TV Viewpoint: Pilot Season for RTE

A friend of mine was travelling in the US a few years back and happened upon a taping of a new TV show in a studio lot in LA. Audience tickets were free but limited (like the Late, Late) but she and some pals wrangled a few and went along to the recording. The show was a standard studio sitcom, the type that were churned out in the years after Friends, centred around hapless but attractive characters stumbling their way through life with only a standard unique selling point to differentiate them, like suddenly being saddled with a baby or inheriting a business or being forced to move back in with a parent. I’ll be damned if I remember the plot of the show my friend went to see, because it never saw the light of day outside of a production screening room.

It was a pilot, a one off taping of a programme to be shown to studio executives in order to be green lit and ordered to season. Often pilots are never seen by the general viewing public, unless the show gets the go ahead and not a lot has changed in the lengthy writing process that comes after the pilot has gotten the go-ahead. There will often be significant difference between a pilot and the rest of the series; a famous pilot-in-point is that of The Big Bang Theory, which is wildly different from the finished product (and which can be viewed on You Tube).

Pilot season hasn’t really been a thing here in Ireland, or even in the UK, but that seems to be changing, at least in the world of comedy. RTE, in association with Screen Ireland, recently commissioned four pilots for RTE2, one-off half hour scripted comedy efforts that would seem to you or I like the opening episode of a brand new series. But if you had tuned in to hair-salon based dramedy Headcases and expected to see episode two the following week you’d instead have been faced with a charming little pregnancy comedy called Bump.

The whole pilot thing seems largely like a good idea. The four shows featured were distinctly hit and miss, some with old school scenarios that might seem like a struggle to keep fresh, others with a lot, maybe too much, shoved in to seem more interesting than perhaps they were. Headcases was the first, written and starring Charleigh Bailey alongside Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope’s rising star Seana Kerslake. The two are co-owners of a Swords based beauty salon, facing catty colleagues, eccentric customers and the possibility of a secret that will tear the two’s friendship and business partnership apart. Solidly enough acted, with a few good gags that indicated potential in future scripts, but the BBC has done it successfully before with the soapy but fun Cutting It.

Bump came next, a slightly more original effort starring Charlene McKenna and Gemma-Leah Devereux as sisters who are (of course), complete opposites. McKenna’s Liz is straight laced and responsible, Devereux as Ciara is a wild child in need of some focus. Will that lifestyle overhaul come from the offer Liz has brought to the table, as the role of surrogate for Liz’s longed for baby? This was a cut above Headcases, with elements of recent Irish film Animals apparent and a great ensemble cast.

Next up was Dad, another odd coupling of uptight son and wayward father. The opening scene for this one was pretty great, interspersing each characters’ evening routine with two versions of the same song. It’s a pity that was the highlight, as the rest of the episode consisted of seen-too-often-before scenarios of missed communication and chaotic slapstick.

Finally we had Handy, yet another two-hander of two opposites coming together out of necessity. Stepsisters Row and Finn have been flung together to earn some money with their limited skills when their dad suffers a heart attack and becomes bed-ridden. Funny enough, the lead actors worked well off each other, and at least there was a semblance of originality in the storyline. Louisa Harland couldn’t have been more different from her spacey character Orla in Derry Girls, and Kate Kennedy as her entrepreneurial sister was winning in the role, which she also co-wrote.

Out of all four Bump would be my pick to take to series. See if you agree; you can still catch all four pilots on the RTE Player.

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