Pilot Watch: Once Upon a Time – “Pilot”

I love Once Upon a Time.2014-07-25 22.37.03

My dad was the one who pushed me into watching ABC’s fairy tale-driven fantasy drama. I’m not sure how he stumbled onto it, but he was persistent, using the lore of my favorite Disney characters as bait. So one Christmas break, I couldn’t sleep thanks to a pesky cold, so I started watching Season 1 on Netflix. Binged the whole season in a matter of days. I couldn’t stop. Caught up by the middle of Season 2. Now well into Season 5, the series as a whole has had ups and downs. The Pan story and Frozen arc were not strong points. This season has been surprisingly fresh, thanks to the dramatic Dark Swan. But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to look at where it all began, at that very first episode —

Once upon a time…

After a few cards giving some brief exposition, the episode starts with Snow White and Prince Charming at their legendary moment, with Charming breaking the deadly spell with true love’s kiss. Which leads right into —

Their wedding, though it’s immediately interrupted by the Evil Queen. Snow quickly draws Charming’s sword – a nice move showing her strength. This isn’t your typical Disney Princess. She’s not afraid of weaponry. And that’s pretty great.

Emma’s entrance is far more modern, in a form fitting pink dress. On a “date,” she identifies as a loner, without family. It doesn’t take long for Emma’s current identity as a bailbondsman (woman) trapping a guy who skipped out. She busts him, bashing his head against his own steering wheel after he makes a crack about her lack of family.

We follow Emma back to her apartment, and can I just say I’ve always loved Emma’s apartment door, with the writing scrawled across it. A little heavy-handed? Maybe. Still love it.

At this point, the writers go to great lengths showing just how alone Emma is, seeing her big, empty apartment, blowing out a birthday candle on her little cupcake.

Enter Henry. I’d forgotten how little he was. Precocious without being obnoxious, he’s a instantly likable.

We cut back to the past to see a pregnant Snow, worrying about the witch’s curse. There’s obvious chemistry between Josh Dallas and Ginnifer Goodwin (Congrats to them on baby #2!), so watching them is a delight.

With a storytelling tactic of switching between past and present storylines a la LOST, it’s interesting in this first episode that they use the illustrations in the book to transition from real world/present to Enchanted Forest/past.

Finally we get to meet Rumplestiltskin – slimy and volatile, even locked behind bars. He makes a deal with Snow, revealing Regina’s  spell, and why Storybrooke is the way it is (hello, more exposition!), in exchange for the baby’s name.

In Rumple’s explanation, the final battle will begin when Emma returns in 28 years (guess this is one big, long, epic battle, 5 seasons later…).

Back in real-time, there are signs that Emma’s return is shaking up the town already, as the power lines spark when she slams the car door. Henry’s theory is starting to look more plausible – Archie, Henry’s therapist, advises strongly against lying. When Henry tries to tell Emma Archie’s true identity, she brushes him off — and just as quickly, we’re brought into the Enchanted Forest, with Jiminy Cricket, who has Archie’s voice, speaking to a round table of fairy tale peeps.

There’s no shortage of Easter egg-level foreshadowing here, which is bold as a pilot with no promise of a future. As Regina flips through Henry’s book, the camera pauses on illustrations of flying monkeys and Wonderland caterpillars — a great idea to entice fairy tale freaks…. like me… to keep following along.

Later, in a burst of emotion that adults usually don’t express to children, Emma confesses her traumatic childhood to Henry, who doesn’t even bat an eye, and tries to convince Emma it didn’t happen the way she thinks.

Henry’s so innocent. He’s a great age for this story – old enough to be wicked smart, young enough to be innocent and full of hope. That innocence gives the whole show a wash of genuine storytelling, free from jaded irony and bitterness. It’s so refreshing.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few quips expertly laid out. Like when the Evil Queen describes where she’s sending the cursed kingdom: “Somewhere horrible. Absolutely horrible.”

In the Enchanted Forest, the last we see of Charming before the curse takes over is dead in the arms of Snow. In Storybrooke? Turns out he wasn’t quite dead. Now he’s John Doe, an unidentified man in a coma at the hospital.

As the episode comes to a close, Emma checks into Granny’s B-n-B, Mr. Gold/Rumple appears, collecting cash from Granny. He owns that place. The town. We’re now well aware of the power Gold has, and even this early on, it’s clear he knows more than the rest of the town.

And just after Emma checks into Granny’s, the clock tower, frozen forever, ticks back to life.

The episode slowed in the middle a bit, but picked up brilliantly in the end. Emma and Regina’s confrontation, resulting in Emma deciding to stay in Storybrooke for a bit, leading to the clock tower working again, with Henry’s big smile on his face — I couldn’t contain myself; I had to keep watching. Hooked. (Get it? GET IT?) Seriously, OUAT does a great job using mystery elements encoded in common fairy tales, not only providing clues to the viewers, but letting them think they’re one step ahead, figuring out who is who and how they’re all interconnected. A great story, indeed.

Pilot Watch: True Blood – “Strange Love”

HBO’s True Blood was a fun show. Sure, it was a hot mess at times, but damn what fun. Cory and I started watching it just before the 2nd season started at the recommendation of Cory’s grad school mentor, since Cory was in the process of writing a vampire play.

We watched. We got hooked. We stayed with it til the bloody end. For awhile, we even wrote for truebloodnet.com, a pretty big fan site. We did not read the books. Well, I think I read the first one. Wasn’t really interesting enough for me to keep going.


The cast of True Blood at San Diego Comic-Con, 2012
The cast of True Blood at San Diego Comic-Con, 2012

This is the first summer without it, and in honor, we decided to start rewatching the series. Oh, that first episode was a doozy.

First of all, the cold open was pretty genius. It did a great job of getting the tone, the location, and the current social state of vampires and humans across without feeling too expositiony (my favorite pilot word!), even though that’s exactly what it was. The randy, drunk teens stumble into a mini mart just to ask about Tru Blood. The man behind the counter is an aging goth – black clothes, long, black, stringy hair, covered in tattoos – your typical vampire type. He himself plays with the notion, using an Eastern-European accent, taunting the kids, then potentially hooking them up with V, all while a cable news show blares in the background with Nan Flannigan lobbying for vampire rights. Until a redneck in a camo baseball cap comes up with a pack of Tru Blood in hand. The scene plays well on the vampire stereotypes, probably playing on the audience a little bit, too.

From there, we’re inserted into Bon Temps and meticulously introduced to the major players: horn-dog hottie Jason, forever defensive Tara,  and puppyish Sam (get it?). We meet most of the side-characters-to-become-main-players here, too, like Arlene, Hoyt, of course Lafayette. Impressively, most of these characters, with the exception of Hoyt, are well-defined and well-performed right off the bat. Nelsan Ellis is fucking brilliant in his portrayal of Lafayette, a character I miss desperately. Knowing how the series plays out, many of these guys become like their characters on steroids – overstuffed with history and storylines, unable to fully connect them all together in a real way. In fact, watching this episode made me even angrier at how the whole thing played out. More on that later.

And of course, there are our stars – Sookie Stackhouse, a mere mind-reader, and Bill Compton, gentlemanly vampire of ages past.

In this first episode, Sookie makes her virginal attributes crystal clear, chastising the crew at Merlotte’s for their foul language and inappropriate gestures. She just as loudly has no qualms against vampire Bill hanging around, despite everyone’s immediate hatred-slash-fear. Bill plays mysterious and dresses like a zombie. Sookie comes to Bill’s rescue, when a trailer-trash couple try to drain him.


—– So, later in the series, this is all explained as an elaborate set-up to get Sookie to drink Bill’s blood, or something like that. Watching it again, it’s all too obvious that the creative team was just trying to shoehorn that plot point in there later. This wasn’t like a LOST thing, that was planned out years in advance by the crew, whether it was in the books or not. It was portrayed genuinely on all accounts, and the set-up aspect cheapens the whole thing. It feels like that moment in Frozen, when Hans falls out of the boat, and looks on adoringly after Ana walked away. How does that make any sense if his plan was totally different? ——

****END RANT****

The episode ends with Sookie being nearly beaten to death by the trailer-trash duo.

As a pilot, this is actually really good. They leave just enough clues about Sam’s true self and manage to show Tara’s disastrous home life. Yes, some of the dialogue is clunky – a trait that follows the show until the very end. But it’s saved by the actors, who are fully invested in the small town and small lives their characters lead. The additional plot involving the death of a girl Jason just spent a kinky night with is a nice little early breadcrumb for the villain to come.

This episode made me remember why I fell for the show in the first place, and again, only made infuriated me knowing how it all unfolded.

Pilot Watch: The Walking Dead – “Days Gone By”

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m afraid of zombies.

I never watched zombie movies growing up. By the time I reached adulthood, I was somewhat indifferent. Until I met Cory. Cory loves zombies. Cory introduced me to the genius of Romero, of Max Brooks, and of course, Shaun of the Dead. Then the nightmares began.

To be fair, I’m pretty prone to nightmares, but zombies were a new threat to my nighttime imagination.

So, I never watched The Walking Dead. It was, what I call, one of my “Read Abouts.” I am only one human being, with a full-time job, a wedding to plan, and a penchant for watching old favorites. Getting fully invested in new series does not come easily, so there are certain series I read about online, keep up with on Twitter, that kind of thing. I can’t watch everything. Of course, the zombies didn’t help.

I have, however, always enjoyed seeing TWD panels at Comic-Con, which usually falls in front of the Game of Thrones panel. TWD panels are always interesting and enjoyable, and they always bring great footage.

Andrew Lincoln on The Walking Dead panel at SDCC, 2014
Andrew Lincoln on The Walking Dead panel at SDCC, 2014

Finally, Cory convinced me. “Just watch the pilot,” he said. “It’s really good.”

I’d be the judge of that.

One gloomy San Diego Saturday (yes, it’s occasionally gloomy here) was the perfect opportunity. And afterward, I could not believe how much I loved it.

It’s a phenomenal set-up. I know this is based on the comic, but since I’m not familiar with it, I can only go off of what I saw.

The cold open was maybe a little too much of a giveaway, though the zombie-girl was kind of scary.

What really stuck with me was the hospital scene. What an incredible way to show both the passage of time and disorientation. Passage of time – something the Game of Thrones pilot also did fairly well, if it is a little too subtle. But those dried flowers – that pretty much says everything we need to know.

Pilots have to do a lot: they have to introduce main characters, get you to like them, and then squeeze a basic story around them that gets the tone across. Here, the story is Rick’s.

The pilot serves as an introduction to Rick, and Rick’s introduction to the new world around him, which conveniently helps us out – so there’s another thing they do really well. It’s a typical writing trope to put a character in the same place as the audience, to give a little more of a “natural” reason to introduce everything. Though cliche, it’s often necessary. And The Walking Dead does it really well.

I do feel like the middle did go on a little long. Quiet moments are always important in horror and drama, but this felt a little too quiet for a little too long; my attention might have wandered a bit here.

Though his riding into Atlanta was brilliantly executed. So was the reveal of Rick’s family and partner. Overall, this was an amazing pilot, probably thanks in part to the comic series

Needless to say, I’ll continue watching, zombies — errr, WALKERS —- be damned.

Originally Aired: October 31, 2010

Network: AMC

Seasons: 5, Season 6 on the way.

Fun Facts: “Days Gone By” was nominated for Creative Arts Emmys for editing, special effects, and won for prosthetic make-up.


Pilot Watch

I love pilots – they’re fascinating. A pilot is the first episode of a series — not always in “air” order. In fact, sometimes pilots don’t see the light of day, even when a series is picked up. Getting to make a pilot is one of the long steps toward getting a show in the air. Only a few make it this far, and even fewer make it to air. Sometimes a pilot is a great way to learn more about your script – how maybe casting was a huge mistake, or the format didn’t work like you though it would.

Pilots have to do a whole lot in a very short amount of time; they have to introduce the audience to the main characters, the setting, the general plight of an episode, and the series tone. Most of these elements typically don’t become fully developed until a few episodes, or even a whole season, into their grind. It’s a process. Unfortunately, many networks today don’t allow time for this process to take place, and cut shows before they get a chance.

I’ve studied pilots forever, because I’m trying to write them. I often struggle with the exposition-iness of them, deciding to forgo it all together, though afterward, I realize how necessary it is. So I study – I watch good pilots, bad pilots, pilots to series that started well then sank, and vice versa.

So I’m going to write about them. Some will be new, others new-to-me. I’ll definitely look back at pilots of watched dozens of times, because there’s always something to learn. I’m not sure what will come of this little exercise, but I figure it’s worth writing down.

If you want me to check out any series pilot, let me know in the comments or tweet at me (@sarahtv3)!


Once Upon a Time

True Blood

The Walking Dead