The pilot episode is one of the most curious phenomena in media. Nearly everything about how they’re made at the broadcast level—typically moving from pitch to final product in a few short, insane months—is outdated and backwards. It’s 2016 and the new shows we receive each fall are still mostly developed with the same kind of manic, slapdash urgency you had finishing term papers in college. Just like those few magical times where your chemically-enhanced all-nighters produced A-level work, it’s kind of wild that every year a couple of these pilots end up being pretty good.
Fox’s Pitch is one of those pretty good pilots this season. Armed with a topical premise about the first female to play in the MLB, a relatively diverse cast led by Kylie Bunbury, and wonderful direction by one of the industry’s best in Paris Barclay, Pitch is a taut, moving 44 minutes. The pilot does exactly what a first episode should do: introduces an easily consumable central conflict (a woman in a male-dominated field) and clear, archetypical characters that can, in theory, be broken down and remixed in future episodes.
Bunbury and Barclay can’t be mentioned enough. The former is sufficiently believable as an elite athlete and personifies the emotional constitution needed to make it to the big leagues, especially as a woman. Barclay, a multi-time Emmy winner, maneuvers around the admitted sports cliches with a stylized eye, taking advantage of MLB and Fox Sports’ participation to create action that looks pretty close to any Padres-Dodgers game on FS1. Don’t be surprised if he’s an Emmy nominee come this time next year; it’s that good.
Unfortunately, some of the things that make Pitch great as a single episode are the same things that make it unlikely to continue as a great show. Ninety-five percent of the pilot can’t be spoiled because you already know what happens; it’s just like every inspirational sports tale ever told. The players may be different and this specific tale may be particularly ripe for bad takes about female athletes (shout out to Colin Cowherd, who has no problem delivering his bad takes in the show as if he wouldn’t take a similar line in real life), but the locker room tension, the initial struggle, and the ultimate triumph are all here.
That predictability in itself is not bad. Pitch is a great rendition of the very familiar sports genre. It’s family friendly, uplifting, and perfectly modernized. The problem is that making one really good episode within the confines of that genre makes it even harder to follow up. Although sports seem like a fruitful world from which to develop stories—with their inherent schedules, weekly or daily drama, and fascinating personality combinations—television has historically struggled to score with scripted sports programming.
Don’t get it wrong, there are great-to-good shows featuring sports—Friday Night Lights, Eastbound and Down, The White Shadow, Lights Out, Playmakers, and of course, One Tree Hill come to mind. However, for FNL, Shadow, and One Tree Hill, early solid sports footage gave way to repetitive angles, plays, and results. There were only so many ways to shoot 4th and forevers for the Dillon Panthers before it grew tiresome, and then eventually, into an inside joke among FNL’s fans. Likewise, One Tree Hill’s international treasure Chad Michael Murray is many things, but skilled basketball player is not one of them.
While it’s likely that Barclay sticks around to direct future episodes of Pitch, he’ll still be working within the very specific constraints of baseball, which is not the most electric or fast-moving sport. After just one episode, you’ll probably be all good on the show’s depiction of wild pitches, Extreme Focusing close-ups, and wide-angle action shots. Ginny will have good and bad starts as a pitcher, but they’ll look pretty much the same.
By necessity then, Pitch is sure to take the same approach that FNL and White Shadow and the good sports shows have taken—it’ll use sports as a backdrop to tell stories about the characters, about the culture of baseball, gender inequity, and so on. That’s a smart track to follow, if the show can find anything compelling about the characters beyond where they end up in the pilot.
That’s something all new shows have to face, but sports shows almost have to do extra work to discover a second genre: FNL became an all-time great show not because of the football, but instead through how it honestly depicted the culture of small towns; One Tree Hill is one of the nuttiest primetime soaps ever, and Eastbound is absurd vulgarity done right. It’s telling that the one show that really stuck to the specifics of its sport, ESPN’s Playmakers, couldn’t last because the NFL didn’t approve of its honest portrayal of professional football.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Pitch is how it seems to be aware of all these challenges and tries to confront them in the pilot. This is the kind of show where characters like Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s star catcher Mike Lawson comments on the ludicrous effectiveness of motivational speeches in sports movies directly as he’s delivering such a speech. That’s fun for one episode and could work for even longer, especially when Gosselaar appears to be having the time of his life in an engaging, non-Franklin and Bash role. But it’s the pilot’s final moments—which I won’t spoil here—where Pitch embodies the uphill battle it faces as an ongoing series. It’s a twist that signals the show won’t really be “about sports,” and also demonstrates the failures of the modern broadcast pilot season. Writers Dan Fogelman and Rick Singer almost certainly needed a “big” moment like this to sell Pitch to executives and to convince them this is a story with a vision beyond sports. Yet, while this reveal works well enough as a conclusion to the pilot, it’s just jarring enough to suggest that whatever vision Pitch has in mind isn’t one that can live up to the first 44 minutes.