On the box · Word of the week

Word of the week: pilot

Back in September, in this piece, I wrote about how much I was enjoying US sitcom “Modern Family”, a show that had passed us by as a family throughout its 11 seasons. Its final episodes were broadcast in May 2020, and we were catching up, through Netflix initially, and then (for series 8-11) on DVD.

As expected, based on how many episodes I was watching, I completed the set (all 250 episodes) before mid-October. I recommend it unreservedly and am glad that I bought the DVDs so that I could watch it all in such a short space of time. Series 8 is now available on Netflix (it wasn’t back in September) but Series 9-11 are not yet available on any streaming services that we subscribe to. Even though the Series 11 DVDs cost more than Series 8-10 combined, I regard it as money well spent. I didn’t want to wait an unspecified number of months to find out how it was all wrapped up.

My wife and daughter are currently on Series 9 and I have happily watched dozens of earlier episodes with them for a second time. The episode that we have seen most often, and the one that got us all hooked in the first place, was the pilot (Series 1 Episode 1, or S1Ep1). Marc Freeman’s book “Modern Family: The Untold Oral History of One of Television’s Groundbreaking Sitcoms” gives a good insight into how pilot season works, for the actors in particular. Many of the cast members had auditioned repeatedly for pilots of shows that had not been successful. Traditionally, showreels from pilot episodes are screened for advertisers in the spring, to encourage them to place adverts in the shows when they’re launched in the autumn. In the case of “Modern Family” there was no sensible way to reduce the pilot down to a memorable set of clips, so the advertisers were shown the whole thing. It worked. It created a buzz that very few shows have been able to match.

Since mid-October I have been running my own pilot season, watching S1Ep1 of a dozen shows to see if any of them create the same kind of enthusiasm that I feel for “Modern Family”. So far, only one other series has managed it: “Derry Girls”, originally broadcast on Channel 4. I have watched it in its entirety, but that is only the equivalent of half a series of a hit US comedy such as “Friends” or  “Frasier”: 12 episodes (a little over 4 hours of screen time) spread over 2 series. (Series 1 is available on Netflix, with no ads, Series 2 is on 4OD, Channel 4’s catch-up services, with ads.)

There’s a full list at the end of this piece of the shows that have formed my autumn pilot season, and how far I have progressed with each one. It has made me think about which comedies we watched from the start, back when we could only watch live TV, before any of us even had VCRs. I remember that the first episode of “Porridge” made a real impression. We were quoting lines from it the next day at school (“What? With these feet?”). I also recall watching the first episode of “Whatever happened to the Likely Lads” with my parents, but had no idea who “The Likely Lads” were. I was too young for the original 1960s sitcom, and if it had been repeated it passed me by. There was a scene set in a strip club, which I was probably a bit young for. Apart from those two nothing comes to mind from my childhood or teenage years. I must have watched S1Ep1 of “Fawlty Towers” when it was first broadcast but can’t remember it specifically.

Similarly, I can’t remember many opening episodes of shows from my adult years. I do recall when “Jam and Jerusalem” first aired in 2006, mainly because a brief preview in that day’s paper has provided my wife and I with a catchphrase that we have used ever since. The preview was complimentary, praising the show’s ensemble cast and its gentle approach, but advised us that it was “not laugh-out-loud funny”. In the years since then, when my wife and I have sat stony-faced through something that’s supposed to be funny, and isn’t, we have always been able to lighten our mood by saying: “Well, it’s not laugh-out-loud funny”.

Here, if only for my own benefit, is the list of the shows that have constituted my autumn pilot season. In most cases I have not been tempted to continue on to S1Ep2 just yet.  

“The Goldbergs” (2013-) One of the few shows in my autumn pilot season that is still producing new episodes, an enjoyable enough start, and I will return to it. It’s also one of the few that’s available on regular TV here in the UK, on E4.

“Schitt’s Creek” (2015-2020) A big winner at this year’s Emmy Awards, I suspect this gets better, but I found the main characters too unpleasant to want to spend another 23 minutes with them after S1Ep1. 

“Green Wing” (2004-06), 45 minutes per episode, likeable cast members (Stephen Mangan, Olivia Colman, Mark Heap) but I didn’t feel like I had missed out on this one first time round. It also uses the word “flid”, which I have never heard on TV before, and that was enough to discourage me from watching further.

“Peep Show” (2003-15) Although I’m a fan of the actors who play two main characters (David Mitchell and Robert Webb), and enjoyed their sketch show, I couldn’t get through the whole of this episode. The two flatmates are at loggerheads, Webb’s character calls Mitchell’s character “A posh spazz”. He responds with something like, “In what way am I a posh spazz?”.  That was enough to put me off, rather like the use of the word “flid“ in “Green Wing”.

“Black Books” (2000-04) I caught the odd episode back in the early years of this century, but it never really engaged me, and nor did the pilot.

“Gilmore Girls” (2000-07), 45 minutes per episode, I liked this one, and could imagine it as family viewing in the future. There was nothing about it that suggested it was made 20 years ago.

“Derry Girls” (2018-) Loved it, watched all 12 episodes over the course of two evenings, and have seen most of them again.

“The Good Place” (2016-20), I was prompted to watch this by a question on “Mastermind” on 26 October 2020 (which I got wrong). Good premise, I liked this enough to watch episode 2-3 as well, and will probably go back to it.

“The Royle Family” (1998-2000 / 2006-2012) I was always a big fan of Caroline Aherne, and a fan of this show when it aired originally, but had never seen S1Ep1. It’s a slow start but there’s enough there to make you come back for more.

“GLOW” (2017-19), 45 minutes per episode, I found S1Ep1 engaging enough to watch the next 2 episodes, will probably go back to this one. Nice to see that Kate Nash is making a career as an actress.

“The Black Adder” (original series, 1983) I am a huge fan of series 2-4 (“Blackadder II”, “Blackadder the Third”, “Blackadder Goes Fourth”) and have seen them countless times, but never saw the first series. I tried out S1Ep1 with my teenage children but we couldn’t get through the whole show. They wanted something funnier instead. So did I.

“The Vicar of Dibley” (1994-2007), I had caught the odd 5 minutes of this, but never seen a whole episode. I didn’t find S1Ep1 laugh-out-loud funny.

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