Every story starts with the kernel of the idea. From the kernel comes the firm idea, then an outline then a rough draft and so on.
In the realm of television, the rough draft is often manifest in the form of the Pilot episode. Sometimes the story materializes fully in its final form. Other times, it has elements that are later smoothed out–a different actor or a concept missing (or conversely, a concept or extraneous character removed).
Pilots are designed to show television executives at the various networks what the show will be. Psychic detective solves crimes? Check. Space western? Check. Promiscuous bachelor gets into wacky hijinks with his inept brother? Check. But often times what the executives see in the beginning is not what we end up with. Sometimes this is a good thing. Other times, not so much.
When I think back on the nineties, two shows spring to mind immediately:
Sliders, a show about a guy who develops a device that can travel between alternate universes. Together with his Professor, a girl he likes and a washed up lounge singer, he travels from world to world, each one variations on the world he knows. The show went several seasons, each worse then the last before finally being canceled.
The pilot is noticeably better then the rest of the series. The concept is intriguing; the budget seems slightly higher then the rest of the show (it was always somewhat-low budget but the pilot was better looking. Let us not mention the Sci-Fi Channel episodes later on, which seemed awful looking even up against the earlier FOX episodes).
Sadly the show never quite lived up to the potential of the pilot. The show had some good episodes, granted, but the budget hampered a lot of what could’ve been accomplished (or at least that’s what I view as the problem. Too many episodes happen in the exact same locale, involving many of the same background characters).
Another story with an excellent pilot was Roswell. The pilot was about a teenaged girl finding the boy of her dreams. The only problem? He was a super powered alien.
In the case of Roswell, I think the producers didn’t really know where to go with it. The first season was about the three alien characters (Max, Isabelle, Michael) finding their way in human society and evading secret government forces out to capture them. Season two was more contrived–an alien princess (Tess) came to retrieve the main alien character, Max; used her mind-manipulating powers to kill their friend Alex off and tricked Max into loving her. Season three went off in yet another direction so stupid I had trouble remembering it (I looked it up on Wikipedia finally). If the show had stayed a bit more grounded, focused on Max and Liz’s relationship more and gone less dumb-soap-opera it might’ve remained around longer then it did.
Another, more recent example is the Knight Rider reboot. The pilot was decent (not fantastic but certainly serviceable) and a good set-up but the series producers (who were different then the movie pilot’s ones) apparently didn’t know how to take the idea seriously and made it goofy, focusing on girls in bikinis, bad storytelling and absurdity such as a car that can transform into a truck–while somebody is driving it no less. By the time they tried to fix what was wrong it was far too later. Viewers had long since tuned out. The original show had been cheesy too–but it was sincere 80s cheese, not intentionally stupid but more a product of its time.
Even more recently, Almost Human and Intelligence had excellent pilots. Almost Human was starting to really bore me for a while there but later in the first season got more interesting again by picking up on lingering story threads (it’s still a bit too early to tell but it might have avoided the trap).
Intelligence set up a great idea for a running storyline in the first episode–only to resolve in the second one! Despite this, it’s had some interesting stories come along so it too might have avoided the trap. Or it might devolve eventually into monotony. Time will tell.
It’s hard to say why one show debuts and survives while another goes off the rails. Generally, a lack of direction can take it off course. The producers of the show having no idea where they really want to go with it after birthing it–or just plain having nothing to say after bothering to grab our attention in the first place. Sometimes production issues can affect it too–I am certain Sliders low budget caused it to fail to live up to its true potential.
It’s great when a story debuts strong and only gets better from there. But oft times, a concept starts strong, giving it a hundred and ten percent right out of the gate only to sputter out not long thereafter. But I guess they can’t all be successful all the time, right?
Such is life...