What can nonexistent television programs teach us about society?

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A Review of James Brubaker’s Pilot Season by Michael Peck

Number of pilot episodes filmed for broadcast and cable networks from January, 2012—April, 2013: 186. Percentage that will not be renewed for a second season: 65. Approximate cost of producing a pilot episode: $5,000,000. Reality shows in 2000: 4. Reality shows in 2012: 320. Rate of suicide among reality-show contestants: 3 times the national average. Most popular locales for filming reality-shows: Louisiana and Alaska.

At the beginning of David Lynch’s Inland Empire, we’re treated to a surreal sitcom featuring people-size rabbits going through the motions of people-like domesticities. None of them speak, but random bits of canned-laughter let us know that something funny is happening, as when a third rabbit (a butt-of-the-joke type, no doubt) enters. The effect is uncannily wholesome and very troubling, like some kind of Edward Hopper tableau put in motion by the makers of Donnie Darko. Automata-like sitcom-tropes are defamiliarized into something truly unnerving in Lynch’s vision. In this world, a watcher’s fascination is as preprogrammed as that of the onscreen portrayals. 

Although none of the pitches in James Brubaker’s Pilot Season will ever be aired, Lynch’s sequence would probably be closest to the book’s deep-seated unease. Constructed as a series of nineteen unconnected pilot episodes for reality-shows and comedies, Pilot Season is every bit as troubling as Lynch’s commentary on entertainment. It’s a spot-on satire of contemporary archetypes.

“Pilot Season” opens the book, a show about “…a beleaguered television network executive [who] fights to keep his job and earn the respect of his family.” Flowing from his desperation, the pitches that follow are sad and uproarious. The first vignette, “A Father’s Love”, is a bitter “elimination-style” game in which men and women compete for the love of a father-figure they’ve never met. Among the many challenges are 

…making things out of wood for and with the Father, not telling anyone when you see the Father ogle waitresses, cleaning the Father’s Civil War memorabilia … and helping the Father when he comes home drunk and throws up on the porch.

At the conclusion, the Father kicks someone off by declaring, “I’m very disappointed in you.”

Brubaker channels the all-too-human and wonky parallel universe of George Saunders (q.v. “Clanking Replicator”: a self-replicating android that has issues self-replicating himself a partner) and the impeccably deadpan tone of Lydia Davis. Every now and then the book tips into Jack Handey territory. “Buddies”, a sitcom about The Fat One and The Pretty One, covers the essence of all sitcom relationships. In “I Love Lucy”, the original gets remade, shot for shot, as a critique “of late capitalism and substance abuse, respectively.” 

No genre is sacrosanct in Brubaker’s evisceration of the medium. His visualizing of “Class Warfare” trumps Trump with its pitting of CEO v. clerk in a gladiatorial contest to see whether the clerk will procure 40% of the CEO’s net worth, or will become his servant, while “Warp” sees an intergalactic political imbroglio between Librocrats and Progrocrats that mirrors the Middle East’s turmoil.

In these brief, 1-3 page charades of pop culture, Brubaker declaims the cliches that have come to define our obsession with manufactured realness; from the trite gender-biases of sitcoms to the low grade snuff intrinsic to the cruelties of reality-television—all the kicking off the island, the dumping, saying no to the dress. Brubaker pulls back all the gloss to reveal a pit of sadness and insecurity and makes that the focus of his excoriation. 

With the final piece, “Primetime”, a lonely boy performs monologues from Seinfeld and The Mary Tyler Moore Show while shut inside a closet—a fitting portrait of media-fetishizing and alienation that the work deals in so provocatively. Any reality-show currently broadcasting could probably be included here with just a little tweaking (Real Housewives of anywhere), or none at all (Here Comes Honey Boo Boo). 

Pilot Season is an understated burlesque of the unselfconscious and the mock-serious, understanding as it does that Kardashians, rednecks and brides-to-be can be left to their own inbuilt meta-parody. Instead, these vignettes confront the banality of seeing the above as something more substantial, and in the process proving that unadorned description is the surest way to determine whether something is deserving of our ridicule. In Pilot Season, the answer is yes and the object of that ridicule turns out to be ourselves.

Michael Peck is the author of The Last Orchard in America. His work has appeared in Tin House, LA Review of Books, Pank and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon City, where he deals in rare books.