It’s the start of the fall TV season, and this week alone a ton of pilots have aired. You can’t always judge a show by its pilot—they’re usually filmed months before the rest of the show, and terrible pilots lead to great shows and vice versa. So how can you decide which show to invest in? Here are nine signs to look out for.
There’s no way to over-emphasize how much of a weird era in television we’re living through right now. The number of new TV shows coming on the air is staggering, and Sturgeon’s Law has not been revoked. Broadcast networks are getting smaller and smaller Nielsen numbers (which are increasingly meaningless), and the upshot is that most new TV shows will last a year or two at most.
So how do you figure out which TV show is worth investing in, based on the first few episodes? Here are some ideas:
This is such a big problem that even the networks themselves are reportedly worried about it. A pilot is like a mini-movie (or an actual movie if it’s two hours long) that gets to throw out lots of cool stuff and include amazing set pieces. But then you have to come back and do 20 or 21 more hours, in which the conveyer belt keeps trundling forward. You have to come up with 20 “thing of the week” stories, or else find a way to keep the soap opera twisting over and over again for a year, without spraining something. The second and third episodes are your first clue as to how a show is going to do that, and what kind of tricks they’re going to resort to. To be sure, plenty of shows had weak second episodes and then mustered up great ninth or tenth episodes—but episode two is your first glimpse of how they’re going to live up to (or rise above) that flashy pilot.
Did the showrunner get fired before any episodes were even filmed? Did they reshuffle the creative team several times in between episodes three and four? This isn’t always a problem—Sleepy Hollow had a highly publicized creative shakeup before the show aired, and the first season was still mostly superb. But it’s often a warning sign. See Terra Nova, Alcatraz, the V reboot and countless others—especially if there was someone who had a strong creative vision for a show, or a track record of doing really interesting stuff, and they get pushed out before the show even launches. These “creative differences” are increasingly common, and they don’t always mean anything, but they can indicate that something bland and sanitized is coming your way.
We’re no longer living in an era when most people don’t know anything about the faces behind the camera—thanks to imdb, and countless sites like io9, it’s possible to know a lot about the creative staff behind a show. So if you see, for example, The Tick’s Ben Edlund on a show’s writing staff, then that’s a signal to take it more seriously. My interest in Twelve Monkeys was massively increased when I saw that Natalie Chaidez from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was the first-season showrunner. (She’s now working on Syfy’s Hunters.) There are certain people whose presence on a writing staff usually means that there will at least be some interesting moments here and there, even if television writing is a highly collaborative process.
Is there chemistry? Can you kind of spot the one character who’s going to come into his/her own in episode eight? Or can you see that there’s a real lack of chemistry that is going to become a problem—like, say, in the case of The CW’s Star Crossed, which had a lot going for it but was leaning on a “Romeo and Juliet” thing with two leads who completely lacked any romantic zing together. If a show has a really great cast, who seem to bounce off each other naturally, then you have to hope the writers will notice and start writing to that, and the actors will actually elevate the material they’re given. A really watchable television show is as much a product of likable actors as anything else.
This is the worst thing. Sometimes, it’s clear that there’s one pairing on a particular show that holds all of the most potential—two actors who spark off each other, or two characters who have a lot of unresolved issues. Sorry to pick on Terra Nova, but this is the example that always comes to mind—Jason Mara and Stephen Lang had a lot of sparks in the pilot, whereas Mara seemed flat in all of the scenes with his family. So for the next several episodes, it was frustrating that Mara and Lang had almost no meaty scenes together. On Gotham season one, I always felt like Bullock and Gordon had the most interesting relationship, while I couldn’t care less about Gordon and Barbara. Obviously scripts are written way in advance, and it takes time for everyone to notice that a particular relationship—or just a particular supporting character—is bringing a great energy to the show. But if that was apparent in the pilot and nobody seems to have figured it out after a half-dozen episodes, that can be a warning sign.
Or is it a movie premise? Or a miniseries premise? Is everybody going to be—for example—trapped under a Dome for dozens of episodes, still driving their product-placement cars around even though they should have run out of gasoline days ago? Are we going to keep running through variations on the same scenario, or delaying an inevitable resolution through increasingly baroque twists? More and more television shows are based on books—not just book series, but also standalone books. This is a good thing, because the books (hopefully) bring some worldbuilding and character depth to the table. But if a book has a beginning, middle and end, and a TV show needs to be more open-ended, then you sometimes get a lot of wheel-spinining. Speaking of which...
This is less an issue now than it was a few years ago, during the heyday of Lost-influenced “how deep does the rabbit hole go” mystery-based television. But it still happens a lot—if there are lots of scenes where characters ask each other a straight question and don’t get a straight answer, because “you’re not ready to know the truth yet,” then just stop watching. Turn it off right away. If there’s no particular reason for a character to avoid sharing information, other than just to keep the audience in the dark about stuff, then delete the show from your DVR. Luckily, we’ve been seeing a faster pace about reveals being unveiled in the past few years, as showrunners realize they can’t just keep stringing audiences along. But this is still a major warning sign.
Like, is there a plot device at the core of the show that doesn’t make any sense, and will never make any sense, and the show will keep bumping up against this problem like a drunken ferret until it keels over? Thinking of the FlashForward TV show, which tried to have a situation where some people saw visions of the future in which their future selves knew about the visions of the future already—so Joseph Fiennes saw his wall of clippings about the flashforward—but other people were apparently asleep or on the toilet when they knew the most important event in human history was going to happen. There was a logical inconsistency baked into the crust of FlashForward, and it kept causing problems. Or is there a story element that is wildly at odds with the tone they seem to be going for, which they can’t just jettison? See Stitchers, which wants to be jolly and lighthearted, while also reminding you that this technology will probably kill the main character at some point.
Like, does it have a core idea? Is there some point that the show keeps coming back to? What element do the show’s writers think will keep you coming back—and is it a dumb mystery or something actually compelling? Not saying that a successful or watchable TV show needs to have a Thesis, or some kind of over-arching Theme, with a capital T. But every show needs a storytelling engine, and that’s usually the thing that the show keeps grappling with, one way or another. This can be a question that needs to be answered, or something that the main character needs to resolve, or something else. If you’ve watched a few episodes of a show and still have no clue what its main idea is, or what’s the single element that’s supposed to be generating urgency and emotional engagement, then it’s time to start worrying. A show can find focus later on in its run, but it’s definitely harder if the first several episodes were all over the map.