Potentially Lackluster Pilots Should Not Speak For Entire Season
Published: Sunday, October 28, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
In my television criticism class this past week, we watched the pilot of Breaking Bad and then proceeded to discuss it. I, along with Arts & Review Editor Brennan Carley, was one of the few people in the class who had watched the show. Of course, I attempted to hide my true identity as an obnoxious Breaking Bad fanatic, someone who regularly had hour-long debates about the show, but five minutes in, I became the jerk who couldn’t put his hand down.
I found myself having to defend the show, as a vocal portion of the class had not been impressed enough with the pilot to tune in for a second episode. The arguments brought up ranged from “I don’t like any of these characters enough to continue watching” to “Walter White’s seemingly instantaneous decision to start cooking meth doesn’t seem realistic.”
Based off the pilot alone, I could understand why they would make these claims. Breaking Bad’s pilot is extended on the first season DVD set to include a few more tone-setting scenes, which I was quick to point out, but even with these scenes, the pilot isn’t close to the best episode of the show. It moves fast because it has a whole premise to set up in just 47 minutes. Walt needs to be seen as weak and unhappy, then get his cancer diagnosis, then find former high school student/meth cook Jesse Pinkman, and finally almost get killed by drug distributors, all in one episode. If the show couldn’t make it to this point by the end of the episode, it wouldn’t have fully conveyed its premise.
The major problem with that possibility is that a pilot’s main job is to convey its premise to the audience and sell them on it. To not do that could potentially mean a major drop-off in viewership between week one and week two, which is usually a death sentence for a new show.
So I explained to my class’s naysayers that while the pilot is an essential, table-setting episode of Breaking Bad, it is far from a quintessential episode of the show. In this episode, Jesse comes off as a fairly simple character, even though he becomes one of the most fully fleshed-out characters on TV as the series goes on. The morality of Walt’s actions also become a deep focus of the show as early as the next episode of season one. Lastly, once the pilot sets up the show, the pace slows down considerably, more akin to the meditative narrative that Breaking Bad is now known for.
But again, the pilot is missing these elements. It contains some key ingredients of the show—the stylized direction, the innovative use of music, and the black humor, to name a few—but this is not the “Best Drama on Television” version of Breaking Bad.
There was another reason that I became so stubbornly defensive of the episode. An old friend of mine and I had been slowly writing our own television pilot over the summer. To start doing this, we had to do quite a bit of research on how the first episode of a television series should operate. The research led us to the most essential part of a pilot: to draw viewers in by showing how your show is different than the hundreds of other shows on television. In that light, Breaking Bad’s pilot always had to be telling its audience “Hey, I bet you’ve never seen a show in which a high school chemistry teacher with lung cancer starts cooking crystal meth to provide for his family after he passes away. Well, here it is!”
In my experience, some of the shows I enjoy had very good pilots, and others had very mediocre ones. But they all gave the audience an idea of what type of show they would be. Some shows have concepts so unique that you can feel their potential in every one of their early episodes, even if the early episodes themselves are not that good. As I said last week, I’m still watching The Walking Dead 20 episodes in, mostly because I think this show could be great—even though it hasn’t been so far. I got the same feeling with Breaking Bad from its pilot.
So, the next time you’re thinking of giving up on a new show after its first episode, try giving it another chance in its second week. New shows can surprise you quickly … unless that new show is Beauty and the Beast.