Critic's Notebook: 'Pitch,' 'This Is Us' and the Perils of TV Pilot Twist Endings

TV pilots are rarely helped by twist endings, but were two of this fall's best pilots hurt?
Paul Drinkwater/NBC
'This Is Us'

[The article contains spoilers for the pilots of This Is Us and Pitch, as well as the pilots for Mad Men, How I Met Your Mother and The Shield, though why you'd freak out about that is beyond me. It also contains a spoiler for the end of Bull, which probably isn't actually a spoiler, but I want to apologize in advance, just in case.]

In movies, twist endings work or don't work because they're endings. They can be meaningful or validating or perception-shifting. They can also undermine and invalidate. But they're the punctuation at the end of the story.

Twist endings to TV pilots are confusing punctuation in the middle of a sentence, intended much more to entice bored development executives than to improve or enhance the television storytelling process. This isn't to say television twists can't work, because obviously they can and nobody would say otherwise. But pilots are meant to establish the rules of the game, and twists are meant to be game-changers — and it's hard to feel the full effect of a game-changer if you aren't even sure what the game is.

A pilot is supposed to tell viewers, "Yo, this is the proof of concept for the series you're about to watch." A pilot twist runs the serious risk of saying, "That thing you thought you were looking forward to watching? That's not what you're going to be watching!"

When musing out loud on my general — not complete, not total, not exclusive — antipathy for TV pilot twists on Twitter, I inevitably received proposals on exceptions. And, like I said, I'm not saying that there aren't and haven't been pilots that have good twists. But here is my response to three of the most frequently cited "good" twists.

The Shield: Great pilot. Great ending. Not a twist. And yes, I'm defining twist in a particular literal way as a plot development that says, "What you thought was happening, was not what was happening." A twist is a misdirection. It's not a surprise. What happens at the end of the pilot for The Shield is totally a shocker. A character who you've been led to think will be a main character is killed. But it's the exact opposite of something that reverses what you thought was happening. It underlines. It affirms. It intensifies what you thought was happening. The first 95 percent of the pilot is telling you, "Vic Mackey may get results, but he's a bad guy" and you may have doubts about how bad he is, but the end of the pilot says, "He's THIS bad." It's the very opposite of a twist because the ending of The Shield confirms a template that the pilot had already established and that everything that followed established. For the rest of the series, you're supposed to go back and forth on the "Are the results Vic Mackey gets worth the things he does?" question. Great shocker. Not a twist.

Mad Men: Absolutely a twist, and many people who loved Mad Men don't even remember it as being a twist, but you're supposed to go through that pilot thinking that Don Draper is this smooth, free-living Manhattan guy with a bohemian girlfriend and an untethered life. Then he arrives home in the suburbs and you learn that he has a wife and kids. As Don Draper's double life is one of the throughlines for the entire series, it makes sense for the pilot to end with a "What you thought you knew about this man isn't true" twist. It just happens that, like a lot of the rest of the Mad Men pilot, the twist has always felt a bit on-the-nose to me, and that's even by the standards of the rest of the series which, as I've always admitted, was capable of being both very subtle and also thunderously obvious. The pilot tends toward the latter, and out of the 92 episodes of Mad Men, I've always ranked the pilot as one of the four or five worst. Yes it's a twist, but I love the rest of the series despite that, not because of it.

How I Met Your Mother: A clear example of the, "Wait, if the show isn't what I thought it was for the first 21 minutes, what the heck is it?" brand of twist. If you like the twist, that's because it established the trickery and unreliability of Ted's narration and opened the door to an ongoing romantic mystery. If you don't like the twist, it foreshadows a mystery the creators took more seriously than the success of the show they were making. It foreshadows a commitment to the Mother Mystery so complete that the producers refused to relent on it and drained much of the joy from the series after a handful of really good years. It's a provocative and daring twist, but since the creators did the exact opposite of sticking the landing, I don't look back at it with much fondness.

That brings me, then, to the twisty pilots of this fall, particularly two pilots created by Dan Fogelman that have clear episodic elements that critics were urged to keep secret, even though those elements are integral to understanding and explaining what the shows actually are. They're two of my favorite pilots of the fall, but I don't love either twist, in one case because of how it's handled and in the other case both because of how it's handled and how it muddles the potential series to come. And then there's the twist at the end of the Bull pilot, which probably isn't really a twist.

Let's start with …

This Is Us

Fogelman's NBC pilot has a double twist!

The superficial twist is pretty simple and pretty pointless, that being the reveal at the end that the characters played by Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz and Justin Hartley are siblings. The pilot reveals early on that Metz and Hartley's characters are twins, but holds that Brown's character was adopted at birth until the very end just because if we knew that three of the four main characters were siblings, we'd probably be able to figure out how Milo Ventimiglia's character plays into things, or at least we'd be looking for answers. And the only reason why we're surprised by this twist, if we're surprised by this twist, is based on race. We don't assume an African-American guy will have two white siblings, or at least we don't assume it when the characters are being purposely kept separate for the sake of confusing us. If you open with the three characters together, our brains might take a couple seconds for processing, but then we'd draw probably the correct conclusions. Having Metz's Kate and Hartley's Kevin celebrating their birthdays by speaking and later seeing each other, but having Brown's Randall spending his birthday with his family causes us not to connect the characters. Then we see the picture of them all together, looking both happy and recent, and we're like, "Oh." 

But that's narrative sleight of hand. It's a trick. Maybe. Is Randall estranged from his siblings and that's why two of them speak to each other, but neither of them speaks to him? Randall does have an email from Kevin with the unenthusiastic subject "It's Our Birthday Bro," but no email from Kate. If there are more pleasantries and wishes exchanged, they're kept out of our sight for purposes of the twist.

Kate and Kevin obviously lean heavily on each other, while Randall has his own family. If subsequent episodes explain in depth why Kevin and Kate are close and Randall only gets an email from one of them, I'm completely OK with how this was handled. If subsequent episodes find Kevin and Kate joining Randall on the sideline at their nieces' soccer games and having regular family dinners, I'll feel like the pilot was a cheat.

On that point: Withholding parts of a narrative is what storytellers do. Was it necessary here? I don't know. It kept reviewers from being able to describe the show as being "The story of siblings Kate, Kevin and Randall, all celebrating their shared birthday."

In my review, I said it wasn't a family show so much as a show about people with a shared commonality, specifically their birthday. That was me keeping Fogelman's secret. Of course it's a family show, with the twist that the events of the current generation are set against their parents' experiences 30+ years earlier. But that definitely would have been spoiling that the narrative with Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore was in the past, which is the pilot's biggest twist.

Here, the twist does tell you, at least in some way, what the show is going to be going forward and how it will be different. It's actually a great conceit, that we see how the wisdom learned and passed down from the parents to the three siblings impacts their lives decades later. The story/parable/advice that Gerald McRaney's doctor passes along to Ventimiglia's Jack remains foundational for at least two of the siblings 36 years later. Did it need to be treated as a twist? It's a hook. It doesn't bother me. And placing the reveal at the end doesn't invalidate anything that came before, which always upsets me with bad twists, even if it does say, "What you thought you were watching isn't what you were watching."

Actually, once you know the twist, everything's pretty much out there. On my second viewing, it was the most obvious darned thing in the world. The pilot's third shot is of a box marked "family photos '75 - '79." It's the kind of thing your eyes just glaze over if you aren't trying to process it. And from there, you're constantly looking for technology or fashion and it's there to be noticed or not noticed. The pilot doesn't lie. It just distracts.

Also contributing to the distraction? The opening text scroll, which contains the notation: "There is no evidence that sharing the same birthday creates any type of behavioral link between those people." That plants in the viewer's head that these people are otherwise disconnected. It doesn't say they're not connected otherwise, but it throws you off the scent, because while there's no evidence that sharing the same birthday creates any type of behavior link, there's endless evidence that being part of the same family creates a behavioral link. We're supposed to think that any shared behavior or insecurity or worldview Randall, Kate, Kevin and Jack have is random/coincidental, when it's biological/upbringing. The opening crawl knows this, but it's being disingenuous to fool us. It also doesn't specify "the exact same birthday," but we probably assume that the four leading actors with the seemingly shared birthday are contemporaries. They may all be the same age, but it's 36 years earlier for one of them. That tricky, tricky title card!

What I can't say is whether or not This Is Us wants to be a "twist" show. Will future episodes be more straightforward and less withholding or will there be a twist lesson to every episode? I don't love the idea of a show that won't be twisty in the long term resorting to twists in the short term, but a lot of the emotional heft of the last five minutes of This Is Us comes from keeping us in the dark on how the pieces fit together. It's manipulative, but I suspect the show intends to continue to be manipulative, and that's what I'll be watching it for. So the twist doesn't change the fundamental nature of the show.

I'm not sure if the same can be said of …

Pitch

Ghost Dad!

All through the pilot, we watch Michael Beach's Bill goading his daughter Ginny toward greatness, teaching her a screwball, never letting her become complacent until she makes it to the major leagues. It's only at the end that we're told that Bill died in a horrible car accident shortly after Ginny was signed to a pro contract and Ginny has been practicing and conversing with a ghost. That's how things ends in a pilot that previously hadn't been about that at all. It's jarring. It's not ideal.

Why Dan Fogelman would surely say he put the Ghost Dad twist at the end: Ginny achieves her goal not just of playing major league baseball, but of winning at the major league level. It's been her dream for years, but at that pinnacle, she's alone and without the man whose dream it truly was. It's the sadness at the core of her moment of greatest happiness.

I'd respond: By punctuating the story of the first woman to play in the majors with the twist reveal at the very end, you somehow make this actually into the story of a woman who talks to her Ghost Dad. You almost pathologize her success, depending on how literally you think Ginny and Ghost Dad are interacting. Does Ginny know that her father is dead and that he isn't actually knocking on her door to give her tough love? Does she know that she's throwing practice pitches into a backstop rather than to her father? Is this a circumstance where she's almost like Elliott in Mr. RobotMs Pitching Machine? — and if we looked at her from an omniscient point of view, we'd see her having conversations with herself? Should we be expecting Ghost Dad to be there every week? Should we expect that other people will learn about Ginny's relationship with Ghost Dad? Is this a secret that will make it into the media? ("Pitching Phenom Hallucinates Dead Father!") Will that be a bad thing? I seriously don't think I should be asking any of these questions, but if you close the pilot with Ghost Dad as the twist, it goes from "Young woman, inspired by her late father, makes it to the majors" to "Young woman makes it to the majors, talks to her Ghost Dad."

What I'd have proposed as an alternative: Ginny fails in her first big league experience. We'd seen her dad before. He comes to give her a pep talk and we see and she sees that she's talking to a man who died. She realizes that she got this far on his dream, but now she has to stand on her own. Clear-eyed, she goes out and guts her way through a win. In her celebratory moment, she looks into the stadium, thinks she sees him, looks back and he's not there. He can still appear in flashbacks or even as Ghost Dad in the episodes to come, but Ginny does what she did in the end inspired by herself, but she's also haunted by wanting him to be in the stands in that moment.

It should be a show about a female major leaguer. It ends up as a show with a twist ending that isn't about what the rest of the show was about. For me.

I'm not saying my version is better or that I know better than Dan Fogelman, who wrote two of my favorite new shows this fall, a real achievement. I don't. This is his story. I'm just saying what bothered me about the Pitch twist as presented and an alternative. But maybe my alternative feels comfortable to me because it's the predictable, conventional version and Fogelman's version is the one meant to challenge your perceptions and whatnot. And maybe Ginny's instability is, indeed, a key plot point that will lead to her seeking psychiatric help and we'll find out about histories of mental illness in her family and Pitch will become a show as much about that as about baseball. I just don't think that's what it is. But I can't say for sure.

I'm even less sure what to say about the last of the three pilot twist endings from this fall, the one that probably isn't a twist ending. That would be …

Bull

I didn't like the Bull pilot very much at all. It felt like ersatz House, with no developed supporting characters, an underdeveloped lead smirker and a solid procedural engine, but a weakly conceived initial case. Part of that engine involves Dr. Bull's (Michael Weatherly) ability to sense what jurors are thinking by having them speak to/through him. It's mostly professional intuition, right up until the key post-verdict scene in which Bull chases a key juror down in the street and she proceeds to psychoanalyze him.

"You grew up with a lot of pain, didn't you? That's how you learned how to watch people like that?" she asks. She continues by telling him, "Stop! Stop trying to figure people out just to get them to do what you want!"

"I wish I could," he laments.

As I mentioned in my review, the first time I watched the pilot, I was sure that this conversation was actually taking place, but the second time I watched, I decided to be more generous and take it as an extension of his earlier imagined conversations, even more hallucinatory this time. If it's literal, it's one of the worst scenes I've ever seen in a pilot. If it's hallucinatory and the scene is designed to show that Dr. Bull can't stop this thing he does and that the compulsion is at least being put to good use when he's making money and, in a tacked-on closing scene that wasn't in the original pilot, bringing justice. (It's also a twist that Dr. Bull is some sort of crime-fighting trial consultant who doesn't just make sure he gets results, but also makes sure he gets justice. And, again, this wasn't in the original pilot, but I also would hope it's not in the ongoing series, because it's ludicrous and it also makes Bull into two different shows that shouldn't have to be reconciled.)

As with Ginny and her Ghost Dad, the twist-that-may-not-be-a-twist here leaves me at the end of the pilot questioning the protagonist's sanity. Nothing anywhere else in the pilot suggests that Dr. Bull is anything other than just remarkable at his job, but the idea that he may have voices in his head and this is just the most healthy way he can channel them verges on fascinating, which is exactly why I don't think the pilot wants you to interpret the conversation in that way. The pilot is vaguely based on the early life of Dr. Phil McGraw and Dr. Phil co-wrote the pilot, and I doubt Dr. Phil wrote a pilot explaining a serious disorder he's combating in himself. I can see why Weatherly would to star in the more nuanced version of Bull that I'm suggesting, but I've never seen any indication from his previous work that this would be a great idea.

Worst case scenario: It's a literal scene and it's just the most horrible part of a pretty bad pilot.

Best case scenario: The scene reveals the most interesting and complicated thing about our hero: that he's unable to turn off this gift of his, and that he can't live without seeing into people's thoughts and he can't get them to stop talking to him. He's haunted. He's tortured.

Most likely scenario: It's a hallucination, but used only for exposition and we'll never see that "I wish I could" regret again.

I'll watch at least one more episode of Bull hoping for some indication of the middle scenario.

I actually talked myself into liking the This Is Us ending more as I wrote this essay, viewing it as manipulation from a show that aims to manipulate, rather than a twist from a show that probably doesn't aim to be twisty. And I found myself liking the Pitch twist less as I wrote about it. And I never liked Bull in the first place. The Pitch and This Is Us twists are perhaps made more interesting because they both come from Dan Fogelman and they're very thematically similar if you subscribe to TV auteur theory. But that's a different essay.

Basically, movies can end on their twists, resolve on them. The Sixth Sense doesn't have to justify and advance past its twist. If it were a TV show, Haley Joel Osment would probably talk to a different dead person each week and Bruce Willis would have just been a one-off guest star and then you'd be frustrated because you thought it was Bruce Willis' show and it wasn't. But as a movie, it can just make you go, "Dude!" and send you out into the night.

TV pilot twists offer one-off provocation, but then the series themselves have to live on their own. I'll be very interested to see how This Is Us and Pitch do that.

comments powered by Disqus