Great television has to start somewhere, and Atlanta gives us a great blueprint.
Think back to the last great show you saw and try to remember if you liked the pilot.
For many viewers, the pilot episode is a lost memory or an episode that we vaguely remember due to its sweet or intense film-style events that propelled the story forward. Traditionally, there are pilots only for the television stations to see if a show has what it takes to connect with an audience and keep them updated every week.
Developing a groundbreaking pilot that will change the way we see a series is a difficult task for anyone. For Donald Glover, the task of creating a pilot and a series that would meet mainstream television expectations seemed an easy one.
The success of his show Atlanta, comes from how Glover combines normalcy with the surrealistic elements that make the world of the show electrifying.
Atlanta is a master class in visual storytelling and cinematic creativity on television. Her flexibility in narration and versatility set the show apart, and it all started with the pilot.
Nerdy collapses like the pilot of Atlanta became the best pilot of the last decade thanks to his eye-catching graphics, gloomy world structure, and ability to carefully weigh the decisions that build on each other over the course of the show. View his full video here:
Atlanta‘s Pilot differs from most pilots simply in the way the story is told. Instead of following the format of a simple conflict that revolves around two storylines that eventually intertwine and end with a character-centered conclusion, Atlanta executes a pilot’s structure in a way that is stylized for an artistic or experimental purpose and is not aimed at being entertaining. There is no forced closure at the end, no jokes to complete the act, and no hyper-artificial element that would be accompanied by something like a laugh track. Instead, it has a purpose that extends outside the pilot. The pilot is simply the guide that makes the series what it is.
One of the storytelling elements the show uses is how the characters are introduced and perceived. When the show introduces Earnest “Earn” Marks (Donald Glover) and Alfred “Paper Boi” Mile (Brain Tyree Henry), the show enjoys its weaknesses, which many shows try to avoid or increase for reasons of comedy. Atlanta allows the characters to be morally mixed up in order to present a reduced approach to the representation of simple everyday life.
It is a difficult concept to follow these characters who are struggling to deal with the social consequences they have met in the past, but the show doesn’t overwhelm the audience. Instead, we are invited to watch people try to find happiness in their relationships with others and with themselves.
The magic of Atlanta could have been very different. In the original pilot script, Glover was a member of the Dean’s Office at Princeton University in 2006. The dean questions Earn about something he did, while Earn is described as unable to respond due to his shock. The two-sided scene ends with Earn saying, “I woke up.”
The atmospheric and cryptic opening would have ushered the series in an entirely different direction, as it focused on the character’s backstory, which would have colored the events that happen throughout the episode to match Earn’s story. The cold beginning of Paper Boi arguing with someone who damaged their car and the shot at the end of the scene is an active opening that keeps the episode narrative moving in the same direction it wanted to go during that Audience knows what they are one for.
The narrative of the alleged murder could have been picked up in episode 2 or 3, but it will be abandoned and act as a catalyst for the entire world of the TV show.
Another element working to build the world inside Atlanta is the surreal.
There are only two moments of surrealism in the pilot that are easy to miss. These two moments excite the audience.
At the beginning of the episode, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) seems aware of the fact that he is on a TV show when he mentions that he is having some serious déjà vu. Darius asks where the dog is before turning to spot the dog waiting to be found.
Another moment of surrealism is the man making a Nutella sandwich on the bus. Earn and the man have a short and bizarre discussion before the man leaves the bus and goes into the woods with a dog that was not seen in the rest of the scene. All of those little moments that seem insignificant at this time are the seeds that grow into Teddy Perkins, Black Justin Bieber, and the invisible car that rams into a group of people. Some of the show’s best moments wouldn’t exist if Glover didn’t sprinkle the surrealist elements into the pilot.
The icing on the cake of this amazing pilot is the episode title. Many titles are usually an afterthought. While a title may give the audience some insight into the creator’s mindset or intentions with the material, there is little to no meaning behind it.
To the Atlanta‘s Pilot, the title is a cheeky play on words. “The Big Bang” can be taken in two ways. The first is that it alludes to the sound of the shot at the end of the cold open, and second to the creation of the world. It’s a clever way of showing the creation of a new world unlike anything else on TV.
The pilot puts in a lot of great detail to reflect Glover’s vision for the rest of the series, but does not seek to advocate that the series should continue. The Pilot Alone is a 23-minute short film that ended up being something more.
All of the elements build on each other to create the world these characters struggle to survive, and Glover isn’t shy about showing it all off. The good, the bad and the ugly are presented to the audience in a way that makes us question our own bizarre and chaotic world.
Do you think there is a better pilot than Atlanta‘s? Let us know in the comments what makes your favorite pilot the best in the market!