Does a series’ ultimate failure negate a great pilot?

I hope everyone enjoyed the Awake pilot last night (or over the past few weeks, thanks to NBC releasing it online fairly early). If you haven’t read my review, please consider doing that. But amid all the beaming reviews and superlatives for Awake, big questions remain: Is it a series? Can the story be maintained across multiple seasons or even these first 13 episodes?

These are great questions to ask and ones that Awake more or less dares you to ask, but as I watching the pilot for the third time in two days last night, I began to think to myself about the series’ sustainability and the “larger picture.” And by the time Awake’s narrative made it to that final sequence, I realized something: I don’t actually care if Awake can work as a series. Don’t get me wrong, I would love for it to, both for selfish reasons (I love great television) and so that Kyle Killen can keep a consistent job. But if it becomes clear by episode four or seven or 13 that Awake isn’t quite going to work as a long-term story, my sadness will eventually subside because any failure that comes after the pilot doesn’t automatically negate all the successes of said pilot. For me, every single post-pilot episode of Awake could be TERRIBLE and it wouldn’t really matter. I feel that exact same way about the Lone Star pilot, though its “failure” was out of the series’ and Killen’s control.

I’m wondering how other people feel about this. I understand that Awake’s pilot quality brings all sorts of expectations, and also fears that the series cannot meet those expectations. And in a time where we’re reviewing every episode and trying to simultaneously judge how it fits in with the past and predict what it means for the future, I have to guess that most folks would ultimately discard the pilot’s successes because of the series’ failures.

The ultimate impact of one episode is something that is really curious to me. Clearly, pilot’s set the tone for a series and they have to work on some level to hook the audience into the story. I’ve written before about how the greatness of one individual episode (like a finale) cannot rectify a season’s worth of problems, but I also think the opposite is true. A season’s worth of problems does not discount an individual episode’s strength and quality. That argument might be paradoxical in some ways, yet, I think it’s also true.

Perhaps this depends on the time that we look at an individual episode. At the end of a season, a great finale can fill us with positive emotions that might evaporate some of the nasty tastes in our mouth that the season shoved in there, leaving us to project a certain level of improvement that disregards the slew of issues. But if the ending or most recent episodes are troublesome, it tends to be difficult to look back as fondly on the strong points that came before. The recency effect is a fickle bitch, I guess. If the responses to the endings of Lost, Battlestar Galactica and The Sopranos have taught us anything, it is that.

Good analysis should consider context – the pilot is hopefully part of a larger whole, after all – but it should also be able to separate individual units from context, if only a little bit. For me, a great episode of television is a great episode of television. There is no level of subsequent failure that can strip away the heights an individual episode reaches. I might ultimately be disappointed with the whole, but singular parts still remain in my mind. I would never say I like something like American Horror Story as a whole, but there were two or three episodes in that first season that I completely adore and won’t soon forget.

This seems to be truer for great pilots, which can – and really, should – play like short films. In recent years, there have been a number of quality pilots that didn’t result in sustainable, great or even good series: the aforementioned Lone Star, The Walking Dead, The Nine, Heroes, FlashForward and Twin Peaks come to mind immediately. Heck even things like A Gifted Man or Modern Family struggle to live up to the quality that the pilot suggested. It happens, for dozens of reasons. But later troubles do not negate those early successes (just as later successes don’t negate early failures or whatever).

Awake, unfortunately, is likely to join this group, either because the story isn’t sustainable or because NBC doesn’t like the ratings (though it started “fine”). If that happens, it won’t take anything away from the pilot, at least for me. How do you feel? Do ultimate failures negate the positive feelings you had for a great first episode?

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2 thoughts on “Does a series’ ultimate failure negate a great pilot?

  1. Did BSG go completely off the rails? Of course it did. Does it make “33” any less riveting and compelling? Of course it doesn’t. (The backdoor miniseries is still good, too, but “33” is just so damn fine.)

    I think the reason for your paradoxical relationship to finales and pilots rests on the fact that a pilot is a promise that a show makes: “This is the show we’re making. Trust us and give us your time.” while the finale is “This is our end result of that promise.” As an audience, we may end up feeling, for lack of a better word, cheated, if that promise isn’t somehow fulfilled.

    This is, of course, a silly notion to have since television shows are works in progress, and are very often not shot and created in a vacuum. There are network notes, fan reactions, changes in writing staffs, producers leave while others get promoted and have different agendas. Shows changes, audiences change

    Pilots are such a tricky thing to evaluate and deal with. On the one hand, I think many of us are of the opinion that we shouldn’t judge a show based purely on the pilot, and that shows need a few episodes to get their feet.

    But, on the other hand, networks order series based on a single episode. Sure, the pilot may get rejiggered, but if networks are willing to invest millions of dollars based on a single episode, is it asking too much of us to watch more than one episode in determining if we like something or not?

  2. Is there a finer example of the changed expectations engendered by the past decade or so that we could even consider the idea that a great pilot is “enough” in itself? Well – ha – that’s a rhetorical question. A “great” followed by the series immediately going to shit would tend to suggest that it should be something other than a series. It’s preferable to have a quite good pilot that ably sets up the characters/basic concepts and for the higher quality and (hopefully) greatness to come later than to start with all the worthwhile stuff you’re ever going to have (it’s funny – I know I’m not even framing it as a question). Now, some series have a great first season and *never* despite the protestations of fans come close to equalling it, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as the series doesn’t drag forever and anon. However, I tend to prefer series that actually improve and deepen (whether they are primarily episodic or serialized doesn’t mean much to me) and manage three or four seasons of high quality rather than series that blow it all. I think that New BSG started well but around Season 3 the unsurprisingly pervasive bleakness and repetition of the concept finally began to overwhelm the series at the same time as the writers pretensions similarly really overshadowed their storytelling ability, and in the end the fact that the finite concept led to nowhere interesting meant that the series viewed *as a whole* doesn’t work though some of the parts were fine. I am interested in the way that many people seem to judge “quality”, complexity, and worth on how “bleak” a series is. If I were so inclined I might call this “Wow, these People are Bastards and Assholes and Therefore “Realistic” Ergo the Series is Great!” Syndrome, if I were so inclined…and insane. I think many recent critical darlings fall into this category but then again there’s garbage like Glee, Gray’s Anatomy and House which aren’t esp. bleak just formulaic and played-out in the worst way. Um, off-topic ramble ends.

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