Every year, about this time, the networks announce the new TV lineups and listings of shows that will debut in the fall. And every fall, the majority of those pilots disappear without as much as a whimper, never to be heard of again — unless it’s in the form of a punchline. Believe it or not, there are a lot of career lessons to be learned from the best and worst TV pilots.
Here are some in no particular order:
There’s no stigma to fail
A few years back screenwriter Noah Hawley wrote in The Hollywood Reporter about the great unknown secret of the TV industry, and it was sad. According to Hawley, about 92% of all TV pilots fail. And because so many shows fail or never see the light of day, something unexpectedly delightful happened — catastrophe is seen as experience, not a career killer. Or as Hawley wrote “in TV, the thinking goes, each step forward a writer-producer takes imbues him or her with valuable job skills and authority. Once you’ve been The Boss, therefore, you remain A Boss, even after your show disappears.”
TV pilot lesson learned: Keep the skills you learn on the way to improve your chances the next time around.
A bad review isn’t necessarily fatal to your career
When Friends debuted, it was dismissed as being mostly a Seinfeld rip-off. People didn’t hate it, but they couldn’t seem to find much to love about it. Critics, viewers, and the network gave the show a chance though, and Friends ended up being one of the longest-running sitcoms in TV history.
TV pilot lesson learned: One bad performance review shouldn’t color your entire career. Try to improve and show just how far you’ve come.
You can always find direction as you go
Even the most die-hard Parks and Recreation fans will admit that the first season of the show was pretty awful. Also, boring. Oh, and there wasn’t all that much character development or originality. Somehow the show picked up momentum — and rabid fans — and the show ended up a cult classic.
TV pilot lesson learned: Starting a new job, can be daunting. And sometimes when you start, it isn’t all that clear where you’ll be going once you get there. Work with your team to keep improving and you might just end up a massive success.
Work it. Then rework it
Pretty much anyone who loves Game of Thrones raves about the pilot – it was thrilling and set the stage for the seasons to come. That said, it wasn’t the original pilot. Wait, what? True story. The original pilot had a somewhat different cast and plot trajectory and by all reports was nothing short of awful.
TV pilot lesson learned: If you believe in something, give it your all. If it doesn’t live up to your vision or expectations, don’t be afraid to tear it down and start over again.
There’s no cure for boring
The Wire is one of the most critically acclaimed shows of all times. People who love it sound almost reverential when discussing various plots and character relationships. People who hate it probably never got through that first excruciating hour.
TV pilot lesson learned: Even if you have the most innovative plan or project on earth, people won’t be interested in it if you can’t find a way to capture their interest. Start strong and build in interesting points as you go.
Show don’t tell
If there was ever a pilot that fully expressed the full range of emotions of the upcoming series it was the absolute perfection of The Walking Dead. The pilot didn’t rely on dialogue or even gratuitous zombie scenes to express the full horror of what the world had become.
TV pilot lesson learned: If you’re good at what you do, don’t hold the bag. Don’t brag about it, dazzle them with your skills instead.
Don’t stop believing
By the time that the pilot script for Mad Men made its way to the executives at AMC it had been bounced around for over eight years — and rejected at every turn. Somehow though, someone took a chance and Mad Men ended up being one of the most ground-breaking shows in the history of television.
TV pilot lesson learned: Just because something doesn’t work for them, doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. If you believe strongly enough in the power of something, keep going until you’ve proven everyone else wrong. But choose wisely. You don’t always want to be known as the champion of underdogs.
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