We're a few weeks into the new TV season, and I feel the need to set the record straight about a few shows, now that I've watched (whether under coercion or not) beyond the pilot of several new shows, and, with an exception-that-proves-the-rule, I've come to a conclusion.
Judge a pilot on its own merits, but don't judge a series until episode three (should you have any interest in the premise of the series... if not, then there's really no reason to stick around... i.e. me and Melrose Place, no matter what anyone could ever say, I won't be sampling it again).
Why episode three? Because pilots are, theoretically, the singular vision of the pilot's writer/writing team. Episode two is the product of the writers room... and you really have to figure out where you're taking the show beyond the set up of a pilot episode. New writers added to the mix need to figure out the voices of the characters and that takes time. In episode two, there is also the pressure / temptation of doing a second pilot... either totally revamping the show because you're going somewhere else with the series, or "restating" the pilot while not advancing the story or characters.
Cases from this season:
Modern Family: Uproarious pilot. Second episode, IMHO, far weaker. It wasn't funny, though it did bring the heart in spades. It suffered from "restatement" syndrome in that the characters were pretty much all in the same groupings as in the pilot... it just wasn't as funny and the situation not as fresh. Episode two had me worried. Episode three allayed my concerns. Third episode... hilarious (and also full of heart). Characters interacted in combinations that were different than the pilot... though Cam and Mitchell still are separate and, thus, I've found their scenes the least involving / compelling / amusing.
Cougar Town: Similar to Modern Family, in that the pilot was funny, last week not-so-much, this week things were a ton better. Particularly the supporting cast felt off and misused last week, while this week they were handled better (Busy Phillips gets more screentime, Josh Hopkins gets less... I'm happy). Also, yeah, the comedy was far superior last night to the post-pilot episode.
Community: Again... hilarious pilot, weak episode two that was a little too much of the same, strong episode three (that brought something new and different to the show).
The Vampire Diaries: Pilot episode, though the best of CW's fall offerings, was boilerplate at best. The post-pilot episode, though featuring Ian Somerhalder more after establishing him too late in the pilot, was more of the same. Episode three? Leaps and bounds better (and episode four was actually good guilty pleasure silly teen drama TV). The problem, which I think the writers figured out, was the level of danger. Both the pilot and post-pilot episodes really only had danger to characters we didn't know in the teaser section, in miniature, B-horror film vignettes. Then... our characters are in danger. There was just much more tension. I'm surprised to say this... but I think you should check this series out.
I've yet to watch Eastwick or Mercy's third episodes, but both of them had better second episodes than their cliched pilots, for various reasons (and, I will repeat, that Mercy's pilot was supposed to be reshot but didn't have the chance to be since it was suddenly airing in September instead of midseason). Mercy, I watched the 2nd episode with a friend at her place when I otherwise wouldn't have come back to the series. Eastwick I got an e-mail recommendation and was glad to see improvements in episode two.
Now... the exception. Glee. Glee's third episode was, by far, the worst of the entire series to date. Fortunately when you have a show that started with two incredibly fun hours... having an off third episode - AND KNOWING WHAT WAS OFF ABOUT IT AND FIXING THAT - can help immensely. But if the first two hours hadn't been as magical as they were, a third hour like "Acafellas" would have been the nail in the coffin for me as a viewer. If episode three of Vampire Diaries hadn't been better, I wouldn't have been back for episode four. And if I'm not pleased with Mercy or Eastwick when I get the chance to see their third offerings, considering that I'm not in love with either... then I won't be coming back.
So... episode three. Will update on Eastwick and Mercy once I've watched. And I'm very much looking forward to tonight's third episode of Flashforward (the second episode addressed some of my concerns, so I'm not thinking I'm giving the series up if episode three isn't up to snuff... but it's time to see this plot advance now that the larger "are we really dealing with this" questions seem to be out of the way).