Networks used to make changes to pilot episodes all the time between when they ordered them and when they aired them, and TV critics often got to see both versions. And, by seeing what was added or removed, we could also get a sense of what the network and/or creative team wanted a particular show to be.
Often, reshoots led to improvement. The original “West Wing” pilot was so one-sided in its depiction of the religious right that it felt like piling on. (Or like a preview of Aaron Sorkin’s work on “Studio 60.”) A new scene was shot featuring Leo talking to a sensible and decent reverend that put things much more in balance, and pointed the way forward for a show that, while a liberal fantasy, at its best had fun depicting the other side as smart and passionate in its own right. When Lauren Graham replaced Maura Tierney in “Parenthood” Due to Tierney’s health issues, producers didn’t just reshoot Tierney’s scenes, but added a couple of new ones, including one featuring the four Braverman siblings hanging out by themselves, which helped center the series and establish the mix of light and dark tones it uses so well. (Tierney was far and away the best part of the uneven original pilot; ironically, her exit made the whole thing much better.) Sometimes, though, shows get worse: each iteration of the “Terra Nova” pilot was blander and more dumbed-down than the one before, suggesting the people in charge had no sense of their own show’s strengths and weaknesses.
These days, production budgets are so lean that significant pilot reshoots are rare, even when they make sense. (“New Girl” didn’t simply reshoot all of Damon Wayans Jr’s scenes with Lamorne Morris taking over his role, for instance, which led to several years of complications before Wayans could finally return.) FOX’s new legal drama “Rake,” though, not only got an entirely new pilot, but several other episodes set prior to the events of the original pilot (which will air later in the first season). The first pilot was already emblematic of the struggle to do cable-style weirdness and moral ambiguity in a broadcast network context; the new pilot (it debuts tomorrow night at 9) sands off several of the edges that survived the first time.
In both versions, Greg Kinnear plays Keegan Deane, a brilliant, charismatic lawyer who’s also a self-destructive gambling addict slowly but surely ruining every healthy relationship in his life. Though it’s adapted from an Australian series of the same name – whose creator, Peter Duncan, is working on the new series, along with veteran American producers like Peter Tolan (“Rescue Me”) – it is, essentially, “House, JD,” and Kinnear has the impish charm to play this kind of character.
The original pilot tried to straddle the line between network legal procedural and something more complex, and though it didn’t entirely succeed in juggling a mix of serious and comic tones, it was at least interesting in its willingness to throw the viewer right into some deep, dark waters with Keegan Deane. The man we’re introduced to in that episode is in a lousy place, emotionally and physically, and no attempts are made to hide from that, even as Deane is cracking wise about having a cannibal for a client.
As it turns out, someone – whether FOX execs, the creative team, or both – decided they needed to hide from the darkness, at least at first.
“We found that we had an episode that had maybe an overload of not drama, I”ll say, but maybe a little sadness,” Tolan said last week at the Television Critics Association press tour, “which worked against the episode. And so we refigured it, sort of toning that down.”
In the new pilot, set earlier in time than the one that will air in a few weeks, Deane is still deeply in debt to his bookie, still bounces from office to office with the help of his frustrated secretary Leanne (Tara Summers), and still has a knack for taking cases other lawyers would never want to be associated with (in this episode, an incarcerated serial killer played by Peter Stormare). But he’s also crashing with his uptight best friend Ben (John Ortiz), Ben’s uptight wife Scarlet (Necar Zadegan), and their kids, and the wackiness level is cranked way up. Now he’s not introduced as a damaged man who lives alone and is clearly on the road to ruin, but a light-hearted bringer of chaos, who inspires Ben to plead for a little less of “your wild and crazy lifestyle” being brought into their home. The new pilot is also very brightly lit, like a single-camera sitcom; even though Sam Raimi directed both episodes, the new one visually resembles an episode of “Malcolm in the Middle” more than it does a more recent show featuring Bryan Cranston.
And if all “Rake” is aspiring to be is a quirky lawyer show that occasionally hints at darker things before leaning back on Kinnear’s gift with a deadpan one-liner – if it wants to be a show you fold laundry to, like the bulk of what USA and TNT program these days – then that’s no sin. But the original pilot – which, to be fair, is still going to air(*), and still feature certain status quo choices the show will have to live with down the road – suggests something more complicated and interesting than that.
(*) The original pilot features several scenes where what seems to be one kind of relationship for Deane turns out to be something very different. Those surprising revelations had to be duplicated for the new pilot, which means that by the time the original airs, it’ll be structured to spring info on an audience that already knows it.
If Tolan and company felt they needed to build more to what they did in that first pilot, then maybe that messier show will still exist, just a ways down the road. If, on the other hand, everybody freaked out about America’s willingness to watch that first version of the show, then their hopes for us are as high as our hopes for “Rake” should be going forward.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org