I have watched every network television pilot that has aired so far. When I told this to a friend last night, during the Gators trouncing of the Kentucky Wildcats, she looked at me like I was crazy. I very well might be. The common stance is that, if you are not being paid to do it, watching every television pilot is akin to tortue. Even if you are being paid, it’s just torture with a stipend.

Well, I’m here to report that it’s not as bad as all that. As a group, the 14 episodes I watched (I left out H8R and The X-Factor, keeping it only to scripted shows and sparing some of my sanity) are not crimes against humanity. (With one notable exception, and I will spare you the suspense, because it doesn’t deserve it. It’s Charile’s Angels…. Just bad…) I enjoyed a good number of them. But I don’t think I found what I was looking for.

What was I looking for? Well I think I thought I was looking for something else to write about. The heroic stance. I was doing it to inform you, my readers. But that’s a lie. I don’t even know you, and I’m not altogether sure you exist.

So I did it for me then, didn’t I? Must have. And I realize now that I was looking for another show for me. There has been a huge hole in my pop culture heart since Lost left me and Heroes went as stale and moldy as old bread, forcing me to break up with it. When I was a kid, I used to become obsessed with shows pretty much at whim. Law and Order had a phase. So did the West Wing. Lost is the first show I found on my own and stuck with until the end, and I figured that a beautiful new relationship with television had started. But since I broke up with Heroes, television hasn’t provided me the goods. Or I haven’t been looking in the right places. Good old-fashioned, healthy obsession has been hard to come by. And I’m sad, to be perfectly honest.

I only truly watch (by watch I mean turn on the television when it comes on every week and pay attention) three shows now: Glee, Mad Men and Community. Watching Glee today feels like having an old friend twist the knife in your back while singing a cheerful tune. It’s reminding me a lot of my painful break-up with Heroes. Mad Men is on a long hiatus. And Community is so funny but so short. I’m missing something big here. That attachment to show that is currently in the act of altering our culture as we speak. A show I can latch onto from the beggining and write effervescently about on a weekly basis while praying it doesn’t get cancelled. A show that is mine… and everyone’s. That’s what a pop culture nerd like me feeds off of. And without it, I feel kind of empty.

So I will say ahead of time that I went in there searching for something to fill that gap, and while I saw some great starts, I didn’t find what I was looking for. At least not yet. None of these shows have… it. “It” is the difference between the Harry Potter book you can’t put down, and that other book that you should probably keep reading because that’s what people do. “It” is special. And while these shows may have registered as special to someone else, to me they were just a homework of sorts: self-assigned, somewhat enlightening, but restraininginly by-the-book.

Know now, before I get into particulars, that I will say some good things about some very good pilots I saw, but I didn’t find my Lost. I didn’t find… it. I won’t grade these pilots on that scale, because that’s unfair, but know that the person doing the grading is looking for something more, and you’ll know when he finds it. (Fingers crossed for Terra Nova this week, eh?)

So I want to take a look at this year’s new shows, but, if you’d grant me a little leeway, I want to do it in a slightly different way. Pilots can be a lot of fun, (or they can cause physical pain, it’s kind of a toss-up) but grading them and then letting those grades influence the rest of the show’s history is a bit like assigning a final grade to an author’s second draft of their novel’s first paragraph. You rarely see someone go back in and grade the whole run of a show after it’s done, and so, sometimes, in the most perverse way possible, what sticks with that show, for richer or poorer, is the grade given to its pilot. Yuck. To get a better feel for these episodes then “good” or “bad,” I’m going to create two hypotheticals, my own special metrics, and use those situations to hash out my perspective on what’s new on the Fall TV slate. The two hypotheticals:

  1. “It’s season two of [Insert Show Here]. It’s November Sweeps, when show’s load up on hyped up holiday specials. Are you about to see a stone-cold classic holiday episode? Or another dud?”
  2. “You are half-way through the pilot of [Insert Show Here] on hulu.com or cbs.com or wherever you’re watching the pilot online. Right after 50 seconds of irritating, life-sucking ads, your internet gives. Do you go through the effort of reloading the episode and sitting through the same advertising break again? Or are you done?”

The first hypothetical asks for potential. The second asks for an in-the-moment reading of your enthusiasm for the pilot and your attachment to its ideas, potential be damned. Potential being great and all, except if I’m not enjoying what I’m seeing, I’m not coming back. A bit more detail on each scale:

The Holiday Episode Scale – I’m instituting this scale for grading a show’s potential, which so often gets left out in simple A-F grades. The scale basically asks this: Based on the pilot you just saw, what will that Christmas episode be like? What will the Halloween episode be like? Will it be good? Great? Most importantly, will you still be watching by then and will it keep you watching?

When you think about it, this idea factors in a bunch of intangibles – characters, writing, setting, plot – and asks you to evaluate whether you really see yourself commiting to this show’s universe down the road a bit. For instance, do you care enough about these characters after what inklings you’ve gotten from the pilot to see how their relationships change on any given holiday? If your instincts tell you yes, they probably are on to seomthing. How about the setting? Can you see the main set covered in a delightful holiday veneer or providing a new holiday setting you haven’t seen before? Do you trust the writers enough to believe they won’t just give you a canned retelling of those same old holiday tropes? Do you trust the show’s conceit enough to believe that it could really dole out a fresh message when you throw Halloween or Valentine’s Day in the mix?

In essence, can you see this show making a classic holiday (any holiday, some shows are better suited to some than others) episode? Can you see this show even making a holiday episode that you won’t hate or that won’t be the same old story you see every year? To be frank, can you even see this show making it to the holiday season? If all of the answers to these questions are no… you’re probably right… and you’re watching a show that’s not going to make it. Or that’s going to make it but will only be a waste of your time.

Really it’s a big gut call, but one with enough variables removed to make it a kind of fun experiment. Oftentimes, whether you’re dealing with a classic family comedy, an animated raunch-fest, a good-ol’ cop procedural, or a concept heavy sci-fi show, you can tell after one episode whether the series will be able to deliver the goods come November. Maybe not the first time out, true. Maybe two or three years down the line. But the potential to deliver a stone-cold classic is there. Or it’s clearly not. All it takes is to get a glimpse and recognize the potential.

The Stupid Interactive Advertisement from Hell Scale: I’m going to tell you something scary. Online advertisements are evolving… fast. They’re like bacteria that get used to your antibiotics and mutate into nastier little buggers with immunities and a vengeance. Lemme ask you, do you switch to another window when ads are playing? Well they know now, and when you come back after the sound has stopped, you’ll see the timer still has thirty seconds on it and you have to watch the whole thing without the sound. Dammit! Want to minimize your screen so you can at least look at something else? Sorry, that option is taken away the second the ad starts. You are that advertisement’s hostage! It owns you now. These ads are angry parasites.

And I know, it’s just thirty seconds… And it’s all so totally worth being able to watch television online for free! But, when it comes down to it… I’m a bad person, okay! An impatient person. And if, ten minutes in, I have to re-up the web-site and sit through one more ad break than I have to… well, I had better be damn sure what’s on the other side is going to be worth a few more of my brain cells dying a painful, movie-trailer infested death. (Why do advertisers think it’s cool to play the same two ads over and over again? It’s not. There’s a reason television doesn’t work like that.  I do not want to buy the product more the third time I see the commercial in thirteen minutes.)

So this one’s pretty self-explanatory. When a gun is put to your head (okay, more like a slingshot, but you get the point), will you stick with the show, or will you just let it go? If it’s any good, you’ll make the small sacrifice and get back in there. If it’s not… well, there’s a lot of other things out there on the Internet that don’t take you hostage and eat away at your soul. Like Facebook! (Oh, wait…)

My next post will be about the show which came in highest in my silly rankings according to my metrics, which I think pretty accurately reflect how these shows are doing and will do, and I’ll work my way down from there.

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