I haven't really taken the deep dive yet into screening new pilots for the fall. Blame this in part on Fox, which for several years would order a show and then kill it some time during the summer. I figure if I wait a few weeks I might still save 45 minutes of my life spent watching the next "Manchester Prep" or "Rewind."
Still, experience has taught me a few survival strategies for wading through close to three dozen new programs, especially when the onslaught of new summer series never abates. Most of it is designed to try to be as fair as possible in evaluating the shows, as well as maintain a semblance of sanity:
1) Spread them out. Just because a bunch of shows come on the same DVD is a bad idea to watch them in one long marathon session. Try to keep fresh eyes. Because the truth is after watching two CBS drama pilots, odds are the third is going to begin looking familiar.
2) Consider recasting. If the producers are just going to change a supporting player, it's probably OK to go ahead and watch as if you're planning to review it. But if there are going to be significant cast changes, watch for the flavor of it if you must, but don't watch intently. Regular viewers won't have the benefit of seeing the show twice, and watching anything a second time -- especially a comedy -- is going to numb the experience.
3) Think about context. It's important to consider what a show is intended to do, and where it's going to wind up on the schedule. Granted, that doesn't matter quite as much as it once did, but there are still issues of compatibility to consider. A sitcom airing at 8:30 Mondays on CBS, for example, brings with it different demands and expectations than something at 10 p.m. on FX.
4) Keep one foot on the floor. This is a reference to early movie sex scenes, but the point is not to fall in love with something too much based strictly on one episode. Anyone who has done this for awhile has had the experience of a great pilot that couldn't be sustained as a series, either because they so frontloaded the concept or the execution simply fell short.
Conversely, while it's tempting to speak in superlatives, be cautious about labeling anything "worst." Yes, it's more likely to get you quoted on Huffington Post's pan of the week, but remember, the bar for bad is set awfully high (or low, actually).
5) Watch the midseason stuff last. Networks have become more aggressive about sending out midseason shows with the batch of ones premiering in the fall, but a lot can change between now and then. Do yourself a favor and wait.
6) Remember there are actual people behind these projects. Being a critic inevitably means you're going to have to tell people that their baby is ugly. But it's possible to do that in a way that isn't cruel. In the final analysis, you're an advocate for the reader, but don't get personal about it. Sitting through a really bad TV show is annoying, yes, but as they said in "The Godfather Part II," this is the life we've chosen.