Most of this season's pilots have wrapped or are in the process of wrapping, and over the next month the networks will be screening the new offerings as they prepare to build their fall line-ups. I can't say that I envy them because experience has shown it's been harder to predict the winners. This season alone offers ample evidence that a strong pilot isn't always evidence of a series that will take off. Conversely, even a pilot that plays like a total loss might overcome its flaws or at least manage to find an audience.
Last season, I managed to get an early look at a vast majority of the pilots that were picked up. The only ones I failed to screen early were a couple ABC comedies and just about all of CBS's lineup, save for Partners. I had the advantage of seeing many of these before reviews were available, making most of my reactions untainted. I thought I had a pretty good handle on the winners and losers - but how does my judgement look with most of the season behind us? Let's take a look at the pilots I thought were surefire hits.
Last Resort -
I talked this one up in this early review, so there's no hiding from my own words. "It's a solid script from Shawn Ryan and Karl Gajdusek, with feature film quality production values and directing from Martin Campbell," I wrote. "The cast, headed by Andre Braugher, is solid. This is efficient storytelling at its best. When this pilot was over, I wanted to see what happened next and I couldn't wait to spend time with these characters."
A season later - I still stand by all of that. It WAS a great pilot. And yet the show didn't make it past its initial 13 episode order. Some of that was the fault of a timeslot pileup. (There are few worse slots for an ABC series than Thursdays at 8pm.) Creatively the show had it's ups and downs, but the real misfire was the implausblity of our heroes not killing island kingpin Surat by the third episode. This pilot had some strong critical support, so you can't blame that, though perhaps an audience feared the premise would be hard to sustain. It's also possible they were leery of investing in a serialized show until the network showed more faith in it. Either way, I backed a horse that didn't finish the race.
The Following -
I loved the pilot (also reviewed in that older post) for its dark tone and willingness to push the limits of what was on TV. Bacon was compelling and the ending suggested creator Kevin Williamson was interested in examining what drives people to kill and to worship psychopaths. At the time, I remember opining that while the pilot was incredibly compelling, I had my doubts about if it could appeal to a mainstream audience, considering how dark and brutal it was.
A season later - regular readers of these pages probably recall the two columns where I took The Following to task for its weaker attributes. Creatively the show has fallen far from the heights of the pilot. But the ratings? It premiered strong and has remained one of the few successes among new series, so much so that it's already been renewed for a second season.
The Carrie Diaries -
I wasn't even the audience for this and I really liked this. I hated every second of Sex & the City that I ever had to endure, but this Josh Schwartz effort was fun, charming and had a likeable heroine in AnnaSophia Raab. Given the CW's demo, I thought this would be a slam dunk creatively and commercially.
A season later - I've not kept up with the show, so I can't speak to its quality. However, despite a massive ad campaign, the show's ratings have underwhelmed. Maybe all the tweens are just watching via online streaming, but the picture painted by conventional metrics suggests viewers are apathetic to the adventures of young Carrie Bradshaw.
Based on the promo trailers, I expected this to basically be Country Strong: The Series. This might have been the most pleasant surprise of last pilot season. In some 43 minutes, Callie Khouri created a whole world and a good half-dozen characters who had so much immediately depth that one might assume this episode was from a second or third season. The only aspect of the pilot I didn't like was the political angle. The world-building alone makes it clear why this show was ordered.
A season later - Truth be told, I still am not invested in much of the political story. Avery's story could also disappear without making me weep. Yet despite a few silly detours, the lead actresses have been given a lot to work with. It helps paper over the weaker elements and allows the show to really shine when the show nails the personal drama. Ratings may have been so-so, but it feels like there's a lot more growth potential than most of the other shows that have survived their first seasons.
Four very strong pilots, four very different (and often unexpected) results on the business side. As an exec, I probably would have ordered all four - and yet, it appears only one of them can be counted as a true success from a ratings standpoint. It points up the dilemma most execs face - great pilots aren't always synonymous with great series, nor does quality writing or critical praise ensures a fanbase devoted enough to make the show profitable.
Tomorrow, we'll talk about some of last season's pilots that failed to impress me and how their fortunes fared