What Makes A Good TV Pilot: Revisited
Earlier this week, I laid out what I believed were the five objectives that a television pilot should do in order to lay out to it’s audience what it is and what that audience should expect from the show going forward. I used Deadwood’s pilot as a way to illustrate my points.
However it never occurred to me that the points I made may not apply to a show such as a sitcom. I decided that I should use a sitcom pilot to see if the same points I made for a drama apply. Originally I thought about using the pilot of 30 Rock as an example. However I feel that the pilot of 30 Rock…isn’t very good. It’s funny but it isn’t quite what 30 Rock would eventually become. In it’s place though, I decided to use the pilot for Arrested Development instead.
I consider Arrested Development one of the three great sitcoms of the 21st century so far (for the record, the original The Office and 30 Rock are my other two). So I relished the chance to watch the pilot again. I believe the last time I watched it was last year as part of preparations for the fourth season to debut on Netflix.
To summarise the pilot and the series as a whole. Arrested Development (I’m going to call it AD from now on) follows the Bluth family, a wealthy Californian family who own a real estate company. Their wealth is disrupted however when the head of the family, George Bluth Snr (Jeffrey Tambor), is arrested and the family’s assets are frozen. It is then up to the middle Bluth sons, Michael (Jason Bateman), to take control of the company and look after the family to make sure they don’t cause any more grief for the Bluth family. That’s kind of hard when the Bluths are as crazy and dysfunctional as they come.
“Oh no, I’m completely stuffed!”
So let’s get down to it then! I first made the point that the pilot should set up the world of the sitcom. That’s established very early on. AD takes place exclusively in the world of rich Californians a la The OC perhaps? (Admittedly, I’ve never seen The OC). Hell, the very first scene of the pilot takes place on a yacht, youngest brother Buster (Tony Hale) has thousands of dollars of education, brother Gob (Will Arnett) drives around on a segway, Lindsay (Portia De Rossi) is a philanthropist and fundraiser for causes such as the anti-circumcision movement, HOOP (Hands Off our penises) and finally matriarch of the family, Lucille walks about with a fox around her neck. The Bluths don’t know anybody outside of their wealthy social circles and they don’t want to get to know them either. They live inside their own bubble which of course is popped when George Snr is arrested and their assets are frozen. It’s instant comedy through situation.
The second function of the pilot should be to showcase the style and tone of the show. The style of AD is the most unique feature of the show and is unique amongst other sitcoms. First of all the sitcom is filmed almost entirely in handheld almost in a faux documentary style a la The Office. Adding to that faux documentary style is the constant cutaways to flashbacks or images to support the style. An example of that in the pilot comes in the form of the cutaway to Buster’s Native American Tribal studies (THUD THUD THUD THUD THUD THUD THUTHUTHUTHUTHUD) or the image of Gob in The Alliance of Magicians (“We demand to be taken seriously”). Finally another feature of AD’s style that will be prevalent throughout the show’s run is the presence of a narrator (Ron Howard). He’s there from the very beginning describing Michael as a good man and is often used as a method for exposition in the pilot but would later on be used as a meta form of humour in Arrested Development (“Hey! That’s the name of the show!”).
In defining the characters of AD, I think the biggest statement that the pilot of AD had to make was showing just how different Michael Bluth (obviously the straight man of the sitcom) is from the rest of his family (chaos in many forms). But also to show how dependant that chaos is on Michael to keep them in check no matter how much he “annoys them or rubs them up the wrong way” as Gob puts it in The Bluth’s intervention/imposition to Michael. Michael’s relationship with his son is also established well. We see how Michael cares about George-Michael (a scarily young Michael Cera) and how Michael wants to influence George-Michael and make sure he doesn’t become lazy and spoilt like the other Bluths. George-Michael’s cousin Maebe (Alia Shawkat) is a vision of what that may look like. Shades of the Bluth siblings are filled in within this pilot. With Gob, we learn about his magic career, his underlying jealousy of Michael and his taste for showmanship. With Lindsay, we see her troubled marriage with Tobias, her relationship (or lack of) with Maebe and we see how she may be the closest of the siblings to Michael. Finally with Buster we get a glimpse of his anxiety, backrubs but surprisingly not a proper glimpse of how he’s a mummy’s boy. These will all later be expanded upon as the show continues.
The structure of AD’s episode are typical sitcom affair. Each episode has it’s own conflicts and problems to be solved but there is more serialisation between episodes as the overarching story of George Snr’s arrest hangs over all the episodes. Another feature of AD that is rare to other sitcoms is an epilogue that wraps up each episode and provides closure for certain strands of the story. Although it’s not obvious as of the end of the pilot, the audience will soon find that these small moments are sometimes expanded upon in future episodes. In the pilot it’s the fact that George Snr is actually enjoying prison and may have joined a gang. However some parts of the epilogue are there to put a cap on a story strand such as Gob applying for a job with a magic trick.
That kind of neatly takes me into the Unique Selling Point (USP) of AD. Arrested Development is famous for it’s non linear, self referential narrative. Often there are callbacks to past episodes that only observant viewers will catch. A good example here is the magic trick Gob pulls on George-Michael which results in George-Michael receiving a free Monopoly set. Later on in the pilot when George-Michael is packing up in the attic you can see three Monopoly sets piled up next to George-Michael’s knees implying the trick is VERY familiar to George-Michael. There will be plenty more of these as the show goes on, just google “Arrested Development hidden jokes” and you’ll be bombarded with lists of them.. The non linear narrative is showcased extensively in AD’s fourth season but just within the pilot we get to see an example of it as we’re told Tobias is not on the yacht for the party at the opening of the episode. In fact we find out halfway through the episode that he was on the party boat of gay activists that we got a glimpse of at the beginning of the episode. This is shown through the flashbacks and Ron Howard’s narration and will be a technique AD’s comes to use quite a lot.
So in conclusion I think that sitcom pilots can fulfil my five functions that a pilot must complete. However for a sitcom pilot there is just one more that needs to be added….
It needs to have jokes. Lots of them. Luckily AD’s pilot has plenty of them and plenty more to come as the show goes on…