Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Classic Episode Review: "Pilot"

The pilot of Supernatural was as close to perfect as a pilot can get. The very nature of the beast is difficult: You're executing an idea with a low budget and a cast that just met and doesn't have a groove yet, plus you're operating under the pressure of knowing this is your one shot to get it right. Most pilots don't get turned into TV shows.

A good pilot:

1. Introduces characters we can identify with in some way.

Sam and Dean are brothers who have been on the outs. They spend most of the pilot episode arguing. But there's an underlying core of affection and connection. I was completely sold near the beginning, when someone snuck into Sam's apartment and they fought in silhouette. That one sequence summed up their entire relationship: sometimes contentious, evenly matched, with one on top, then the other. Dean was the teacher and protector, while Sam was the student who'd at least reached his master's level.

2. Has a complete episode arc that tells exactly what the series will be.

The "Woman in White" urban legend tells us everything we can expect from a typical Supernatural episode. The creepy image stuttering and cinematography tell us it will be scary (as does, of course, the death scenes!). The pathos of the ghost's backstory tells us this isn't like a crime show that focuses on facts and clues but not so much on people and character. The ghost's motivation is sad, and I even felt pity for the husband who started the whole long chain of events.

We get humor ("Bitch." "Jerk." and "Is anything real about you, boy?" "My boobs.") and fake rock IDs and action and mystery.

3. Asks story questions that make us want to tune in next week, and the week after, and...

Not all good shows have a major story arc, but most do. If they don't, viewers know right away that the show will get stale and repetitive, and that can make us decide not to bother investing time and care into watching now.

But Supernatural easily avoided that fate. First, there's the catalyst that launches the events: Dad's on a job, and he hasn't been home in a while. Where is he? What will the boys find when they catch up with him? Then the neatly bookended mystery--whatever killed Mom has now killed Jessica, and the reluctant hero accepts the call to adventure. We've got to know what it was, and why it did it.

There's a danger in setting up a long-term mystery, too, because if it drags on too long without answers, viewers will also get bored and tune out. But at the start, we're full of anticipation and curiosity and we'll eagerly sign up for the ride.

4. Just enough backstory, but not too much.

All fiction has this balance to maintain, and it's always a struggle. We know Sam and his father have a contentious relationship. We know they had a very unconventional upbringing, that the brothers are closer than most because of it, despite their current rift, and that their mother's death drives everything they do, every choice they make. We know these things from several short lines and one powerful prologue, but the emphasis of the show is on the future. There isn't a chance to get bored.

What else did this pilot have? Obviously, two very attractive young men who are going to be the centerpiece of the show. A definite tone that's set in the colors, the lighting, the set dressing, the broad cinematography, even the shot angles. Hints at the depths they could plumb: Sam left the hunting life a long time ago, professes to hate it, but he has a wickedly curved knife all ready to pack. Dad had a journal full of notes on things he'd hunted, and a system of communication the boys can follow with little guidance.

Like anything, the episode wasn't perfect. How did Dean get to the farmhouse from the police station? And later, why did he return to Sam's apartment? His timing is just a little too coincidental. Of course, a deleted scene on the DVD shows him driving away and changing his mind, one quick shot showing us that he's not accepting Sam's decision as he turns the car around. But we didn't get that originally. Still, those small errors or oversights aren't enough to override all the good in this pilot. It made me really happy that I was a late starter and could watch as many episodes in a row as I wanted!

Your turn! Post your favorite lines or details from the pilot, or tell us what your first impression of this episode was. Did it hook you right away, or grow on you? Did you see the pilot first, or start watching on TV later in the show's run, and go back?


MJFredrick said...

LOVE this episode. I have it on my iPod, too. I watched it first because I started with DVDs. By the end of the episode, I'd ordered the DVDs from Amazon. The balance was perfect--humor, horror, suspense, affection. The car ;) So much to love....

Anonymous said...

Watched it when it first aired. Loved it immediately and was completely hooked. Now I'm trying to figure out how to get episodes on my blackberry.

Anonymous said...

You know, there are episodes of this show that I can find fault with (don't throw anything at me!!!) but surprisingly, the pilot isn't one of them. There are a lot of pilots for other shows that, while promising, were clearly trying to work out the bugs of the show. This one, imo, hit it out of the park. In fact, sometimes I think that's why I'm able to find fault with a few of the other episodes--because from day 1, everyone at SPN set the bar so high.

Natalie J. Damschroder said...

I watched on Netflix and as soon as I finished, I was dying to own the DVDs! I'd just quit my day job, though, so couldn't justify it until my birthday in December. That SUCKED.

Good luck, Terri, with the Blackberry thing. I have no idea how to do that. LOL

Tanya, I feel the same way. Overall, they made it all seem so effortless. The actors are comfortable, the writing is smooth and easy, as if they'd all been doing it for years! I know their success with this (combined with Firefly's similar impeccable pilot) makes me really critical of pilots for other shows.

Kassy said...

I watched this episode on my little 13" TV when iy first aired. I had the lights turned off and was freaked out the entire night afterwards. Perfect blend of humor, horror and story-telling. I loved every minute of it.

Natalie J. Damschroder said...

YES! I was watching on a big TV, but alone in the dark, and I had to go upstairs alone, in the dark...I kept my back to the wall the whole way. LOL

Gater said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.