[Posted by Jeremy Grayson]
Great pilots can be a mixed blessing.
It’s certainly important for a TV series to establish itself in its very first episode, the better to hook viewers in for the long haul. And given the many moving parts involved in crafting a new series – from characters to plot to tone to production – it’s always something of a wonder when a show hits the ground running in its very first episode.
But at the same time, a truly excellent pilot can unfairly raise viewers’ expectations for future episodes. Once you’ve set the bar at a perfect ten, folks will tune in the following week expecting an eleven.
Still, television’s very best pilots managed to sustain the momentum for at least a short while. Lost and Cheers feature two of the best TV pilots ever made, and their respective first seasons are also pretty terrific. Often, the rule holds true: A strong, confident pilot will most likely yield a strong, confident series.
The pilots of Lost and Cheers have already been discussed in great detail elsewhere on the Internet, and it’s safe to say they don’t need me to maintain their reputation. So instead, I’d like to talk about a less-renowned pilot episode – one that has never received much attention, yet remains one of my favorite series premieres ever.
Kim Possible is not a TV series that’s achieved universal acclaim, but it’s attained a loyal following and has rightly earned a reputation as one of the best shows produced by Disney Animation. (Along with Phineas and Ferb and Gravity Falls, it’s among the studio’s finest animated series of the 21st century.) The show, which ran on the Disney Channel between 2002 and 2007, follows the titular teenager (voiced by Christy Carlson Romano in her heyday) and her best friend/sidekick Ron Stoppable (Will “Batman Beyond” Friedle) as they engage in typical teen shenanigans like doing their schoolwork and saving the world from evil geniuses.
Created by Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle (writers of the entertaining Sky High), the series has shades of Buffy (empowering young woman balancing high school and heroism), albeit with more Alias-style action and espionage, and targets a younger audience. The series featured little serialization (outside of its final season – which, not coincidentally, was its best), but juggled a variety of fun supporting characters – both heroic and villainous – and never took itself too seriously.
And today, I want to talk about the episode that started it all.
Well, sort of.
See, here’s the catch: I’m going to talk about the first Kim Possible episode produced – even though it was only the fourth episode to air.
Yes, we’ve got a Firefly situation here: The original pilot episode, titled “Tick, Tick, Tick…”, was slated to air as the show’s premiere on June 7th, 2002. But instead, Disney Channel executives decided to push off that episode to June 14th, and air three later episodes (in a 90-minute block) in its stead.
The first Kim Possible episode to hit the airwaves was “Crush” – and watching it, you can see it wasn’t always meant to be the show’s premiere. Like Firefly’s “The Train Job,” it’s a fairly generic action story, with a few contrived bits of exposition that seem to have been inserted retroactively. “Crush” is not a bad episode, but it’s disappointingly paint-by-numbers, and is far from a truly impressive premiere.
But if we go by production order, “Tick, Tick, Tick…” is my favorite animated series pilot ever. It’s tightly-paced, well-plotted, and features plenty of great humor. It also establishes the characters and their various dynamics without forcing any of them on the audience. No matter how many times I’ve watched it (and in the last 15 years, I’ve watched it a lot), it never fails to leave me smiling.
But of course, you guys probably expect more justification. So let’s dive in!
(Spoilers for “Tick, Tick, Tick…” follow.)
Start with the skill and ease with which the episode builds the show’s world. Rather than bogging things down with expository introductions, we get a feel for Kim and her surroundings simply by watching her interact with her supporting cast and the plot. Her close relationship with Ron is key to understanding them both – although we don’t know much of these two personally, we can immediately see what polar opposites they are, tuning us into their respective frequencies that much more easily. She’s an expert at fighting and getting out of sticky situations; he’s a schlub whose default mode in the face of danger is to scream and run away. Together, they’re the perfectly imperfect matchup.
Nearly all the characterizations in this episode, in fact, are defined through contrasting interpersonal relationships. Take Drakken and Shego, for example. He’s a mad scientist with megalomaniacal aspirations; she’s a bored henchwoman itching for a fight. Pair them together, and each of them brings out the most entertaining qualities of the other – with Shego around, Drakken has someone to whom he can explain his most flighty and fancy-free plans, and he in turn has those plans humorously shot down by her wry, sardonic quips.
Other characters smoothly introduced into this well-formed world include Principal Barkin (a man so akin to an Army general in his demeanor that he occasionally dips into military talk) and Bonnie Rockwaller (whose brief appearance already sets her up as the snotty cheerleader we’ll soon come to love to hate to love). That Bonnie’s appearance in this episode is so brief should be no surprise when you consider the sheer amount of action occurring within the confines of the episode’s 22 minutes.
And indeed, there is a lot of action, because “Tick, Tick, Tick” moves. As the title subtly suggests, the episode cruises along with a seemingly never-ending pulse-beat in sync with its time-bomb plot device. Yet even through the breakneck pace, the characters never miss a chance to drop a humorous line in even the most precarious of situations, or in the most meta of fashions – Kim making a passing jab at Scooby-Doo, Ron’s pathetic attempts at “handling” remote-controlled lasers, or both of them calling out Drakken after he attempts to use the clichéd “Stay for lunch” line. (This immediately follows my favorite moment in the episode: Drakken’s attempt to “remind” Kim what his name is, along with her befuddled reaction.) These little moments add some welcome humor to the proceedings, while also instilling us with a sense of confidence that the show’s writers know their way around the familiar tropes of an action series.
Through all the fight scenes – well-staged and animated at every turn – it’s the core relationships that shine through. Kim, of course, is at the center of it all, and the episode never misses a chance to show us what a sharp and resourceful – yet still undeniably feminine – protagonist she is. Case in point: After a mishap erupting from mistaking an elastic constricting agent for an ordinary tube of lipstick, Ron is apprehensive of what appears to be an ordinary compact… only to discover that it is in fact an ordinary compact. Later, Kim uses that same “ordinary compact” to deflect Drakken’s lasers and blow up his lair.
Kim’s femininity and her action-prone persona go hand-in-hand – it’s her cheerleading practice that has kept her fit enough to fight the bad guys. (To drive this point home, the climax sees Kim battling Shego while in her cheerleader outfit.) As Vinnie points out, “Cheerleader’s got some moves!”
It’s this gender-bending combination that drives the primary plot of “Tick, Tick, Tick” as well. To her fellow students, Kim is a cheerleader first and a globe-trotting world-saver second. And strange as it may seem, this sets up the most profound message of the episode. Teenagers are accustomed to compartmentalizing their fellow schoolmates to familiar cliques – the cheerleader, the jock, the nerd, the slacker – in order to relegate the high school flow to basic terms. And to Vinnie, Junior, and Big Mike, “the cheerleader” is woefully out-of-place in detention hall. Yet Kim would not have sprung into action in this episode’s last act if Junior had not emphatically pointed out the zit – a cheerleader’s dreaded flaw – in her skin, not realizing that said “zit” is in fact a miniature bomb.
The detention rejects are relegated to their own little “clique”, but they seem quite open to allowing Kim to join. That Kim is repulsed by the idea of being a part of their gang (or as Ron puts it, gaining “street cred”) is unsurprising; in the first indication of what will become the show’s most recurrent theme, she can handle the likes of Drakken without breaking a sweat, but has no coping mechanism for the high school drama of her life. Yet the ending to this episode cleverly reconciles her two conflicts – after those detention buddies help her in the climactic fight with Shego, Kim becomes more accepting of them. When she agrees to do their nails at episode’s end, she not only uses her action-girl persona as a bridge for her fellow students for her feminine side, but has bent the seemingly inflexible rules of high school cliquedom. (As a bonus, Big Mike – who pulls a Sara Bellum for much of this episode, finally shows his face when he saves Kim from Shego. Once Kim sees Big Mike as he truly is, the viewer does as well.)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give special mention to the episode’s romantic foreshadowing – from Kim’s “So not your type!” to the pseudo-romantic pose our two heroes strike as Ron administers the Diablo sauce. These moments are just as swift and seamless as everything else in the episode, and tease at something beyond standalone character development.
Kim Possible is not a perfect show – though it’s generally a lot of fun, the plotting is too-often routine and formulaic. And the show would never again produce an episode as airtight and entertaining as “Tick, Tick, Tick…” (although “A Very Possible Christmas” came close). But none of that diminishes the power of the premiere itself, which remains as entertaining now as it did 15 years ago. If you’re a fan of great Western animation, the Kim Possible pilot is definitely worth appreciating.
(And again, that pilot isn’t “Crush.”)