Good shows often have mediocre pilots — the nature of pilots usually makes them awkward (too much exposition and the characters aren’t developed, for example). So when you watch a pilot that isn’t any good, how do you decide how much of a chance to give it? — Joanna
The difference between a bad pilot with potential and a bad pilot without is often execution versus taste. Some jokes don’t land, some moments are overly broad, some characters a bit too reminiscent of an actor’s previous role — those all feel conquerable to me. Trafficking in bland stereotypes, demonstrating a lack of imagination or relying on anonymous, naked dead women as vague motivation all feel more urgently terrible. “They didn’t achieve what they were going for” is easier to look past than “the thing they are going for is bad.”
There are always going to be genre hiccups: Shows that have high-concept premises or unusual settings often suffer from pilot-itis, but as a viewer I know they won’t explain the world in every episode. Sitcoms often have “the day everything changed” pilots, but presumably the “new” character will be warmly subsumed into the rest of the ensemble in the second episode. Great pilots still exist in both of these formats — for example, “Battlestar Galactica” and “Cheers” — but I am more likely to forgive a familiar failure.
I also try to look at the world the show is set in, if I can imagine myself spending more time there. On the pilot of “Madam Secretary,” we’re meant to find drama in the protagonist agonizing over whether to become secretary of state. We know that she will do it, because that is what the show is going to be! Ugh. But I liked a lot of the characters, and I liked the vibe, and I like hopeful political stories and that turned out to be a show I enjoyed tremendously.
Is the cast good? I was not wild about the pilot of “Schitt’s Creek,” and actually didn’t love the first season — too screamy, and not fun enough. But Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara were there, and I’m not made of stone, and I loved how much Dan Levy’s and Annie Murphy’s performances played off each other. I stuck it out and am thrilled I did; “Schitt’s” is one of my current faves.
As a critic, I probably give bad pilots a longer leash because part of my job is to be curious about things I don’t necessarily like. Off the clock, I follow an extremely unscientific metric that works great here: Do I want to like this? If so, watch more. This doesn’t always work out, but don’t let lousy shows harden your heart. Seek joy and you just may find it.
I was hoping for some advice on a new (or not so new) procedural that would work for fans of “Castle,” “Psych” and “iZombie,” i.e., something with enough light to balance out the dark and isn’t too bleak and depressing. — David
You seek “Murder, She Wrote,” the ur-text for the modern light procedural in which Angela Lansbury plays a mystery novelist who also solves crimes. (The first five seasons are currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.) There are a billion episodes, the theme song is catchy as hell, and in my experience it is an extremely easy show to get people to agree on.
Until that’s available again, watch “Monk” (currently streaming on Amazon). Tony Shalhoub stars as Adrian Monk, a former cop turned private detective who has O.C.D. and pretty severe anxiety but also a Sherlock Holmes-y attention to detail and deductive reasoning. It’s mostly light and quirky, but it acknowledges the existence of genuine anguish.
For a different spin on the ex-cop-gets-pulled-back-in setup, try “My Life Is Murder,” an Australian series starring Lucy Lawless. There’s also the fantastic “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” which is set in the 1920s and is a ton of fun. (Those are both on Acorn.)
For something with a poppy sense of humor, try “Death in Paradise” (which constantly comes and goes from streaming; you can currently find four seasons on Hoopla and one on BritBox), in which a British detective is dispatched to investigate crimes in a fictional Caribbean nation. Cue fish-out-of-water shenanigans.
When does my favorite show come back? Or how can I tell if my favorite show was canceled? — Many, many Watchers
Thanks to relentless S.E.O. spam it is often difficult to just search for accurate information online about TV calendars. So I will let you in on my most powerful industry secret, which is the website The Futon Critic. It will tell you when a show is returning, how many seasons a show has been renewed for, or the circumstances of its cancellation. I cannot remember the last day I didn’t use it — perhaps some time in 2005? — and I will sing its praises always.
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