Sometimes a pilot is enough. That’s the message CBS sent earlier this week when the network ordered a full season of its Big Bang Theory prequel, Young Sheldon, two days after its primetime debut. The announcement followed strong ratings for just that one episode, but the confidence of the CBS brass is probably based on more than that: Scripts for future episodes, if not completed installments of the further adventures of young Sheldon Cooper in late-’80s East Texas. The people at the network have seen more of the show than its audience will until November 2; and they’ve seen more than the critics who had to shape their opinions of Young Sheldon around the premiere episode, which is sort of like deciding on whether or not to grow a beard based on the emergence of a single whisker.
It’s the nature of the game, but it’s one that also unfairly stacks the odds against a TV show—and for no genre is that more true than the sitcom. Your average sitcom pilot can give off vague notions of tone and comedic style, but it’s the rare show that looks wholly bad, wholly good, or even wholly like itself in its initial outing. On the occasion of Young Sheldon’s review, Matt Zoller Seitz described this conundrum as “the Wait and See problem”; on the other side of the equation, here’s Tina Fey writing about the 30 Rock pilot in Bossypants.
Pilot scripts are particularly difficult to write because you have to introduce all the characters without it feeling like a series of introductions. You have to tell a story that’s not only funny and compelling but also dramatizes your main characters’ points of view and what the series would be about thematically (love, work, investigating sexy child murders in Miami, etc.).
If you want to see a great pilot, watch the first episode of Cheers. It’s charming, funny, and well constructed. If you want to see an awkward, sweaty pilot episode, watch 30 Rock. I will not be joining you, because I never want to watch that mess again.
Keeping in mind that one of the best sitcoms of the past decade emerged into the world awkward, sweaty, and messy, here are some first impressions of upcoming comedy premieres based entirely on their pilot episodes.
Ghosted was better the first time around
That only sounds like a snarky setup for a punchline about the superficial similarities between Fox’s new paranormal comedy and Ghostbusters, Men In Black, or The X-Files. The premiere episode of the Adam Scott-Craig Robinson sitcom lost some of its weirdo energy in its translation from not-for-review rough cut to the final version that’s airing after The Simpsons on Sunday. Without it, it’s even harder to know what to make of Ghosted based on its first outing, a sweaty Frankenstein’s monster in which exposition and special effects are hogging all the blood and oxygen, starving the reluctant-partners dynamic at the heart of the thing.
At the risk of repeating some of what’s stated in the pilot, nearly verbatim: Max Jennifer (Adam Scott) is a former Stanford professor and leading researcher on multiverse theory whose reputation imploded after he claimed that his wife was abducted by aliens. Leroy Wright was the LAPD’s top missing-persons detective, until he got his partner killed. The two men are brought together by The Bureau Underground, a shadowy extrajudicial organization investigating supernatural activity from a bunker that’s as crowded as the Ghosted pilot. One of those crowding elements is a feint toward dramatic tension wrapped up in Max and Leroy’s “one job, then we’re out” arrangement with the bureau. Of course they’re not going to quit after the completion of their first mission: One, they’ve got nothing left to go back to, and two, Ghosted wouldn’t be much of a TV series if they did, would it?
The starting point’s all wrong. Think back to the first episodes of the similarly themed Rick And Morty and Archer, both of which drop viewers right into the thick of things and trust that they’ll have the patience and intellect to catch up with, say, Rick and Morty’s relationship or the day-to-day operations at the spy organization formerly known as ISIS. The first episode of Ghosted wastes so much time filling in Max and Leroy’s backstories and starting their buddy-comedy rhythms from square one—those initial sparks of no-nonsense Leroy colliding with all-nonsense Max—that there’s barely any space for Scott and Robinson to show us who their characters are, let alone for the show to give us anything more than a teasing glance at The Bureau Underground.
Once upon a time, there was a good sense of how strange a place the bureau was, because the kookiness of its employees seeped into the veins of Ghosted itself. But that’s been toned down in reshoots, to the point where the show is much more Scully than Mulder—or more Leroy than Max. Adeel Akhtar represents the last vestige of that Ghosted as the bureau’s “unidentifiable evidence” expert Dr. Barry Shaw. The rest of the team, Captain Ava Lafrey (Ally Walker) and tech whiz Annie Carver (Amber Stevens West), is just too “been there, done that” nonchalant about their outlandish line of work; any eccentricities on top of those personalities will have to wait for later installments. Unfortunately, much of this rests on the recasting of the Annie character, whose dialogue in the pilot remains that of a less down-to-earth incarnation. Changing the actor but not the character casts Stevens West, the reliably funny voice of reason on The Carmichael Show, into a personality-free Phantom Zone.
It occurs to me that Ghosted hasn’t had a successful test of its equipment. Blame retooling and a packed-to-bursting script for a pilot that’s startlingly low on laughs, but the moments of zippy comic friction between Scott and Robinson are indications that there’s no sense in worrying about it now. Why worry? There’s a stable core to the unlicensed nuclear accelerator on Ghosted’s back. Now it just has to get more confident about crossing the streams of high-concept and witty banter—like the Ghostbusters exchange liberally quoted above, which was definitely better the first time around.
9JKL is smothering
If you tally up the number of plotlines in the 9JKL pilot that could’ve been perfectly serviceable A-stories in future installments, this premiere is four episodes for the price of one. It’s a bargain that would drive the series’ Costco-loving parents—played by Elliott Gould and Linda Lavin—wild, one that mirrors their smothering treatment of adult son Josh (Mark Feuerstein) to an off-putting degree. It’s as exhausting as 22 minutes gets. Also, who are they kidding with that title?
“My living situation isn’t exactly a turn-on,” Josh says to a date midway through one of those tangled story threads, but he’s not 100 percent correct. A guy living rent-free in the New York apartment between his parents and his physician brother (David Walton) and pediatrician sister-in-law (Liza Lapira) won’t send a romantic interest’s pulse racing, but it’s just the sort of thing that’ll win the heart of a network executive. Especially if that executive works at the network that had a nine-season hit with the same premise, just set on a street on Long Island: 9JKL is Everybody Loves Raymond in closer quarters, right down to the “mom likes you best” schtick between Feuerstein and Walton. The setup is also semi-autobiographical, with married creators Feuerstein and Dana Klein pulling from a period when, due to the production of Royal Pains, the erstwhile Dr. Hank Lawson moved back into his childhood apartment building, right next to mom and dad. Tweaks for fictionalization have been made—Josh is divorced, and his crummy series about a blind cop was just canceled—but the greatest creative exertion here goes into cramming all that story-starting material into the pilot.
Once a season, CBS strands an overqualified cast in an undercooked multi-cam series that has no hope of pulling Big Bang Theory-sized (or even Kevin Can Wait-sized) ratings. 9JKL has all the makings of this fall’s live-in-front-of-a-studio-audience sacrifice. This despite the sincere desire to please that Feuerstein radiates in every scene, the charisma of an old pro who’s missing the fact that 9JKL is a funny anecdote to tell over drinks, not the basis for 24 episodes a year. If the star and the show don’t slow their roll in the weeks to come, 9JKL will last about as long as an anecdote, too.
The Mayor is ABC’s next great hope
Turns out a proudly know-nothing political novice can do some good in the world. He just has to be confined to his own fictional world, run for low-level local office, and actually have a heart.
When ABC announced it was picking up The Mayor last spring, the show looked like the loudest scripted-TV echo of Donald Trump’s political ascent beyond the militaristic jingo bombast of The Brave, SEAL Team, and Valor. It’s sometimes wrong to judge a sitcom by its pilot, but it’s always wrong to judge one by its trailer: In its first episode, The Mayor doesn’t valorize rapper Courtney Rose (Brandon Micheal Hall) for kickstarting a political career as a publicity stunt. It takes the true weight of his decision into account—particularly after he winds up winning.
But that’s making something grave of a pilot whose platform has substance, style, energy, and, in Courtney’s own words, “zaz.” Unlike Ghosted and 9JKL, The Mayor’s first outing doesn’t just throw a worthy ensemble together—it assembles them around the makings of something that could be worth their time and talent. Hall pops as Courtney, a guy who’s clearly more thoughtful than people give him credit for—probably because he’s gotten so good on getting by on charm alone. The people most capable of cutting through that bluster are Courtney’s political adversary-turned-ally Valentina Barella (Lea Michele) and his mother, Dina (Yvette Nicole Brown); their characters are tasked with keeping the mayor-elect on track, but Michele and Brown give Valentina and Dina more life beyond “female buzzkill.” As Courtney’s goofball friends/closest advisors, Marcel Spears and Bernard David Jones are pure non sequitur in the pilot, but they’re too damn funny not to start picking up their own facets for too long. (If it can happen for Grizz and Dot Com, it can happen for these two.)
The Mayor suffers a minor case of the pilotitis affecting Ghosted, with its first episode sometimes coming less like its own story and more like the first 10 minutes of a movie. But it’s better paced, with a handheld cinematography that gives the proceedings a boost of documentary-like urgency. The whole thing hums with the verve of Courtney’s music; it’s uncommonly clever with its words, appropriate for a show about an MC. (Hamilton alum Daveed Diggs is an EP, and he makes a cameo in the pilot in addition to shaping the show’s sonic template with his group Clipping.) Courtney shows a knack for connecting with a crowd, whether they’re concertgoers, the audience at a debate, volunteers for a park clean-up, or the viewers at home. It’ll be interesting to see how that feel-good vibe fares as The Mayor starts to integrate the challenges and conflicts of running a small town in Northern California—but even “it’ll be interesting” is more than can be said for most of the new shows debuting on the networks this fall.