overthinking the idiot box

April 4th, 2005

A chronicle of that most co-dependent of relationships: a girl and her TiVo

Bride of TiVo
Feels Like the First Time

by Liz Shannon Miller

They say you never forget your first time -- a cliche that runs through my head every time I sit down to watch the first episode of a new TV show. But, after having watched every midseason series premiere that doesn't conflict with Alias, I'm beginning to hate the cliche. After all, if something's going to be a cliche, it might as well be true occasionally.

Yet, I persevere in watching pilots with the aide of Senor TiVo, lover and friend. I forget if it was a TiVo newsletter tip or not (I live to devour the TiVo newsletter) but setting up a Wishlist search for "pilot" has made my life infinitely better. Now, with minimal effort, I can scan two weeks ahead for shows just beginning; the Wishlist search finding not only old WWII bomber pilot movies, but the premieres of the season's latest and the syndicated pilot of faded TV ghosts.

I've always liked watching pilots, seeing how writers approach the challenges of introducing new characters, new scenarios. Will the pilot be an origin story, detailing how the lead became the man or woman he/she is? Will it be business as usual, writer and actor diving headfirst into the regular life of the story? Will it be any good? Will it be worth watching again? All questions I want to answer for myself. After all, the pilot episode should be great, if not greater, than the rest of the series --making it easy to use a single episode to determine whether or not the following installments are worth the effort. For someone like me, with time to watch maybe one hour of TV on school nights, this can be really handy. You've got one chance to win me over. Make me roll my eyes once, and you're out.

I know people who really liked the pilot of Grey's Anatomy, but I've rarely been so unimpressed. Overplayed and underwritten, populated by normally talented actors miming their way through a paint-by-numbers script, featuring an actress who makes Renee Zellweger look wide-eyed, it's just not my cup of tea at all. Sure, I like Scrubs, but Scrubs is half an hour long and funny. Grey's Anatomy is neither. All time favorite moment: the part where the pageant girl said "My head is too full" and Squinty McBarbie said "That's called thinking." And then it turned out that pageant girl had an aneurysm leaking blood into her brain! Good times!

The pilot of Jake in Progress was cute enough, but one episode was enough for a lifetime. Perhaps I was just bitter because the original premise -- "a show that depicts one first date over the course of an entire season" -- lurked beneath every moment of the pilot, and while I would have really enjoyed watching that series, this Sex and the City-lite came off like so much day-old recycling. Sure, the original premise sounds stupid ("This week on Jake in Progress, will Jake order the soup? Or will he and Jody split the salad?") but people said that another show using the real-time format wouldn't work, either. Throw in enough disasters and wacky characters and Jake in Progress could have been a frothy pink 24. Except with fewer terrorists and, you know, bathroom breaks.

I was interested in a Stamos-starring frothy pink 24, but frothy pink Stamos on his own isn't quite enough to keep me tuning in. I'm glad to have watched the pilot -- it was fun. But not something I need to do again.

Senor TiVo only grabbed Blind Justice because of that one shot from the teasers that ran constantly during Alias: a low to the ground rumbling tracking of man and dog as they stride across the street in the lens-flaring orange sunlight. God, that shot was gorgeous. But in the end, Det. Matt Murdock's journey (hell, Ron Eldard even has Ben Affleck's sunglasses) wasn't something I felt compelled to follow. That just left each week's exciting new crime to motivate my repeated viewing. And, for me, crime investigated by a blind guy wasn't any more exciting than crime investigated by the seeing.

And maybe that's why I shouldn't blame the cliche for the lame television -- because a great pilot will make me feel like it's the first time, like I'm watching something new and fresh, even if it is "just another cop show" or "just another family sitcom." The original CSI has one of the great all-time pilots -- it's fresh, funny, stylish, and delivers a FANTASTIC twist at the end of the episode. Like all pilots, it makes a promise about the future, and like most successful series, it manages to deliver on that promise.

In general, making a point of watching pilots is a great way to try out new genres, see whether or not they deserve a shot. Right now, Senor TiVo is saving me the two-hour pilot of the Ving Rhames update of Kojak. Soon, Ving will be joined by Tim Daly in Eyes, and then the pilot Wishlist will be retired until the end of sweeps and the start of the summer seasons, ushering in the next round of new beginnings.

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