Each and every television season, thousands of pilot scripts make their way to various networks, the big ones (NBC, CBS, FOX) and the smaller nets (FX, AMC, Showtime). Of those thousands, only hundreds get serious consideration. Of those hundreds, only dozens get a pilot commitment. And of those pilot commitments, only a handful of shows go to full series pickups, generally of 13 episodes. Before I Love Lucy, All in the Family, Seinfeld, The X-Files and The Simpsons became iconic television programs of their generations, they all began with a single pilot episode. As a general rule, I say "Never judge a series by its pilot episode", but it's difficult to ignore the first impression. 99% of shows evolve from that first airing, but it's the pilot that often hooks us, reeling us in with strong characters, clever dialogue and interesting plotlines.
This year is no different in a TV world where Playboy bunnies, first-time parents, 2 broke waitresses, stand-up ladies and well-meaning gentlemen all did their best to charm us with their pilot episodes. Here now is the first part of my take on the 2011 TV Pilots: The Comedies.
**2 Broke Girls: B+**
What you need to know: Kat Dennings was born to star in a sitcom.
What I Think: Of all the pilots this season, 2 Broke Girls surprised me the most. I was expecting cheap laughs, one-dimensional side characters and a typical Odd Couple pairing of rich girl Beth Behrs and poor girl Dennings. And that's what I got. But what surprised me is how much I enjoyed it. Sure, Han Lee is one big stereotype, and Oleg is tiresome in his sexual advances. But those characters take a backseat to the laughs. Dennings is a natural, but Behrs keeps up, displaying an early incarnation of Rachel Greene in her performance. Most surprising of all might be the raunchy dialogue. How far we've come since the days of I Love Lucy when a pregnant woman on television was taboo.
What the Future Holds: Three episodes in and this one's a keeper. Barring any unforeseen mistakes, this show should be around for a while.
**How to Be a Gentleman: D+**
What you need to know: To prepare for the daring role, Kevin Dillon spent countless hours studying Kevin Dillon's portrayal of Johnny Drama on Entourage. Some might say it's the greatest imitation of the season.
What I think: Not much. Series star and creator David Hornsby (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) plays the ultimate gentleman, a strange mash-up of Niles Crane by way of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, lacking the charming snob in Niles and the annoying geek in Sheldon. Hornsby also wrote for It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, though anyone expecting the sharp comedy of Sunny will be severely disappointed at best, and poised to slit their wrists at worst. Kevin Dillon works best in his Johnny Drama repeat performance, but it's a little been there, done that. Mary Lynn Rajskub is enjoyable in her minimal presence, however one can wish she could find a stronger project. All in all, a waste of time for all involved.
What the future holds: After two weeks of abysmal retention out of The Big Bang Theory, Gentleman is headed to Saturday nights, television's purgatory.
**New Girl: A-**
What you need to know: Zooey Deschanel is a love her or hate her actress, akin to Sarah Silverman. If you love her, read on.
What I think: New Girl is the pilot of the season. Zooey Deschanel is seriously the most charming, endearing person on television right now. Her character, Jess, resembles a kinder, smarter Michael Scott (The Office), someone well-meaning and naive yet totally oblivious of many real world scenarios. Deschanel is joined by three roommates in the pilot, all men, and they hold their own alongside Deschanel. Damon Wayans Jr. portrays Coach in the pilot, however he is written off the show in episode 2, as Wayans Jr. is currently attached to ABC sophomore series Happy Endings. The funny comes with a soft-hearted feel to it, neither offensive nor obnoxious. The potential down the road is endless. One can only wish to be a part of a sitcom like this.
What the future holds: 100% guaranteed Emmy nomination for star Zooey Deschanel. Oh, and a good run on FOX, provided they find some worthy companions in the comedy department.
What you need to know: Whitney Cummings has created this self-titled sitcom for NBC and co-created 2 Broke Girls for CBS, both of which are off to good starts for both networks.
What I think: Whitney Cummings isn't the next Jerry Seinfeld for the sitcom world. What most predicted to be the worst show of the fall season fails to live up to the awful expectations. It is by no means a series worthy of weekly viewing, yet the vitriol towards the pilot was entirely unfounded. It's not the most offensively bad sitcom to hit the airwaves (that title belongs to NBC's Free Agents). However, Whitney Cummings, the star, is the show's biggest problem. One magazine called her the anti-Zooey Deschanel, and it's true. In Deschanel, you feel a connection to her goofy appeal. In Cummings, it feels more like a cold shoulder than a warm embrace. The supporting cast are worthy sitcom fixtures, and with the perfect dialogue, they could pick up what Cummings fumbles.
What the future holds: Uncertain. Whitney recently received a full season pickup, but there are no compatible comedies on NBC. Outside of The Office's lead-in, Whitney could easily crash and burn.
What you need to know: Someone saw Emma Stone and demanded her for a television show. She's the fastest rising star in Hollywood, so they've settled for the next best thing: Jane Levy.
What I think: Suburgatory is too funny to be ignored, and too quirky to be funny, all at once. At times, I felt like I was witnessing the next great television comedy. In the very next scene, I felt as though they tried too hard to create something more offbeat than it needed to be. Jeremy Sisto, outside of his comfort zone as a fairly normal dad, is likable, and Jane Levy is doing her best Emma Stone, and it ain't such a bad job. The main problem is everyone else: they're all too weird. Cheryl Hines is the kingpin in suburbia: Sarah Palin meets the plastics in Mean Girls. In a movie, she's perfect. On a week-to-week basis, I'm finding it difficult picturing how I can possibly relate to her character in any way. Given time to develop, this could be a strong series. And I can't imagine it not getting the time to grow.
What the future holds: As the lead-out to The Middle and the lead-in to Modern Family, it has the best seat in the house. I'll be surprised if it doesn't get a full season renewal.
**Up All Night: C+**
What you need to know: Maya Rudolph has combined all of her most outlandish characters and impersonations from Saturday Night Live into one Oprah-esque character on the show. She even gets top-billing over Will Arnett, inarguably the star alongside, Christina Applegate. You may thank Bridesmaids for Rudolph's expanded participation on the show.
What I think: My most anticipated pilot of the season left me wanting so much more. Arnett and Applegate are first-time parents. It's hardly breaking any new ground here, but I wasn't looking for groundbreaking television either. Instead I got a handful of predictable laughs, an in-sahn-ly unnecessary main character in Rudolph's Ava and what I strongly feel is a case of miscasting in Will Arnett. I love Arnett's arrogant GOB on Arrested Development. Playing the cutesy dad on Up All Night doesn't suit him. If Chuck had ended one year sooner, I'd say Zach Levi would've been perfect in the role. But one can only hope the writing evolves and Arnett is given a superior role than that with which he is given in the pilot episode. On the plus side, Applegate is as plucky and likable as ever.
What the future holds: Most disappointing pilot with the strongest potential. One side note: NBC has an already-failing Thursday night lineup of comedies. Wednesday night was supposed to be their idea of expanding the comedy division, but with Free Agents already canned, Up All Night has an uphill battle waiting until midseason for a new companion. By then, damage could be irreversible.
**Free Agents: F**
What you need to know: It's canceled, it deserved it and it was seriously the most painful 21 minutes of the year in television. Hank Azaria, save your Simpsons money: your live action career is non-existent.
-You know that lie you tell someone and you don't think a lot about it? It's simple but it gets you through a tough situation. Eventually you think it'll dissolve and be forgotten, but then you have to expand on it rather than tell the truth, and the lie gets bigger and bigger until one day you realize you're telling one, big, walking, talking lie and there's no going back, only going forward, constantly re-telling this one little lie? That's how I feel about The Simpsons. 25 and counting.
-The CW canceled H8R after just four episodes. Where now will be get our fix of Kim Kardashian, Snooki and Joe Francis? Oh yeah: hell.
-3.2 million people watched The Dylan McDermott's Naked Ass Show on FX this week, more popularly known as American Horror Story.
-Tim Allen returns to television with the ABC sitcom Last Man Standing this Tuesday at 8 EST. In three weeks, Tim Allen returns to the unemployment line.
If you read any or all of this, I sincerely thank you. Later this week I take a look at the formula-driven dramas of the fall season.