Fishing for Pilots

When I was 12 years old, I stumbled on to a TV show on a random Monday night that I initially mistook for a movie. The writing, the cinematography, the music, were all on a level that was significantly better than anything else on TV at the time.

In it, a girl is murdered in the woods by a man whose skin is distorted by white noise, and two FBI agents are assigned to figure out what happened. It was the scariest, most thrilling hour of television my 12-year-old brain had ever experienced.

I am of course describing the first episode of The X-Files.

TV has changed a lot over the past 22 years. I wouldn’t be overstating the situation by referring to it as undergoing something of a renaissance. A lot of the last two decade’s most compelling stories are now being told in episodic form, over a period of years, instead of in single 2-hour chunks at the cinema. What shows like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Chris Carter’s The X-Files proved in the early 90’s was the notion that you could tell a narrative that spanned a period of time greater than an episode or two. Storytellers could lay the groundwork in their pilot episode, and if they did their job well enough, their audiences would continue to come back week after week to find out more.

Some shows obviously did this better than others:

In The Sopranos (1999), a middle-aged mobster has panic attacks while struggling to keep his family and his organization together, and there’s a wonderfully composed metaphor involving some wild ducks that really elevates its seemingly benign closing sequence. In stark contrast, the show that famously launched FX as the edgy network it is today — The Shield (2002) — packs such a punch in its last 60 seconds that it was nearly impossible to stop yourself from watching the proceeding episode.

The first sequence of Lost (2004) is an extremely memorable slow reveal that introduces us to one of its many main characters as well as the catastrophic events that had just occurred minutes ago off-camera. The unanimously lauded Breaking Bad (2008) opens with a shot of a pair of pants being blown about by the wind and the show’s iconic RV careening down a desert road with a pair of corpses in the back. Similarly, the Amazon remake of the British series Mad Dogs (2015) opens with the four main characters dressed in warpaint, and right as they attack in unison, it smash-cuts to them arriving at the airport in vacation clothes several days earlier, daring the audience to connect the dots.

There’s never a more pivotal moment in a show’s life than when it first introduces itself to its audience. Granted, not every show can be as compelling in its opening moments as Mad Men (2007), as single-minded as 24 (2001), or as complex as Game of Thrones (2011). The recipe for a successful pilot may be well-known at this point, but the level of execution continues to vary wildly from show to show.

There is however a consistent kind of purity in a show’s pilot — a kind of blank-slate straightforwardness — that simply doesn’t exist in its subsequent episodes. I spend a lot of time watching these first episodes, looking for that purity of purpose. Maybe I’m looking for that next cultural touchstone — the next X-Files, or Lost, or Breaking Bad — or I’m hoping to see stories that try to elevate the medium to whatever its next evolutionary state might be.

Or maybe it’s something even simpler than that.

Maybe I just want to feel like I’m 12 again.

– Luis Buenaventura (@helloluis)
July 5th, 2015

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