review, television review

NBC’s Perfect Harmony & the Problem with Beginnings

[Photo credit: NBC]

NBC’s new fall comedy Perfect Harmony has some of my favorite things: choir, jokes about conservative ideals (I grew up conservative, so it “strikes a chord” with me, har har), and Bradley Whitford (most recently of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale). As a friend put it, it’s like a reverse Sister Act. I’m all about Sister Act. I’m probably the perfect, targeted viewer for this show. With high hopes, I watched the pilot episode.

“Pilot” is industry-speak for season one, episode one. The pilot of any series is potentially the most important episode of that series that will ever be made.  It set expectations for literally everything else in the series. This is sometimes why a pilot episode is noticeably more violent than episodes two and three: it’s signaling the viewer that stuff like this can happen in this story. It’s often used to pitch the show to producers and network honchos, and after it has passed those tests, it’s used to pitch the show to potential viewers. The only way viewers will become fans is via the pilot. The run of the series, the livelihoods of its writers, directors, crew, and actors all depends on a solid fanbase that begins growing (or not) with that pilot.

Kind of important. And, as far as I’m concerned, a problem for Perfect Harmony.

***SPOILERS FOR THE PILOT OF PERFECT HARMONY BELOW***

There were lots of little problems with this pilot, but I think all of them can be traced back to one major storytelling issue. Here’s my diagnosis.

They tried to jam an entire season into one episode.

Some of the negative effects are:

Not enough time to imprint on characters, especially Bradley Whitford’s character, Arthur. We don’t get a genuine connection with him or his emotional state. His attempted suicide within the first five minutes of the show is glossed over and ignored (which is also not a proper way to handle suicide, but that’s an entirely different issue). There’s a huge missed opportunity to really dig into his grief. I get that this is a comedy, but there’s quite a bit of good, dark comedy that can be mined from grief. (Grace & Frankie, for example.) We get caught up on what happened to him as the episode progresses, but he’s already being an asshole in those moments, too, so the viewer’s not 100% on his side.

The crowd of supporting characters (the choir) also gets the shaft. They’re introduced all at once, which is overwhelming, and they’re treated as caricatures. There’s no other way to do it; there’s simply not enough time in the forward-leaping pilot. Each character gets about one defining detail, and that’s it.

Series Expectations: Trite one-liners and fast, surface-y exchanges will be the norm. Legitimate emotional experiences will be expedited for the cheap, less-earned laugh.

An unsteady sense of how time will work. Within one 21-minute episode, Arthur’s tiny choir goes from out of tune, out of whack, populated by singers who really don’t understand how to use their own instruments, to winning an award at a competition with a performance-ready sound and full choreography and a boatload of unearned confidence. It’s not super clear how long the choir has until the competition to prepare, so I’m not sure exactly how long they were able to rehearse. We see two, maybe three rehearsals, which–my fellow choir nerds know–is not nearly enough time to see that kind of progress.

Series Expectations: Passage of time and episode structuring are unclear. Maybe each episode will end on a performance. This is a believability problem. Will there really be enough venues for choral performance in Small-Town, Kentucky to hold up multiple episodes?

An unrealistic depiction of choral music, and how people learn to sing and/or improve musically. One of my day jobs is teaching private voice lessons. I know the lingo, and how people improve their voices. Some of what Arthur tells the choir is dead on (aligning the spine, string from the top of the head, how emotions/posture affect sound).  But then there’s that scene where Arthur telling a man to imagine his voice as a little ball of light literally unlocks a MASSIVE, rich, baritone sound with mature vibrato. That is pure fantasy. That kind of work would take at least weeks, if not months or years, not minutes.

The idea that Arthur directed choral music at Princeton is another believability problem for me. A choral musician from Princeton would be an expert conductor. Whitford’s conducting just isn’t good enough. He should have taken far more conducting lessons, and actually conducted some live performances, led some rehearsals, etc. before filming. I had a problem with this when watching Mozart in the Jungle, too. Mozart got around it a bit by having their conductor be a “prodigy” and by generally being hyper-accurate with every other element of classical music they explored. All Perfect Harmony had to do was make it NOT Princeton, and I would have been fine. They could have even made up a school name.

This element also gives me trouble identifying their target audience. If they’re appealing to the hardcore music nerds, they’ve already lost us. If they’re trying to appeal to a broader audience, why make it about choral music? It can’t be this specific, and have that broad of an appeal.

Series Expectations: The show will be only very loosely based around choral music. References to choral music will probably be borderline inaccurate. It’s not a show written for musicians.

Conclusion . . .

If the end of season one had been the competition at the end of the pilot, Perfect Harmony would have had time to dig in deep, start right, humanize its characters, get the audience connected, stabilize time, improve believability, provide more evidence of musical improvement, and demonstrate that the writers understand how choral music works by inserting easter eggs for the music nerds along the way.

It’s too bad; I really wanted to like this one. But it’s an interesting study in how setting expectations can win or lose your audience’s attention.

What did you think of Perfect Harmony’s pilot? Am I totally off base? And what do you think is the hardest part of writing beginnings and setting audience expectations?

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