Time for another recommendation from the list of podcasts I frequently listen to. Fellow TV aficionados should enjoy this recommendation as it nicely dovetails with the season that concluded earlier this month. No, not spring (or winter here in Wisconsin [*insert mildly amusing chuckle here*]), but rather television pilot season. The gist of pilot season is this: Every year, the American broadcast television networks receive pitches for potential new series. The list of proposals is whittled down to a few proposals the networks think will have potential to develop into a weekly series. Over time, that list keeps shrinking when the networks take into consideration quality of scripts, availability of on- and off-screen talent, budgetary concerns, and the feedback of test audiences and executives. Only a very few “pilots” that start the process get formal invitations from networks to become series, a process that reaches its culmination every May when the networks announce their lineup of new shows for the following TV season.
For sure, the pilots that the networks “pick up” have the potential to become well-received and widely-viewed (and long-running, if they’re really lucky) series. But there are the countless other pilots that don’t go past the stage where a “test episode” even sees the light of day. However, a little history lesson for all y’all: Time was when the networks took professionally-produced pilots they didn’t order to series and aired them during the summer months in prime time. No, it doesn’t happen as often now as it did when I was much younger, especially with networks utilizing money-making (and money-saving) alternatives these days. But ABC, CBS, and NBC would air some of these pilots, often with nothing more than a TV Guide listing for advanced promotion, for one of three reasons: So they could say they were showing something original during months when more people are outside than inside; so that they might give these pilots a rare second chance to strike enough viewer chords reconsider it… and more than likely to recoup the costs of producing these stinkers (and more often than not these pilots were stinkers).
But those failed pilots were lucky. As noted above, a lot of pilots don’t even see a table read, let alone the cameras. And that’s where this podcast comes in:
Dead Pilots Society has been a part of the Maximum Fun site since autumn 2016. Once a month, if not twice, the show releases episodes that each have two main elements: The primary element, of course, is a table reading of a situation comedy pilot episode that a TV network or studio commissioned yet did not let proceed to series for one reason or another. As the show itself expresses it, Dead Pilots Society includes “actors you know and love from television and film, a live audience, and a good time in which no one gets notes, no one is fired, and everyone laughs.” Indeed, the listener gets a sense of relaxation among the cast and audience. They all know that the networks are no longer interested in this script, and no one in the cast needs to worry about nailing any audition. And that relaxed feeling adds to the enjoyment of the performance.
As noted above, Dead Pilots Society features more than a few actors with more than a few noteworthy credits on their IMDb entry. You want me to name a few? Well, okay, I’ll mention a few off the top of my head, although don’t misconstrue these as the only big names this show features:
- There’s Constance Zimmer, best known from unREAL, who voiced the lead role in a sisters-in-the-same-workplace pilot called Women & Girls.
- There’s Kiernan Shipka (you know, Don Draper’s daughter), who’s voiced roles in a few Dead Pilots Society episodes (the show’s live performances includes multiple readings), including one set in a Disneyland-like amusement park (Wunderland) and a futuristic teen angst comedy (Robot Daughter, who’s title is self-explanatory).
- There’s Jason Ritter, who’s been in more than a few shows that went to series and also voiced a couple of dead pilots here, including two based on Tom Hanks films (Big and Bachelor Party).
- There’s Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael, who wrote and performed in their own dead pilot, The Housewives, which was steeped so heavily in its 1950s setting, right down to readings for fake sponsors.
- And there’s John Hodgman, who wrote a pilot he also performed in here, Only Child, in which he would have played an early teen version of himself. Once you imagine it more, a bespectacled man clearly in his 40s playing a kid in his early teens would have been perfect for a network like FX whose sitcoms have reflected its “fearless” attitude.
The other element incorporated in every Dead Pilots Society episode is an interview with the writer or writers of the featured dead pilot. And while not all of their names are recognizable to the average TV viewer, they’re not entirely unfamiliar at all, for they’ve all gone to more successful work inside and outside of TV. Just to name three, there are Casey Wilson and John Hodgman (two names already mentioned above), who have quite a few familiar credits not only in TV but also podcasting. There’s also Ira Ungerleider, who’s most notable for his writing/producing work on Friends and voiced the stage directions on his own dead pilot, the pretty absurd but deliciously funny My Cousin Thor. The writer chats range from discussions on the pilot’s inspiration and background, to the process of dealing with studios and networks, as well as the writers’ general thoughts on writing and creative work. Whether it’s honest and frank, or it has an “oh well” attitude, the interviews can be pretty enlightening, and also serve as a nice stepping stone to the pilot reading, where the writer is listening in and taking a bit of pride in their word getting a well-deserved showcase.
Outside of the episodes linked above, there are four Dead Pilots Society episodes that are worth listening to, if not starting out on:
- Rollerworld, from June 2017, which takes place at a run-down roller rink and features characters who have made bad decisions and are seeking some sort of redemption, a theme that anyone who’s never been to a roller rink can relate to.
- Allah in the Family, from September 2017, a tale of a Islam family who emigrated from Iran to Bible-belt Oklahoma that finds the characters (mostly) looking past each other’s backgrounds and beliefs and finding common bonds. It’s a tale told from the family’s eldest son, whose fourth-wall-breaking point of view helps build bonds with the audience.
- Front Man and Tuned (released in August and October of 2017, respectively), both of which incorporate live music in their readings. The music on both is really lively, and it greatly accent’s the latter pilot’s story of an advertising man whose non-stop jukebox in his mind (due to a disease in his brain) literally brings music to life.
If there is one drawback to Dead Pilots Society, it’s that the audio setup on some of the episodes may require you to turn up your podcast player’s volume a little bit, especially early on in the show’s run. That, however, can be chalked up to a show getting its early footing, not unlike a show picked up to series that may adjust its premise or characters once it gets its footing. But don’t let that dissuade you from enjoying the table readings, for the combination of talented actors, scripts from equally talented writers, and a receptive audience help make for an enjoyable listen. Just hit “play” and let this show help program the TV schedule in your mind.
Dead Pilots Society is just one of several “#TryPod” podcast recommendations I’ve made so far. You can check out links to the others right here. And feel free to make your own recommendations in the comments section below. Thanks!