Test Pilot

Test Pilot is a regular feature here at TVS. In this bi-weekly feature, I will be joined by a rotating batch of guest writers in an analysis of, you guessed it, television pilots. In this space, we’re hoping to analyze pilot episodes in a number of ways in hopes of discussing its historical, cultural and industrial context. To get a well-rounded opinion, this feature will include two perspectives from individuals who have just watched the pilot, one coming from a writer with full knowledge of the series following the pilot develops, the other coming from a writer who is not as familiar with the series. I’m hoping that this can be a fun way to add some less time-sensitive material to the site, but also expand coverage back through history of the medium.

Theme 1: Television’s modern foundations

The first batch of Test Pilot files were chosen because of their importance to today’s television landscape. The medium has expanded in a lot of ways over the past 15-20 years, and to get this series of posts going, we are going to tackle four series that are perhaps most important to what we see on television today — and perhaps what we’ll see in the future.

File #1The Sopranos with John Barnett [September 1, 2010]
File #2The X-Files with Megan Clayton [September 15, 2010]
File #3Law & Order with Noel Kirkpatrick [September 29, 2010]
File #4The Simpsons with Myc Wiatrowski [October 13, 2010]

Theme 2: Teen Dramas

After touching base with four of the medium’s most important series of the current era with a fair amount of success, this space is now kind of open to whatever direction we would like to take it. For the next batch, it’s time to explore my favorite genre of television texts, teen dramas! Teen dramas represent an interesting conundrum, as the critical community usually avoids them or derides them, yet there is certainly an audience out there for this kind of series. Despite that schism, there’s no questioning the fact that teen dramas have value in American television. Perhaps more so than any other genre, they exist in a very specific moment that can tell us things about the how, what, when, where and why they came to be and were successful. Teen dramas depict trends of certain times with relative ease and serve as time capsules for their moment. But how do the genre’s capstone series relate to one another? How do they differ? What have been the evolutions in the cycle since the early 1990s? That’s what we hope to discuss over these four entries.

File #5Beverly Hills, 90210 with Craig Byrne [October 27, 2010]
File #6Dawson’s Creek with Louis Peitzman [November 10, 2010]
File #7The OC with Daniel Walters [November 24, 2010]
File #8Gossip Girl, with Brett Eppley [December 8, 2010]

Theme 3: Tracing NBC’s downfall

This is our third quartet of series and this go-around, things are a bit different. Instead of discussing the medium’s canon (like we did in the first four files) or a very specific genre (as we did with teen dramas in the most recent files), we are going to dive into the history of one television network: The National Broadcasting Company, or NBC. Now feels like the perfect time to discuss NBC. The sale to Comcast has been completed, Zucker is finally gone and they have a brand-new, Peacock-less logo. NBC is obviously trying to signify this time as a new, fresh start so it makes sense to look back on this terrible era they’re just moving out of.

File #9Joey with Austin Morris [February 2, 2011]
File #10Heroes with Chris Ryan [February 16, 2011]
File #11Knight Rider with…just myself [March 2, 2011]
File #12The Marriage Ref with Brad Sanders [March 16, 2011]

Theme 4: Sports television

Over the next four entries, Test Pilot will be analyzing the sports genre. By that I mean we will be looking at scripted programming that heavily features sports, not news or documentary-style programming about sports. In our culture, there are very few things that are more popular than sports and the relationship between sports and television is well-defined in many ways. Televised sport events are some of the most popular and most-watched things on television, across sport and across television network. From the Super Bowl, to the Masters to the World Series to a random collegiate hockey game, there appears to be an audience for live sports in all corners of television. And of course, programming about sports dominates the dial just the same. But despite the overarching dedication to sport and televised sport, fan admiration does not appear to translate to the scripted television realm. Millions of people watch ESPN each day, all day and build their entire lives around televised sports, but the ratings for scripted dramas or comedies featuring sports and the general lack of production of series about sports suggests we like to keep our adoration of “scripted television” and “sports” separate.

File #13The White Shadow with Adam Lukach [April 13, 2011]
File #14Playmakers with Travis Vogan [April 27, 2011]
File #15Sports Night with Les Chappell [May 11, 2011]
File #16Friday Night Lights with Melanie Kohnen [May 25, 2011]

Theme 5: The authorship of MTM Enterprises

Authorship is a really tricky thing and perhaps no more so than in the world of television. Numerous scholars have discussed the problems with analyzing television with an authorship slant with all of them rightfully pointing out that any production has countless cooks in the kitchen, within individual episodes and across multiple efforts just the same. With so many writers, directors, producers, co-producers, executive producers, story editors and everything else, it is difficult to say that a series is reflective of one person’s sole vision. Even an egomaniac like Matthew Weiner doesn’t do everything on Mad Men, no matter how much he might think he does. But despite the complex issues related to authorship, the MTM Enterprises book edited by Jane Feurer introduces an intriguing concept (one that, admittedly, has some small space in my thesis) of “corporate authorship” wherein a collective (featuring those from both production and business) can produce something of a corporate signature that reflects certain ideals, standards and expectations. In the case of MTM, Feurer argues that the production power of the ’70s and ’80s reflected a signature of quality, not unlike the way HBO and AMC co-opted those ideas of taste and distinction for their respective cable channels years later. These ideas of authorship and quality really stuck with me and inspired me to dive into the MTM oeuvre for this quartet of Test Pilot files.

File #17The Mary Tyler Moore Show with Jaime Weinman [June 22, 2011]
File #18Rhoda and Lou Grant with Carolina Hernandez [July 6, 2011]
File #19St. Elsewhere with Myles McNutt [July 20, 2011]
File #20: Remington Steele with Paul Rodriguez [August 3, 2011]

Theme 6: The Outstanding Drama Series Category, 1991

Obviously, this fall’s Emmy Awards are 20 years removed from the 1991 ceremony. There isn’t anything particularly “special” about the 1991 Emmys, but the five series making up the Outstanding Drama Series category piqued my interest. Hopefully taking a look at the kind of programs that the Emmy voters considered “quality” 20 years ago will shine an interesting light on how the industry and the Emmys have changed — and how they haven’t.

File #21thirtysomething with Andy Daglas [August 17, 2011]
File #22Northern Exposure with Kathryn VanArendonk [August 31, 2011]
File #23China Beach with Chris Becker [September 14, 2011]
File #24Quantum Leap with Noel Kirkpatrick [September 28, 2011]
File #25L.A. Law with Mark Waller [October 12, 2011]

Theme 7: HBO’s “Failures” 

We return to our network-oriented theme approach with a look at HBO. More specifically, I want to take a gander at the series that didn’t survive too long, despite HBO’s grand brand equity in the post-Sopranos era. Are these series creative failures? Why didn’t they catch on with audiences? Are those things one in the same? Everyone talks about the HBO successes, let’s mix it up.

File #26K Street with Andy Daglas [October 26, 2011]
File #27Carnivàle with Jeremy Mongeau [November 9, 2011]
File #28The Comeback with Anthony Strand [November 23, 2011]
File #29Lucky Louie with Les Chappell [December 7, 2011]

Theme 8: The Joss Whedon Oeuvre (Special Theme Week)

You folks know that I love television and that I watch a whole lot of it. But sometimes, things fall through the cracks. Included in those things that have fallen through? Most of Joss Whedon’s TV work (I have seen all of Dollhouse). I know, you hate me. This is my chance to start rectifying that and your chance to join me as a co-writer and tell me how much better you think you are than me because you’ve seen every episode of every series.

File #30: Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Greg Boyd [January 3, 2012]
File #31: Angel with Chris Castro [January 4, 2012]
File #32: Firefly with Rowan Kaiser [January 5, 2012]
File #33: Dollhouse with John Aspler [January 6, 2012]

Theme 9: Single-season series

Over the years, there have been tons of series with sizable cult followings and critical love that have only lasted one season (or less). This new theme (one that will likely recur) will explore a half-dozen of these single-season series and discuss what made fans and/or critics love them, as well as what made larger audiences or network executives give up on them. Are there traits that “good” series share that make them ripe for simultaneous cancellation and adoration? Were these series better off being cancelled so soon? Please note that the first entry in this theme will be an extra-large file tackling both Freaks and Geeks andUndeclared.

File #34 and File #35: Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared with Josh Spiegel [January 18, 2012]
File #36: Profit with Jamie Wotton [February 1, 2012]
File #37: Cupid with Anthony Strand [February 15, 2012]
File #38: The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. with myself [February 29, 2012]
File #39: Kings with Adam Wright [March 14, 2012]

Theme 10: The Modern Police Drama

The police procedural is one of, if not the, most dominant scripted format in the television industry. We like to think of the “cop show” with very specific terminology and iconography in mind, but countless series have attempted to mix up the general framework of the police drama. In this theme, I’d like to take a look at some of the modern police dramas that have done just that. These five series have approached the material differently, added somewhat new elements and focuses and generally made the police procedural feel fresher in their respective ways and eras.

File #40: NYPD Blue with Mark Waller [March 28, 2012]
File #41: Homicide: Life on the Street with Eric Van Uffelen [April 11, 2012]
File #42: CSI: with Adam Lukach [April 25, 2012]
File #43: Boomtown with Paul Rodriguez [May 9, 2012]
File #44: The Shield with Carrie Raisler [May 23, 2012]

Theme 11: Superhero TV (Special Theme Week)

Superheroes are going to dominate the film screen this summer, but they’ve struggled to catch fire on television in the same way — especially lately. This theme explores television’s take on the superhero, from decades ago to today. 

File #45: Batman with Andy Daglas [June 4, 2012] 
File #46: The Incredible Hulk with Cameron White [June 5, 2012] 
File #47: The Flash with Adam Wright [June 6, 2012] 
File #48: Aquaman (WB/CW pilot not picked up) with Wesley Ambrecht [June 7, 2012] 
File #49: Wonder Woman (2011) with Andrew Rabin [June 8, 2012]

Theme 12: Bad Pilot, Good Series

Sometimes, pilots blow. The good news is that series can overcome those terrible opening salvos and become good, even great series. In this theme, we explore five series that overcame pretty weak (relatively speaking) pilots. 

File #50: The Bob Newhart Show with David J. Loehr [June 20, 2012] 
File #51: Seinfeld with Josh Spiegel [July 3/4/5, 2012]
File #52: Star Trek: The Next Generation with Thomas Wachtel [July 18, 2012] 
File #53: Parks and Recreation with Les Chappell [August 1, 2012]
File #54: The Vampire Diaries with Austin Morris [August 15, 2012] 

Theme 13: War on Terror TV

One of the most controversial/important/extended events in our culture has barely been examined on television. Why? We try to answer that question by exploring the few series that did engage with the War on Terror.

File #55: Sleeper Cell with Kevin McFarland [August 29, 2012] 
File #56: Over There with Christine Becker [September 12, 2012] 
File #57: The Unit with Julie Hammerle [September 26, 2012] 
File #58: 24 with Eric Thurm [October 10, 2012] 

Theme 14: Post-Lost Failures: In the aftermath of Lost‘s initial success, the broadcast networks (especially ABC) tried to capture lightning in a bottle again. They failed miserably. We tackle those failures in this theme. Date TBD

File #59: Invasion with Adam Wright 
File #60: Threshold with Eric Van Uffelen 
File #61: Surface with Saralyn Smith 
File #62: The Nine with Chris Roof 
File #63: FlashForward with Kate Tripoli 

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11 thoughts on “Test Pilot

  1. I’ve read a couple of these so far and I find your idea very interesting. However, I can’t get over that the pilot of most shows is usually one of the weaker episodes and is a general setup and/or a sensationalistic grab for viewers that isn’t a true indicator of what the series will really be like.

    It would, perhaps, be better to judge the pilot along with a representative middle episode and even a series finale (if the show has ended)?

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