2014 columns, Television

TV pilots: The good, the bad and The Leftovers

by Stephanie Van Schilt , August 7, 20141 Comment



With the wealth of shows on offer, committing to a new TV series can feel like a big deal. Time, marketing, cast, network, genre and taste all factor into the decision making process. But it’s often during a pilot episode that audiences determine whether the program is appealing and engaging enough to stick with for the long haul – or at least, another episode or two.

Long before it sunk into an unwieldy decline in later seasons, Lost premiered with a pilot that remains one of the most highly regarded in television history. Lost’s first episode managed to be cryptic and contained enough to carry audiences through to the next instalment. A highly entertaining pilot with a distilled sense of mystery and enigmatic yet well-developed characters, Lost coveted and converted curious viewers into addicted fans almost instantly.

Co-created by J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, Lost had a strong start but became rather messy as the show’s writers lost control of its sprawling mythology. While Abrams is a formidable showbiz force responsible for writing and directing Lost’s pilot and the likes of Felicity and Alias (two shows which also had gripping first eps), Lindelof is most often referred to as the guy haunted by Lost’s eventual failings (and, you know, other writing credits like Prometheus).

None of this is news. But Lindelof’s most recent offering, The Leftovers, doesn’t seem to be news either. After debuting on HBO in June, The Leftovers is already halfway through its first season in the States, but you may not have even heard of it. Unlike, say, the cacophony which had built around True Detective by its fifth episode, this indicates where The Leftovers currently sits in the vociferous hubbub of the televisual stratosphere – it doesn’t really register.

Based on a novel by Tom Perrotta (who serves as co-creator and executive producer on the show), The Leftovers introduces a world three-years after a global Rapture. Set in the fictional small town of Mapleton, The Leftovers explores how the local population are coping — or not coping — after 2% of the Earth’s population mysteriously disappeared into thin air.

It was the awesome trailer and list of creative talent on board that first piqued my interest in The Leftovers. Even Peter Berg, the man responsible for everyone’s favourite teen sports drama Friday Night Lights (another show with a killer opening episode), was listed as executive producer and director. However, given the apocalypse is the new (well, not so much new, but definitely ubiquitous) black, I approached the pilot wondering how this show was going to stand out from the rest and whether or not it was for me.

Justin Theroux is a total fox as the central character, Chief of Police Kevin Garvey (did someone say hot cop?), and the pilot was bleakly atmospheric. But while the soundtrack was banging, the music was used incongruously; where the likes of James Blake’s ‘Retrograde’ works in the trailer, it feels almost cool for cool’s sake in staid full-length montages.

With too much jammed into the single-setting – multiple cults, endless characters and types, glimpses of past and future – it strayed from the prestige drama feel it was trying to evoke, and instead recalled the overwrought melodrama of Under the Dome (right down to the terrible makeup).

Sadly, the pilot didn’t make a particularly eerie, exciting or lasting impact. I couldn’t determine whether my ambivalence came from the fact it was an average first episode, or because my expectations were too high. Regardless, rather than causing me to walk away questioning the pilot’s religiosity or existential quandaries, it seemed to me the greatest mystery was why the creators tried to jam so much into a single episode. Granted, this ambiguity is at the core of the show’s tone, but for an almost film length episode of television (at seventy-two minutes), its undergraduate-level complexities offered nothing solid for viewers to cling to – a signature fail for a pilot.

With Lost looming over this new venture, it was hard not to view the pilot episode of The Leftovers as an attempted apologia. This may be unfair but it’s also inevitable, particularly given the similar sense of doom and the tragic conceit, a familiar ensemble cast (the main character a male in an authoritative public role), and the use of a series of flashbacks as a narrative device. The Leftovers pilot felt so self-aware that it seemed self-conscious rather than assured.

The literal use of the shooting the dog trope – but with a ‘twist’ – was an obvious and blatant attempt to subvert that exhausted metaphor in order to say, ‘Hey guys, your ideas of morality don’t exist anymore everything is unstable in this world including who you think is good and bad and what we tell you is good and bad it’s crazy spooky who knows what’ll happen’. As Sonia Saraiya said on the AV Club, ‘I feel like in a 10th grade literature class… I would have had to write a paper or two on the topic’. And I get that, but perhaps the problem is that I — and other viewers — will very obviously get that.

Is it fair to judge a television show solely on its pilot episode? Or even its first season? Many shows have come back from shaky starts (see Parks and Recreation), so perhaps it is beneficial to wait for the collective consensus, and turn to a show retrospectively if and when you feel like it. It’s hard to say. Who knows what The Leftovers plans serve up for the rest of the season, but I’m not sure I’ll stick around to find out.*

*I have stuck around because I’m a sucker for TV and would love to talk about it with anyone because, except for one episode, my initial reservations remain.

Stephanie Van Schilt is Deputy Editor at The Lifted Brow and a freelance writer. She tweets @steph_adele.

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  • jayme

    I actually love it, but the execution could absolutely use some work. Their downfall seems to be in trying to focus too much on the Garvey family whose stories are some of the least interesting we’ve seen. It seems to work best when it focuses on a single character and follows them around featuring small interactions with other cast members.
    It definitely feels like they’re purposely trying to make you feel something for these characters without giving you more than just the bare bones of what happened, but I do love that they focus so heavily on a family that seems to feel such a strong sense of loss without really having lost anyone close to them.
    There’s a lot more they could explore, without having to resort to stonings and transparent biblical allegories to try to compel you to care about these characters. But I won’t stop watching, because the concept is sooo interesting. But you’re right, even my HBO-praising American friends haven’t heard of it, and a lot of critics seem to be turning off because it’s too pretentious.


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