Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"The Second Episode"

Once again, I have availed myself of that locomotive of vitality, otherwise known as the blog bykenlevine.com, and have pilfered a subject on which to opine, in part – the biggest part – in agreement, and, in some part, not. I thank Ken in advance for the inspiration. (Perhaps my readers cam suggest blogs that they enjoy reading, so I could pilfer from them as well, imitation, as the great wit, Oscar Levant, once acerbed, being “the sincerest form of plagiarism.” Although this would not technically qualify as plagiarism; it would be borrowing a starting point. Are you buying that?)

We are talking here about the second episode of a new television series. You liked the pilot well enough to come back for a second helping. How does that go for you?

According to Ken – and here I entirely agree – for the most part, it, meaning the second episode of a brand new television series “will be weak.”

There are reasons for that. In an hour show, the second episode of a new series often suffers from a precipitous reduction in budget, leading to a noticeable reduction in eye-catching, production values. In a pilot, the producing entity – a studio, or an independent production company – pulls out all the stops, because they are trying to sell the show. They will regularly go into deficit, meaning they spend more than the “licensing fee” network is paying them, because everything’s riding on the pilot’s making a big splash in that darkened room where the network screens all its pilots, deciding which of them to “Green Light” to series.

It’s all nonsense, of course. Everyone’s aware that these massive expenditures on the pilot are not sustainable once the series is picked up. But they do it anyway, knowing that it’s not going to last. In the pilot, they blow up a helicopter. In the series, it’s a second-hand Yugo.

Comedy pilots do not, as a rule, deal in inflated production values. They may sprinkle a few more “extras” into a party scene, they may shoot one scene outdoors (if the show is a stagebound studio show) to broaden the landscape, but for the most part, it’s the premise, the writing and the appeal of the regular cast that sells the series. It’s rare that a pilot resorts to “stunt casting”, where, like, Brad Pitt shows up for a “cameo.” “Stunt casting” reeks of desperation, begging the question, “Who’s going to be ‘Brad Pitt’ next week?”

Ken mentions that the second episode is merely “a {redundant and less effective} retelling of the pilot.” This is true, and it’s done for two reasons. One, the second week audience may have missed the pilot, so a recapitulation of the series’ premise is required so that they’ll understand what’s going on. The second reason is to restate the premise of the pilot, so it sinks in more deeply with the audience.

Both of these reasons assume that the audience is stupid, which, for the most part, it is not, which makes the reasons stupid, which, unquestionably, they are. (You want to hear something really stupid? Some networks, at least in my day, insisted on a recapitulation of the pilot’s premise for the first six episodes! Following the network maxim, “If you’re going do something stupid – no half measures!”)

Okay, so here’s where Ken and I part company.

For me, as a viewer, and when I say “as a viewer”, I mean before I got into writing for television and I was only a viewer, the second episode was the most important indicator of whether or not I would continue watching the show.

Why?

Because it told me whether or not the show, for me at least, had “legs.”

First, some clarifying background. Generally speaking, a pilot is pitched in the fall, the final script is handed in by Christmas, it gets made in April, and is delivered in May. That’s “ballpark.” Something in that area. What that means is that the pilot’s writer has six months or more to tinker with that single episode. This is not typical of the time that’s available for subsequent episodes, as, going at that pace, a TV series would only deliver two episodes a year.

This is another reason the pilot often outshines the second episode. They had considerably more time to work on it.

Now, back to the second episode itself. Which you will soon learn is not necessarily the second episode that was made.

Some more clarifying background. When a series is picked up for the fall, pre-production generally starts at the beginning of June. (Again, things may have changed, but I suspect not that much.) In pre-production, the show runner and his writing staff “break” stories, meaning they figure out what the stories are, and they meticulously work out the structural “beats” of each episode.

By the time production begins, you would, hopefully, have a half-dozen or so episode scripts ready to be shot. (I know one writing team that wrote an entire season of twenty-two scripts before the end of pre-production, but they all stunk.)

By about mid-August, you start making the shows. Barring serious mishaps, you will have three or four “in the can” – fully completed – before the new season debuts, in early to mid-September. This means you have three or four possible “second episodes” to choose from. If the broadcast second episode is “weak”, the question then arises,

“Having three or four to choose from, is this really the best ‘second episode’ they’ve got?” And if it is,

Yikes!

In my view, if the second aired episode in “weak”, there’s a really good chance the entire series is “weak.”

On the other hand – and I recently re-screened them on Hulu to make sure – the second episode of two of my all-time favorite series, The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show are not “weak.” They may not rise to the level of “standout episodes”, as all series, even the classics, need time to ripen, deepen and expand their range. But, Earl, the viewer, was watching these second episodes, his receptors on “Full Alert” for a compatible comedic sensibility,

And he really liked what he saw.

The second episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, written by the show’s creator Carl Reiner, though overly broad for my taste, impressed me not with what it did, but with what it did not do. It did not go overboard on its premise – Laura Petrie sensing that Rob’s ardor in her direction has diminished. The premise is grounded in reality – relating to the “spark” that tends to “evolve” as a marriage progresses – and the execution, if not subtle, was at least modulated (and, arguably, “subtle” for its era.) The results were sufficiently satisfying for viewer Earl to conclude,

“This show is smart enough and funny enough for me to watch it again.”

The second “Mary” episode, written by a wonderful writer named Treva Silverman, includes one of my favorite lines of the entire series. Mary is having a small gathering at her apartment. Among the guests is a former boyfriend who aggressively fauns over her. During a break in the fauning, Rhoda, who to this point has been thoroughly ignored, insinuates herself into the conversation, saying, “Allow me to introduce myself. I am another person in the room.”

The “Mary” pilot had “You’ve got spunk….I hate spunk!” The second episode offered “another person in the room.” “Compatible comedic sensibility” enthusiastically confirmed. I am a regular “Mary” watcher for seven years. (And a “Mary” writer for the last two.)

Though others’ experience may certainly differ, my experience tells me to take a new series’ second episode seriously, as a signal of, what was called on “Dobey Gillis”, propinquity.

Speaking about pilots reminds me of a very rare occasion in which a network suggestion actually made a series idea better. I cannot let that pass without telling you about it.

It’s like a solar eclipse. Its extreme rarity obligates us to stop and take notice.

9 comments:

Mr. said...

You might enjoy this blog


http://www2.macleans.ca/category/blog-central/arts-culture-blog/tv-guidance/

Gnasche said...

With shows available for viewing "on demand", do you think the practice of retelling the pilot will disappear? Everyone that wants to have watched the pilot will have seen it -- even if they missed it.

Earl Pomerantz said...

I don't know about the "On Demand" factor, if everyone has it, if it costs money, if everyone is as diligent about checking out pilots, if everyone wants to watch TV on their computer. I only know this: For at least eight weeks, when the studio audience came in to watch a filming, we always showed them the pilot first.

Jon88 said...

Spot on. For a specific example, the second episode of "Two Broke Girls" made it very clear which way the wind was blowing. (Not in my direction.) Sometimes the trend isn't so quickly clear, though. My jury is still out on "Prime Suspect."

Earl Stanley said...

Earl, as a professional, do you think it's possible for you to watch a TV show as a regular viewer?

benson said...

It's funny your topic is second episodes as I was just discussing this with a friend a few days ago, and he said he thought the greatest second episode of a series he'd ever seen, was "The Apology" from Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night. And it is great, both in terms of writing and acting.

benson said...

Oh, my. I just checked IMDB and you wrote "Goodbye, Mr. Fish".(Cosby Show) That's a wonderful piece of writing.

James said...

I thought the majority of second episodes of this year's shows were stronger than their pilots.

The pilots seem to have been in development for way too long with far too many people's opinions evident in the pilot episode.

The second episode tends to be more pure.

I totally agree. The second episode is where you find out if the show has legs.

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