In life, as dandruff shampoo commercials have taught us, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. But on television that isn’t always the case. The pilot episode of any series is the product of over a year’s worth of hard work, luck, and network non-interference – just getting it on the air is some kind of minor miracle. But as any prematurely balding showrunner will tell you, once the season begins is when the real work starts. Unlike other forms of mass entertainment like films, say, or .gifs of cats in boxes, television is open-ended and ever-evolving. Casting mistakes, character flaws, even entire settings can be addressed in media res – and, if done right, the show’s survival chances are greatly improved by the meddling.
To see that theory in practice we’ve taken the four current inheritors of NBC’s great Thursday night comedy tradition, The Office, Community, Parks & Recreation, and 30 Rock (Whitney doesn’t count, both because it’s new and because it’s Whitney), and examined both their pilot episodes and a classic episode from later in the run to note the differences. It’s digital Darwinism at work!
“Casino Night” (05/11/06).
In the year’s time between these two episodes, Steve Carell discovered two vital bits of information. One is that his Michael Scott needn’t be a carbon copy of Ricky Gervais’s awkward David Brent – complete with accent affectations and furtive looks to the camera. It was more than possible for him to find an adorkable, wheedling nature all his own. (As he confidently monologues in the second clip, due to his commitment to charity he considers himself “a great philanderer.”) And two: someone gave him the number of the Hollywood hair restorer, that mysterious medical practitioner who can somehow reverse mankind’s greatest affliction and has changed the follicles (and fortunes) of everyone from Will Arnett to Jeremy Piven. The Office, at its start, was a pale imitation of the better, British original. By the time the second season ended, with the full cast of water-cooler goofballs beginning to bloom and the Jim and Pam romance escalating at the perfect pace, it had become that rare import able not only to survive the transatlantic journey but thrive. Credit showrunner Greg Daniels, who figured out quickly that in order to flourish on American television, with its marathon-like 22 episode seasons (ten episodes more than the British version had in total), The Office would have to build a deeper bench and create a hero with a bigger heart – not to mention a better head of hair.
“Remedial Chaos Theory” (10/13/11)
For good or ill, the Community we met in the pilot is not the same goofy group we know today. Whether he was limited by a desire to please the suits in Burbank (unlikely) or merely underestimated the willingness of the cast he had assembled to go weird, creator Dan Harmon plays things pretty close to (Pierce’s) vest in the pilot. The Study Group is idiosyncratic in more obvious ways, missing the crucial adverbs that would later come to define them: Britta is earnest, not annoyingly so, Pierce is spacey but without a certain Machiavellian mania. Troy is still being written as a cocky jock, not the wide-eyed wonder boy Donald Glover would soon develop. And Jeff – poor Jeff – is wearing a blazer. Watching the first episode in concert with last month’s triumphant “Remedial Chaos Theory” makes one realize that perhaps no show has evolved more fully than Community: it’s now less a sitcom than a resilient joke laboratory, constantly testing and poking at the limits of the half-hour comedy format. But then again, perhaps the long-term goal was established in the pilot after all: in the moment when Jeff portentously declares “you have stopped being a study group. You have become something unstoppable.”
“Harvest Festival” (03.17.11)
There have been classic shows with mediocre pilots and those that merely contained the slightest hint of promise of the greatness to come. And then there’s Parks & Recreation. The show today is among the best on television in any genre, a live-action Simpsons of interconnected hilarity built on an unshakable foundation of humanism and heart. But you’d know precisely none of that by watching the pilot: Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope is an overcaffeinated cross between Michael Scott and Tracy Flick, an unpalatable Type A clad in Nancy Pelosi’s cast-offs. Worse, the series launched with a potentially long-term goal – an unfixable sinkhole – that almost became a metaphor for the show itself. In its own way, then, Michael Schur and Greg Daniels’ skillful surgery on a conscious patient may be the most impressive story in recent TV history. Good casting and good thinking allowed the show we know and love today to reveal itself. Eventually.
“The Source Awards” (03.01.07)
And then there’s 30 Rock. Aside from the small hiccup of replacing best friend Rachel Dratch with professional blonde Jane Krakowski after the first version of the pilot, Tina Fey has generally been Reaganing since the beginning of the series. It stands to reason: 30 Rock is both loosely autobiographical and a complete reflection of the highly specific, tightly controlled comedic sensibilities of a singular, Bossy-panted lady. The fits of high-minded ridiculousness on display in “The Source Awards,” one of the many first season highlights (including Liz Lemon shooting a [Steven] Black guy, and Tracy Jordan’s infamous exhortation to “live every week like it’s Shark Week”), were present from the very beginning. Nothing major changed on 30 Rock because it didn’t need to – a stubborn version of success that might actually limit the show as it creaks toward middle-age. A willingness to adapt isn’t just what saved the Galapagos green turtles; it’s also what can save—or, in this case, extend—a sitcom’s life.