vulture lists

Which New Shows Improved on Their Pilots — and Which Ones Didn’t?

Judging a TV show by its pilot is a tricky business. They’re written and produced in an entirely different environment from subsequent episodes. They can be the strongest episode, in that the one or two writer-creators have much more time to finesse jokes and plots than when they plunge into the tighter schedules of having to churn out 21 more episodes on a punishing schedule. But on the other hand, they can also be a bad foot to put forward, because they’ve been written before the creators know their cast, characters, network, set, or trajectory, and before they have a staff of writers to help iron out weak spots and brainstorm smarter directions, and they can often be stuffed with awkward exposition at the expense of nuance. But increasingly, because of taxing production schedules, the networks only send out pilots to critics because nothing else is ready, so these new shows are applauded or derided solely on these odd, introductory episodes. In the interest of fairness, we checked back in on the second installments of eight of the season’s most praised or mocked new series — from Up All Night and New Girl toThe X-Factor and Prime Suspect — to see if things changed, for better or worse, and ranked them from least to most improved.

​First Episode Concerns: Oh, just about everything! A slavish Mad Men knockoff with a ridiculous murder plot, a creeper playing the Don Draper part, and the message that women who worked at the Playboy Club in the early sixties were the most free, most accomplished women in the world? Nothing worked. Second Episode Adjustments: There were almost none. All the absurdities of the first episode continued in the second. There was even more nonsense about how being a Playboy cover girl is a true, life-changing honor; continued harping on the undeniability of Nick Dalton’s “charm” (we deny it!); and more with the silly murder. The only good thing about this show is Laura Benanti, who needs to be rescued and given a part on NBC’s forthcoming Smash as soon as possible. Overall Change: Given how bad the first episode was, the fact that they didn’t change very much is even more appalling than if they had, and it hadn’t worked. Photo: Matt Dinerstein/? NBCUniversal, Inc.
​First Episode Concerns: On paper, 2 Broke Girls never seemed like a CBS show. If the pilot suffered from bad ethnic humor and a hyperunrealistic portrayal of Brooklyn, it still seemed much more promising than a down-the-middle CBS comedy, i.e., an extremely negative lowest common denominator show. Second Episode Adjustments: The ethnic humor got worse, and the negativity even more entrenched. Kat Dennings is very likable, but her Max hates too many things, a problem not softened by Beth Behr’s Caroline, who also hates many things, just different ones. This may be a show that fits right in with Two and a Half Men. That may get it lots of viewers, but that’s not a compliment. Overall Change: Max and Caroline still have promising chemistry, but 2 Broke Girls’ second episode was worse than the first, ramping up our concerns that it won’t be able to overcome its channel, its laugh track, or its fake subway set. Photo: SONJA FLEMMING/?2011 CBS BROADCASTING INC. All Rights Reserved.
First Episode Concerns: It’s the Zooey Deschanel Show starring Zooey Deschanel as Zooey Deschanel’s Iconic Kinda-Sorta-Just–Zooey Deschanel Character. The pilot was funny, but it really had to sell Deschanel as a little bit pathetic and unlucky. Plus Damon Wayans Jr. was still committed to Happy Endings, so his Coach character was on the pilot only. Second Episode Adjustments: For someone who’s titularly new, Jess sure seems to be fitting in pretty darn well with her new roommates, who lovingly tolerate her shenanigans — like shattering their television. Jess’s marginal pathos from the first episode was swapped out for delightful whimsy that tilted a little too close to appalling immaturity. The pilot gave Jess some self-awareness and self-possession, but on the second episode, her naïveté looked a lot more like stupidité. And Lamorne Morris doesn’t have the comedic chemistry with the rest of the cast that Wayans did. Overall Change: Danger, New Girl! The second episode was a step in the not-quite-right direction. It wasn’t catastrophic, but it did demonstrate that the show’s still not sure where its main comic premise comes from, or what its point of view is. Are viewers supposed to see New Girl through Jess’s eyes, where the central idea is for us to understand her magical-sweetheart worldview? Or is it more that she’s a fish out of water, and we’re supposed to feel like the guys she lives with: charmed, confused, maybe a little turned on, but mostly just surprised. Is this show about Jess becoming empowered? Or is she already empowered in her own way, and the show’s about other people learning to recognize that?
First Episode Concerns: Uh-oh, X Factor is secretly boring. It’s the same well-worn territory from every other talent show, except even more drawn out and now set against the unhelpful commentary of Nicole Scherzinger. Second Episode Adjustments: Simon Cowell does not make adjustments! Overall Change: Negligible. The second (and third and fourth … ) episodes of X Factor are virtually identical to the first, so until we get past the early audition rounds, we’re stuck in “that’s four yeses!” limbo.
First episode concerns: The pilot had to do a lot of expositional heavy lifting, which apparently drained the budget, leaving the show with some laughable visual effects that seemed to highlight an inescapable overall silliness to the show’s premise. But there’s Sarah Michelle Gellar, giving it her all! Plus, who wouldn’t want Gossip Girl’s environs with an evil Parent Trap tinge? Second (and Third) Episode Adjustments: Even more plot. Oh boy, there’s a lot going on on this show, and Ringer’s still figuring out the difference between “mysterious” and “confusing.” But any series that can maintain a constant drumbeat of anticipation is doing something right, and Ringer has that down pat. Now the show just needs to figure out how to balance the moment-to-moment drama (hey! I’m mad at you because you’re late to my party!) with the grander drama of the whole enterprise (hey! I’m living a secret life impersonating my twin whom I believe is dead, but is actually in Paris!). Overall Change: Ringer held pretty steady. It’s still relaxing into itself and finding its reliable rhythms, but it’s an action soap that has both good action and good soapiness. If it can stop piling on plot points, so much the better. Photo: MICHAEL DESMOND/?2011 THE CW. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
​First Episode Concerns: Where to begin? The first episode barely worked: The jokes didn’t land, the main characters were unlikable, the supporting characters even more so, and the whole thing had a retrograde “this is what women do, and this is how it drives men crazy” vibe encapsulated by its off-putting ad campaign. Second Episode Adjustments: The second episode was a big improvement. By far the most promising scene in the pilot had been the one in which Whitney dressed up as a nurse for her boyfriend Alex, but oddly kept insisting he do paperwork — kinkiness performed by someone fundamentally uptight. Episode two focused even more on Whitney and Alex’s weird romance, and for the better: Their relationship is strange, and Whitney remains rigid and demanding (like a more sexually open, less clean Monica Geller), but they’re likable together and even funny sometimes. The same still cannot be said of the supporting characters. Overall Change: Whitney is nowhere near there yet — “there” being a reliably smart, funny sitcom — but it did take a medium-size step in the right direction. Photo: Jordin Althaus/? NBCUniversal, Inc.
​First Episode Concerns: We may be in the minority, but we really liked the Prime Suspect pilot, a reimagining of the Helen Mirren series as a gritty procedural. That said, it had two problems (and, no, we don’t consider Maria Bello’s fedora one of them). (1) The Mirren of it all: Can Bello make fans of the original Prime Suspect root for a new version of their beloved detective? (2) The sexism of the police squad was so overt, it wasn’t realistic.Second Episode Adjustments: While Mirren purists may still be aggravated by how procedural-like the show is — the cases of the week are well done, but they remain cases of the week, and you can predict twists fairly easily — they would probably be more aggravated if the show was more faithful to the original. Bello’s Jane continues not to resemble Mirren’s Jane, and that’s a good thing. As promised by the showrunners, the sexism was toned down in the second episode. Thankfully, Jane’s prickliness and outfit choices (now with big chunky glasses!) were not.Overall Change: Prime Suspect stayed pretty true to its pilot, which, from our perspective, is a good thing. It remains by far the best new procedural of the season (not that it has such stiff competition) and one of the better dramas.  Photo: Adam Taylor/? NBCUniversal, Inc.
First Episode Concerns: The last-minute changes to make Maya Rudolph’s character an Oprah-ish talk-show host meant the naturalistic style of Christina Applegate and Will Arnett’s home lives now seemed a little undercooked. The pilot had plenty going for it, but that was also the show’s weakness: When you have three talented leads and two joke-rich worlds, how much show can you cram in 22 minutes? Second (and Third) Episode Adjustments: Rudolph’s Ava got even more ridiculous, and Chris has started moving toward Will Arnett’s smug-jerk wheelhouse. In the third ep, the family half of the show took its own turn for the slightly absurd, but taking care of a petulant celebrity is a lot weirder than trying to find romance as new parents — and it’s hard to flip back and forth between the two worlds. Overall Change: Two steps forward, two steps sideways, one step just jumping up and down. Up All Night is tonally all over the place, sometimes seeming like its characters walked off 30 Rock, and sometimes seeming like they walked off The Middle. There’s a lot of promise in the show, and its shortcomings seem like growing pains, not structural crises. Photo: Colleen Hayes/? NBCUniversal, Inc.
Which New Shows Improved on Their Pilots — and Which Ones Didn’t?