The end of pilot season is always a little bittersweet. It’s like graduating from college. Some pilots will blossom and go on to be great tv shows that last seven seasons (and a movie). Others won’t turn out so well, either never living up to their potential (i.e. a quiet summer burn-off) or not being broadcast at all.
William Goldman famously said about Hollywood that “nobody knows anything.” That’s as true in television as it is in features. Take Fox’s recent early announcement that they’ll be picking up “Red Band Society”, a dramedy toplined by Octavia Spencer about teenagers living in a ward of a hospital. I saw teenagers + hospital and thought that might limit its appeal. Fox probably saw a successor to “Glee” and a way to piggyback off its guaranteed feature hit “The Fault in Our Stars”. Who is right? Who knows — only time will tell.
In this final Runway edition, it’s fitting that we’ll be looking at cable pilots. Because let’s be honest, all the best shows are on cable. My personal favorite comedies — “Silicon Valley”, “Louie”, “Veep” — all on cable. My favorite dramas — “Mad Men” & “Fargo” — also on cable. And cable is big business — have you seen the per subscriber sub charge that AMC gets? I can guarantee it isn’t because of their movie marathons.
I have a theory on why cable shows are so much better: limited episode orders. Some of the best comedies in the last decade — “The Inbetweeners”, “The IT Crowd”, “The Thick of It”, “Peep Show” — all were British shows with six episode seasons. Now British people are more funny. That’s a given. But the limited episode order also allowed shows to stay fresh and for writers to only trot out their best material. By the latter seasons of “The Inbetweeners” and “The IT Crowd”, we began to see diminishing returns. That’s episode 18 for those shows — what in the US would have still been the first season! Yes, “The Inbetweeners”, my favorite show of the last decade, would have already started to annoy me before the first season had even reached its conclusion.
I’m getting a bit off track, but my point is it’s no surprise the top showrunners have flocked to cable. With shorter episode orders, they can maintain more control without the quality of their product diminishing. They’re not going to get Chuck Lorre money — but really, do you need that much money? So for our final Runway, we’re going to keep things positive and just look at some of the best cable pilot scripts I read this year. Most have already been picked up to series, others will learn their fate in the coming weeks.
Thanks for following The Runway and we’ll see you next pilot season.
“Mystery Girls” – I might lose your trust with this first one. Picked up to series by ABC Family, this show will star Tori Spelling and Jeannie Garth as actresses who formerly worked together who are paired up again to solve mysteries. It’s very light, very hokey. And yet I found it slightly endearing. Don’t think it works with any other casting. It probably won’t work at all. But darn if I didn’t like reading the pilot a bit.
“Mozart in the Jungle” – Airing on Amazon, starring the very talented Gael Garcia Bernal, this show takes place in the dark underbelly of the symphony world. The pilot was solidly constructed, occasionally funny. I’m not sure where the show goes from the pilot, but this was the first Amazon pilot I’ve seen that I would consider watching a second episode of.
“Halt & Catch Fire” – AMC’s show set in the early days of the digital computing boom. AMC had recently been batting 1.000 with its dramas before “Low Winter Sun” proved a bit underwhelming. This show has all the trappings of a good AMC program — period piece, passionate characters, emotional roller coaster. Will definitely watch the pilot to see if it turns out as well as it read on the page.
“How and Why” – From Charlie Kaufman, this pilot for FX is still waiting to be shot. More Kaufman-esque than usual. Pretty relentlessly dark. Occasionally illogical. Not sure it will get a series order, but I’d still love if they aired the pilot.
“Man Seeking Woman” – Comedy from Simon Rich, a very funny SNL writer. Will star Jay Baruchel. Could be a nice little quirky comedy.
“Tyrant” – Picked up to series on FX. My absolute favorite tv drama script from the last year. High stakes at every turn when an American family returns to the patriarch’s Middle Eastern birth country, and then might not be able to leave. Not sure how this will play out as a series, but the pilot was a fantastic compelling read.
“The Brink” – HBO’s “Traffic”-like pilot of three interconnected people — the Secretary of State, a Navy pilot and a Foreign service worker. A little bit of drama, some very well earned comedy. Will star Jack Black and Tim Robbins. Might not be for everyone — the humor is more sophisticated than you’d see on network — but should have a dedicated following.
“Happyish” fka “Trending Down” – In limbo after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, this Showtime project is about how life starts to beat you down over time. Very funny, very dark. Very talented writer. Not sure it will be re-shot without PSH as the lead, which is a shame.