The Expository Party

One thing about the pilot of Accidentally On Purpose, which has been mentioned by others including Myles McNutt, is that this pilot tries to do the equivalent of a movie’s worth of storytelling in one episode. It’s a “premise pilot,” where you have to show the characters before the premise is set in motion, and then get them to what will become the status quo of the series. But since this show is a Knocked Up knockoff, that means giving us most of the story of a 140 minute movie in 20 minutes. No wonder none of the relationships in the episode seem remotely plausible: the writer is completely focused on the mechanics of setting up every single plot point that will be used in the series. There’s no time for it to make sense.

When doing a very high-concept show, particularly a half-hour show, it’s often a good idea to leave some breathing room in the pilot and let at least some of the exposition spill over into subsequent episodes (if any). And it used to happen fairly often; strangely enough, that method of setting up a show was more common in the days before serialization. Shows ranging from The Beverly Hillbillies to Frank’s Place to My Two Dads (yes, really, My Two Dads) while telling complete stories in the pilots, would end the pilot without the status quo being fully formed, so to speak. Once the show was picked up, the first episode proper would be used as sort of a second pilot, to fill in the elements of the show that the pilot didn’t get around to. In Frank’s Place, for example, the pilot ends with title character being warned that a voodoo curse will compel him to move to New Orleans and run the restaurant his father left him. In the second episode, he actually moves back to Boston, only to return to New Orleans when a run of bad luck convinces him that the curse is working; the episode then shows him getting used to the city and the life of a small-time restauranteur.

But a lot of high-concept shows today seem to want to set up absolutely everything in episode one, leaving nothing for episode 2. Part of this may be that there’s so much riding on pilots these days: they’re the episodes that get reviewed, the episodes that get the hype, the episodes that decide whether or not the show will be a hit. It used to be common for shows to make changes after the pilot, based on what didn’t work in what was, after all, only a test episode; new characters, new sets, new plot points would emerge in the second episode as the show built a following and decided what it was going to be. But now the changes are made to the pilot, with new characters and scenes quasi-routinely added, and the show usually needs to be, in the pilot, what it’s going to be from that point on: if the pilot isn’t perfect, nobody’s going to stick around for episode # 2.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.