Pilots Taking Flight

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Pilots Taking Flight

This is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore watching television for KCRW and fastening my seat belt for the fall season. It just might be a bumpy ride. Consider: Three dozen new prime-time series will be launched by mid-October, with most them fated to crash and burn -- some without viewers even taking a good look.

One reason for the likely high attrition rate could be how, too often, the worthiness of a new TV series is judged: by its pilot episode.

But before I get too preachy, I want to tell you a joke. In the industry it's sort of a classic...

A man dies and ascends to the Pearly Gates, where St. Peter tells him, "It's your pick: Heaven or Hell. But before you say anything let me show you two videos, so you can make an informed choice."

The first DVD features Heaven, which looks plenty nice, but, with all the choirs and angels strumming their harps, does seem a little uptight.

Then St. Peter slides in the other DVD. This is Hell, which turns out to be one swinging scene. Fabulous food, great band, glamorous crowd.

"That's for me!" the man exclaims, and St. Peter smiles. "You got it, pal."

But the next thing the man knows, he's plopped on a stool in a filthy saloon. Watery drinks. The jukebox is broken. The man cries out, "Where am I?"

"Why, you're in Hell," St. Peter calls down. "Just like you asked."

"But what about that rockin' video?" the guy wails.

"Ah," St. Peter chuckles, "that was the pilot!"

The point, lest it escape you, is this: A premiere episode, the series pilot, is an unreliable indicator of how the series it introduces is likely to pan out.

Remember, the pilot is a carefully crafted prototype whose purpose, above all, is to win a network's go-ahead for a subsequent series. And typically it's months after the pilot is finished, then sold, that the weekly grind begins. From then on, time and money, not to mention inspiration, may in much shorter supply.

On the other hand, practice makes perfect. It may be that only after a shaky start-up will the series really get up to speed.

I've seen series with extraordinary pilots fall flat the second week. And wonderful, long-running series have blossomed from pilots I slammed.

In short, when a series goes on the air, where it's headed is something no one can be sure of -- not the people on the show or at the network, not the viewers in their living rooms, and certainly not the critics at their keyboards.

Think about it: Someone reviewing a movie or a play is privy to what those who heed the review can expect to experience themselves. But a TV critic is too often called upon to draw a sweeping judgment based on one lone episode, leaping beyond the bounds of available knowledge to review a series that hasn't even happened yet.

If I were good at predicting the future, I'd have bought Microsoft a while back and now be living in luxury in St. Barts.

I didn't, and I'm not. So, as you face the coming onslaught of new series, keep that in mind and take the reviews with more salt than usual.

And consider sticking with a new series long enough to give it a fair shot. That may mean catching more than one episode before rendering your verdict. It's tempting to dismiss an iffy series out of hand. But don't pit everything on love at first sight. THAT only happens in the movies.

Watching television for KCRW, one pilot at a time, this is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore.