Monday, January 23, 2017

On pilot episodes and series finales and why they might suck

Before I get to my concluding thoughts on Girl Meets World and why it ultimately "failed," I think I should cover some of the practical issues pilots and season finales tend to have - especially after seeing the reactions to Meets Goodbye on Girl Meets World Reviewed and on IMDb and elsewhere. And especially after reading Mike's reaction.

If anything, hopefully this explains the exact structure of why Meets Goodbye was the way it was, down to the Boy Meets World cameos (though that's probably going to be inherently obvious).

I wrote about how wonky pilot episodes can be when we reviewed the pilot for Stuck in the Middle. How successful or how wonky a pilot episode ends up being is dependent on a variety of factors, not the least of which naturally being the simple, raw skill of the cast and production crew behind it. Much of what makes the pilot of Game Shakers the way it is is because it was made in an era when Dan Schneider has just given up and spends all his free time just counting all that automatic cash being raked in from a very desperate Nickelodeon too afraid to let him go. Confession time: I've yet to see a single episode of Breaking Bad, but strictly just from what I've heard about the show and cast and crew in general I'm willing to bet it was probably pretty good regardless how pilots typically go. If the circumstances allow for it, they might even have it screened ahead of time by a carefully selected audience (or at ComiCon) and edit and improve the pilot based on audience reaction, up to completely tearing down the existing footage altogether and completely starting over and reshooting the pilot back from square one - which is exactly what happened with the Game of Thrones and Westworld pilots. 

But for the vast majority of TV pilots the luxury of having an audience reaction before official premiere doesn't exist. These type of audience screenings and expensive reshoots typically exist when there's major money on the line, so much so that even further adding to that cost with a complete pilot reshoot seems worth it to protect future investments in the show. It's easy to identify what kind of show that is by how much attention the network throws at it come every September - and your typical broadcast or basic cable network can only afford one or two pilots for a show like that every season, on top of the ones that are still ongoing. For most other shows, they live or remain stillborn based strictly on the strength of their first go-around - if it's even just meh-tastic, it'll live on even if it gets stuck with a mid or late-season premiere, but otherwise that's the end of that, they've had their one shot and for everyone involved it's time to try something else. The vast majority of the TV viewing public will never be aware that the vast majority of these failed pilots even existed. If we're lucky maybe someone will leak it on YouTube, but even then it'll fade into obscurity for everyone except those who either stumble upon it by sheer chance or know exactly what to look for from the start.

But conversely, for certain types and genres of shows, the financial barriers are so relatively low that if audiences (or network execs) think a show premise has promise, or they're really banking on using it as a star power vehicle but they're not super-happy about the pilot, they'll go ahead and order an (often quick) complete reshoot from scratch. This is what happened to both I Didn't Do It and Shake it Up. In the case of I Didn't Do It, they ended up removing a character because it was felt the core cast was too big otherwise and doing other adjustments. In the case of Shake it Up it was actually because of the character Tinka - originally cast for Stefanie Scott, but she ended up declining the role after they'd already shot the pilot with her in order to take on a bigger role in A.N.T. Farm so they had to do all the Tinka scenes all over again with their second-preferred choice (and for both shows, the rest is history). Particularly in the case of Disney Channel and Nick multi-cam comedies, but multi-cam comedies and even comedies period in general, they're so quick to shoot (it's typically a business week per episode from script read to having film ready for post-production for most multi-cams) and so cheap to do so that if the exces think a reshoot is in order it's trivial to do so compared to the eight figures it took to finally get the first episode of Westworld going. Certain genres of drama shows also tend to be cheaper than others, especially the "procedural" I talk about in the SitM review - you can identify these shows in that they have a tight and small core cast of central protagonists (usually just two, no more no less, because buddy cop shows sell) usually surrounded by a slightly larger peripheral cast whose existence is entirely centered on the central two, namely to provide them information to get the plot rolling, and pretty much everyone else is going to be a guest star; and every single episode plot (the A-plot at least) revolves around some mystery the two main stars have to solve. For obvious reasons it's overwhelmingly usually a murder or crime investigation which is why the term "police procedural" is used interchangeably, but it's increasingly more common to see shows that break away from the police drama element but keep the procedural formula (especially after the massive success of the most famous show to pull this off - House M.D. [or just House]). 

Perhaps you've also caught on to another large, critical detail that tends to separate cheaper shows, especially the single-cam 44-minute format drama shows, from the hugely expensive ones - formula vs. story-arc. Not that formulaic shows can't have story arcs (in fact practically all of them will to some degree, even Law & Order: SVU which tends to be very standalone per episode) and it's pretty much impossible for story-arc driven shows to avoid at least some formula, but it's pretty easy to tell what tends to be the main driver of a show. The aforementioned Game of Thrones and Westworld are very obviously driven by epic story-arcs that follow a very logical, linear timeline - missing out on one episode risks being completely lost. And speaking of which, so is Lost, and Once Upon a Time and even Backstage and The Lodge on Disney Channel (and hell even The Other Kingdom and Make it Pop! on Nick - although obviously in the case of those Disney and Nick shows they're going to be much cheaper than all the others, and even Lost and OUaT are going to be significantly cheaper than Westworld and Game of Thrones if not barely more expensive than their procedural counterparts - but it still probably stands that those single-cam shows on Disney and Nick are still more expensive than the usual multi-cam comedies that dominate both networks). Now compare these to the formula-based shows - again, the procedurals in particular for dramas and pretty much any given comedy regardless of camera format (though there are exceptions - Every Witch Way comes to mind as a rare one for multi-cams in particular, at least in the English-speaking market and maybe even among comedy telenovelas in general - but they tend to be rare enough to not have enough statistical pull). Because they adhere to a formula, for the most part you can completely skip an episode (as I had been doing for, uh, pretty much most of GMW Season 3 and smaller chunks of Season 2) and get caught up immediately on the very next one with little or no problem, if not with every single episode being completely standalone stories that can be viewed in almost any order without any appreciable difference in comprehension (just as how I was first introduced to the first season of Jessie, Austin & Ally and the first two and a half seasons of Good Luck Charlie as I caught up viewing all the episodes in reruns over the course of a month and a half in whatever order they happened to be airing at the time - hooray for Disney Channel's idiosyncrasies!) This formula in fact tends to be a major driver towards how these shows end up being cheaper in the first place - having a set formula to follow means the episodes tend to be easier to write and episodes easier to shoot and produce as you've now introduced at least some elements in scale-economy into your production, and in Hollywood burning time really is burning money. 

Now, the big part of having a formula your show and characters follow is making sure the audience is capable of following that same formula - and that's how we get to why and how pilots can end up being major suckfests. Procedurals are pretty easy to hop right into - everyone pretty much understands the concept of investigating a murder - but pretty much every comedy you have is going to dedicate the pilot almost exclusively to setting up and explaining the formula. If it has a quirky character (and it's a comedy so of course it will) the pilot is going to explain the quirky character. Not explain why the character is quirky, mind you - just spend every minute of his or her screen time pointing out check out how quirky this character is! If these characters get into a lot of whacky situations (and it's a comedy so of course they will) then the pilot's plot will be nothing more but pointing out hey! These characters get into whacky situations! If there's some sort of high-concept premise involved, then that high-premise concept is going to be explored (or if not, instead, again, giant arrows pointing out hey! This show is about wizards!)

Think back to the first episode of Girl Meets World: all the insistence that yes, Riley will be meeting The World in this series! Or the first episode of Best Friends Whenever which was pretty much almost pure setup of the basic premise. Those are all "The Pilot Problem" in action.

And on top of that you've also got the fact that often this is the first time many cast and crewmembers (if not most) are working together for the very first time, and it takes time and a few episodes to have all of those components gel with each other. So the first few episodes might end up just being wonky while the cast starts to get into their acting groove and the crew processes what works and discards what doesn't. For most Disney Channel and Nickelodeon shows it ends up that the entire first season is pretty much just a giant break-in period for the cast, crew and other elements of the show, which is why usually the first season is noticeably of reduced quality compared to later seasons especially when the show does end up becoming very good as with Liv and Maddie and The Thundermans (though there are exceptions as Jessie and to a lesser extent Good Luck Charlie prove). 

And there's the flipside, the series finale. Just like the pilot has to establish everything and set it all up, the finale (at least in most planned finales) everything has to be broken down and every and all lose plotlines have to be tied up as neatly as production constraints will allow. And let's talk about the production constraints, especially in the case of GMW - no doubt Jacobs and the rest of the crew had to be aware of the possibility that Season 3 would be it (if nothing else they've got plummeting ratings staring at their faces) but it ended up being in a weird limbo state - on the one hand, it was still getting the best ratings on the network, but on the other hand the margin between it and the lowest-rated show was razor thin (just off the top of my head in some cases less than 200,000 viewers) and more importantly ratings across the board for the entirety of Disney Channel had nosedived so bad (again, GMW, the highest rated show on the network, could no longer get even anywhere near 2 million viewers) that to those savvy in the operations of Disney Channel the possibility that the days of four-season shows might be gone. There was enough ambiguity in that situation that Jacobs and his crew simply had to wait for official word from the network to be sure. And keep in mind that these decisions aren't made at the last minute for last minute's sake - there's no doubt that a strong case was being made to renew GMW for a fourth season despite the network-wide ratings tumble, and a lot of cost-benefit analyses were no doubt being performed. That takes time - in fact, a lot of time. It's likely the network informed Jacobs as soon as they made a decision (and there's usually a solid, hard deadline for the network to make these decisions too as a courtesy to the people effected by it if nothing else, to allow them to move on to other projects if necessary) but the timing still probably resulted in a bit of a production squeeze - or if the decision was going to be made after any possibility of producing a proper finale was outright gone, then you'd have exactly what you just witnessed last Friday where there was enough ambiguity they could pick up straight where they left off if they did get renewed.

Add to to that of course the obligatory appearance of just about every original-flavor character they could possibly get as a reprisal, including both Morgans. This wasn't just to close out the GMW storylines and plotlines, but to close out those that may have been hanging loose from Boy Meets World despite the fact that, you know, it still got its own proper finale to close those plotlines already but whatever. A lot of those plotlines were forcibly reopened just with the mere existence of GMW, opening up a lot of questions from the audience regarding whatever happened to Morgan anyway? that the show was now obligated to answer. Of course, given the sheer number of characters that simply started to just eat up a lot of time that could've been given to other storylines (so much so that Harley and Minkus didn't even get to speak!) and the insistence that a lot of the episode still be spent with the core five navel-gazing, and you end up with a lot of different things going different places and little time spent there.

And even when we do have planned finales we can still end up with messes like the Jessie finale which, well, I still maintain is a complete and utter clusterfuck. I don't know why they just went with the standard 25-minute length but whatever. They had a ton of plotlines to close out - how will Jessie manage to justify leaving her nanny job for Hollywood? Will Jessie be able to make it in Hollywood anyway? What will happen to the kids without her? How are they going to resolve the Jessie-Tony ship? That's a fair number of plotlines, and especially given the half-hour they had to play with they pretty much just rushed through them. 

In fact just the other day I was rewatching There Goes the Bride and I think that made for a better finale than the crap we ended up getting. It didn't necessarily close out all the storylines but it provided better emotional closure for the ones it did close - hell, in fact given that it was the third to last episode of the third season I have to wonder if it wasn't Jessie's Girl Meets Goodbye. Maybe it was already planned when they weren't sure they were going to have a fourth season - granted, two episodes (well technically three) did end up airing after that but Rides to Riches could've easily been shoved aside further back into the schedule and Aloha Holidays with Parker and Joey could've been filmed after they already knew they were getting a fourth season after all. 

If you're looking for a more tidy finale as far as these Nick and Disney KidComs are concerned, I guess the iCarly finale is probably as good as you're going to get since its premiere which considering that was just over four years ago is pretty damn sad. Well, that and the Good Luck Charlie finale. The GLC, with a full hour to play with, did a pretty good job closing up the plotlines and did its best to remove as much ambiguity as possible regarding what kind of future the characters are going to have beyond the theoretical confines of the show. The iCarly finale did pretty much the same, except I could've lived without the inane plot with Gibby going to the mall to get another head scan. 

So, yeah. That tends to be the nature of the multi-cam beast. You have a quick set-up with a premiere, you have a thrown-together (well, hopefully not) finale that (hopefully) satisfies the audience, but the real money is of course made in-between. It might mean that the end might suck to the point where the show's done an outright disservice - but that's just one of the risks you run being a multi-camera show fan.


  1. You said everything. Pilots can suck due to early installment weird-ness and different ideas, and finales can suck due to having to wrap things up, and high audience expectations.

    Which is why i tend to go easy on them, for the most part.

    1. I said everything in that I explained everything or I said everything in that I bored you to tears?


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