tv reporter

Judgments too often are matter of pilot error

Once in a great while a TV series pilot comes along that grabs your attention. So spectacular is this opening installment that it single-handedly restores your faith in the medium, leaving you practically salivating for the next episode.

The new ABC series "Pushing Daisies" fits that bill, which is exactly why I fear it is doomed.

Don't get me wrong: "Daisies" is head and shoulders — maybe even knees and toes — above the rest of the largely ho-hum 2007-08 broadcast pilots. But as we stare down the barrel of another TV season, "Daisies" might end up a reminder of how easy it is to overestimate the value of a good pilot, which can be a notoriously misleading indicator of a series' future viability.

That might seem like a pretty counterintuitive notion. After all, a solid pilot is what compels a network to order additional episodes, moves advertisers to part with millions of dollars, prompts critics to rush to favorable judgment and drives viewers to sample en masse.

But in recent years, it seems as if the pilot that gets the most buzz is guaranteed to run out of gas before season's end. Think back to WB Network's "Jack & Bobby" in 2004, UPN's "Everybody Hates Chris" in 2005, and last year's golden goose egg, NBC's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." All were excellent pilots but, particularly in the case of "Studio 60," virtually exhausted their creative potential by the time their first credits rolled.

It just goes to show that often the promise of a show's premise is an inverse proportion to its actual creative shelf life. Sometimes a pilot can set up a story with such seductive ingenuity that a more important attribute is overlooked: the magical stamina that keeps that story reinventing itself 22 times during the course of a season. The more high concept a pilot is, as the presidential plot course on "Bobby" was, the more difficult the high-wire act that follows it.

Much has been made about how the Achilles' heel of "Studio 60" was making the inner workings of Hollywood its focus, but in retrospect a bigger problem was the 21 episodes that followed the pilot seemed like an afterthought. The dynamic characters on "Studio 60" were charming upon introduction, but by the third episode, it became painfully obvious that there was no reason to care about them.

A good pilot can be a bad thing, but a bad pilot isn't necessarily a death sentence. More often than not a pilot is not so much a fully realized vision of a series but more like its rough draft. There are series that come into their own only after writers and producers shoot a few scripts and eventually find the right groove. That can be true of the very best shows in fact: Go back to "Seinfeld," for instance, which took months to settle into its distinctive style.

If there was a series last year that received the opposite treatment of "Studio 60," it was ABC's "Brothers & Sisters," which drew bad preseason press about troubles behind the scenes, including postpilot changes to key cast and crew. You wouldn't have known it from its unremarkable pilot, but "Brothers" weathered its growing pains and became a modest success for the network.

Like "Brothers," "Daisies" has experienced its share of preseason turmoil behind the scenes. But given how "Brothers" only emerged stronger, that may not be worrisome. What concerns me more about "Daisies" are the very things that make the pilot so good: Gotta love its resurrection premise, but won't the novelty wear off after awhile? And as nicely acted and written as its star-crossed lovers are, where does the show go should their love be consummated?

At a time of year when many are quick to assess series solely on the merit of their pilots, it's worth remembering that they're not one and the same.