant by that, Veronica shrugs and replies, "Life's a bitch until you die." The teacher chastises Veronica but moves on: "I think what Pope's saying is what keeps us powering through life's defeats is our faith in a better life to come." Here we gain more insight into Veronica--she's a great student despite her nighttime proclivities. But more importantly, we are given the theme of the entire show. Veronica's life sucks, but she will never stop fighting. 

The rest of the pilot goes very quickly. We learn that Veronica's best friend Lilly was murdered; V's father, a former sheriff turned private detective for whom Veronica works, accused Lilly's father, the most important man in town, of killing Lilly. Veronica's father, Keith, lost his job as sheriff and Veronica's mother left him. Veronica hasn't seen her mom in months and is by turns bitter and heartbroken over that fact. Veronica became wildly unpopular due to her dad's unproven accusation, and was roofied and raped at a party not long after Lilly's death. This is all part of the big mythology, the major arc cases that will be examined and solved at the end of the season, but they are introduced in the pilot as fascinating character development, told in Veronica's wry, cynical voice-over. 

Veronica juggles three cases in the pilot--we quickly learn that she is always juggling cases, helping her father while he's out nailing bail jumpers. She and Keith have a great relationship, but he's keeping something from her. He's still investigating the Lilly Kane case, even though he hasn't admitted it to V. Her mother is somehow involved; Veronica doesn't understand how. Veronica decides to help Wallace get out of a jam, and in the process she earns a lifelong, loyal friend, and we learn just how quick-witted she is, and how far her father's former police connections can still get her.

We learn all of this and yet it never feels like too much information. Every tidbit, every clue that comes neatly into play in a later mystery is revealed as crucial and entertaining character development in the pilot. The first season of Veronica Mars is such a well-crafted piece of television, with weekly mysteries that are hugely engrossing while sneakily serving the larger arc. Every one of the puzzles presented in the pilot--how Veronica was raped, who killed Lilly, why Veronica's father accused Lilly's father, why Veronica's mother left and where she's been--they are all solved by the final episode of the season, in an organic manner that above all serves character and story. This great season of television is set up by one terrific pilot, and it's why we really shouldn't suffer ham-fisted, lazy, toilsome pilots like the first episode of Alcatraz. JJ Abrams is obviously capable of an excellent pilot: I could have just as easily dissected the Lost pilot, as that's a perfect example of mystery not overshadowing character and story, of relationships and universes being established in a natural and absorbing manner.

Twin Peaks, Friday Night Lights, The Sopranos, Mad Men, My So-Called Life, Supernatural, Freaks and Geeks--these are all incredible dramatic pilots, and they all have some things in common. And in fact, they have the same things in common with incredible sitcom pilots like Futurama and Spaced and Cheers and Arrested Development (which also uses voice-over and flash-forward conceits to great success): an organic and entertaining dispersal of information, easy and natural introduction to fully-realized characters with overlapping motivations, a clear and seamless presentation of an established universe, a distinct visual and thematic style, at least one compelling hook and some damn fine dialogue. It's doable. So do it, TV writers. Because I've just decided I'm done making excuses for your pilots.