Pilot Season by James Brubaker (sunnyoutside, Buffalo, NY, 2013)
Review by Pam Rosenblatt
What do you say when you read a book, and feel just as empty and confused as when you started?
You probably wouldn’t recommend the book to others to read. But in James Brubaker’s Pilot Season,
the alienation and loneliness found throughout this 5” x 4” paperback of 69 pages actually makes you want to re-read it a couple of times to figure why Pilot Season is such a negative read. And maybe this dull feeling would entice you to suggest this book to others to read. Is this sense of alienation what Brubaker wants you the reader to experience?
Through the techniques of monotone voice, sarcasm, and archetypical characters, Brubaker captures an emptiness present in American culture with 19 short short fiction pieces. He opens the book with “Pilot Season 1” and this paragraph:
In this hour-long drama, a beleaguered televi-
sion network executive fights to keep his job
and earn the respect of his family. The Execu-
tive is in charge of programming and project
development at a fictional television network.
Unfortunately, for The Executive, The Net-
work’s ratings have been in decline for three
years, and the series begins with The Net-
work’s CEO informing The Executive that if
The Network’s fortunes aren’t reversed in the
upcoming television season, the entire pro-
gramming and project development depart-
ment will be replaced with younger, hipper
With this despairing beginning, you may expect lively, positive chapters to follow. But what does proceed are short sections, either realistic or imaginative, that are purposed pilots to the following season’s television shows. Some of them have possibilities, while the other pilots talk nonsense.
In “Outside the Box 4”, Brubaker writes about:
“This reality-style, elimination-based game
show (that) brings together a group of young misfits
to socialize, drink, and squeeze themselves
into boxes. Outside the Box is a weekly contest
designed to test contestants’ flexibility. The
focus of each episode is a “Box Challenge” in
which contestants attempt to fit themselves
into various containers that shrink and change
shape every week. The “Box Challenge” runs
throughout each episode, intercut with foot-
age from the week leading up to the chal-
lenge, which shows the contestants training
and fraternizing with each other. At the con-
clusion of each episode, the contestants vote
one of their peers Outside the Box. The only
contestants safe from each week’s elimination
are those who fit themselves into their boxes
during the challenge. In the pilot series, The
Audience will learn that one of the contestants
is a contortionist— a plant introduced by the
producers to provide added tension and dra-
ma. Over the course of the season, the contes-
tants—including the young one, the sexy one,
the homosexual one, the belligerent one, the
old one, and the one who is a mother—will try
to squeeze themselves into a diverse array of
containers such as the trunk of a small car, an
industrial-sized oven, a tuba case, a tuba, and
a series of drain pipes from beneath a kitchen
sink, among others.
While the “Box Challenge” seems to be a humorous idea, the archetypes, or ideal models, are so stereotyped that the show “Outside the Box” doesn’t seems destined for success. For example,
“the contestants—including the young one, the sexy one, the homosexual one, the belligerent one, the old one, and the one who is a mother—“ all are predictable, and not in positive ways. It’s all so impersonal.
Perhaps Brubaker is trying to take archetypical characters and show that things don’t always happen the way expected, as seen in “Sober 14”, when he writes a pilot about “A sitcom about a relationship between an effeminate man and his recovering alcoholic girlfriend who is prone to relapses.” Brubaker treats the situation as if there’s no hope for the girlfriend, especially because of the situation she and the boyfriend are in. As is typically seen with main characters described throughout the book, Brubaker impersonally capitalizes the words “The Recovering Alcoholic Girlfriend Who is Prone to Relapses”, which calls attention to the female character being a negative archetype.
And while the girlfriend is an alcoholic trying to reform herself, Brubaker satirizes the situation by having “The Recovering Alcoholic Girlfriend Who Is Prone to Relapses wakes up, she calls her boyfriend a pussy for buying flowers, which the audience finds quite funny. Then she eats an entire box of Triscuits, which the audience finds even funnier because recovering alcoholics who have relapses are funny when they eat triscuits, and goes to the toilet to be sick…”
There’s something distasteful about the tone in this short short story. It doesn’t make the reader want to read on, but he or she probably will, especially since Brubaker ends this story with “The Famous Baseball Player Who Is Also a Recovering Addict, who speaks out against the dangers of substance abuse” – a character who is a positive amidst negatives in “Sober 14”.
James Brubaker has written a book that makes you the reader think about stereotypes in America, especially in the television industry. When you think of archetypical characters in literature, you usually think of a hero like Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad. But in Pilot Season, Brubaker has created may fictional characters who assume archetypical roles in a very alienated, commercial society.