Working Out The Kinks: Perceived Pilot Quality in Contemporary Network Comedy

Curator's Note

The reviews for NBC's new sitcom Go On have ranged from mixed-to-positive. The average review score for the Matthew Perry vehicle on review aggregate site Metacritic is 67/100. Ken Tucker noted that the show is worth watching "for a few more episodes at least," while Alan Sepinwall wrote that "there is enough to bring me back." 

Go On is solid, but has lots of room to improve. Based on modern sitcom history, that might be the best assessment we can give to a new comedy. 

In recent years, a large number of now-presumed-to-be-great comedies struggled (to varying degrees) out of the gate. Parks and Recreation, Community, Happy Endings, How I Met Your Mother and even The Office and The Big Bang Theory all faced challenges in their respective first seasons, only to grow in to critical and fan favorites by the end of season one or into season two. 

The perception--and reality--of television comedy is that it takes time for actors to blend with their characters, with other actors and with the writing staff. The beginning of season one builds from writers' original ideas, while later on, comedies go with what works. And once a comedy finds itself (and an audience), we can point back to how it worked out the kinks to get there (think Parks' recalibrating of Leslie, HIMYM's humanizing of Barney). 

Critics and keyed-in viewers almost expect a comedy to stumble in the beginning. Issues are part of the growing pains it takes to get to greatness.

Does that mean that a comedy is somehow at a disadvantage for being fully-formed from the pilot? If we look at Modern Family, we can say maybe. 

Three seasons in, Modern Family's pilot remains one of its best episodes. The ABC sitcom hit airwaves amid critical raves and it rode the wave of buzz to the top of the Nielsen ratings and Emmy world. However, the perception of Family among critics and TV fans online is that it is totally stagnant. Next to nothing has changed since the pilot. Characters are the same, the plot rarely surprises. The comedy is punished for being so good at the beginning and ultimately progressing very little from that initial apex. Of course, the show's ratings have only gone up.

So, how important are comedy pilots? Or, perhaps most importantly, if most viewers don't recognize this phenomenon in new comedies, does it matter?


Great post, Cory.  Thanks for kicking off this week!  

I wonder if the economics of genre production play a role in the ability of sitcoms to have the time to gain legs.  They're often cheaper to make than dramas and don't require as long a lead time before air.  Thus, they can adjust to criticism (in contrast to, say, Smash, that shot it's full first season before the pilot aired) without costing the network quite as much money as a show finds its rhythm. Would this thinking still hold with shows like Modern Family that now boast a greater sticker price due to star contracts?

First: The HIMYM pilot is pretty good. And I say this as a lapsed, broken viewer. Its final stinger more or less sets up the show's (increasingly sadistic) delight in needling its viewers. No, I'm not bitter at all, why do you ask?

On to the bigger question as to whether or not less "keyed in" audieces acknowledge that comedies need time to grow, I think it all just depends. My mother, for instance, loves Matthew Perry, but she did not like the Go On pilot because she didn't find it very funny (another aspect of sitcom pilots that we should probably think about in gauging their recalibrations/successes). I explained that sitcoms often need time to grow and to figure out rhythms, and she then told me to let her know when Go On achieved that so she could start watching.

Perhaps, and I say this only half-jokingly, the solution is to air episodes of out of order after the pilot, highlighting funnier/stronger episodes immediately instead of dragging out that search for chemistry. (Of course, this pushes against even the minor serialization that sitcoms often engage in, but that's a whole other issue.)

I agree with your and Cory's premises regarding the difficulties of successfully launching a comedy series. I don't think it's crazy to consider the repercussions of Noel's proposed solution. For one, how many sitcoms really engage in meaningful serialism in their first season? The priorities of a comedy writing staff is to make laughs, and in turn, ratings. Only until they start feeling stale, repetitive, or sensing an opportunity for depth do they shake up the premise - and to the chagrin of many a critic, that doesn't happen until season 2 at the earliest. At the very best, first seasons of comedies often include 'Serialism Lite', where flexible development occurs (e.g. 'sexual tension develops', or 'character feels the strain of their situation'). With careful writing and maybe some magic in the editing bay, most of this material is flexible enough to endure a season of strategizing. So if a) comedy writing gets stronger as they go, and b) significant serialism does not often occur in the first season, what's to stop the Season One Shuffle?

The main trouble I see is that the decision to start with the strongest foot forward is acknowledging a significant quality decline later in the season. If the 'comedy mesh' happens quick enough, you could conceivably scatter subpar episodes, or bury them when the show is programmed against extenuating circumstances (recent example being the Presidential Debates that scatter this Fall's schedule like landmines). But if we're talking about slow-out-of-the-gate shows like Community or Parks & Rec, this solution probably doesn't help. But the case of slow-to-improve shows might not be a caveat to the strategy as much as a proof that on non-NBC channels, these shows wouldn't hold water.

Thanks for the comments guy and gal. 

Charlotte, your comment about comedies and drama is spot-on. Rarely do good dramas take as long to "find themselves." Dramas often feel more put together from the beginning, so it's more of a consistent path. And if it's terrible, then it seems to not really improve THAT much. Odd.

Noel: You might be right, though I'd guess THE INTERNET wouldn't like that. Definitely one of the things we harp on, even if a showrunner comes out and says "No, I did this, not the network." I never blame a show for putting its best episodes first unless it completey derails continuity. But for most comedies, that's not much of an issue. 

Having stumbled upon this episode, I have to say I did find it funny, but the thing that probably got me interested was the sob story Perry's character makes up to get out of therapy. It was so sad. Other moments made me laugh, and others were clunkier.

Might be useful to keep in mind that in the sense that this particular series is about getting to know the character through his revealing therapy sessions, organizing the episodes based on which comic moments are hits would fall flat for viewers following character development. The show's flexing genre conventions to deal with loss, so maybe it isn't exemplary of the idea that a comedy pilot could be any episode. Still, I agree that it doesn't seem necessary to see the pilot to understand/engage with future episodes.

I also got a little misty as Perry's character had his cathartic break (I also enjoyed his "I Kasier Soyze'd you."), and I'm oddly eager for a comedy to deal with grief through laughter. I had hopes for Free Agents last season (another comedy about grief and moving on), but it never got very far (I liked it more than Up All Night).

Having seen the second episode, I still think the you could see this without having seen the pilot (second episodes are often just pilot rehashes anyway), but I found the group to be really suffocating and the interactions between Perry's character and his assistant to be the moments when the show worked. It's almost as if the group is there to supply the laughs (all those cats!) while the non-group stuff is where they can better blend both laughter and pathos together.

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