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Good Pilot, Bad Show; Bad Pilot, Good Show

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In the comments under my Dollhouse post from yesterday, there’s an interesting (well, to me) discussion about one of the things that make TV reviewing different from film or book criticism: trying to assess the future of a series from a couple episodes, or maybe even just one. 

As I wrote there, one trick to TV criticism is that (IMHO) reviewing a series is about more than watching the screeners and deciding “this hour of video is good/sucks.” There’s an almost psychic element to the job—one that I get right sometimes, one that I screw up other times. You’re trying to gauge, from what you’ve seen, a show’s potential to grow, based on its voice, its premise, its cast, and so on. 

I have a selective memory, of course, so I remember my successes better than my failures. The American version of The Office was an instance of a show that had a so-so pilot—panned by some critics—but my original review, I humbly submit, caught a decent sense of where Greg Daniels was going with the show. I remember getting a similar vibe from Daniels’ King of the Hill pilot (before I was a full-time TV critic); likewise, 30 Rock was an example of a show with a very mixed pilot whose strong points looked like they would overcome the weak ones. 

My failures? When I reviewed the pilot of Firefly, I focused on its weaknesses and its differences from Joss Whedon’s earlier series and missed the kernel of what would become one of my favorite brilliant-but-canceled series. On the flip side, I liked the pilot of Drive last season, but in retrospect should have seen that show was going nowhere fast. Likewise, I was blown away by the expensive pilot of Dark Angel—and not just by meeting Jessica Alba in person on the set, I swear!—and gave it a far better review than the resulting week-to-week series merited. 

What were the most glaring examples to you of a series pilot that proved much better, or much worse, than the series itself?

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