In recent years, a number of television series have launched with stunning pilot episodes that grabbed mass audiences from the very beginning. Brilliant premiere episodes from the likes of Lost and Breaking Bad have elevated expectations for what a pilot can accomplish, but as a result, they’ve also cut down the audience’s attention span and tolerance for series that don’t kick off as gracefully. In case you’ve already written off new shows like Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that are struggling with first season growing pains, we’ve compiled a few examples of weak first episodes of shows that ultimately proved to be brilliant.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
“Encounter At Farpoint” (September 28, 1987)
Once, a few of my college friends who were casual Star Trek fans asked to watch the first episode of The Next Generation, as none of them had seen it, despite loving the series. I tried to warn them off, suggesting a stronger episode, but their curiosity got the better of them. So, I proposed to them a compromise:
“We’re going to watch the episode, and every time you want to turn it off, we’re going to take a shot.”
We all got good and drunk that night.
Even the most devoted Star Trek fan will tell you The Next Generation got off to a very rocky start. Fans of the classic Trek were already skeptical enough about a new series that featured none of the original characters, and it didn’t help that the series took two and a half years to hit its stride. While there would certainly be worse episodes of TNG before it finally took off toward the end of season three, the pilot could rank among the ten worst installments of its 178-episode run.
Some of the episode’s weaknesses could be attributed to poor planning – the script was originally written for a standard one-hour episode, but was expanded at the last minute to be a double-sized premiere, and the result was an episode padded to death. This isn’t even the first time this had happened to a Star Trek story – the script for what became Star Trek: The Motion Picture was likewise written for an hour-long TV pilot, and the efforts to expand each of these stories resulted in remarkably similar messes. Both finished products had thin stories and long, tension-breaking effects shots.
For a series that later went on to tell some of television’s best science fiction stories and become a major force in the mainstream pop culture zeitgeist, “Encounter At Farpoint” is lacking in almost every area in which future episodes succeed. The characters are stiff and unrelatable, and the sci-fi plot is hardly thought-provoking. Between the poor introduction of Q (who would later become TNG’s most beloved antagonist) and Marina Sirtis’s astronomical overacting as Counselor Troi, there are more laughs to be found in this alleged drama than in the rest of the series combined, including the comedy episodes.
“The Seinfeld Chronicles” (July 5, 1989)
Watching the pilot episode of Seinfeld is like embarking on a journey through a cognitively dissonant hellscape where jokes fall flat and everything seems to have a breast pocket. The pilot entitled “The Seinfeld Chronicles” focuses on Jerry and George complaining about and observing things in a few different locations with occasional footage of Seinfeld’s stand-up thrown in for rough scene transitions. This is almost a crutch, as it betrays a lack of substance, a far cry from the ingenious Harold-like scope the show is now famous for. The result is disorienting, hollow and arguably (unfortunately) similar to several successful contemporary sitcoms. Stand-up comedy was at its peak in the late 80s and successful comedians fed into their own sitcoms. So, I guess the idea was to combine two effective modes of comedy into the musical supergroup equivalent of family entertainment. As it turns out, much like the supergroups themselves, the product is far weaker than the sum of its parts. Seriously, give The Firm a listen and sit back as they rock you into an anemic K-hole of boredom.
This tepid comedy experiment turned into one of the greatest shows to ever grace a Nielsen box. The only reason it got picked up was because a network exec had a good feeling and forced it through (Boudreaux, 2004). While this says a lot about the unpredictable nature of TV networks what’s more important is how long it took Seinfeld to become what it was destined to be. If you look at the Top 20 Seinfeld Episodes on IMDB, you’ll notice that only a handful come before season 4. In other words, Seinfeld first aired in 1989 but did not truly come into its own until 1992.
The show adapted. The weirdly discordant stand-up segments dispersed throughout the episode were removed. The pilot’s derpy LucasArts casio keyboard intro music was replaced with the iconic Seinfeld bass riff. Julia Louis-Dreyfus joined the cast. Jerry’s just-visible dirt stache from the pilot was banished to the negaverse never to terrorize my peripheral vision again. More remarkable by today’s standards is that Seinfeld was ALLOWED to adapt. For whatever reason Seinfeld was permitted to breathe, go through some growing pains, and work out its kinks. Somewhere, in a college’s blackbox theatre, a lone Joss Whedon fan silently weeps into his brown coat.
Babylon 5 (1993-1998)
“The Gathering” (February 22, 1993)
In 1988, J. Michael Straczynski started shopping this pilot around Hollywood. Struggling to define the series premise to executives, he settled on describing it as “a science-fiction novel, on television.” Today in 2013, we would call it “a television series.” With Babylon 5, JMS invented the modern serialized television drama, to Deadshirt contributor Max Robinson’s endless annoyance. That’s twenty years before the form became ubiquitous; ten years too early for mainstream critics to acknowledge the debt owed to B5 by the J. J. Abrams generation. And it still has one thing on almost all the younger shows it foreshadowed–it was written with a singular vision and an ending in mind, a story structure so robust that it withstood the unplanned departure of the lead actor in the second season. An IMDB poll of “best series finales” with dozens of entrants currently has the ending of B5 running second place behind the recent finale of Breaking Bad.
However the beginning is…not so strong. In fact, it’s so weak that B5 was almost stillborn. On paper it’s a great story: the commander of an Earth space station that’s hosting four alien ambassadors is framed for the assassination of one of them. But clumsy dialogue, ineffective delivery, and inexplicable filming choices (very little light, lots of smoke) make the opening pilot nearly unwatchable. An hour of story is fit into 90 minutes of running time, with the remainder devoted to plodding exposition. Actors desperately try to seem natural as they carefully explain the series premises to us (“Did you know that my empire is declining?” “We are the young angry empire who wants to ally with you, the ancient and mysterious empire!”) There are also scenes that can only be justified as insane attempts to differentiate the show from Star Trek (“I’m the commander, let me take time off from beating up this drug dealer to warn you about that cannibal alien prostitute.”) In addition, before filming on the series began several major makeup, costume, characterization, and cast changes were made, leaving “The Gathering” feeling like a bizarre test-run (though its events are referred to later). If you are interested in B5 I strongly recommend starting with the first regular episode, “Midnight on the Firing Line,” a much tighter and more exciting story with less extreme growing pains.
The Wire (2002-2008)
“The Target” (June 2, 2002)
Even the best shows are prone to slow starts – and The Wire (often listed as one of the best TV dramas of all time) has the slowest start of any show I have ever seen.
“The Target” did have its moments – the “Snot Boogie” is still one of the best series openers ever – but overall it was the least engaging pilot I’ve ever seen. With the exception of McNulty and a few others, most of the characters weren’t given even halfway decent introductions and left pathetic impressions. You’d be forgiven walking away from the pilot not knowing any of the characters’ names – many of them weren’t even said, and most characters came across as Generic Indifferent Meat Head (insert-job-here). The show was insistent on dropping us into the world instead of easing us into it – which meant we spent an entire episode trying to decipher cop jargon and street talk without any kind of glossary or frame of reference.
The pacing of the entire episode was lethargic, barely had enough plot to justify sixty minutes and requires a lot of patience. While the episode does end with a bit of an interesting mystery, the payoff is not worth even remotely worth the patience. Disappointing character introductions, heavy use of unfamiliar colloquialisms, and a slow pace without a good payoff adds up to a bad first impression – especially for a show so lauded.
Many of these problems were remedied within two or three episodes. To this day I’m not sure if they pulled back on the street talk or if I just became accustomed to it – maybe a bit of both. Many of the most interesting characters – Prez, Freamon, and the legendary Omar – weren’t introduced until the second or third episode. Much of the joy of the first season was seeing how the detail developed, and learning that the humps were real po-lice. My advice for people who want to start The Wire – stick through the first episode, it gets progressively better each episode until the show becomes exactly good as advertised. You’ll see why it spoiled cop shows for me and many others.
“Pilot” (September 17, 2009)
Before you break out the pitchforks and torches, allow me to explain. I am not arguing that the pilot episode of Community isn’t a good episode of the show. It’s a fine episode, and even borders on excellent at times (“What makes humans different from other animals?” “Feet!”) But I can only say that now, with the smug hindsight of knowing to what great heights Community will rise. Because good episode or not, the pilot of Community absolutely stunk butt as an actual pilot.
A comedy pilot must accomplish three things: 1) introduce the characters, 2) be funny, 3) give us a reason to keep watching. The best comedy pilots (Arrested Development, How I Met Your Mother) throw all their energy into these three tasks, and leave the audience feeling satisfied with the episode and excited for the next. Community squeaks by each of these marks, although the initial introduction of the cast relied too frequently on tired stereotypes, a bad impression that would be remedied almost immediately in later episodes (the first time I watched the pilot I figured some braindead exec had just thrown together the most PC-diverse group the network could come up with.)
But Community’s fatal mistake was trying to overshoot these three goals to create a “statement piece.” The whole thing is a huge satirical send-up to the then-recently deceased John Hughes, from the literal opening bell to the closing Simple Minds track. And while the savvy viewer will recognize these more obvious references, a fresh audience has no way of knowing that this entire episode is both a) total parody, and b) a one-time-only engagement. Viewers who tuned in for Community’s original airing walked away either assuming that the show was numbingly unoriginal or was going to be Breakfast Club: The College Years—when in fact, it’s just another genre-of-the-week Community tropesploitation hour, the type of episode that those who stuck with the show learned to love and relish. If this episode had come in a few weeks later, it might have worked perfectly. But as the introduction to a show that would become the hyper-intelligent meta mash-up it was meant to be, all it succeeds in doing is confusing and alienating a mainstream audience. Community’s struggle with ratings has much to blame on this early, crucial misjudgment.
Modern Family (2009-Present)
“Pilot” (September 23, 2009)
I was not impressed with Modern Family at the beginning. It’s not so bad upon re-watching it with knowledge of how the characters are now (I laughed at the Lion King gag this time around), but when it first aired I distinctly remember feeling very “eh” about it. The pilot episode establishes the characters just fine, but they’re very flat (Cam is flamboyant, Jay is old), and the mockumentary style is extremely unwieldy. However, the most annoying thing about it was they way that the three households are (ooh, twist!) revealed to be one big family at the end. It was a gimmick that felt forced. It wasn’t half as clever as the writers thought it was and I was just like “nope”.
I’m not saying that the pilot of Modern Family was universally bad, just that it doesn’t match the high of comedic delight I get from watching the show now. This is a trajectory that most good sitcoms follow as the show’s writers and actors are developing chemistry. That chemistry is especially important in a show about family, where it lends a real verisimilitude to the connections and relationships between the characters. But I’m not feeling it in the pilot.
Modern Family is much better off in later seasons when the established chemistry and family ties allow comedy to flow naturally and with nuance from the situations that arise. It allows an audience to believe they are an integral of the daily dilemmas of these people they know and love; another family member. I recently watched the parents of Modern Family together as guests on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and it was hard to believe they weren’t all in-laws in real life.
The integration of the mockumentary style is nearly seamless in current episodes. The interviews elaborate on and complement the scenes, rather than having characters just awkwardly disagree with their spouses. The aging of the kids has been handled extraordinarily well, especially now that Lily has moved out of her bitch-toddler phase. Also, Cam and Mitchell’s portrayal is big win for the LGBT community. Modern Family is much better than its pilot, and it has earned its 4 Emmys. Plus it gives me the warm fuzzies inside every Wednesday night.
The New Girl (2011-Present)
“Pilot” (September 20, 2011)
If you ever heard Human Glitter-Sprite Zooey Deschanel described as “adorkable,” you should know that the ensuing urge to vomit rainbows was brought to you by Fox’s ill-conceived marketing blitz for The New Girl. The biggest mistake showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether made at the outset was placing the brunt of the focus on Deschanel’s quirky, doe-eyed take on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – think (500) Days Of Summer with an extra saccharine kick. On first watch, it’s difficult to suss out whether the viewer is even supposed to root for Jess or want to dropkick her out the window of the boho-chic LA apartment of her new roommates. And speaking of the supporting characters, let’s see how many generic tropes we can knock out:
• Moody Bartender/Love Interest (Nick – Jake Johnson)
• Douchebag Rich Guy (Schmidt – Max Greenfield)
• Alpha-Male Jock (Coach – Damon Wayans)
• Hot Model Best Friend (Cece – Hannah Simone)
To be fair, pilots have to do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of exposition; the onus is on the writers, however (especially in a sitcom), to make the characters a group of people that viewers want to tune in and hang out with from week to week. All of the people inhabiting the pilot of New Girl are flat and dull, repeatedly hitting the same beats over the course of what feels like an unduly long 22 minutes. Most egregiously, the character who managed show even a glimmer of emotional depth never appears again on the show – Damon Wayans’ Coach was written off after the pilot so that Wayans could star in the under-appreciated Happy Endings.
Thankfully, it didn’t take long for the writers to figure out that focusing on Jess was a mistake. The characters became more nuanced over the next few episodes, particularly Schmidt, who is widely regarded as one of the breakout characters of the year. The void left by Coach’s departure was immediately filled by Lamorne Morris; while this initially felt like a particularly uncouth attempt to keep a “token black character” on the roster, Morris’ performance helped Winston grow into a great character, holding his own with the rest of the group. Most importantly, the writers inverted the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope by making the characters surrounding Jess be annoyed by her goofy persona rather than entranced by it. In doing so, they managed to bring out more universally human notes in Deschanel’s performance. Over the course of the first season, the show gradually evolved into the whip-smart comedy it’s known as today.
Of course, these are just our personal opinions – we don’t even all agree with each other. What do you think? Leave a comment here or visit our Facebook page!