For most new shows this is the toughest week of the year. Week two.
The phony network hype begins, already heralding the next big hit of the season based on only one airing. The same hype that gleefully proclaimed WHOOPI the smash of the season and COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF the breakout hit of 2005. This year they’re saying BIONIC WOMAN and PRIVATE PRACTICE but I don’t think even they believe it.
All this bogus hype just adds unrealistic pressure. And every showrunner knows, as tough as it is to do a good pilot, that’s nothing compared to episode two.
Generally, you have months to write and polish your pilot. You have a week to bang out episode two.
Drama pilots often have big budgets. And big name feature directors. For week two you get the guy who directed a few DEGRASSI HIGHS and instead of spectacular stunts worthy of James Bond movies you must settle for a car that can fishtail.
And good luck spotting movie star executive producers like Hugh Jackman and Salma Hayek in anything but the pilot. They’d lose their invitations to Jeff Katzenberg’s picnic if they appeared in “episodic” television beyond the premiere.
A lot of pilots are “premise pilots” – they show the major events that set the series in motion. But what are they gonna do week two? Have another plane crash on LOST? Jaime Sommers has another accident and winds up with Bionic genitals? Darren finds out Samantha is also Jewish?
For a while networks were demanding we don’t do premise pilots. So in essence, we were writing a second show AS a pilot which combines the hardest aspects of both assignments. And then our second episode had to be essentially ANOTHER second episode.
People watch the second episode with different expectations. Some saw and loved the pilot and expect the follow-up to be just as good (despite the limitations). Others saw the pilot, are still on the fence but are willing to give the show another try. You have this one last chance to win them over. Gulp! And most people who tune in didn’t see the pilot. You have to get them caught up while not boring the viewers who don’t need a recap. It’s a tough line to straddle.
Obviously some shows can do the “Previously on…” prelude, but that usually works best on serialized programs. And still on those shows, with big casts, you’re spending half the episode trying to figure out who the hell all these people are and why the main character is named Jack in every series.
Bottom line: Second shows are a bitch so give ‘em a little slack this week. And Fox fall shows have it even worse. Because of the baseball playoffs their new entries disappear after a couple airings. So when they return they need to present yet another pilot episode. If Jaime Sommers were on Fox she would have her third car accident, new bionic breasts and eyebrows, and she would likely lose her driver’s license and certainly her auto insurance. Such are the problems facing today’s TV showrunners.