NvTV 2: "Selfie" and the Problem with Pilots

Ok, as promised yesterday, I'm digging in and beginning my 9-show reviewing marathon with the pilot for Selfie. Wish me luck. 

Before we dig in on Selfie, let's talk a little bit about pilots in general. They're an awful beast, a twenty-five minute (at most) script that's supposed to introduce the core concept of a series in its entirety so the network suits will say yes, while still being riotously funny and showcasing all the characters. It's almost impossible do well. Scrubs is the only show I can think of off the top of my head that's ever done a truly great one. Arrested Development, Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23, and Go On all did pretty good ones. But mostly, pilots suck. They're generally horribly overwritten (lots of voiceover), the supporting cast is usually underserved, and whatever the so-called "point" of the show is, you're likely to be mercilessly beaten over the head with it. On top of all that, they're also vulnerable to a lot of over-tweaking as creators will literally do anything to get their show on the air, up to and including using the terrible joke the studio rep suggested off the top of his buzzword-stuffed head in a pitch meeting (Selfie has a few lines that feel like they might have that point of origin). A lot of really talented people have made some really bad pilots (Happy Endings is an excellent example). 

Basically, the "good" pilots generally rely on the charisma of their stars or the strength of their premise to carry them to a series order, where the writers are under a lot less pressure and have a lot more room to work, and the actors have time to inhabit their characters.

What's all this mean for Selife? It means the pilot isn't very good. It's guilty of every sin mentioned above- it's over narrated, half the supporting cast don't even get names, let alone plot lines, and while there are a few really good jokes, they're outnumbered by unfunny punchlines being laboriously spelled out and explained for the audience; it's funny when Bojack Horseman does that, sure, but it's funny because we, as the audience, are supposed to laugh at Bojack for being insecure and desperate enough to painstakingly enumerate every element of a mediocre joke. Ideally, we'd be laughing at Selfie because it's funny, not because it's begging us to. Worse, Selfie crams about four episodes worth of plot, character, and relationship development inelegantly into twenty minutes, and robs us of some potentially very good stories in the doing. The climax is the worst written segment of the show, with several groaners and a resolution that feels artificial. 

All that said, Selfie has a very good chance to be a very good show. Gillan is a home run as Eliza, and Eliza's the kind of character most sitcoms would kill for. She has a variety of issues, all of them interesting, and she manages to be intensely, violently dislikable without becoming  unsympathetic. More importantly, as easy as it would have been to make a show about a dumb, clueless social media whore, the writers aimed higher; Eliza isn't dumb. She might even be the smartest person on the show, depending on what you think of John Cho's Henry. She's very quick on her feet, she's an implicit marketing genius, and she's a very capable problem solver. She's ignorant, she's completely incapable of empathy, and she has absolutely no self or situational awareness- which is what makes her funny- but she isn't stupid. And while she is mean, it's a meanness born out of ignorance and self-obsession, not malice. She genuinely wants to like people, and be liked by them, and there's an excellent moment (carried almost entirely by Gillan's eyes) of dawning comprehension near the end of the pilot involving her neighbors and a Lady Gaga song that shows not only that there's hope for Eliza yet, but hope for Selfie as well. She's a mess, but she's a sharp, cerebral mess that's capable of learning. More importantly, she's interesting. Better than that, Gillan is so good in the part that she's able to wring laughs out of a few truly awful lines, and she kills it whenever the writers give her something with some meat to it. 

Beyond Eliza, the rest of the cast is mostly underserved in the pilot- though Cho is predictably great as the straight man Henry. Allyn Rachel and Da'Vine Joy Randolph do very good work in limited screen time as Eliza's hipster neighbor and cheerful coworker, respectively. David Harewood gets probably the joke of the episode as Cho's boss. Other than that, the supporting characters are completely forgettable and undefined (exception: the always funny "If Google Was a Guy" star Brian Huskey gets exactly one word in the pilot, and turns it into a solid laugh. Hopefully he'll be back), but that's to be expected for an overworked pilot. The characters we have seen much of all work, and in their own way they all want the same thing Eliza does: acceptance. They pursue it in different ways, and want it for different reasons, but it gives the show that thematic unity that tends to be present in the truly great sitcoms. Witness Charmonique (Randolph) desperately muttering her name under her breath to help Eliza, despite the fact that the entire reason Eliza's in trouble in the first place is that she's never bothered to learn it. Witness Saperstein (Harewood) making Henry extremely uncomfortable by trying way too hard to make him comfortable. Witness dorky hipster Brin (Rachel) instantly forgiving some truly heinous Eliza behavior because deep down, she wants to be one of the popular kids. Execution notwithstanding, that kind of writing shows us a unified creative vision for the show, and a writer's room that's put some thought into who their characters are and what they want. That's a very good sign. 

The biggest problem with Selfie is, ironically, exactly what Selfie itself is about: just like Eliza, it's a vicious, lovable mess trying way too hard to be hip, trendy, and likable, and ultimately coming off as insecure and desperately needy. The over-narration and explained jokes conjure the new kid at the party, all but begging for validation. The multiple "sexy" shots of Eliza in little to no clothing obviously look good, but they're not what the show's actually about, and they're not going to attract the audience that will appreciate the dorky, cynical-yet-lovable soul underneath all the primetime makeup. 

Bottom line: The Selfie pilot delivers a few really solid laughs, but ultimately isn't a very good episode, at least not in a vacuum. It is, however, a promising look at what the show could be capable of, and I have to recommend it on that basis, because the ceiling is tantalizing enough to risk the basement. If the writing improves, and the show accepts its own lovable jerk identity instead of scrambling to be hip and sexy, then Selfie could be an absolutely brilliant show. The cast and the concept are there, but the execution needs to catch up. We should know within the first six episodes what we're dealing with here. 

Quick Hits: 

Selfie in a single joke: near the end of the episode, it's revealed that the cocky and condescending Henry lives in a literal glass house. That's funny, clever, and understated. Then Eliza points it out explicitly, and all of a sudden it's hackneyed, tired, and obnoxious. 

* Even if Selfie never becomes anything more than what it is, Eliza is an absolutely hysterical skewering of social media culture, and the show shouldn't be afraid to stay vicious on that front.

* I glossed over how great Gillan is above, so it bears one more mention here. Everything from her timing to her facial expressions is top notch, and if Selfie fails, I hope she's snatched up by another comedy ASAP.