I love television. Maybe this is because I wasn't allowed to watch any as a kid, maybe it's because long narrative arcs are really interesting to me. Either way, I've given the medium a lot of my time over the past decade and a half as I've become a student of it. This has included lots of watching and yapping about various shows as well as long papers in college about Friends and ER, you can read what I wrote about ER's finale here. Another part of my tv obsession is watching the pilot of every new show (or attempt to). I do this because there's something uniquely interesting about a pilot: it's both a story's premise and the thing that needs to exemplify all of its promise. It needs to work as a tight hour of television but also provide enough possibility to let a series go anywhere in the future. A great pilot might not mean a great show, and from a critical standpoint, this makes for fascinating viewing. Sometimes. Sometimes a pilot straight up blows and you can't believe you've spent an hour watching an idea crash and burn. This fall should offer great examples of both. Let's just jump right in.
The Vampire Diaries
The Pitch: Dawson's Creek meets Twilight meets Bram Stoker's Dracula meets a Pop Culture Reference Machine
The set up: It's the first day of school in a spooooooky Anytown, USA called Mystic Falls... "mystic" because it's spoooooky, and Elena, in voice over, tells us, as she stares longingly at herself in a mirror, that she's going to tell everyone who asks that she's ok, but she's really not. Why isn't she ok, I'm sure you're dying to know. Well, sadly for Elena and her druggy little bro, their parents got killed in a car accident over the summer because it's apparently really tough to fall in love with immortal bloodsuckers if your parents are around, so they often get cut right out of these stories before they even begin. For a little corroborative evidence, just take a look at the fate of Sookie and Jason's parents on True Blood. Ok, so, Elena ends up falling for a mysterious and enigmatic and super hot stranger, named Stefan, who is, as the title would suggest, a vampire. Like the Robert Pattinson character in Twilight, he can walk around during the day because vampire love stories aimed at tweens apparently can't function unless a major part of vampire mythology is junked. Somehow, this guy survives in daylight with the help of a magical ring, so that's great. Also like the Pattinson character, he too doesn't feed on humans. What a prude.
And then Stefan's brother shows up. He's evil and in case that wasn't clear by the incredible lack of subtlety with which he kills people (he likes to control the fog!), his name is Damon. So, yada yada yada, Stefan is in love with Elena because she looks like his long dead love named Katerina, exactly the same plot point as Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Damon just wants to kill her and-slash-or fuck her, it's so far unclear whether the show will take the True Blood "vampires fuck" line or the every other vampire film or book line that for vampires, feeding is fucking. Basically, if Dawson and Pacey were vampires and wanted to drink Joey's blood, this is what would be happening. You think I'm joking, but the show is helmed by the dude who wrote Dawson's Creek. Talk about life after death.
Ridiculous Pop Culture References: Someone, presumably Ray LaMontaigne, is referred to as "a bad James Blunt" (is there a good one?), there are black nail polish jokes about Carson Daly and Pete Wentz. The coup de grace is when Elena says to Stefan, regarding a crow that scared her, "it was like that Hitchcock movie with all the birds, that was Hitchcock, I think." Yikes.
Cringe factor (out of 10): 7. There's something so ridiculously earnest about the show that I found myself getting a little sucked in, no pun intended. The pilot works though it doesn't at all set up the love triangle aspect, and even though it has some very odd voice over to fill in the thoughts going on behind the eyes of terrible actors.
Over/under for Cancellation: I see this one going a full season, regardless of quality or ratings. People will need a tween vampire fix after New Moon comes out and I think the CW will stick with this. After all, One Tree Hill has been on the air for like seven years.
The Pitch: Head of the Class meets the Breakfast Club meets Billy Madison meets a Pop Culture Reference Machine
The Set Up: Joel McHale plays Jeff Winger, an unscrupulous lawyer who must attend a community college after the California Bar Association discovers his undergraduate degree is from Colombia not Columbia. Ha ha ha, vowel-play! While there, he becomes so obsessed with a blond girl from his Spanish class (a class we don't see, by the way) that he pretends he's a tutor and creates a study group so he can get close to her. What is supposed to be a one on one session turns out to be where we get the rest of the characters from, including a character with Asberger's Syndrome because it's like a way more hilarious version of autism and Chevy Chase fresh off his featured role in Chuck last year. Also, Jeff is trying to get the answers for every test he will have to take that term from the dean who is an ex-client of his. He doesn't get them and must resort to actually learning something.
Ridiculous Pop Culture References: This show is chock full of them. There are like eight references to the Breakfast Club, so many that they had to put an "In Memory of John Hughes" card at the end of the episode, lest they look like grave robbers. Also, to show Jeff how bad he truly is, one of the characters tells him that he's "like Michael Douglas in any of his films." However, the best line is when Jeff inexplicably says something really heartfelt to a cafeteria worker who looks at him with a skeptical face and he responds with, "I'm sorry, I was raised on TV and I believe that every middle aged black woman is a cosmic mentor." So meta, Community, so meta. Also, "Jeff Winger" is a nod to Bill Murray's character in Stripes.
Cringe factor (out of 10): 7. I know, I know, this seems high, but here's the problem: this is one of the worst pilots I've ever seen. It does a horrible job of setting up the show; as I mentioned, the Spanish class all the characters are worried about gets no screen time. The show seemingly begins right at the end of that class, with Jeff and the character with Asberger's talking for no reason. It was almost as if the show was two minutes too long so they just decided to lop off the first scene. As well, Jeff spends the entire episode leaving the study group to go talk to the dean and then coming back to the group. It's basically just two conversations that are intercut with each other. In essence, nothing happens except Jeff decides he might have to study. Of course, this is the struggle that will inform the entire series, so I expect a shitload of backpedaling next week. But, yes, I will watch next week.
Over/under for Cancellation: This one is really tough to guess. On one hand, I could see it disappearing after eight episodes. On the other, it works well enough with NBC's stronger shows, 30 Rock and the Office, that they might give it a season to find its footing, like they did with Parks and Recreation.
The Jay Leno Show
The Pitch: The Tonight Show meets a punching bag meets a recession meets a Pop Culture Reference Machine
The Set Up: Jay Leno is the same as he ever was and now the ten o'clock hour on NBC costs a fraction of what it used to. That's it.
Ridiculous Pop Culture References: Too many to count, a whole monologue's worth.
Cringe factor (out of 10): 10. Surprisingly high, I know. Look, I'm not big fan of Leno but I also don't think there's all that much reason to constantly smack him around like so many in the media do and I take no sides in the Letterman vs. Leno issue; truth is, I just don't care that much and I prefer Conan to both of them anyhow. Then again, I've never had a problem sitting through one of his shows if there was a guest I really wanted to see. But this was different. I don't know what it was, but there was something so horribly awkward about the whole thing not even Jerry Seinfeld could save it. Maybe it was the weird leather chairs they chatted in, I'm still not sure what that was about. And it was a stroke of luck for Leno that he already had Kanye West booked before Kanye's freak out at the MTV VMA's the night before, but even making Kanye cry didn't really do anything for the show. Really, just a horrible showing over all.
Over/under for Cancellation: Not gonna happen ever. NBC has staked too much on this move and they would look like totally jackasses if they made a change at this point. Unless something disastrous happens with (or to) Jimmy Fallon, they, and us, are stuck with Leno at 10 pm for a long, long time.
The Pitch: Fame meets Election meets American Idol meets a Pop Culture Reference Machine
The Set Up: The unfulfilled Spanish teacher, Will Schuester (played by a Broadway actor named Matthew Morrison, a rare bit of non-stunt casting), at a High School in Anytown, USA takes over the school's now basically defunct glee club in order to relive his glory days as the school's singing stud. He's got to get the club to perform well, fight against budgetary constraints at home and at school, and deal with the wrath of a character played by Jane Lynch. Also, his wife is a fucking psycho.
The pilot for Glee actually first aired in May, but I'm including it here because it's starting in earnest this fall. FOX decided to run the pilot way in advance of the rest of the episodes to build some word of mouth and viral anticipation and it seems to have worked, the show is doing really well and New York City is literally papered in ads for it. This isn't really that surprising since it's almost a perfect pilot. The characters and their dilemmas are well constructed and there's enough action to keep the episode humming along. It is also greatly helped by the Election-style perspective and chronology juggling, which include very short flashbacks for certain characters as well as comedic asides. Generally, I hate all nature of VO in a pilot, but Glee pulled it off by juxtaposing what any particular character is saying with other characters' reactions to those sentiments. Unlike say, when a pretty young girl stares at herself in the mirror and yammers on about being ok.
Ridiculous Pop Culture References: The gay character, before being thrown in a dumpster, tells his attackers that he's wearing "the Marc Jacobs fall collection." Also, I guess one could call out the choice of songs so far, which have included renditions of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" and Kanye West's "Golddigger." On the other hand, the pilot closed with the club singing Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" and if you've ever been to a wedding that I attended, you know I love that song.
Cringe factor (out of 10): 2. What can I say, when a pilot really works, it sucks you into the world of the show and when that world has enough things to offer, it's amazing how fun an hour of television can be. The subsequent episodes of the show haven't been as good, but this pilot was certainly a stand out.
Over/under for Cancellation: 2 seasons, maybe more. As long as American Idol keeps people psyched about singing and the writers can keep some freshness in the plot lines of kids that they cycle in and out of the club, the show should have a good run. It was created in part by Ryan Murphy, the guy who created Nip/Tuck which is both a blessing and a curse: while he's managed to keep that show on the air three years after it was last interesting, Murphy's sadistic side won't gel with the Glee audience or tone. The third episode is so far the only one that he wrote by himself and included a shop teacher who had lost both thumbs from using a table saw while doped up on cough medicine. Ouch.
The Pitch: Melrose Place (original) meets the Hills meets Quarterlife meets a Pop Culture Reference Machine
The Set Up: Fresh off the heels of the CW's successful (because it's still on not because it's any good) reboot of Beverly Hills 90210 comes a reboot of that show's original spin-off. You know the story, a bunch of yuppie Angelenos live in an apartment complex together and they live and love and gossip and backstab and all that shit. Also, murder. Yeah, nothing gets a show off the ground like a dead woman in a pool.
I never watched the original Melrose Place so I can't compare this to that, but apparently the woman who gets killed was on the original show and she played the same character. Also, she was boning her ex-boyfriend's son, like you do. I bet some other stuff happened, but it was all a blur of over-exposed flashbacks and blank stares. And then someone steals a painting at the end of the episode because the show is also about art thieves, or something?
Ridiculous Pop Culture References: The height of them was when the filmmaker character (don't get me started on him) is getting shit from his girlfriend for dragging her to a one night only screening of the Director's cut of Reservoir Dogs, because if you're writing a character who is a twenty-something film guy, he's got to love Tarantino. What a joke.
Cringe factor (out of 10): like a million.
Over/under for Cancellation: With the recent news that Heather Locklear is reprising her role, the show seems secure for at least this season. Or maybe it's an instant-last ditch effort and the number is 12 episodes.
The Beautiful Life
The Pitch: The OC meets America's Next Top Model meets Sex and the City meets a Pop Culture Reference Machine
The Set Up: It's a tale of three models: a washed up super model (Mischa Barton), a young female model poised to make the leap to the big time, and a brand-new-to-modeling male model who got snapped up by an agent while on vacation from Iowa. Thank god his dad chose fashion week to hit the Big Apple.
There's lots of soapy tropes going on here: someone has a father in prison, Mischa was secretly pregnant, the dude model is inappropriately pursued by his agent, another guy who we have no idea about gets arrested for coke possession. Plus some blackmail to boot. And there was also a plotline with the guy who holds Zac Efron's jock strap in the High School Musical franchise.
Ridiculous Pop Culture References: The young lady model is told in the first runway show scene, "Paris and Lindsay are in the front row - don't make eye contact!" And it only went downhill from there.
Cringe factor (out of 10): 9.9. So unbelievably horrible, I can't believe someone actually spent money to make it. Oh wait, one of the executive producers is Ashton Kutcher. Suddenly it all makes sense.
Over/under for Cancellation: 3 episodes. Might even be canceled by the time you're reading this.
Bored to Death
The Pitch: The New York Trilogy meets the Royal Tannenbaums meets Brooklyn meets a Pop Culture Reference Machine
The Set Up: Jason Schwartzman plays a struggling novelist named Jonathan Ames who sometimes works as a journalist and gets drunk a lot. His girlfriend doesn't like that and moves out in the first scene. In order to help himself bounce back, Ames, who totes around a Raymond Chandler paperback all episode, puts an ad on Craigslist touting his services as a private eye. Because that's exactly what you do when you're trying to win back a girlfriend who left you because of your indefensible behavior.
So Ames gets called in about one minute to help an NYU student find her sister, also an NYU student, I think, it's a little hazy. Ames does this by using some super clever detecting techniques like paying a bartender twenty bucks. Also, he stops by his boss' place to smoke some weed. Eventually he finds the missing girl, smokes meth with her psycho ex-boyfriend and is told by the police to stop with these shenanigans. Does he listen? Of course not, if he did there wouldn't be a series.
One other thing, the show is written by a guy also named Jonathan Ames who is also a novelist. Apparently, instead of actually having the stones to moonlight as a private eye, he wrote a pilot where a gutsier version of himself could pull it off. I wonder how long until we get a Paul Auster cameo.
Ridiculous Pop Culture References: Pre-natal yoga and stroller-infested coffee places, because it's Brooklyn!
Cringe factor (out of 10): 5. Schwartzman is a little annoying, but so is the character. There were a few good lines and Ted Danson did well as the stoned boss. Like all HBO shows, it's a little hard to judge after one episode since it's been conceived as fuller arc than network shows.
Over/under for Cancellation: 2 seasons, more if HBO cancels Flight of the Conchords.
Come on, Eldrick.