Working Out The Kinks: Perceived Pilot Quality in Contemporary Network Comedy
by Cory Barker — Indiana University
September 10, 2012 – 00:00
The reviews for NBC’s new sitcom Go On have ranged from mixed-to-positive. The average review score for the Matthew Perry vehicle on review aggregate site Metacritic is 67/100. Ken Tucker noted that the show is worth watching "for a few more episodes at least," while Alan Sepinwall wrote that "there is enough to bring me back."
Go On is solid, but has lots of room to improve. Based on modern sitcom history, that might be the best assessment we can give to a new comedy.
In recent years, a large number of now-presumed-to-be-great comedies struggled (to varying degrees) out of the gate. Parks and Recreation, Community, Happy Endings, How I Met Your Mother and even The Office and The Big Bang Theory all faced challenges in their respective first seasons, only to grow in to critical and fan favorites by the end of season one or into season two.
The perception—and reality—of television comedy is that it takes time for actors to blend with their characters, with other actors and with the writing staff. The beginning of season one builds from writers’ original ideas, while later on, comedies go with what works. And once a comedy finds itself (and an audience), we can point back to how it worked out the kinks to get there (think Parks’ recalibrating of Leslie, HIMYM’s humanizing of Barney).
Critics and keyed-in viewers almost expect a comedy to stumble in the beginning. Issues are part of the growing pains it takes to get to greatness.
Does that mean that a comedy is somehow at a disadvantage for being fully-formed from the pilot? If we look at Modern Family, we can say maybe.
Three seasons in, Modern Family’s pilot remains one of its best episodes. The ABC sitcom hit airwaves amid critical raves and it rode the wave of buzz to the top of the Nielsen ratings and Emmy world. However, the perception of Family among critics and TV fans online is that it is totally stagnant. Next to nothing has changed since the pilot. Characters are the same, the plot rarely surprises. The comedy is punished for being so good at the beginning and ultimately progressing very little from that initial apex. Of course, the show’s ratings have only gone up.
So, how important are comedy pilots? Or, perhaps most importantly, if most viewers don’t recognize this phenomenon in new comedies, does it matter?