Streaming Pilot Previews: A to Z, Selfie, Red Band Society

For the past several years, networks have begun to make previews of their pilots available online weeks prior to premiere dates. It’s a smart move since it generates buzz for good shows, and allows more time for course correction in later episodes if a pilot misses the mark. We’ll be checking in with these pilots as they become available. All three of these are currently available on Hulu.

The Show: A to Z

The Network: NBC

Premieres: Thursday, October 2 at 9:30pm EST

Format: Half-hour single-camera comedy

Premise: It’s simple: Andrew (Ben Feldman, Mad Men) and Zelda (Cristin Milioti, How I Met Your Mother) meet and date. Best friends Stu (Henry Zebrowski, The Wolf of Wall Street), an uncouth portly bearded ginger, and Steffi (Lenora Crichlow, the UK’s Being Human), who is the romantic version of tofu, round out the ensemble.

My Take: It is a truth universally acknowledged that the vast majority of comedy pilots suck, even for some of the most critically beloved shows. (Don’t believe me? Go back and watch the pilots for 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. Go on. I’ll wait.) One of the most important things to the success of a comedy is learning how to use the talents of the players in the ensemble, but in a pilot, the characters remain almost exclusively the writers’ vision. Comedies take time to mature.

So, that said, back to A to Z. This is one of the cases where I fear that most of what I enjoyed was the due to incredible goodwill I have towards Milioti, Feldman, and Crichlow from their past gigs. The actors have charm to spare; the characters seem like they emerged from a focus group rather than a writing room. (Romantic Andrew listens to Celine Dion; Zelda’s a tough lawyer but she does pro bonо work, guys, so she’s okay!) The pilot is like a 26-minute sprint through a 90-minute generic romantic comedy film, from meet cute to manufactured obstacles to happy ending. This is not a compliment.

But – and this is a big ‘but’ – that sprint is also good news, because it means that the rest of the show can get down to the business of the “8 months, 3 weeks, 5 days, and 1 hour” that Andrew and Zelda spend dating. I did appreciate some of the broader strokes – the fact that internet dating companies have to fail at what they do to make money, and an odd joke about the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon got a chuckle. If the show can get out of the actors’ way, then maybe these crazy kids have a chance.


The Show: Selfie

The Network: ABC

Premieres: Tuesday, September 30 at 8pm EST

Format: Half-hour single-camera comedy

Premise: Brash and insensitive Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan, Doctor Who) cares more about social media followers than real-life friends. After a major embarrassment lets her know what she’s missing, she asks branding expert Henry (John Cho, Sleepy Hollow) for help remaking her image in this very, very, VERY loose modern retelling of Pygmalion.

My Take: The lovely Kristin Marie will be reviewing this for us weekly, due in no small part to our loyalty to Doctor Who alums, and I am selfishly glad the task fell to her. Because I pretty much hated this pilot, in execution, if not in concept. If you have any interest in watching this show, I say skip the pilot and tune in week two. It can’t be worse than this.

The dialogue, driven by Gillan’s unnecessary voiceover, is borderline unbearable. Punctuated with phrases like “instafamous” and “don’t be jelly”, and containing references to things like Flappy Bird and Let It Go, the show threatens to be obsolete even before its premiere. It also seems to hate everything, including its characters, who are almost all despicable. Eliza’s social cluelessness, supposedly rooted in childhood loneliness and insecurity, is unconvincing, and Henry might as well be shaking his cane at that new-fangled social media, even as he’s lauded as a modern rebranding genius. Everyone is overacting. Nothing makes any sense.

There are two bright spots in the episode, and they’re why I think the concept shows promise, even if the pilot is the worst thing I’ve subjected myself to in a while. First is a closing scene between Eliza and Henry, where they both drop their bull and connect. Despite being almost as overwritten as everything else, Cho and Gillan have chemistry here, if nowhere else. The second promising thing is the character of Charmonique, the receptionist at Eliza and Henry’s pharmceutical firm. Played with warmth and cheerfulness by the fantastic stage actress Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Charmonique is the first one to pull a real moment out of Eliza. I’ll watch one more episode of Selfie if only for her.


The Show: Red Band Society

The Network: FOX

Premieres: Wednesday, September 17th at 9pm EST (Note: the online preview only lasts until Tuesday, August 26th at 5pm EST)

Format: Hour-long drama

Premise: Based on the Catalan show Polseres Vermelles (and the real-life experiences of its creator), a group of sick teenagers living on a pediatric hospital ward build a community, supported by incredibly nurturing medical professionals, while they fight for their lives.

My Take: If comedy pilots are a mess, drama pilots are often more proficient than what comes after. However, Red Band Society’s pilot has a clarity of vision and a lot of room to grow. It’s probably one of the most self-assured offerings this fall. Granted, the show is corny and sentimental as can be, but it’s a well-crafted corny, and it’s easy to see this show connecting with younger viewers and families.

The quality of the young actors varies pretty significantly, with the best turn coming from Charlie Rowe (The Golden Compass) as “leader” Leo. There are a few cringe-worthy constructs: the voice over by young coma patient Charlie (Griffin Gluck, Private Practice) is mawkish – wake the kid up quick and let him act. There’s a wealthy hypochondriac adult patient named Ruben (Griffin Dunne, House of Lies) who conveniently provides some of the more outlandish trappings for the kids’ adventures. And my guess is that the show will only improve as it lets the adult medical staff, led by Octavia Spencer (The Help) and Dave Annable (Brothers & Sisters) round out their characters with traits beyond caring and saintly.

Truthfully, the show isn’t for me, but I won’t be surprised if it finds an audience. With the generally dark and gritty tone of this year’s crop of drama, the show’s themes of friendship, struggle, and support stand out in a grim landscape. With the impending demise of Glee, Red Band Society has a chance to pick up their baton and run with it.