Black Sails (Starz, Saturdays at 9:00 PM)
In order to preserve the purity of the opinions in these reviews, I don't like to read any other reviews of a show before I watch the pilot myself. Nevertheless, I still can't avoid hearing a thought or two from critics before I get a chance to experience the episode. Based on the few whispers I've heard, most people find Black Sails to be quite mediocre. Which is why I'm shocked by how much I enjoyed this pilot. Right now, the conflicts aren't very interesting -- particularly the main one that carries through the episode, involving the battle for captaincy on the central pirate ship -- but the moments where the show attempts to build its world and establish an atmosphere are very strong. It helps that Black Sails is backed by high production values, nailing the impressive scope of the galleons and smaller details like the muck and grime on every character. Starz is known for their pulpy programming, marrying excessive blood and guts with gratuitous nudity, and this show has both in spades. It knows what it is and doesn't take itself too seriously. I may be out on an island with this one, but if it can manage to be "Spartacus at sea," then I don't mind setting sail.
Broad City (Comedy Central, Wednesdays at 10:30 PM)
Broad City is the best comedy pilot I've seen since I started this Pilot Talk series (which has included reviews of current 1st season favorites like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Trophy Wife, and Enlisted). There are some minor strikes against it, sure -- its web series roots are very clear and I don't know how much legs the show has beyond this episode. But right from the start, it's got such a strange and distinct voice, that I found myself not even fretting over its long-term sustainability. Creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are also the stars of the show, playing two friends who find themselves stumbling upon all kinds of misadventures in New York City. Each of them have their little defining character quirks, and together they've got a very easy chemistry, propelled by the finely tuned dialogue. The pilot wanders into all of these great comedic setpieces -- featuring cameos from funny people like Hannibal Burress, Chris Gethard, John Gemberling, and Fred Armisen -- and it just gets weirder and funnier as it goes along. Who knows if it'll fall too deeply down its own bizarre rabbit hole, but as far as first episodes go, Broad City is a real winner.
Looking (HBO, Sundays at 10:30 PM)
Great TV is often able to give you a look into a world you know nothing about. If that's the case, then HBO's Looking is at least on its way to being a great show. 20-somethings trying to find love and themselves isn't any new addition to the television landscape, but Looking's perspective keeps things fresh, providing an honest depiction of three homosexual friends and their lives in San Francisco. Directed by Andrew Haigh, the pilot has the same relaxed, conversational style as his breakthrough film, Weekend. Yet despite the intimate filmmaking style, none of the characters rise above the level of rough sketches, aside from Jonathan Groff's Patrick. Looking could be on its way to being a great show, but for now it's merely good.
Rake (Fox, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
About 10 minutes into the pilot of Rake, the credits started appear at the bottom of the screen, and I was reminded that Peter Tolan is one of the executive producers. All of a sudden everything made sense. You can certainly see alot of Rescue Me in Rake, in that both of them are tonally all over the place and never know what they want us to think about their protagonist. Keegan Deene (Greg Kinnear) spends most of the episode being grating and annoying everyone around him, and sometimes it's clear that the show wants us to be annoyed with him, but most of the time it just seems like they're turning to us and saying "isn't this guy just an entertaining little rascal"? Because of Kinnear, he sort of is...to a point. After that, it just becomes an unpleasant watch. With a boring legal procedural grafted onto it. The whole thing feels kind of formless, just following Keegan from place to place being a massive pain. Apparently, the original version of this pilot was much darker, and I would like to have seen that, since the kookiness of the new pilot tries too hard to let Keegan off the hook. In watching this, I was reminded of the first episode of The Mindy Project in the fall of 2012. Mindy had better reviews and more buzz than Rake does, but they both were similarly unbearable experiences that left me baffled that anybody could enjoy them.