Have you ever gone back to the earliest episodes of some of your favorite animated shows only to be reminded of how different the voice actors sounded in the early days, like Dan Castellaneta’s oddly deeper voiced original version of Homer Simpsons? It’s jarring, right? Well, the same can often be said of when you re-visit the pilots for some of your favorite shows. The characters often only kind of resemble the ones you’ve come to love, and not just because the actors obviously look younger. Granted, certain shows emerge so extremely confident out of the gates that their pilots lose little to no power with time, such as the remarkably self-assured pilots for Mad Men and Arrested Development. However, this isn’t a list of great shows with just-as-great pilots but instead great shows whose pilots did not necessarily portend greatness.
So, to all Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. naysayers (a group that actually includes me, read my review here) just remember that these 4 shows didn’t look so great in the first episode either:
1) The Big Bang Theory, Premiered in 2007
To some, Big Bang Theory is and forever remains a nerd minstrel show populated with rejects from the Revenge of the Nerds films. There’s the guy who can’t talk to women (Kunal Nayyar), the one who women wish would stop talking to them because he’s so reprehensible (or at least his clothes are) (Simon Helberg), the one who clearly has undiagnosed Autism (Jim Parsons), and the relative straight man who comes off like a version of Woody Allen who loves video games (Johnny Galecki). So, of course, the jokes will be filled with cheap signifiers of nerdom, such as comic books and Star Trek, and we the audience will be made to laugh at these pathetic losers rather than with them.
Unfortunately, all of that is arguably entirely accurate of the very paint-in-broad-strokes pilot, which seriously forces one nerd joke/reference after another (e.g., Battlestar Galactica, Klingon Bobble, Stephen Hawking, computer avatars). On the other side, Kaley Cuoco’s airhead blonde routine as Penny is treated just as poorly, with the fact that Penny works as a waitress at a Cheesecake Factory oddly trumped up as an immense source of humor and derision. Worse yet, it’s all not particularly funny, unless a line like ‘I can’t look at you or your avatar right now’ does it for you.
However, the performances are better than the actual writing, with Cuoco’s knack for dumb facial reactions on display from the get-go. Galecki and Parsons are also good in it, especially Parsons whose early version of Sheldon is mostly just an impression of David Hyde Pierce from Frasier. Looking at it now, you can see the beginnings of what eventually became some enjoyable characters as well as laugh at just how much this was clearly designed to be Johnny Galecki’s show, not Jim Parsons’. That pilot, though, is brutal.
2) Vampire Diaries, Premiered in 2009
Vampire Diaries offered Comic-Con attendees a sneak preview screening of its pilot months prior to its official premiere on The CW. The reaction was astonishingly negative, with TV.com rather succinctly concluding, “Vampire Diaries sucks.” Adapted from a YA novel series of the same name, Vampire Diaries appeared an overly obvious attempt to jump on the then-hot Twilight bandwagon. Just look at the set-up: a brunette high school student has a crush on a new boy at her school who turns out to be a vampire, just not the Twilight-kind that sparkle in the sun. The pilot, even though it came from the pen of Kevin Williamson (Scream, Dawson’s Creek) crumbles under the weight of its own cliches (e.g., cue the eye rolling when it turns out the central girl, Elena Gilbert, is the spitting image of a girl the vampires once loved over a century prior). Other than Ian Somerhalder’s incredibly fun appearance as bad-boy vampire Damon, the pilot is all teen angst and anguished romance (and mood-setting fog).
It is because of this that a great many viewers flatly rejected the show on principle, only giving it a second chance once the steady drumbeat of “OMG you guys, Vampire Diaries is getting crazy good!” became too loud to ignore. While angst and anguish is still in the show’s DNA, it has since turned into a behemoth of unpredictable serialized storytelling, killing off so many characters it would possibly surprise even Joss Whedon. Plus, Damon has turned into Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer for a new generation (that’s a good thing), and Elena Gilbert has long since left behind any comparisons to Bella Swan. That such gonzo storytelling was ahead of it is not really apparent in the pilot which mostly establishes two vampires come to town, one good, one bad, both hot, and both obsessed with teenage girl who looks just like a lost loved one.
3) Parks and Recreation, Premiered in 2009
Back in 2009, if you watched any shows on NBC it was virtually impossible not to know that there was a new show on the way from the creator/producers of the American The Office (Greg Daniels, Michael Schur) and starring Amy Poehler. The NBC advertising/hype machine was in overdrive. However, once the show arrived it came off far too much like an Amy Poehler-fronted version of The Office, right down to the single-camera mockumentary format. The pilot establishes what became the story arc for the first season, an attempt to turn a lapsed construction site/glorified dirt mound into a park. Rashida Jones shows up as Ann, a nurse who is tired of looking at the mound of dirt from across her back yard. Poehler displays her signature Leslie Knope over-eagerness and singular focus on the task at hand. However, it is a show still struggling to figure out how to differentiate itself from The Office and placing Leslie Knope into far too many Michael Scott-esque situations.
The show improved considerably with each subsequent episode, benefiting greatly from the departure of Paul Schneider/addition of Adam Scott and Rob Lowe as full-time cast members at the beginning of the third season.
4) New Girl, Premiered in 2011
As far as show openings go, New Girl had a pretty good one, with Jess (Zooey Deschanel) attempting to surprise her boyfriend by coming home in the middle of the day and presenting herself to him wearing nothing but a trenchcoat. Of course, he’s having an affair, and Jess finds this out while all her naughty bits are hanging out and attempting to do a seductive dance for him. We are instantly made sympathetic toward Jess, and want to see things improve for her. However, then the quirk machine rolls into town, and we get three guys struggling to know what to do with their crazy new, adorkable roommate. She sings when she’s nervous (or happy or just whenever), and watches Dirty Dancing non-stop while mourning her break-up. By the end of the episode, the guys sing “Time of My Life” from the film to Jess in a crowded restaurant to cheer her up. That’s not an inherently bad set-up for comedy, but it presents New Girl as a show centered around a quirky girl and the three guys who have to figure out how to live with her.
However, the seeds of what Nick (Jake Johnson) and Schmidt (Max Greenfield) would become are there (e.g., the douchebag jar for Schmidt is introduced within the first 4 minutes). The piece in the cast that did not quite fit was Coach (Damon Wayons, Jr.), whose overly masculine exterior contrasting Jess’ crazy ball of estrogen fails to produce humor as intended. Plus, CeCe (Hannah Simone) comes off as an unnecessary element only added in to up the girl quotient on the show (that still might be kind of true). It is only when New Girl morphed into a portrait of four late 20-something roommates struggling to make their next steps in life (romantically and professionally) and thus an ensemble piece as opposed to Zooey Deschanel showcase that it achieved greatness. You could tell the cast was pretty strong in the pilot, but not whether or not it would ever stop merely being “Jess does annoying-but-adorable thing”/”Guys react negatively to the thing Jess just did.”
So, in this period of new show-overload during which the American broadcast networks continue to roll out new comedy after new drama after new dramedy resist the urge to overact, going too high or too low on any one show. History has continually proven that what many of the best TV shows needed was not a great first beginning but instead the requisite amount of time and patience to figure everything out. If they have the right cast, they can eventually mold the show to the actor’s strengths.
What do you think? This is an obviously completely subjective list. You might really love the pilots for any of the above shows, and maybe even think the show’s have gone down hill since then. Or maybe you bristle at the suggestion of something like Vampire Diaries being considered “a great show.” Let us know in the comments.