On AMC, the television show Rubicon – through some clever promotional release tactics – managed to have the largest original programming premiere in the history of the cable network. It is also one of the slowest-moving shows I’ve ever seen, but it’s somehow managing to gain an audience and receive a good dose of critical love. In short, it shouldn’t have worked, but it did.
Trying to make “TV on the Web” has frequently been the kiss of death. Many have tried, and so far the best long-form show out there was and is Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, with a runtime of up to fifteen minutes. So, imagine my surprise when I see the run time for Pioneer One‘s pilot episode to top out at 35:32 (according to their VeeHD release).
So, let’s recap: a thirty minute political thriller/science fiction pilot production on a $6,000 budget, to be released primarily through the VODO network, with the hopes of getting people to donate $30,000 for six more episodes. They’re not releasing on any of what we in the industry would consider “normal” channels. Not on YouTube (though someone’s posted it unofficially, somehow), not on Koldcast, not Blip.tv. When you look at the articles that we and others have posted about how pilots are typically made and sold, there’s no way this should’ve worked.
And yet, so far, it seems to be working just fine. Through Bittorrent, in under a week, they managed to reach over 420,000 downloads. That’s 420,000 separate, completed downloads.
So this is a long prelude to the actual show. Let’s get into the show itself – the official description of the premise starts with:
An object in the sky spreads radiation over North America. Fearing terrorism, U.S. Homeland Security agents are dispatched to investigate and contain the damage. What they discover will have implications for the entire world.
It’s not the most original concept, but it’s also very fertile ground to play in. And like Rubicon, it takes not so much a subdued, but certainly a quiet approach to the material. While occasionally the acting hits a snag, Rich’s beleaguered Tom Taylor holds everything together, with a confidence that clearly comes with an actor’s director. The show’s really taken the pacing and tone of Rubicon (or one of its inspirations, The Conversation) and married it to the structure and political science fiction of The 4400.
The structure of the show is very slowly plotted, but even so, in thirty minutes I know more about the universe, the characters and the story than I would in an an hour of some television pilots. Josh Bernhard and Bracey Smith know exactly what they’re doing, and the confidence shows. While some of the technical aspects of the show feel a little rough, they push forward and refuse to let such matters take us out of the story.
The show could easily break itself up into more web-friendly episodes and still work coherently. Whether that’s accidental or by design, I couldn’t tell you, but it’s a testament to the strength of the storytelling that this scalability is possible, and would still remain compelling drama.
Coherence of tone is something that many series struggle with – Pioneer One does not. The tone you get in the first five minutes is going to stick with you – and it sucks you in. It feels like a gambit to me that some of the audio mixing and recording isn’t quite perfect – but it’s clear that the confidence of the creators in their story is high. And it worked. After a while, I’ve long since forgotten about technical issues. I just want to know more.
Win, Fail or Trainwreck: Undeniable Win. This was a labor of love that paid out big. Egos were checked at the door and everything that happened in that thirty-five minutes was in service to the story and to the atmosphere of the show. The suspense wasn’t cheap or forced – they earned the goodwill to keep your attention for the full half-hour. It has a very Primer quality in the sense that they’re willing to live with some of the glitches they’ve had – whether behind the camera or on the screen – because their distinct dialogue style, which mixes the controlled overlap of The West Wing with the technical jargon of 24, will hold your attention above all else.
This is something that not only belongs with Syfy, whether on TV or as a web series, but it’d belong on a top shelf of theirs if they’d had the resources to pull it off. They did this for a little over $6,000, which, even if you price and include the free labor and then double it for a full hour-length series, would still be cheaper than the average science fiction television series. And it’s better.
Or maybe I’m just dying for more Fringe. I don’t know, I’ll take it. Download it. Stream it. Sit back and watch the future. (It will also be screening at the New York Television Festival next month.)