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The Year of Flying Dangerously

Television pilots have always been a colossal crapshoot, creating their
own rich folklore and superstitions. My favorite involves the myth about the
airborne contaminant—perhaps over Kansas—that reduces prototypes that
showed promise in Los Angeles into dreck en route to New York.

Still, with the new TV season about to begin, it's hard to remember a
year when more pilots told me less about their prospects, a fact peculiar to
this new batch of shows but also reflective of the audience's shifting

ABC's Lost and
Desperate Housewives, The WB's
Jack & Bobby, CBS's
Clubhouse and UPN's Kevin Hill have all impressed many critics. There has
even been grudging admiration for the workmanlike NBC drama
Medical Investigation and
Friends spinoff Joey.

Although I enjoyed many of these pilots, in most instances I found
myself asking the nagging question that's always the elephant in the room
during development season: namely, "So what do you do in episode 3?" Ideally,
pilots are supposed to provide a template for the series to come, but with
several of these shows, prognosticators are flying blind.

This is hardly a minor consideration, and it's a question articulated
too rarely among media buyers before they start producing voluminous analyses
of the new prime time lineups and plunking down their clients' money.

In today's talking-head culture, opinions are cheap, and everybody has
one. Moreover, the pressure is on networks to make the best impression possible
right out of the gate, fearing they won't get a second chance at fickle

All of this makes it extremely difficult to handicap new programs.
Seldom, in fact, have so many people ostensibly knowing so much yielded such
questionable predictions, particularly when it comes to forecasting which TV
shows will survive past Thanksgiving and which turkeys won't. The most honest
response when asked how some of these shows will do is a limp shrug, which
isn't exactly a formula for getting invited back to appear on
Entertainment Tonight or even CNNfn.

To be fair, rarely have premiere episodes offered less help in this
process of divination. To cite one maddening example, take
Lost, the expensive ABC drama about
survivors on a mysterious island God-knows-where. ABC has promoted the series
heavily all summer, and on paper it sounds like a winner.

Still, we've sailed a long way since Gilligan's
, and I'm skeptical that viewers have the patience for an
open-ended series that, in success, almost by definition can't resolve its
biggest riddles.

Think back, too, on all the sizzling pilots of the past decade or so
that didn't fulfill their initial potential. Remember Fox's
Millennium(whose serial-killer-of-the-week
setup grew tedious), CBS's American Gothic
(did the Devil make him do it? We never got to find out) and ABC's
Murder One, a noble experiment that presaged
the current fascination with celebrity trials.

In hindsight, those programs are notable not only because they dared to
be different but also because they offered an intriguing concept that
ultimately couldn't be sustained over an entire series. Call it the curse of
Twin Peaks, which would have made a
brilliant eight-episode limited series but devolved into an incomprehensible
mess when ABC tried to extend it for a second year.

As network ratings continue to erode, the narrowing gap between
broadcast and cable makes it more feasible that prestigious series might hang
on, such as Fox's decision to gamble on a second season of the little-seen
Emmy-nominated comedy Arrested Development.
All of that provides a modest ray of hope for some of these intriguing pilots,
which don't necessarily have to smack the first pitch into the bleachers to
earn a spot on the roster.

The more immediate challenge, however, is to prove these pilots weren't
a fluke—that there really are stories to tell beyond the opening hour or
half-hour. As easy as it is to forget, this remains TV's most vexing dilemma
and its most unique strength: the ability to satisfy an audience week after
week, slowly moving the plot forward not just through the upcoming presidential
election but through the one that comes after it.

Ultimately, only time will tell how many of these producers had an
honest-to-God series in them, as opposed to just an enticing prototype. What's
clear is that unless several of them have an answer for that question about
episode 3, the survivors on that aforementioned island won't be the only ones
feeling lost.