Glitch: Pilot

This is the first in a series of pilot analysis, where I review how the pilot works as such. Eventually if there’s enough interest I may pick up a whole series. First up is Glitch.

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A good pilot establishes; that’s almost its only job. It establishes the main story, the setting, characters, the look and feel of a show. It can establish backstory, and secondary stories, romantic triangles, multiple locations, etc., if there’s time. It can foreshadow, and establish bases for coming storylines. I’ve written about how another pilot accomplishes this here.

Besides establishing main story and characters, the only other job a pilot must do is give the viewer a reason to keep watching. It does no good to have a pilot which is basically a 45 minute film, then doesn’t retain ratings. Sometimes, this goal is accomplished within the establishment of main characters and story; for example, a show like Gilmore Girls establishes story and characters and Stars Hollow, but you don’t return for any cliffhangers. In genre TV, it usually must establish a mystery, an ongoing phenomenon, etc.

Last, a pilot must be cheap [most US pilots are shot on spec, as with the above-linked example, but Australia seems more willing to shoot at least a short order] but not look cheap.

Glitch’s pilot does the hell out of all this, and then some. 

The theme song is sparse but immediately gets across the main idea: reversal of natural decay.

The opening scenes are completely empty; this is effectively eerie, but also cheap. You can do the whole thing with some good scouting and 3AM second-unit shoots. They don’t just use existing lighting, though, there’s a lot of reds, especially in the trees near the cemetery.

Town and creepiness introduced, we move on to our main character, Small Town Sheriff James. He knows all the locals by name, he’s gruff yet compassionate, he makes house calls to put dogs down. The audio of the dog barking wildly is intercut with the graveyard, establishing Something Is Up.

So far, none of this places us in a specific time. It’s recent enough, as we ascertain from the wardrobe and vehicles, but it could be 2015, it could be 1990. The show narrows it down when a kid witnesses people climbing out of graves . . . and immediately begins recording on his smartphone. Now we know it’s not a throwback, it’s approximately Now, and we’ve also gotten the show’s first bit of dark humour.

We get more dark humour combined with practical establishment of what sort of town we’re in as we cut back to James taking a phone call from the police station, where a cop intones “we have a guest in the Presidential suite” and smash cut to someone in the drunk tank. Now we’ve learned the town has a Mayberry vibe, which adds to the impression of our Andy Griffith sheriff. We know the drunk thing is a common occurence because of the knowing, casual way in which its handled. There’s a lot of information in a short space, along with a plausible explanation for why James is going to have to go to the graveyard where we know something big is happening.

James hangs up and gets back to putting the dog down. He’s lit from behind with ‘practicals’, the truck headlights giving him a hairlight so strong it looks like a halo, a nice bit of symbolism. There’s a bit of suspense as we’d hoped he’d leave the dog until he realised something was afoot, but there’s no reprieve for the dog who’s trying to warn them. It’s a dark ending following two instances of dark humour. In other words, it’s establishing the show’s tone.

Next, James goes to the graveyard, where the suspense is built from audience expectation. We the audience know zombie movies, it’s a genre which is In right now. When James bends to help a woman who we know has recently become Undead, who’s covered in dirt and mumbling incoherently, we expect the woman to bite him. The tension repeats itself when another Undead approaches the van, with the POV shot as he moves forward, and in the house where James and Elishia (our doctor) take the patients.The tension is built and slowly let out, but never fully released, We as audiences have been trained to expect music to cue us in whether a scene is creepy, supernatural, etc. Instead, there’s no music for the first five minutes of Undead encounters, the tension is built organically and visually . . . as a side benefit, it’s cheaper to have a background of nightly cricket chirps instead of music.

A thick layer of tension is added by the fact James and Elishia don’t think they’re in a zombie movie; it makes sense for them to treat this as a drug episode gone wrong, or college students on a dare. The audience is expecting bites, but they’re also in suspense over when our heroes will first recognise something is wrong. The first half of the episode toys with the line between supernatural and a believably weird occurence: the audience knows it’s the former, as we saw the emergence from graves. But the characters don’t. 

Switch back to some characters we’d had set up but forgotten about; the sixth ‘zombie’ and the bike kid. We get a cute reversal of the usual tropes in that the ‘arrrr’ zombie has reason to believe he’s being stalked, and is just defending himself, even though he’s naked and undead he’s the scared one. When he doesn’t recognise the smartphone, we place him at least 10 years gone. “Of course you can’t [get into the bar]. You’re a native.” places him at least 40 or so years gone. And so on, until we discover when he’s from. It’s simple things which start placing Undeads in various times, doing a good job of ‘showing, not telling’ they’re all from different times.

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All of a sudden many things escalate at once, dogs barking in the music track, one of the Undead making a break for it. The camera switches angle as the character appears in other clothing, so it takes us only a moment to realise we’re experiencing a flashback from the Undead dude’s perspective. Once we know this, they repeat the move with the other Undead stories, using variations on the camera-movement trick to segue in. 

We’re slowly gathering pieces of information when dun dun dun, our sheriff recognises one of the women now she’s cleaned up. Separating the patients out with the doctor allowed us to prolong the reveal, but they don’t tease it too long once they’re in the room together. James’s touch on the woman is intimate, and knowing the genre, we have a good idea where this is heading. This time, our expectations are fulfilled. She has a wedding ring, he has a picture in his wallet, voila.It’s his wife. [A bit of a stretch he wouldn’t have recognised her just covered in dirt, but it was dark too. Willing suspension of disbelief.] Cue a flashback to happier times. A flashback to marital bliss is usually a tired way to convey information in a short amount of imte, but here there’s an extra layer of symbolism: the bedsheets being pulled back suggest a shroud, and that sex/death/resurrection are all interconnected. 

Things are happening quickly, but as de facto town leaders, the cop and the and doc are calm and professional, the doctor downright matter-of-fact. They make decisions which we would consider sensible and necessary in their situation – for example, James going to his wife’s grave – and here the pilot takes are to answer questions viewers would be yelling at ‘normal’ humans. So far, so good.

It seems perfunctory when I list off the information conveyed in each shot and scene, but watching the pilot doesn’t feel so very “A tells us B.” It’s visually pretty, the acting is solid, we’re interested in what’s going on. The editing is effective at conveying information; as the dog barking was intercut with the graveyard, so the flickering lights are intercut with an Undead girls’ eyes blinking. Relatable humour such as an Undead declaring “I want a fucking drink” helps humanise the characters, and the story clips along at a good pace. There is lots of small character / backstory building in small details: for example, that our kid steals diapers tells us something about his nature as well as his family life. When he comes home, his grandma says “shouldn’t have spoken to your mother like that” and he acknowledges it; so they had a fight, there’s some tension in the house, and they all live together. It’s all conveyed in details.

The mystery is also built in details. We see a knife connected to the Undead Mayor in his bar, followed by Carlo dropping a dinner knife and seeing it in a flashback covered in blood. These are our first two hints that maybe these guys who came back are murderers. Why does this matter? Because it’s a natural assumption of the genre they’d be murderED. Undead stories often involve vengeance for wrongs, or finishing a journey. why would murderers be coming back? Just when we’re thinking this, we’re thrown the twist Carlo didn’t murder his brother Alesandro, instead Alesandro committed suicide. I understand why they wanted to get the entirety of Carlo’s story into the pilot, but this is the one place it feels like infodumping and where a 45 minute episode, instead of 55, may have felt more natural. They are really loading info into the pilot, giving info and then twisting it. On the other hand, Carlo’s story sets up a quandary, as it seems to intimate that Undead revisiting where they died will result in their second death. 

We have several protagonists and some Undeads of uncertain type and motive, but we need an antagonist. Back at the police station we meet Vic, who’s immediately at loggerheads with James over what to do about defaced graves and an unnamed suspect. James puts him off, obviously treading water until he can sort out what to do. Motivated in part by James’ odd actions, and also seemingly a simmering desire to contradict James’ authority, Vic follows James and Carlo. Though he doesn’t seem Carlo combust, he does see something we admit looks pretty suspicious. As James leaves the scene the camera moves to a low shot which establishes the dust is relevant, Vic approaches it, and another DUN DUN DUN . . . finds a bullet in the dust. Mystery established. 

There’s now interpersonal tension between our protagonist and an antagonist, but it’s not quite enough. The story wants to give James other personal drama, so we get a conversation with him and Kate, his Undead wife. A lot of information if conveyed in the framing; the two of them sit facing each other, not touching, obviously unsure what all this means, where each others is at. It sets up for us the possibility James has a new love interest, who we presume is the doctor . . . until we follow James back home, where there’s a pregnant woman in his bed.

Whew.

Now. Our main plot and place and characters are established – actually, there’s so much going on, it’s almost establishment overload –  we have a dozen threads to follow, our protagonist is facing various dramas at work and home. While we’ve been given some answers, we have even more questions, the main questions which are: what are these Undead, and why these six? Several smaller, related questions drive the drama as well: Why the last one rising at the end; is it connected to Carlos’ disappearance in that when one leaves another replaces it, or are more and more going to arrive? How will James resolve his unusual love triangle? What will Vic discover, or reveal to the town, in his search for information and possibly driven by his desire to undermine James? There are a lot of narrative potentials, and though some are more typical than others, the way the pilot resolves some situations in a conventional manner and others with a twist means we’ll probably be kept on our toes for a while.

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Stray Observations

– References to religion [the halo around James’ head as he kneels, recitation of Holy Mary with the sign of the cross, the cross in the Alesandro death flashback]; literature [most explicitly Anne of Green Gables], and history [local history with our mayor, and history of racial tensions in his storyline].

– While the tension built with the Undead wandering the house is good at the start, it’s a bit weird as they wander when they’re forwarding the plot, then sit conveniently and placidly in the background while reveals are happening in the foreground. 

– The scene of Kate flashing back to her emergence from the grave a mere hour beforehand makes it seem as though a second ‘her’ is emerging, and since both scenes are in the dark with here and there’s no differentiation of time, and we have no idea what the Undead phenomenon is yet, it’s confusing. It would’ve been better to cut that bit, or shoot/edit it differently.

– “During the war, they locked up the Italians.” “Really?” Yeah, really. 

– I don’t know enough yet about Australian TV and cinema to quite get whether this kid is fulfilling or subverting the ‘magical aboriginal character’ trope.

– James acting as though a doctor would know what to do with an Undead person. He should ask a movie reviewer or literature professor instead, what that sort of thing usually intimates.

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