15 Pilots in 15 Days: A Midterm Review

So I’ve officially reached the halfway point of my 30 Pilots in 30 Days project. Here’s a quick recap of what I’ve watched so far as well as links to those individual reviews.

  1. Mad Men
  2. Shameless
  3. The Americans
  4. Grey’s Anatomy
  5. Psych
  6. Gilmore Girls
  7. The West Wing
  8. House of Cards
  9. The Good Wife
  10. The Crown
  11. Friday Night Lights
  12. 24
  13. 13 Reasons Why
  14. Game of Thrones
  15. Lost

I wanted to take some time to talk about these shows side-by-side in addition to their individual reviews. One of the interesting things I’m learning is that the shows that left me with really good first impressions aren’t necessarily the ones that I’m dying to watch now. I get that that’s partly skewed because I watched some more recently than others, but I think it’s also because some shows are great in the moment but just don’t really stick with you.

So what am I actually looking forward to continuing at this point? Here’s my top three:

1. Game of Thrones 
2. Friday Night Lights 
3. The Americans 

Talk about an eclectic mix. Note that I actually forgot about The Americans when I was initially trying to remember my list but then as soon as I remembered I was like “oh yeah, that was a really good one!” hence why it’s number 3 on the list.

So what do these three have in common?

They all do a good job of telling us about the normal day-to-day lives of the characters in addition to how those lives will change in future episodes.

With Game of Thrones, we understand that the Starks are rather content with their life despite living in the shadow of a great tragedy. But we also understand that Ned Stark might assume more power and that another tragedy will cause this family even more strife in Episode 2.

With Friday Night Lights, we quickly see how much this football team means to this small town in Texas, but we also learn that they’ll have to trust an inexperienced coach and quarterback to carry the team this season.

And in The Americans we learn about Elizabeth and Philip’s undercover life as well as the fact that an FBI agent just moved in next door. Note how on this last one the change isn’t something super dramatic like a death or an injury or someone cheating on their spouse or betraying their country or anything like that. It’s literally just a new neighbor, but we also know enough about our characters that we can understand how this otherwise minor change will have dramatic consequences.

So what about those pilots that I gave great reviews to but didn’t make the top three?

Well for one, the three shows listed above weren’t necessarily the three most entertaining pilots. They’re the three I’m most looking forward to continuing, and that’s not necessarily the same thing. You know how some movies are fantastic but then when you learn there’s going to be a sequel you just kinda roll your eyes and you’re like “but it was good the way it was?”

That’s kinda how I feel about these:

The Good Wife


I can recognize on an intellectual level that these are well-written pilots but I’m also not biting my nails waiting to see what happens next. Your procedurals, The Good Wife and Psych, both end in a satisfactory place. I don’t need to know what happens next even if it would be quite interesting should I take the time to keep watching. Lost is kinda bizarre because it didn’t end in a satisfactory place. On paper, we have drama waiting to unfold what with the dead pilot and the opportunity to transmit messages. Yet I don’t need to keep watching. I’m not in love with any of the characters and I’m ok with this just being a well-written, well-shot hour of television that has a rather tragic ending.

But what about the not-so-good pilots? What was wrong with them? 

I feel like this is so cliche but the bottom 3 had one thing in common: crappy characters. Those three would be:

1. The Crown
2. Shameless
3. Gilmore Girls 

Grey’s Anatomy and 13 Reasons Why had this problem too. In literally all five of these, the character are only interesting because of the situations thrust upon them, they’re not interesting in their own right. Compare them to someone like Elizabeth from The Americans, who is so fiercely loyal to her country that she refuses to defect for millions of dollars. She’s not interesting solely because she’s a Soviet spy, she’s interesting because we see how devoted she is to her job despite so many logical reasons not to be. With The Crown, we just have a young woman who’s going to be queen someday. We have no other reason to pay attention to her.

With Shameless, Fiona is dedicated to her family much the same way that Elizabeth is dedicated to Mother Russia in The Americans. However, we don’t really see Fiona presented with a clear alternative to her current life. Maybe a fun night out with a cute guy, but not like a whole new life. We get the sense that she does what she does because she’s trapped in her current state and not because she actively chose it.

So overall what have I learned about pilot writing so far?

  1. Make sure you’re showing your audience the old normal as well as the new normal.
  2. Make sure your characters are actively choosing to do interesting things
  3. Don’t have an ending that could be construed as “and they all lived happily ever after” or even “and they all died tragically in a poetic fashion.”

So here’s to the next 15, and here’s to hoping there’s more wonderful lessons to learn. Thanks to all who are reading!

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