TV pilot season: Now for something completely the same

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Image Credit: Neil Jacobs/NBC

We’ve reached pilot season, the time of year when the networks start looking at candidates for this fall’s schedules. Thus, it is also the time of year when armchair quarterbacks like me say “You’re doing it wrong!” to which network executives usually reply “You think you could do better?” My answer: I watched 666 Park Avenue and Animal Practice and The Mob Doctor and Made in Jersey, and I hope you think you can do better. Every year, networks look at their pilots and ask the same questions. And every year, they’re the wrong questions. Here are the three that do real damage:

• ARE THE CHARACTERS LIKABLE OR RELATABLE?
There is exactly one TV-viewing demographic that still cares about this: development executives laboring under the delusion that they’ll eventually find the next Cheers or Friends (both of which, by the way, were full of characters who often behaved terribly). You know who doesn’t care about likability? People who watch Game of Thrones, or Breaking Bad, or Mad Men, or Archer. This is usually the point at which networks assert that cable shows don’t have to reach as large an audience. But that doesn’t wash anymore, not when any number of network series are pulling lower ratings than Duck Dynasty and Sons of Anarchy. The Walking Dead, TV’s biggest scripted hit among 18- to 49-year-olds, is not outgunning the networks because it’s “relatable” (although in fairness, sometimes I do feel that my brains are spilling out of my ears while I watch). And the most successful new (or newish) network dramas, Fox’s The Following and ABC’s Scandal, don’t seem to worry about filling the screen with regular folks either. Relatability is one of those rules, like “Does the hero have a clear objective?”, that has no real-world traction; it exists only as a bullet point in bad screenwriting seminars. Guys With Kids was relatable — so relatable it was actually named after the demographic it was seeking to attract. Nobody watched.

• WILL THE AUDIENCE GET IT?
Most cable series proceed from the assumption that their viewers are looking for a good show. Most network series proceed from the assumption that their viewers are stupid and inattentive. That’s why the second episodes of network dramas are usually so boring that viewers flee — they’re essentially designed to reiterate and re-explain everything that unfolded in episode 1. We now enjoy the luxury of an almost unlimited number of ways to catch up on a show. If a pilot is good enough, people will hear from friends that they need to find it and watch it. But if a series is so formula-bound and repetitive that I can start watching anytime, the time I am most likely to start watching is never. (Castle, I apologize. You all seem like nice people.)

• IS THE SHOW LIKE SOMETHING ELSE THAT’S ON THE AIR?
This is actually not a bad question; the problem is the answer, which the networks want to be “Yes” when they, and we, should always be rooting for “No.” Only in network TV is past failure considered a sure sign of future success. Yes, George Clooney failed to connect with audiences in six series before ER, but the takeaway from that really shouldn’t be “We need to make six flops, stat!” This past winter, NBC aired Do No Harm, a sort-of-serial sort-of-procedural about a charismatic white guy living in two alternating realities. It lasted two episodes. Since NBC had tried the same premise with Jason Isaacs in 2012 (Awake) and with Christian Slater in 2008 (My Own Worst Enemy), how shocking could its failure have been?

I get the counterargument: Safety sells. Familiarity works. Formula rules. Otherwise, the No. 1 show on TV wouldn’t be the 95th season of NCIS, and the reality shows we were enthusiastically watching in 2000 wouldn’t be the same ones that half of us are halfheartedly half-watching now. Still, something is amiss: In the recently concluded February sweeps, NBC finished fifth. And there are only four big English-language networks. Which means that maybe the most relevant question programmers should be asking when they consider this season’s pilots is “What do we have to lose?”

FOLLOW MARK HARRIS ON TWITTER @MarkHarrisNYC

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