As Fall TV pilots air and verdicts come in from critics and audiences alike, I’ve been thinking a lot this year about how pilots are different from episode 2.
Pilots are written usually by one person (or the initial creative team/duo) and shot early in the year. By May there’s usually a greenlight verdict, when shows can go forward with production of season one. This is when the writing rooms are hired and the creative team proper begins to form.
[This Washington Square Journal article from gives a mini breakdown of the pilot season schedule from pitches in summer to writing in fall to pilot requests in January to pick ups in May. TV writing books break it down better but I couldn’t find a handy link.]
So the writing process for episode 1 sometime in December or so of the year before is going to be different from an episode written by a writing room, sometimes with a different showrunner, and with additional network and studio notes going forward. Most times this coalesces the show into something that gets better and better as the season(s) progress. Though of course, sometimes instead of getting better, a show can get worse for these very same reasons.
In this way, television boldly asks for a second chance at a first impression. This is why characters go missing from pilot to episode 2 or get dropped very early on, why sets look different. TV Tropes related to his phenomenon: Chuck Cunningham Syndrome, Dropped After the Pilot, Early Installment Weirdness. More people are making decisions and this can help or hinder a pilot in the view of the audience.
Pilots have too much work to do. A lot of pilot episodes place a character in a new setting and they must meet their supporting cast and get a feel for the many different problems a character could face in that situation/place. Pilots are about potential. Episode 2, on the other hand, gives you a better feel for what the show will be on a weekly basis. Where the pilot may introduce many different characters and problems, episode 2 can settle and focus on one of those problems, episode 3 another.
Some of the criticism of Gotham, for instance, has been all of the baby villains being shoehorned into episode 1. Sure, it was a clunky way of doing it, but it was about potential. If episode 2 features all of these cameos with little reason for them, then I’d be concerned, but I am hoping that they will take one piece of episode 1 and focus on it in episode 2, therefore giving us room to breathe in the story. Other shows struggle do this as well. Lost was known for introducing loads and loads of characters in its pilot (though it’s pilot is a bit unfair as it was 2 hours long and produced like a feature film), then focusing on one character per episode via the flashbacks.
On the comedy side, I think of the comparisons of black-ish to The Cosby Show. As I state in my black-ish post, it’s a bit soon to be comparing black-ish to Cosby at its height and when comparing pilots, I think The Cosby Show‘s is stronger writing and humor-wise. But I think Cosby brings to mind something that I hope remains true for black-ish. It had really great ratings (of course it is–it has the coveted Modern Family lead-in and a summer’s worth of anticipation), but it wasn’t flaw free and many are concerned about the message it’s presenting about “being black”–a discussion for another day–so they may not tune in for episode 2. The Cosby Show pilot, besides having a different set, also only features four Huxtable children–poor Sondra was all forgot about (ahem, didn’t exist) when Claire/Cliff (I forget which) states that they have four children. I bring this to mind to say that between the writing of the pilot and episode 2, a decision to make the family actually match Bill Cosby’s real-life family make up was made and the show progressed from there and gained additional story potential for it.
Anything can happen between episodes 1 and 2, there’s so much time between them. So if there’s a show you were invested in and the pilot didn’t quite grab you, at least give episode 2 a shot. Things could have changed for the better.