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Three clues to an awesome pilot

Column by Tad Unruh

Unruh is a senior radio and sociology major and can be reached at

Tad Unruh BW-w2000-h2000Television in its basic nature is built for consecutive viewing — drawing in the viewer to the franchise and inventing a fresh way to tell a story, concurrently. But most importantly, it must retain viewers.

Deciding what television show is the best is a daunting task. Or for the premise of this article, deciding what the best pilot episode in television history is. Sam Shanahan, who with the extensive television watching he’s done over the years (nearly 100 shows), looked across the kitchen table at me, uttering, “Obviously, I can only base on what I have seen, I wasn’t there for the first ‘I Love Lucy,’ I’ve heard good things, though.”

I’ve narrowed it down between three categories that can identify great TV pilots. 1. They must establish what the show is going to do. 2. The ability to hook a person into watching it, by any means. And 3. The complexities of writing a pilot, what it is and what formula it is supposed
to follow.

In my research, I obviously had my own biases regarding TV shows, but it was important to ask the three people I trust most with my television viewing, apprenticeship and overall outside knowledge of the subject. Their names are Sam Shanahan, Lucas McMillan and P.J. Upton. The three pilot episodes the four of us all overlapped ideas on were in order “Lost,” “Breaking Bad” and “Arrested Development.”

First, it is important to understand the context in which pilots are viewed. Shanahan specifically stated, “My thought on a pilot is then that, it can only be considered good compared to the show that it sets up, hopefully everything perfectly.” Each of the three of these shows does this extremely well.

The “Lost” pilot had the biggest budget, that’s for sure, and it showed. It established the premise of the show immediately, and was really well made.

“You want to hook people with something very cinematic at the beginning,” McMillan said. Setting up the show by putting in story framework of the characters, the formula and where plot details will form is the most important. Without these, nothing will be collectively understood
about the show.

Secondly, the hook, line and sinker must be thrown into the water, leaving clever or tasty enough bait for them to bite, and not let go.  “Lost” threw everyone into the fray of a plane crash.

“Everyone on the beach has a fresh start, no one knows anything about the others. It’s an interesting character sweep, where you start learning more about them later,” Upton said. “With ‘Lost,’ it is a completely blank slate, and that completely hooks you in.”

“Arrested Development” as a sitcom must develop its characters to nail down a plot first. Which is much more difficult in sitcoms because the characters have to be extremely apparent immediately. For Shanahan, his excited moment came in the first minute of “Arrested Development.” Even as it comes through trials and tribulations, “The very first line of ‘Arrested Development’ looks at (the main character and the narrator says) ‘Why is he smiling? Because he’s decided he’s never going to speak to these people again.’ So in my mind, I am going, ‘What the hell is wrong with these people? I want to watch more of this.’” But he says if there are problems with pilots in general, it comes with the territory. “It’s a pilot. It’s going to struggle. There definitely have to be high moments. There has to be something about it that makes you say, ‘I really want to see what happens with it.’”

Even “Breaking Bad” starts with something to jolt the heart, but “it starts with Bryan Cranston in his underwear driving this meth RV down a dirt road with two dead guys sliding around in the back. It’s a powerful hook. It is a great way to start it,” McMillan said. “The show got so much deeper and so much smarter after that but it started with that cheap thrill. You have to start with a cheap thrill to hook
people sometimes.”

Lastly, making a pilot it is the first thing you do. As a writer, artist or any person in any creative field, it is hard to break out, meaning you are constantly writing and rewriting your work.

“It’s the same with anything, music, TV movies, definitely. The first thing you make is always going to be better than the second thing you make. Because you have your whole life to make your first album, six months to make your second. TV pilots are that way,” McMillan said. As a producer/writer/director, with the pilot, everything has to go right. Getting the right reviews, setting up the show correctly and everything in general must work. In most circumstances, a lot is out of the hands of those who are involved once it airs.

Overall, many factors must decide if your show catches on or not. Staying power is shown to spectacular ideals in “Lost,” “Arrested Development” and “Breaking Bad.” Sticking around for the next episode is the most important part. If you continue to build off of that initial punch in the stomach with an adrenaline needle and have a purpose with it, then viewers will continue to appreciate the show. My stand for the best pilot of all time lies with the J.J. Abrams directed “Lost,” $12 million for the budget, two hour movie feel to it, and indelible sequences within character, it begins one of the most ambitious television shows nearly ever.


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