After you've been in L.A. for a few years, you come to anticipate one of the perks of working in the business: getting to see all the network pilots months before they premiere. For some actors and writers, this is a process marked by envy. (i.e. "How could they order this script/cast THIS actor and not order/cast mine/me?!") I've vowed to make this tour as much of a learning experience as possible.
Because it's not unusual for pilots to be retooled, partially reshot or even recast after they're ordered, I'm not going to offer any in-depth thoughts, nor am I going to name any of the pilots that suc--- I mean, that aren't going to find themselves on my DVR this fall.
I will offer that the two efforts I've given A's to are ABC's Last Resort and FOX's The Following. Last Resort is the story of a submarine crew that defies orders to open fire on Pakistan and then takes over a neutral island, declaring themselves a nuclear power. It's a solid script from Shawn Ryan and Karl Gajdusek, with feature film quality production values and directing from Martin Campbell. The cast, headed by Andre Braugher, is solid. This is efficient storytelling at it's best. When this pilot was over, I wanted to see what happened next and I couldn't wait to spend time with these characters.
Important lesson here: as plot driven as this first hour is, the characters all have depth and strong dynamics with each other. All of the actors slip into these roles as if they've been inhabiting those characters for years and it's a reminder that a truly great show isn't just about a great hook or premise; it's about populating it with characters who make the most of that premise.
In other words, being plot-driven isn't an excuse to be lazy.
The Following also has a killer hook. A notorious serial killer escapes from prison and the retired FBI Agent who brought him in many years ago is recruited as a consultant. Before long, it's clear that the killer has help from a full cult of followers who've admired his work for years. Kevin Williamson's script is slick, and frankly, probably more along the lines of what networks expected him to pitch back in 1997 instead of Dawson's Creek.
Williamson's ace-in-the-hole is Kevin Bacon as the lead FBI Agent. But one doesn't get a movie star like that unless he's got a compelling character to play. I don't want to say too much, but Bacon's character is haunted by his past mistakes and the pilot makes it clear that while the manhunt for the killer is the show's engine, it's Bacon who'll lure back an audience week-after-week. There are probably a half-dozen shows featuring FBI agents and/or cops hunting psychopaths, but The Following is no procedural.
Most of the stronger pilots I've watched are all driven by strong characters. No matter how high the concept, a television series needs distinct residents populating that world week after week once the initial rush of the premise wears off. The Office thrived because of Michael Scott and his ensemble, The Vampire Diaries gets much of its dramatic tension from the Stefan/Damon dichotomy and the Stefan/Elena/Damon triangle; and where would Revenge be without the damaged Emily Thorne driving events?
When you write a movie, sometimes you can use high concept as a crutch. TV is less forgiving, and nothing makes you more aware of the importance of strong characters than watching 15 pilots in a short span.