In a few weeks we will be saying farewell to shows like Will and Grace and The West Wing. New shows will have to take their place this fall. A television pilot is a prototype of a TV series used to get the network, and then later the viewers, interested and may be the aired as the first episode of the series. Due to the popularity of single camera sitcoms like My Name is Earl and The Office we can expect to see more single camera sitcoms. The good news is that the sitcom is not dead. The bad news is that we may see a lot of carbon copies of My Name is Earl and The Office.
Whenever I talk to friends about the new fall season and we place our bets as to what shows will last and what shows will die and how soon those shows will die, I always ask, "What was the best sitcom pilot ever made?" When I ask that I mean, "What pilot presents you with the best example of what you are going to see on the show week after week?" I have to ask the second part of the question because there are many pilots that are not good examples of what a regular episode will be like. These premise pilots set in motion a chain of events that the rest of the episodes will follow. The Cheers pilot titled: Give Me a Ring Sometime is an example of a premise pilot where we see how Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) gets stood up by her fiancée and then winds up working at the bar. Understandably there are shows whose episodes may differ from the pilot in regards to changes in cast, characters, set or style but these business decisions are intended to be improvements.
I have three examples of what I think were the best sitcom pilots ever made.
The Andy Griffith Show
This is an example of a backdoor pilot where characters and their story lines are introduced in an episode of another TV show with intentions to judge the audience’s reaction. This is also a cheap and easy way of getting a pilot produced and seen. The Andy Griffith Show originated from an episode of The Danny Thomas Show. Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) arrests Danny Williams (Danny Thomas) for running a stop sign while driving through Mayberry, North Carolina. While Danny is waiting for a resolution to the problem, various town folk enter the courthouse and Andy resolves their problems with his own brand of homespun common sense. Even though The Andy Griffith Show’s look and cast were retooled, we saw a slice of Sheriff Andy Taylor’s life.
First we must put aside any criticism of the show in regards to historical inaccuracy, German characters in the show speaking English to each other or the depiction of the Germans as funny and incompetent. The pilot of Hogan's Heroes Titled: The Informer was shot in black & white and aired as the first episode of the series. The pilot was not shown in syndication because it was in black & white and lacked continuity with the rest of the series until TV Land started airing the show. In the pilot Lieutenant (not Sergeant) Carter, played by guest star Larry Hovis, has just escaped from another POW camp and is brought to Camp (not Stalag) 13. Colonel Hogan (Bob Crane) and his men help Carter escape to England by passing him off as a German civilian. Hogan’s operation is threatened when the Germans plant a spy in the camp.
Note: Colonel Klink (Werner Klemperer) attempts to speak to the spy in German and the spy informs Klink they will speak in English. In his line of work it is dangerous to even think in German. The Pilot bears a striking resemblance to the movie Stalag 17.
Even with the differences between the pilot and the rest of the series, the pilot presents you with the best example of what you are going to see on the show week after week, although I wish the show kept some of the elements of the pilot.
The Pilot of TAXI, Titled: Like Father, Like Daughter opens in the Sunshine Cab Company’s garage. Enter Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner), a part time receptionist at an art gallery. She first has an unpleasant encounter with the dispatcher Louie DePalma (Danny DeVito) when he finds out the she is just a driver. She then meets Alex Rieger (Judd Hirsch) who she informs that this is just a part time job. Alex responds with, "We're all part-time here. I'm part-time. I only work 60 hours a week. You see that guy over there? Now, he's an actor. The guy on the phone, he's a prizefighter. This lady over here, she's a beautician. The man behind her, he's a writer. Me, I'm a cab driver. I'm the only cab driver in this place." That quote alone tells the viewer everything that they need to know about the show and it did so within the first five minutes.
Now I ask my readers, "What pilot presents you with the best example of what you are going to see on the show week after week?" Please let me know what you think.