Television has taken the crown from the film industry when it comes to groundbreaking storytelling and compelling new characters. Where couples once took a trip to the movie theater every weekend for a date, now they’d prefer to snuggle up inside and watch the latest seasons of their favorite shows on Netflix. There’s good reason for the transition. With all the competitive networks out there and the years-long stories for each series, actors are no longer perceiving TV as the place where careers go to die. It would make sense then that you would want to grip your audience from the very beginning. Good word of mouth goes far and there’s no better way to kick off that positive publicity than with a great first scene.
A few weeks ago, we published our definitive list of the 40 Greatest Opening Movie Scenes of All Time. The response was overwhelming. From readers suggesting some of their favorite scenes to others pleading for a higher ranking for an entry, it was just the kind of comments we enjoy seeing. That’s why we felt you deserved another list for television. While not ever great TV show out there started out so hot, some were remarkable from the start. This list represents all those series that got it right out of the gate.
We’ve reminisced on every pilot episode we’ve ever watched, both the good and the bad. The results turned out to be some of the most amazingly scripted moments to ever grace the screen. We limited our choices to strictly shows, meaning there will be no made-for-TV movies here. It can be a strenuous task filtering through so much television, but somebody’s gotta do it. Just know we endured it all for our readers. So here it is, for your entertainment purposes, the 40 Greatest Opening TV Scenes of All Time. Enjoy.
40. Justified – Miami Showdown
How many warnings does it take before Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens pays you a visit? The answer: just one. Nothing says you’re a lawman willing to stretch the rules like shooting two people in the chest in the pilot episode of your own series. That’s what Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) did to both start and end the premiere of one of FX’s best shows to date. With its shoot first and ask questions later attitude, Justified resurrected the western genre in modern day Harlan, Kentucky, but before that the lead protagonist was in Miami and things didn’t appear any sunnier.
Walking out onto a hotel swimming pool deck on the Florida coastline, Raylan has the collected demeanor of a gunslinger with confidence in his draw. He sits across from known criminal Tommy Bucks (Peter Greene), whose laid back posture and tailored suit suggests an unwillingness to cooperate with the Marshal’s code of conduct. Raylan reminds Tommy that he’s been given twenty-four hours to leave town or meet his end. As the clock ticks down the last seconds, a moment of worry crosses Tommy’s face. With his trigger finger itching, he pulls a gun from underneath the table, meeting nothing more than a shot from Raylan as he falls back in his chair. Just minutes into the show and already the lead is playing loosely with the law, forcing the hand of a criminal with an ultimatum. It was this quick-handed showdown that would land Raylan back in his hometown where he’d encounter a few faces from the past that would come back to taunt him over the course of five seasons.
39. Alias – A Double Life
From the outside, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) looks like she has it all figured out. She’s an A-plus student, with the good girl looks and fiance to match, but behind the scenes, things aren’t as idyllic as they seem. She’s secretly a recruited spy for a branch of the CIA known as SD-6 and over the years her professional life will force her to cope with some traumatic experiences. Everything comes to a head when her boyfriend is killed by Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), the scheming leader of operations for SD-6. In actuality, Arvin is a member of the Alliance of 12, an elite international agency that sells weapons and military secrets to buyers on the black market. When Sydney learns that SD-6 is in fact one of the twelve subsidiary cells of the evil organization, she begins work as a double agent to curtail their plans for world domination.
The pilot for Alias opens in media res as Sydney gasps for air with her head submerge in a water tank. As a hand releases its grasp on her, her face rises from the water to reveal two Taiwanese soldiers torturing her for information. Her hair is bright red, dyed that color to mask her appearance. She tries speaking to her captors in their native tongue, but is handcuffed to a chair in retaliation. As she comes to terms with her situation, she hears footsteps outside the door of the undisclosed location. Sydney looks on in panic, waiting for the person on the other side to enter. The door opens just as she begins to regain her composure and in walks… a professor. The scene cuts to a flashback days prior to Sydney’s current situation when she was still worrying about the grade she would make on a college exam. The viewers are left in suspense as they are filled with information about the lead character’s past. In time, all her loved ones will be put in harm’s way. She will become more estranged from her friends and her job will become a priority. It’s moments like the opening that keep a secret agent from becoming close with anyone and for Sydney, balancing her two lives will be the hardest part of the road to come.
38. Scandal – Gladiator in a Suit
Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is a name that carries some weight in the District of Columbia. She’s a legend in her line of work. Formerly a White House Communications Director working under President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), she has since broken her ties with the Oval Office to start up her own crisis management firm. She’s a professional fixer with a ragtag team of recruits that help her dig up the dirt, but the dirt isn’t always such an easy thing to scoop. Along the way, her past with the president makes things increasingly difficult. She must deal with assassination attempts, relationship issues and a father who secretly works as a commanding officer for the CIA. It’s all in a day’s work, but it’s worth it just to get the chance to work at a job that really makes a difference.
In the pilot episode of Scandal, Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes) rushes to meet her blind date on time. She isn’t dressed for a night on the town and when she sees the fast-talking, debonair Harrison Wright (Columbus Short) waiting for her at the bar, she immediately tells him she can’t stay. He responds quickly by asking her what she’s drinking, which she’s answers by again reminding him she can’t stay. She tells him she doesn’t do blind dates to which he responds by telling her that it isn’t a date, but a job interview. Quinn says she never applied for a job with him, but Harrison insists she did. She gets up to leave, but he stops her abruptly. He suggests she ask him who he works for. Curious of who the mysterious employer is, she does exactly that. He tells her that he is a lawyer for Olivia Pope, which draws her attention. He says he will offer her a crap salary to be one of the good guys and that the job is hers if she wants it. He ends his pitch by saying she will save lives, hunt dragons and work as a gladiator in a suit. Dumbfounded, Quinn informs Harrison that she too wants to be a gladiator and like that a new member is added to Olivia’s team of problem solvers.
37. 30 Rock – Buying the Hot Dog Stand
By the time Tina Fey left Saturday Night Live in 2006, the comedienne had already established a name for herself as a writer for both the sketch comedy show and her hit 2004 film Mean Girls. With her next venture, she would pull from her experiences working on the set of SNL. Her comedic send-up of the television industry would let her exercise her creative talents with a star-studded ensemble and a sarcastic approach to the workplace comedy. 30 Rock would garner acclaim thanks to Fey’s portrayal of the over-worked head writer of The Girlie Show, Liz Lemon. Critics would also sing Alec Baldwin’s praises as Liz’s boss Jack Donaghy, the controlling but senseless network executive that constantly interferes with the production of the show.
In the first scene, we witness a troubled Liz checking her watch while waiting in line at a hot dog stand before work. As a man in business attire cuts to the front to buy a hot dog, she interjects. She calls the man out for his rude conduct by telling him to get in line. He responds by saying there are in fact two lines and half the people waiting for their food get behind him in support. Continuing his discourteous behavior, he snaps at the ranting Liz, telling her to shut up. Taken aback by the comment, she pulls a quick one over the other customers, buying all the hot dogs from the vendor and giving one to each person who waited. She struts down the sidewalk with a cheerful disposition carrying a box full of the hot dogs and handing them to strangers along the way. The scene establishes Liz’s jovial, go-for-the-prize personality and Fey’s candid observations about the frustrations that come with living in New York. Although the series would take time to build its tone over the first season, the comedy gold was already shining in the first few minutes and it would showcase exactly what we were in for in the episodes ahead.
36. The Leftovers – The Sudden Departure
Two percent of the population gone, the survivors left in ruins, the rise of cult fanatics devoted to the new world – this HBO series from Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta is a tale of loss wrapped in metaphors and fever dreams and there has never been another show like it. In season one of The Leftovers, we first see Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) as the Chief of Police in Mapleton, NY dealing with the aftermath of a cataclysmic event that’s left the small town in an unpredictable and temperamental state. In search of a miracle after everyone is left devoid of faith, he finds only chaos in his travels, going as far as the afterlife in search of a revelation that seems content on never coming. The series is a puzzle of inexplicable circumstances, but remains all the more provocative for it. It’s the mysteries that keeps us tuning in and despite much being left to interpretation, the drama is as refreshing as ever.
The intrigue of the series begins with the event known as The Sudden Departure. On October 14, 2011, a mother of an infant child argues on the phone in a laundromat as her baby cries incessantly. Her frustration is visible as the coin dispenser refuses to accept her dollar. It’s a taxing day for the woman, but nothing out of the ordinary seems to indicate the event that’s about to unfold. Sitting her child in the back seat of her car, a calm washes over the baby as the woman starts the vehicle. As the cries cease, the mother checks the back to see her child has vanished. In a panic, she rushes outside calling out her baby’s name. In the streets, others have also disappeared. A young boy is left unattended outside of a grocery store after his father goes missing. Two cars collide as a driver also vanishes. Civilians swarm the scene, but to no avail. It’s an eye-opening occurrence that goes without explanation and leaves everyone stupefied as they’re left without a clue about the cause. Everything that unfolds in the wake of the Departure can be summed up by this one brief moment as we’re asked to piece together the answers on our own.
35. The X Files – The First Case
Included in creator Chris Carter’s ten essential episodes of the series, the pilot for The X Files delved deep into the paranoia of its mythos the only way it knew how. Although the show would most notably go on to epitomize the monster-of-the-week format with some of the freakiest, most abnormal creatures and people known to exist, it was the many layered alien conspiracies that were the core of the story. The series would eventually jump the shark, perplexing viewers with convoluted subplots that led nowhere, but the very first X file would be a lot less confusing and had audiences wanting to believe.
In Bellefleur, Oregon a luckless teen named Karen Swenson is seen running through the thicket of trees in Collum National Forest. It’s a dark night and the troubled woman is still wearing her pajamas. Visibly worried about something following behind her, she stumbles onto the ground where she meets her end. A beam of light falls from overhead and the conspiracy begins. When detectives arrive at the scene the following morning, Swenson’s body is lying in the same spot with two mysteriously shaped red marks appearing on her lower back. The lead detective immediately recognizes the girl and her markings, indicating previous encounters with similar victims. Only two minutes into the first episode and the world of unexplained phenomenon has already piqued our interests. It isn’t until FBI special agents Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) are introduced, however, that we are fully caught up in the conspiracy, resulting in a years-long journey for one of television’s greatest on-screen couples.
34. Six Feet Under – Funeral Coach Commercial
If an award existed for the most morbid television series of all time, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything to compete with Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under. Each week, an episode would begin with a cold open chronicling the last few minutes of a person’s life. That person would then bite the big one in an usually disturbing, saddening or even funny way. Each death would up the ante to try topping the last. The weirder the death, the more daunting the task was to fix up the family for the funeral arrangements. That’s where the Fisher family came in. They run a small funeral home where it is their job to comfort those who knew the deceased. They aid in selecting the right coffin, orchestrating the event in question and prepping the body for an open casket ceremony if possible. They all came together through the untimely death of their father Nathaniel Sr. and despite their differences, they’re there when it counts. With such a bleak topic, a little humor is needed every now and then to keep things as cheerful as possible and the odd beginning to this drama looked to establish that dark humor early on.
The first scene to Six Feet Under is only about thirty seconds in length, but it will have most viewers wondering if they’re watching the right show or not. Set against an all white background as George Bizet’s operatic tune “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” plays overhead, a woman dressed in a black dress and white gloves brushes her fingertips over the sleek exterior of a brand new hearse. Another woman’s voice can be heard narrating the commercial for the car, calling it sophisticated and seductive. She calls the hearse the “New Millennium Edition Crown Royal Funeral Coach,” a car suited for your loved ones because they deserve the very best in class and comfort. It’s a telling sign of how the Fisher family must operate, marketing the very best to the family of the deceased as a way to honor the dead, but more than that the fake commercial foreshadows the death of the father Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins) only moments later. Driving home in the new Crown Royal as a surprise to his family, he is hit head-on by another vehicle. He becomes the first of many to open the show with his death and the hearse serves as a constant reminder that the unexpected can come even when things appear to be at their brightest.
33. Rick and Morty – I Had to Make a Bomb
Despite being in the golden age of television, finding a show that embraces creative freedom and pure audaciousness is still a rarity. After witnessing firsthand the kind of restraints a larger network can have on a series, creator Dan Harmon took his idea for an animated series straight to Adult Swim with his co-creator Justin Roiland. Rick and Morty would defy expectations as a maddening, offbeat and coarse show about the misadventures of a mad scientist and his grandson. The characters would mixed earnest moments of sincerity with bizarre displays of drunken mental illness that often leads them to the brink of utter chaos. The identity of the show has proven to be one of a kind and it has never been more clear than in the first scene.
Rick (voiced by Justin Roiland) drunkenly stumbles into Morty’s (also voiced by Roiland) room in the middle of the night to wake him up. He tells his grandson that it’s a matter of urgency and that there’s something he needs to see. He drags him out of bed and into his flying vehicle he made from spare parts in the garage. With a half empty bottle in one hand, he flies intoxicated as he informs Morty that he’s made a bomb he plans to drop on the city below for a fresh start. They’re on their way to pick up Jessica, Morty’s school crush so that they can serve as Adam and Eve to repopulate the new Earth. Rick promises he won’t try to fool around with Jessica because he’s “not that kind of guy.” In a panicked attempt to save the town, Morty grabs the wheel from his grandfather, kicking and slapping him in the face. Rick agrees to land, calling the whole thing off. The scene ends almost as quickly as it begins, but the traumatic experience is saved only by the warm-hearted Morty. The balance is struck between the rational grandson and the lunatic grandfather and with it comedic genius is born.
32. Pushing Daisies – The Magic Touch
Something unusual is happening in the town of Coeur d’Coeurs. The dead are coming back to life at the behest of a young boy and despite the vibrancy of the townspeople, nothing will ever be the same for poor Ned (Lee Pace). Pushing Daisies isn’t the typical fare for a network like ABC. It’s taken right out of the fanciful world of fairy tales. With a flashy bright color palette and a child-like wonder to match, the series was a morbidly bleak story ladled with enough cheerful splendor to balance everything out. When Ned moves to the city to become a pie-maker, his seemingly peaceful life is turned upside by his gift. With the tip of his finger, he accidentally revives his childhood crush Charlotte (Anna Friel). Now they work together to solve murders with the help of a magic touch.
A narrator introduces us to Ned for the first time as a child. At that very moment, he is nine years old. He’s running through a field of daisies with his dog, Digby, until Digby is hit by a large truck. As young Ned grieves over the body of his pet, he unexpectedly revives the animal with his touch. His newfound ability comes with a caveat, however. Whoever is touched can only come back if the life of another is taken and once they’re brought back, whoever is revived cannot be touched again for a second touch means death forever. When Ned’s mother dies suddenly of a heart attack, he brings her back at the unexpected expense of Charlotte’s father. Still unaware of the rules that come with his power, he allows his mother to kiss him goodnight, once again killing her but this time for good. The opening to Bryan Fuller’s short series is a real downer if we’ve ever seen one, but the stark contrast between the losses of life and the young love between Ned and Charlotte meshes with the charming tale, creating a unique series that should have lived much longer.
31. All in the Family – Meet the Bunkers
In 1971, the United States was only three years removed from the end of the Civil Rights Movement, but bigotry and racism was still a hot topic among the American people. A series about a working-class white family from Queens with an assertive World War II veteran spouting his prejudice beliefs didn’t sound like an easy choice for a sitcom, but it was just the kind of relevance the television audience needed. Three different pilots were shot for All in the Family before the cast finally came together and CBS found the show they were looking for. The series would inevitably prove to be a ratings smash, reaching the top spot among audiences for five consecutive years. It all began with the episode “Meet the Bunkers” and Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) has remained one of the greatest comedic figures in television ever since.
The pilot episode was virtually plotless, taking place in one location at the Bunkers’ residence. Waiting in the living room, the Bunkers’ childish daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) awaits her parents’ arrival with her Polish-American hippie husband Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner). They’re planning a party for their 22nd wedding anniversary and hope to surprise them as they walk in. Things get heated with the young couple as they can’t keep their hands off each other. They get caught in the middle of a heavy makeout session while in the kitchen and at that moment Archie and his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) arrive through the front door. They have just sat through half a sermon at church at Edith’s request and Archie is noticeably annoyed by his morning so far. Michael enters the room from the kitchen with Gloria wrapped around his waist, still kissing him. As Archie complains about the indecency of their display of affection, he talks of how he never acted that way with Edith. He sits down to read the paper and continues his rant about the younger generation’s incompetence and lack of manly chauvinism. It’s the beginning of the discord that would set up many of Archie’s tirades to follow. His feuds with Michael would paint the family man as a lovable bigot, often racist but ultimately caring. It was a family comedy that sparked controversy during its premiere but would become a defining study of the political discourse of the 1970s.
30. My So-Called Life – School Is a Battlefield
The problems of adolescence feel like they never go away when you’re a teen. The peer pressures of high school, a need to fit in with the crowd, a desire to live anywhere but with your family – these are all the common things the average teenager deals with. The meaninglessness of it all can seem overbearing and parents just don’t understand. All of these thoughts were trapped inside the mind of the 15 year old Angela Chase, a sophomore at Liberty High who just wanted to find out who she was. She narrates her life as she finds herself in situations she wouldn’t normally be involved in. Driven by her friends and her crush on heartthrob Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), issues such as drug use, child abuse and alcoholism are repeatedly encountered as one girl is forced to make rational decisions about how to handle things which are not always in her control.
My So-Called Life opens with Angela (Claire Danes) and her new, rebellious best friend Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer) on the streets begging strangers for spare change. They struggle to keep a straight face as they make up stories about why they need the money. Their bus tickets were stolen, Angela’s mother is in a coma, she’s hypoglycemic and in need of sugar – all these are made-up excuses for the two girls to ask for cash. Angela narrates everything. She began hanging out with Rayanne because she thought she would die if she didn’t. Fastening herself to someone more rambunctious than herself seemed like a good way to overcome her distaste for her mundane life. She dyes her hair red because Rayanne believes it’s holding her back, but her hair is just a metaphor for everything she’s been too reserved to try. As she says, school is a battlefield for your heart and only you can decide where it leads you. We get a quick glimpse of a typical day as a teenage girl put under the microscopic lens of an outsider, but already we can relate to the turmoil that comes with all the angst and we know exactly how Angela feels.
29. Friends – Runaway Bride
Ten seasons on the air means plenty of opportunities for firsts. For Friends, there was the first time Ross and Rachel kissed. There was the first time Monica and Chandler slept together. There was even the first time everyone got together for Thanksgiving. But few moments beat the first episode, when we see the entire cast hanging out at the Central Perk with nothing better to do with their time than talk to each other. It was then that we all knew how the chemistry of the group would work. It all started with a bride ditching her wedding with a case of cold feet and from there on, the strongest bonds a sitcom has ever known were forged.
Sitting at their usual place on the coach of their favorite Manhattan coffee shop, Monica (Courtney Cox) tells everyone she’s seeing a new guy. They all wonder what must be wrong with him to date her, but she insists they’re just having a good time and not having sex. Next up is Chandler (Matthew Perry) who recalls a strange dream where his man parts where replaced with a phone that he used to talk to his mother. Ross (David Schwimmer) then comments on his wife moving her things out of their home, depressing everyone at the table. Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) detects the negative energy in the room and tries cleansing Ross’s aura. Meanwhile, Joey (Matt LeBlanc) questions how a married man couldn’t know his wife was a lesbian and recommends visiting a strip club. At that moment, Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) enters the shop in a wedding dress looking for Monica. She’s left her groom Barry at the altar and is seeking words of wisdom from anyone willing to help. The moment reunites Rachel and Monica as they decide to live together. The key hotspot that would become the place of conversation for the next ten years is introduced and we get a feel for each character’s personality, setting up the foundation for which Friends would build its loyal fan base.
28. True Blood – Convenience Store Vampire
There’s no denying that HBO’s vampire series True Blood wasn’t the most consistent in quality over its seven season run. The quality of the show dipped as senseless plots about werepanthers and fairies were introduced, but back in its heyday when the show was still riding high on sexually explicit and violent depictions of its fanged leading men, there was a lot of potential for an inventive series. We came for the vampires and stayed for the drama and gory fates for many of the characters. It was all in good fun and that was evident from the opening scene.
In the heart of rural Louisiana in a town called Bon Temps, a young blonde woman and her boyfriend stop at a roadside convenience store after seeing a sign for Tru Blood, a synthetic drink invented after the revelation that vampires exist. Curious about the newly marketed beverage, they enter the store where the clerk is watching a televised debate between Bill Maher and a representative of the American Vampire League. As the couple question the man behind the counter about whether he’s ever seen a vampire, a customer in camouflage peruses the back for an item. At this moment, the clerk puts on a phony Transylvanian accent to scare the preppy young adults, pretending to be a vamp in the Mecca of Louisiana. Disturbed by the conversation, the stranger from the back of the store interrupts the couple as they ask where they could acquire some vampire blood, now a popular drug among the locals. The camouflaged man reveals his own fanged teeth to the three in attendance, giving us our first sight of a vampire. As the couple runs from the store, he purchases a case of Tru Blood and warns the clerk to never masquerade as one of his kind again. The opening plays with audience expectations as our typical gothic standard of what a vampire should look like is quickly flipped on its head. True Blood would continue its theme of defying expectations in the seasons to come, even if the execution wasn’t always ideal.
27. Daredevil – Close Your Eyes
Heroes are born from tales of tragedy and tested mettle. Bruce Banner had his unfortunate mishap with gamma ray radiation; Steve Rogers was injected with the Super Soldier Serum; the Ninja Turtles were the product of a toxic chemical spill; and Matt Murdoch received his heightened senses through… well, the same chemical spill. It’s these origin stories which craft the personas of the characters we grew up on. So when Daredevil made its way to television screens via the way of Netflix, there was no other way to open the Marvel series than with the accident that led to Matt’s blindness. It’s a worthy remake of the comic book origin as we witness the sacrifice necessary to adopt a lifestyle of hero vigilantism.
The sounds of the New York City streets are muted as Jack Murdock (John Patrick Hayden) makes his way through the traffic of cars lining the road. The noise all comes rushing in at once when he stumbles onto the scene. Lying before everyone in attendance is his young son Matt (played here by Skylar Gaertner). Jack comforts his son as he repeatedly tells him not to move. The young boy inquires about what happened as his father spots the wrecked cars close by. An elderly man informs them that Matt pushed him out of harm’s way during the car’s collision with a semi-truck. As the hero-to-be remarks about his eyes burning, Jack spots the foreign chemicals that have spilled onto the street from the truck. He tells Matt to keep his eyes closed, but the effects have already taken hold. His sight disappears as he looks onto his father’s face for the last time. We get brief insight into the heroics of the young Daredevil before he becomes the savior of Hell’s Kitchen and his curse will over time prove to be his blessing.
26. Futurama – A Thousand Years Later
If one show were to define the career of creator Matt Groening, it would beyond a doubt be the ultimate animated television series The Simpsons. There’s no denying that a family entering their 28th season on the small screen is deserving of all the praise we can give them, but Groening’s other baby didn’t do too bad for itself either. Futurama, the story about a pizza delivery boy frozen in suspended animation and waking up a thousand years in the future, was ahead of the curve with its subversive humor and unsophisticated glimpse at a world where aliens and humans coexist. It was a show about one man in need of an escape and how he would find what he needed in a future that he could call home.
On December 31, 1999, Philip J. Fry (voiced by Billy West) is called to an address to deliver a pizza. With the beginning of the new millennium around the corner, Fry finds himself in a dead end job and recently dumped by his girlfriend. He arrives at the abandoned address where he reads the name on the delivery as I.C. Wiener, an apparent prank call pulled on New Year’s Eve. As the world counts day the final seconds of 1999, Fry opens a beer and leans back in a chair to toast his lousy evening. As the new day begins, he falls back from his seat and rolls into a cryogenic chamber where he is trapped for the next one thousand years. Outside the window, the evolution of human civilization can be seen. The world is destroyed by an alien race, reconstructed and destroyed again before the two finally learn to live in harmony. When Fry finally awakens he learns of the new time period and is ecstatic about the news. It’s a favorite moment among fans as a shadow of a character known as Nibbler can be seen pushing Fry into the chamber, a foreshadowing that his future was actually predetermined all along. It caused much speculation among viewers and would ultimately prove to be the reason why the lead protagonist eventually begins working at Planet Express Corporation ten centuries later.
25. Friday Night Lights – Four Days Until Kickoff
Football country – it’s enough to drive the hysteria of a town against you. If you’re not a fan, then you can be shunned by the whole community. It’s the sport that has taken over all of America. Players have prospered; lives have been crushed; scandals have broken out and courage has been built. It all occurs out on the field and Friday Night Lights took the cultural phenomenon straight to the end zone with its knockout premiere. One man’s journey to take a well-established team of Texas high school students to the state championship is more than just a tale of a game. Each player is a testament of the conviction and strong will the game can build and as many of them play their last years, they look to the future as a open road with countless possibilities.
Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) is driving to work on a Monday morning as a local radio show talks about the changes coming for the Dillon Panthers. Expectations are high for the new season and if Taylor can’t deliver, he will be crucified at the stake. Friday night is just four days away and the team is still in need of some shaking up. As listeners call in to the program to voice their concerns, the second-string quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) is shown cleaning after his mentally ill grandmother. He heads to school as he reads about his new coach in the newspaper. Meanwhile, fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is nursing an early morning hangover as he hears a lecture from his older brother about being booted from the team. A news van rolls up to the field during practice to talk to the players as their star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) and their flashy running back Smash (Gaius Charles) exhibit confidence about winning state in the coming season. The pressures are high and everything is riding on the team’s performance, but as we will see, everyone’s personal lives will come into play when the chips are down and they’re needed the most.
24. M*A*S*H – Korea, 1950… A Hundred Years Ago
War can be a trying time for those who witness firsthand the kind of atrocities people can commit. For the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) during the Korean War, it took everything to keep your mind off the reality of your situation. Adapted from the hit 1970 Robert Altman film of the same name, which was itself an adaptation of a novel by Richard Hooker, M*A*S*H follows the everyday lives of the doctors stationed in Uijeongbu, South Korea as they struggle with America’s involvement with war and the dire consequences that come from violent interactions between opposing countries. Along the way, characters such as Captain Benjamin Franklin Pierce (Alan Alda) and Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit) watch on as doctors come and go and the toll of the war radically changes the landscape of their environment. Through practical jokes, the crew make their time more bearable as they look to laughter as their one true source of joy.
We first meet the series’ ensemble cast in 1950… or, so we think. Captain “Trapper” John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers) tees up a golf ball before driving it into the nearby forest. As he admires his swing, titles inform the viewers of the time and place of the show, “Korea, 1950… A Hundred Years Ago.” Already, the series has acknowledged the Korean War as the often referenced “Unknown War” among the people. Elsewhere, Lt. Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) and Lt. Maria “Dish” Schneider appear to be working feverishly on something off screen, which surprisingly turns out to be a bottle of champagne that won’t open. Other characters are also seen in their everyday habitat. Father Mulcahy (played in the pilot by George Morgan) is fast asleep while Hot Lips reads and plays footsie with Major Frank Burns (Larry Linville) under the table. At that moment, Trapper hits another ball into a minefield that causes an explosion in the distance. The idyllic sequence is abruptly ended as choppers come roaring in over the mountains with the day’s wounded soldiers arriving from the battlefield. Despite the senseless game of golf and some allusions to sexually explicit behavior from some of the characters, the opening sequence remains firmly grounded by the results of living in a war-torn region. Although the titles may suggest people don’t remember Korea, those who lived there during that time will always remember and try as they might, no amount of humor can make them forget.
23. Mr. Robot – Ron’s Coffee Shop
A series about an antisocial cyber security tech with anti-capitalist ideals doesn’t seem like the kind of risk most cable networks would take, but Mr. Robot has proven a surprise hit amid the controversy of privacy concerns following news about the NSA. Elliot Alderson is the antihero television never knew it needed. His paranoia for the multinational conglomerate known as Evil Corp is intensified by his own understanding of written codes and easy hacks. If he can peer into your personal life, the chances are he’s already done it. He goes to a psychiatrist to help with the problem, but he finds he can only pacify his clinical depression with his morphine addiction. He may be the eyes watching over you, but he’s not the enemy and he proves that by going after the people he believes truly deserve it.
After briefly talking to his imaginary friend in the introduction about the secret members of society who rule the world, Elliot (Rami Malek) is shown walking into Ron’s Coffee Shop where he awaits the arrival of the owner. He sits uninvited at his table, where he tells Ron information about himself that not everyone would know. Ron changed his name from Rohit Mehta after buying his first coffee shop. Now he owns a chain with seventeen different locations. Elliot decided to hack him after intercepting the traffic off his network while using the WiFi in one of his shops. He discovers a hundred terabytes of child pornography being served to 400,000 users. Ron is troubled by the news and pleads for mercy by trying to relate to Elliot’s own behavior as an outsider, but Elliot informs him the information has already been submitted to the police and they are on their way. As he walks out, officers swarm the area and enter to make the arrest. Elliot’s strange, wide-eyed personality is on display as he works on his antisocial personality disorder. The scene is loaded with technical jargon and we’re informed early on at just how much the lead character actually knows. The Internet is a dark place with a multitude of evil-doers taking advantage. Mr. Robot only begins to scratch the surface of those dark corners in the opening, but it’s enough to hook us from the start.
22. Arrested Development – Meet the Bluths
Outlandish and perhaps too esoteric for most viewers, Arrested Development has become something of a cult sensation since its early cancellation by Fox after only three seasons. A critical darling, the series follows Michael Bluth as he decides to stay in Orange County to look after his family’s real estate business after his father lands in prison. Each member of the Bluth family operates under their own spoiled idealization of how the world should be with only Michael (Jason Bateman) and his son George Michael (Michael Cera) appearing as anyone with a remote clue about reality. It’s a series that rests solely in the realm of stylish outrageousness with no one being in on the joke. And that’s why Michael must escape and in the pilot episode he tries just that, but as we know by now, his efforts will all be in vain.
Think of all those moments when you’ve endured the madness of your family – all the social gatherings, the thankless chores, the arguments over nonsensical things. What if you could just let it all go? When we first meet Michael, he’s at a boat party celebrating the retirement of his father from the family business. We’re filled in on all the needed information by the anonymous narrator (voiced by executive producer Ron Howard). Michael has been waiting for ten years to become a partner with his father. He’s happy despite the endless complaints from his mother about the party being upstaged by a nearby gay rights protest. One by one, we’re introduced to Michael’s twin sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), her husband Tobias (David Cross), the older brother Gob (Will Arnett) and the youngest sibling Buster (Tony Hale). Together, they are the reason for Michael’s usual abject state, but today is different. He has decided to never speak to any of them again and with his decision, he will finally be free. The introduction of the characters in Arrested Development is like being introduced to someone you immediately dislike. Each one exists in a shroud of self-interest, making them instantly hard to cope with. It’s family dysfunction at its finest and it’s why the show has lived years past its expiration date.
21. Firefly – The Battle of Serenity Valley
With a number of classic shows and some of the best series ever written making an appearance on this list, it’s a true testament to the quality of Joss Whedon’s sci-fi western that it’s included here despite airing for only one season. Due to the rise of streaming services and an always faithful fan base, Firefly has grown into a cult sensation that was wrongfully marketed to viewers during its initial broadcast. The story of Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a former soldier who fought on the side of the Independents during the Unification War, was never given the credit it deserves. He assumes the responsibility of captain aboard a small transport ship after the war has ended and through the indelible strength of his crew, he perseveres against all odds. The stunning visual effects were on full display during the pilot episode “Serenity,” but due to an underwhelming response from Fox executives, it would be aired out of order to end the short-lived series.
The episode opens with Sergeant Malcolm and Corporal Zoe Alleyne (later Washburne) (Gina Torres) as they fight on the losing side against the Alliance, a powerful authoritarian government seeking complete control over the known territories of the ‘verse. The year is 2511 and Malcolm is about to witness the defeat of the Browncoats in a giant massacre. As the two attempt to prevent Alliance forces from overtaking Serenity Valley, Mal asks for the aid of Zoe and another soldier named Bendis (Eddie Adams) to shoot down an assault vehicle that’s blocking supplies from entering the area. With Zoe providing ample coverage, Mal is able to hijack an anti-aircraft gun and take out the vehicle, but it’s already too late. The reinforcements never arrive and they both look on as the valley is overrun by Alliance ships. The battle gives Malcolm the name for his ship, the Serenity, a constant reminder of the war he continues to wage against the totalitarian powers that suppress the people of the universe. It showcases his skills as a natural born leader and sets the stage for the events of the series six years later.
20. Freaks and Geeks – Man, I Hate High School
High school is the worst. It’s divided up into cliques. In one corner, there’s your popular kids. Those are the rich students, the jocks and cheerleaders and the likable class clowns. Then there’s your freaks – the outcasts that just can’t seem to fit along anywhere. And finally there’s the geeks, your run-of-the-mill Star Wars fanatics, science lovers and members of the A.V. club. It can be hard finding your place, but that sense of belonging is paramount to your teenage years. Judd Apatow understood that and he made that sense of belonging the topic of Freaks and Geeks from the very first scene.
The year is 1980 and it’s just another day at William McKinley High School. At the track and field outside, the football players are in full practice mode while one star athlete is confessing his love for a cheerleader on the bleachers, but underneath them is where the real action is taking place. Daniel Desario (James Franco) is recounting a story about wearing a Molly Hatchet shirt to church as Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) listens from afar wishing to be a member of the group. At the same time, her brother Sam (John Francis Daley) is being taunted by bullies for his Caddyshack references and love of Bill Murray. Witnessing it as it occurs, Lisa steps in to intervene and the group of antagonists scatter. It’s a snapshot of the days gone by when high school was still everyone’s living hell, but for Lisa and Sam it’s still just their everyday lives. As Sam rejects Lisa for helping, claiming he can defend himself, she says what was on the mind of most teenagers at her age, “Man, I hate high school.” The truth couldn’t be any clearer: high school is a bummer and we all have to live through it.
19. Better Call Saul – Cinnabon
Saul Goodman wasn’t always the as-seen-on-TV attorney biting off more than he could chew. Before he ever got into business with a meth kingpin, he was small time. His name was Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and he had made a life in Albuquerque with his less than friendly clientele. It isn’t until he meets up with a “fixer” named Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) that his path to the Saul Goodman we all know begins taking shape. The ending isn’t set in stone, but it’s unlikely Jimmy will ride off into the sunset. Getting into bed with bad guys will leave you dirty and this lawyer is as much to blame as the men he represents.
The opening black-and-white scene of Better Call Saul shows the series’ despondent lead character after he ditches New Mexico following the events of the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad. It’s present day and Jimmy is now working under a new identity at a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. As he helps roll the dough and slather the pastries in frosting, he appears under a mustache and thick-rimmed glasses. His name tag reads “Gene” and he’s making the world a more delicious place. In actuality, he’s hiding from the authorities and anyone else who could cause him harm. He returns home to his apartment where he lives alone and before flashing back to the days of his past, he sits and watches a VHS tape of his time in the ABQ. He’s a shell of the Saul who represented Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), but according to creator Vince Gilligan, his story isn’t over and there’s still more to come from his not so idyllic life working at the Cinnabon. Only time will tell where the crooked lawyer ends up, but wherever it is, we hope it’s a little better on the waistline.
18. Deadwood – Jailhouse Hanging
The Wild West, a place that’s succumbed to all the vulgarity and ruthlessness that comes with the opportunity to strike it rich. There’s no rest for the wicked in a place like Deadwood and law and order is quickly becoming nothing more than a fairy tale made up to keep just anyone from plotting to take over. It’s here, in the newly established mining community, that Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a former marshal from Montana, sets up a hardware store as a way to start up his life anew. But with troubled lurking in every corner, he’s destined to become the town sheriff, swearing to bring peace to the land he looks to call home. Along the way, his path crosses with the infamous Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the owner of the local brothel known as the Gem Theater. It’s a show without pity and a history to tell. Keeping things civil between the townsfolk will prove to be a task too big for a single man, but someone’s gotta do it.
It’s May 1876 in Montana Territory and Marshal Seth Bullock is watching over Clell Watson (James Parks) as he sits peering out of the bars of his cell. Outside, a gallows stand is awaiting the prisoner’s execution. Clell had plans to move to Deadwood like Seth, but instead found himself arrested after stealing Byron Sampson’s (Christopher Darga) horse. Seth’s business partner and friend Sol Star (John Hawkes) arrives to warn him that Byron is in front with a drunken mob to deliver an early execution for the criminal. Seth leads Clell out onto the porch with a noose around his neck as he announces to the group that the sentence will be carried out immediately under color of law authority. Rather than walking to the scaffold before the gang, he ties the rope onto the roof of the porch with Clell standing on a stool. After he steps off the seat but struggles to die, Seth mercifully snaps the man’s neck before the onlookers. The execution rescues the prisoner from the mob that would undoubtedly cause him greater suffering, but the protagonist takes no pleasure in assisting him in his death. Seth has grown tired of killing. He doesn’t want to do it anymore, but unfortunately for him, the town of Deadwood will not be the promise land he had hoped for.
17. Preacher – Exploding Preacher
Outer space, the final frontier and the location of an unstoppable force hurdling towards Earth. That’s how Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s adaptation of the graphic novel series Preacher begins. That hurdling ball of fury is Genesis, a love child of Heaven and Hell that’s escaped its angel protectors and is now descending upon the inhabitants of our planet. It will eventually make its home in the body of Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) at his small town church in Texas, but not before testing the insides of a few other candidates along the way. We warn you ahead of time, someone blowing up into millions of tiny pieces isn’t the easiest thing to watch. Proceed with caution.
From the far reaches of space, the invisible Genesis can be seen making a bee-line for Africa. Landing in the ramshackle church of a remote village, it knocks a preacher off his feet just as he delivers a statement about the deliverance of the word of God. As the crowd in attendance cheers on the apparent miracle, the man makes it back to a standing position and tells everyone to be quiet. A silence washes over the building as the effects of Genesis forces everyone to abruptly shut their mouths. After spouting a line about being a chosen prophet, the man explodes like a water balloon, covering the church in the resulting gore and putting everyone in a frenzy as they run outside. It’s an appropriate, if absurdly visceral, first look at the powers that will befall the protagonist Jesse Custer in the series. Not just anyone is granted the power of the word of God, but if given the opportunity, they should most definitely be wary of not angering the powerful entity dwelling inside them. Otherwise, they too may end up a mess for someone else to clean up.
16. The Wonder Years – I Grew Up in the Suburbs
A coming of age tale for the baby-boomer generation, The Wonder Years was the brainchild of creators Neal Marlens and Carol Black. A 30-something year old Kevin Arnold (voiced by Daniel Stern) reflects on his teen years in the late 60s and early 70s. His father worked for a military contractor called NORCOM during the height of the Vietnam War. He was often reclusive and not very talkative while his mother was the glue that held the family together. Kevin’s older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey) taunted him on a daily basis, often embarrassing him in front of his friends. His sister, Karen (Olivia d’Abo) was the prototypical free spirit of the times, staying out late to go to parties and rebelling against her father’s conservatism. Along with his family, Kevin (played by Fred Savage) endured the trials of a teenager with his best friend Paul (Josh Saviano) and his crush Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar). It was a trying time, but he got through knowing those he cared about felt the same way about him.
Our first look at the life of the 12 year old Kevin is through the eyes of his future self as he narrates the scene. It’s the summer of 1968 and the world is radically changing around the young protagonist. The Civil Rights Movement was coming to its end; Denny McLain became the first Major League player to win more than thirty games pitching for the Detroit Tigers; and the American crime series The Mod Squad aired its first broadcast on ABC. Kevin is just beginning his first year in junior high and he’s growing with the times. As a montage of cultural and political events from the year play with the voiceover, adult Kevin explains how he grew up in the suburbs with all the disadvantages of the city and none of the advantages of the county. For him, it was just home and it was the golden age to be a child. As Kevin is shown playing football in the streets, we get a glimpse at an idyllic childhood with a touch of nostalgia from the narrator, but as we will come to find out, things aren’t always so easy when you’re growing up.
15. The Sopranos – A Trip to the Psychiatrist
Think about the golden age of television, the moment that the small screen began to gain momentum and become as cinematic as the Hollywood motion picture. When did it all begin? Many would agree it could be traced back to 1999 when HBO and The Sopranos were breaking new ground with premium cable. A man prone to panic attacks with ties to the New Jersey mafia was dealing with the headaches of being a power figure in a job that came with the threat of betrayal. A husband, a father and a violent murderer when he needs to be, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) was a contemporary example of the antihero, influencing the likes of Don Draper and Walter White. He was flawed and it was his flaws that prevented him from ever fully being satisfied, yet we rooted for him to make it because we could live vicariously through his success. It was a six season journey and we stuck with him every step of the way.
In a room outside of psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi’s (Lorraine Bracco) office, Tony looks onto a miniature sculpture as he awaits his first therapy session. He appears disoriented and confused about why he’s there. As Dr. Melfi accepts him into the room, he takes a seat opposite her. She questions him about a recent panic attack, but he’s in denial. He lies and tells her that he works as a Waste Management Consultant and that the attack could have been from the stress of his job. He believes his expectations of life have been reduced and he fears his family may be exposed due to the violent nature of his true profession. He recounts a story about a family of ducks that landed in a swimming pool in his backyard days earlier. He could relate to the protective nature of the mother and father duck and feels he too must protect his family, but as he tries to show the young ducklings to his kids, they reject him. The opening sets up the strong familial bond that drives Tony’s American Dream to make it to the top. His paranoia is evident and he doesn’t foresee a bright future ahead. His panic attacks emphasize his anxiety and with increased responsibilities over his mob family taking up most of his time, his worries are unlikely to subside anytime soon.
14. Mad Men – The Last Old Golds
Smoke gets in your eyes early in the pilot episode of AMC’s Mad Men. In the 1960s, things couldn’t have been better for the advertising executives pushing cigarettes onto the public. Sure, the health risks were increasingly becoming general knowledge, but it was an ubiquitous habit. Smoking was cool and everywhere was a smoking-allowed establishment. With the information about all the risks coming to light, however, it was time for a brand new image. It had to reinvigorate the cigarette, saying smoking wasn’t just the latest trend but it was a global phenomenon. All it needed was the right idea and Don Draper was hard at work trying to find it.
A midtown New York City bar is filled to the brim with men in business attire as Don Cherry’s 1955 single “Band of Gold” plays overhead. The air is foggy with the smoke from everyone’s lit cigarettes and the chatter of the drunken night mixes with the sounds of the music. In his own little corner booth, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) sits in solitude focused solely on scribbling down ideas for his next big marketing campaign. A waiter comes to light his cigarette and he asks the man what it would take for him to switch his own cigarette brand from Old Gold to Lucky Strike. He poses a scenario in which the last Old Golds are eaten by a tobacco weevil, leaving him without the name to which he’s grown accustomed. What would the man do? He replies that he loves smoking and would likely find a new brand he likes. And with that, Don has been given the inspiration for another idea to put to market. He acknowledges the group of smokers around the room. It’s still a golden era for the men of Madison Avenue, but Big Tobacco is about to experience an awakening like it’s never seen before.
13. The West Wing – POTUS in a Bicycle Accident
For seven seasons, The West Wing dominated the television rewards circuit, racking up four consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series. It played hard but never loose with its fictionalized depiction of the White House staff during the Democratic administration of President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen). The series would deftly weave real world topics of controversy into the narrative to parallel the critical standings of the U.S. on certain political issues. Most notably, episodes would address past scandals like the Monica Lewinsky affair and after September the 11th, a special episode would be written to depict the reality of terrorism and its global effects on the public in the wake of a tragedy. Writer and creator Aaron Sorkin stuck with the series for its first four seasons, never playing coy with audiences and keeping the dialogue fast and snappy. The show is an intelligent, compelling piece of drama that expected nothing less than the viewers’ utmost attention, making it one of the best scripted shows of all time.
The cast wastes no time portraying the frenzy of working as a senior staff member for the man in the Oval Office. In a bar, Deputy White House Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) enjoys a drink while conversing with a journalist looking for a quote about the Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) possibly leaving after an on-air misstep. Instead, a woman catches Sam’s eye and he leaves the Four Seasons hotel with her. The next morning, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) complains about a mistake in the New York Times crossword when he receives an urgent call about a man named Potus. Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janey) is also seen jogging on a treadmill at a local gym when she is alerted on her pager about the same accident. Josh wakes up to the phone ringing where he too gets the news. On an airplane, Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) hears the same while typing away on his laptop. Sam is shown in an apartment with the woman from the night before and he also gets a rude awakening about his friend Potus, who it is revealed has been in a bicycle crash. As Sam walks out the door in a hurry, he reveals that Potus isn’t the man’s name but his title, President of the United States. It’s a hectic morning for the White House Staff Members as they’re forced to protect the President’s good name over a little scrap during an early routine bike ride. He would be perceived as incompetent by the people if the news goes public. They work to keep everything quiet and prevent a scandal from sending the media into a whirlwind.
12. Battlestar Galactica – Number Six
What began as a 1970s clone of Star Wars made for the television audience has since become a defining series remade for the modern day sci-fi fan. After a cybernetic civilization of beings with indistinguishable human features known as Cylons resurface following a long and quiet period of peace, the Twelve Colonies of humanity are wiped out. Now with the remaining survivors left on board of the Galactica, Admiral William Adama (Edward James Olmos) and his crew head to the rumored 13th Colony of Earth to seek out peace. Along the way, Battlestar Galactica intricately weaves human narratives with an epic adventure of space exploration, proving not only that sci-fi shows can pack an emotional punch but that the characters can be as intimately depicted as the most compelling dramas on the small screen.
Despite actually beginning as a miniseries in 2003, the three hour Battlestar Galactica is now viewed as the official pilot for the sci-fi show. It begins when a 40 year armistice ends between the humans and their robotic creations. In a remote space station built to maintain diplomatic relations, an elderly representative for the Twelve Colonies awaits the arrival of a representative for the Cylons. Ever year for the past four decades, this meeting had been arranged but every year the Cylons fail to show up. As the gentleman expects the same again, he sits patiently in his solitude looking over the schematics of the man-made machines that grew to attack their masters. Suddenly, the door to the room opens and two Centurion model automatons appear to guard the exit. Following suit, a seductive blonde humanoid named Number Six (Tricia Helfer) walks through the opening and to the table where the representative is seated. She stares at the man in amazement before asking “Are you alive?” and passionately kissing him. Outside, a Cylon Basestar appears, shooting at the space station, causing it to explode. The reawakening has begun and humankind will once again fall victim to its own creations as the Cylons reignite the rivalry between man and technology.
11. Dexter – Tonight’s the Night
A show about a likable serial killer was already enough of an intriguing premise to get viewers to tune into Dexter’s 2006 premiere. It gave Showtime a hit and we were treated to the charms of a man who disposed of bodies for fun. Forgetting the series’ later years, which consisted of messy romantic subplots involving Dexter (Michael C. Hall) and his foster sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), audiences were given a few high quality seasons before the writers jumped the shark and it all began with three choice words.
Tonight’s the night, it has to be – at least according to the leading man narrating the scene. In the open air of the Miami nightlife, we first see Dexter Morgan cruising through the streets scouting a priest, who he has been accused of murdering children. He waits in the man’s car as he enters, wrapping fishing wire around his throat from the backseat. Through the fear of asphyxiation, he forces him to drive out of town to a prepared kill site. At the secluded location, he has dug up the bodies of the priest’s victims, baring his sins for him to see. Motivated by the look of panic on the murderer’s face, Dexter asks for an admission of guilt before finally finishing the deed. Through his modus operandi, he incapacitates the man with a syringe of Etorphine before wrapping him to a table in heavy duty plastic and collecting a blood sample from his cheek. After hacking the body into pieces with a power saw, we’re left wondering who the real villain is and how the lead character became so insane. It’s a gruesome introduction to a conflicted character that lies in his own immoral world, but Dexter would set up its violent antihero without remorse by giving us all a glimpse into the mind of a mad man.
10. House of Cards – Snapping the Dog’s Neck
The viewers of Netflix’s first original series may be convinced that it’s a political drama series, but House of Cards plays more like a horror show wrapped in a giant hidden conspiracy. Lying, blackmail and murder lie at the core of the story as Congressman Francis “Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey) cheats his way to the top of the food chain. He’s a ruthless U.S. Representative from South Carolina with a willingness to cut through all the charades to get to what he wants. When he sets his eyes on the prize of Secretary of State in exchange for his support of Garret Walker (Michel Gill) for the presidency, he finds himself on a vengeful path straight to the Oval Office. From the beginning, it was always a tale about pulling the wool over the eyes of the U.S. citizens. A man like Frank doesn’t care about the American people, he pities them for their lack of power and as the open scene tells us, power is everything.
It all begins with a monologue. A car crash happens off screen. A head-on collision with a dog can be heard as the animal wails in the background. Frank storms out of the front door of his D.C. home, noticeably perturbed by the noise outside. He hurries down the street, instantly recognizing the pet as belonging to his neighbors. He bends down to comfort the mortally wounded dog as he looks directly at the camera. Breaking the fourth wall, he speaks to the audience. He describes two kinds of pain, the kind that makes you strong and the kind that only makes you suffer. He has no time for the useless kind. Instead, he takes charge of moments that require action, doing what needs to be done despite how unpleasant it may be. He reaches down, grabs the animal’s head and snaps its neck. Silence befalls the canine and Frank remarks that its pain is now gone. Before stepping into any political position of power, we’ve already witnessed the lead’s pragmatic way of thinking. There is no place for the weak in Washington and anyone who stands in Frank’s way will meet the same abrupt ending as the dog.
9. The Walking Dead – Zombie Girl
A large budget television adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s apocalyptic zombie comic series The Walking Dead might not be a tough sale to audiences, but there was a lot that could have gone wrong with the show. Anything from bad prosthetic makeup to an unrealistic depiction of the end of days would have the faithful zombie fan on a tirade. So it was essential to nail the opening scene by showing a not so innocent world left in ruins. That’s what viewers got when they were introduced to a zombie girl with an affinity for human flesh in the pilot episode and the strong ratings have only improved over the past six seasons.
Stopping his car at a convenience store in rural Georgia, Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) goes searching for gas in an abandoned wasteland. Stepping out between the parked cars lining the roads, he reads a sign saying “no gas” posted outside. No signs of life are immediately present and Rick still appears in shock by the lack of people in the area. With nothing to fill his empty gas can, he turns around to meet the quiet shuffling of footsteps somewhere close by. His hand reaches for his holster before he spots the feet of a young girl in slippers. Dressed in a bathrobe and her pajamas, he asks if she’s in need of assistance. Unfazed by his comments, she continues to walk in the opposite direction. He calls out again, this time getting a response. Turning around, she’s shown bleeding from a gash in her mouth, already among the members of the undead. As she quickens her pace, steadily making her way over to Rick, he draws his gun delivering a fatal shot to the head. The kill is partially a mercy and partially for his own survival. It drops Rick in the middle of a world that has no use for the squeamish and he proves his worth as he takes on the ruthless leadership role that has defined the character.
8. The Shield – A Safer Home for All of Us
The FX network has been making waves in cable television for far longer than people remember. The Shield was what would happened if the gangster philosophy of The Sopranos had mixed with the cop procedural. In detective Vic Mackey’s world, you get to make up the rules as you go and anyone who sees his conduct from a different perspective can be damned. The sprawl of Los Angeles is being overpowered by racial politics and when cops like the ones from this drama series are let loose on the streets, it’s best to stay clear of their path. They’re a wrecking ball looking to come tumbling down on the U.S. justice system and no amount of pleading is about to stop the hellish nightmare that will come of it.
The opening sequence sets up a stark contrast between the political call to action to stop criminal activity on the streets and the cold reality of brutal police methods used to stop that activity. The new LAPD Captain David Acevada (Benito Martinez) holds a press conference to discuss the crime rates of the notorious Farmington District, a part of L.A labeled a war zone. He says the rates have decreased over the past six months and that field officers are now participating in outreach programs under his direction to keep the streets safe. Meanwhile, his speech is juxtaposed with Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and the members of his strike team chasing a drug dealer through the streets. Just as Acevada ends his conference by stating that Farmington will become a safer home for all of us, Mackey is seen backing the drug dealer into a corner in an alleyway. He punches him in the gut for running and forcibly removes his pants to take away the stash he has taped to his scrotum. It’s an unfortunate truth about the excessive violence in the police force, but it’s one that until then had gone mostly unspoken. The Shield is an honest reveal of an ugly battle still being fought today and we get that from the moment we first lay eyes on the lead character.
7. The Twilight Zone – Where Is Everybody?
“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.” That dimension is known as The Twilight Zone, the hosting ground for all paranormal phenomenon. When it comes to sci-fi shows or anthology series, there is no other like it. For five seasons it was the cause of sleepless nights and eerie memories. Now, Rod Sterling’s creation lives on forever through its timelessness.
The pilot episode “Where Is Everybody?” first premiered on October 2, 1959 giving the world it’s first glimpse at the bizarre stories that would inspire movies and television for more than five decades. In it, a lone man (Earl Holliman) walks down a dirt road and enters a cafe where the jukebox is blaring jazz music. The inside of the restaurant is empty with no one sitting nor waiting behind the counter. The man calls to the back room, asking about the name of the next closest town but receives no response. He investigates the room and backyard, but finds only a boiling pot of coffee on the stove. He calls out his order to no one in particular as he discovers $2.85 in American money in his pocket. It’s then that the audience is filled in on the man’s real mystery. He’s forgotten his identity and remembers only that he’s American from the cash he’s found. It’s a spine-chilling opening scene about one man’s solitude playing tricks on him. He begins talking to himself as his only means of comfort. He makes his own breakfast as he wonders where the rest of the world has gone. Our neck hair stands up and our worst fears are realized as we find out not only does the lead character not know who he is but he has no clue where he is and how he got there.
6. Twin Peaks – Laura Palmer’s Body Is Discovered
The drama, the mystery, the perfect slice of pie – never has a series exemplified a postmodernist perspective for television more than Twin Peaks. Mixing genres flawlessly, the narrative would focus on a murder with elements of comedy, supernatural thriller, film noir and soap opera all being tossed in. There was an undeniable wit and atmosphere to the show unlike anything that was airing at the time. Creator David Lynch separated characters like special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) from the rest of the happenings of television, crafting his own off-kilter story that got it’s start with the discovery of a teenage girl’s lifeless body.
Before Dale Cooper comes rolling into town, we’re introduced to Pete Martell (Jack Nance) as he’s heading out the door for some early morning fishing. He calls out to his stubborn wife Catherine (Piper Laurie) about his departure, but she could care less. As the sound of a foghorn alerts Pete at the fishing site that the morning has officially begun, he notices the body of the young, promiscuous Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) wrapped in plastic. As the sweeping, melodramatic score washes over the scene, Sheriff Truman (Michael Ontkean) arrives to identity Laura as the now deceased homecoming queen. Right off the bat, the oddball characters are showing off their unusual side as Pete eccentrically delivers his now famous line to the police with wild-eyed amazement, “She’s dead… wrapped in plastic.” Although the show gives off a slight sign of comic relief with its weird line delivery, we still get a feel for the kind of shock that will ignite the series for two seasons as the death of one girl affects the lives of everyone who knew her. There are dark secrets lurking around Twin Peaks and the arrival of the FBI will do little to find a solution.
5. The Newsroom – Not the Greatest Country in the World
Aaron Sorkin is the name you want if you’re thinking about airing a political drama series on your channel. After showing the ins and outs of the federal government in The West Wing, Sorkin began developing another series about the behind the scenes action of a cable news broadcast. The Newsroom would follow the lives of the crew behind the fictional Atlantis Cable News as they look to deliver real groundbreaking stories to the public. When anchor and managing editor for News Night, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) finds his ex-girlfriend MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) working as the show’s new executive producer, he struggles to return the nightly news to its former glory.
In front of a live audience during a public debate, Will McAvoy appears notably vexed by the banter of the other participants. As they rant about comments referring to President Barack Obama being a socialist, he mentally mutes the noises of everyone in the room. He’s called out for his quietness and provides only shortened answers to everything he’s asked. He continually rejects answering anything about whether he leans more to the right or to the left. An audience member then poses a question about why America is the greatest country in the world, fuelling Will’s discontent. While the other participants react with one word answers like opportunity and freedom, he is immediately called out for ignoring the question. He looks into the crowd at MacKenzie for support and begins his honest assessment about the decline of the nation’s once great stance. The answer is simple: America isn’t the greatest anymore. It leads the world only in the number of incarcerated citizens, Christian followers and the amount of money in defense spending. As the audience looks on in utter disbelief, Will informs the room with his hard-hitting facts that America has fallen from grace. The thundering denouncement alone was enough to land Daniels an Emmy for his performance and remains the series’ best moment after its three season run.
4. Game of Thrones – North of the Wall
Winter may have only just arrived in HBO’s fantasy epic, but the winds of change have been present in Westeros for the past six seasons. We now know of the men of the Night’s Watch who have sworn an oath to protect the wall from the wildlings and the army of the dead threatening to invade the Seven Kingdoms, but back when everything was still a mystery to many viewers, it was a shock to see a White Walker for the first time. It showed the real threat that lied in wait while everyone battled for the Iron Throne and it set up a collision course with none other than Ned Stark’s bastard son Jon Snow, who would come to epitomize the role of a leader after leaving Winterfell.
The first scene of Game of Thrones opens on the wall as a large door opens and three rangers – Ser Waymar Royce (Rob Ostlere), Will (Bronson Webb) and Gared (Dermot Keaney) – step out into the harsh blizzard-like elements. They’re investigating reports that wildlings have been slowly progressing further north toward the wall with some being seen in the nearby Haunted Forest. After Will discovers the corpses of some free folk lying in a ritualistic manner on the frozen ground, the group quickly realizes the severity of their situation. Something else lies beyond the wall and it’s inhuman. When the group goes to look over the bodies further, they have mysteriously vanished. In their place they find a tall, blue-eyed White Walker which dismembers Ser Waymar. As Will and Gared look to flee, they find themselves trapped. Gared is decapitated as the undead figure catches up to him. Looking on in a panicked disbelief, Will witnesses the death before the White Walker throws the head at his feet. The brutality of Game of Thrones is on full display as the series wastes no time giving us our first look at the White Walkers. Many more battles would come from beyond the wall, but the show’s biggest antagonists were set in stone from the very start with this epic introduction.
3. Lost – Plane Crash
Before the first appearance of the smoke monster and the whole antiquated motif of a light versus dark duality, there was a plane crash that made the three hour tour of Gilligan’s Island look like a forgotten memory from television history. When Lost premiered back in 2004, it was widely reported to be the most expensive pilot episode ever produced. Coming in at a whopping $10 million to $14 million, ABC had a lot riding on J.J. Abrams’ new show. We all now know how the show’s survivors would eventually find themselves wrapped in the mysteries of the island, creating one of of TV’s biggest hits, but at the time it was a big gamble and the first episode would not disappoint.
Waking up in a forest in an undisclosed location, Jack Shepard (Matthew Fox) first appears as a man with no name and no knowledge of where he is or how he got there. He sees no one other than a lost Labrador Retriever wandering aimlessly, a foreshadowing of the series’ final scene. As he runs through the forest of trees searching for help, the screams of the crash victims can be heard from a distance. Arriving at a beach, Jack witnesses the carnage for the first time – Oceanic Flight 815 is lying in pieces on the shore with the jet plane engine still running noisily in the background. As the surviving passengers walk around injured and perplexed, Jack helps an elderly man stuck beneath the rubble and stops in concern to give medical advice to a pregnant woman, later revealed to be Claire Littleton (Emilie de Raven). While the mysteries of the island are kept under wraps, we’re given insight into the medical expertise of the lead character while taking time to see other prominent cast members stuck in the aftermath of a shocking accident. We may not know their names, but unbeknownst to the viewers, they’ve already seen many of the key protagonists they’ll spend the next six seasons with, through both the good and the bad.
2. The Wire – Snot Boogie
The first shot of David Simon’s authentic portrayal of the drug war in Baltimore tells us all we need to know about the fates for many of the underprivileged people exposed to crime at an early age. Coagulating on the pavement are three thin lines of blood from the body of a young male victim. To the streets, he was known as Snot Boogie. As the blue lights of police cars are reflected in the spilled blood, officers are shown collecting empty shell casings and logging all the evidence. Snot Boogie was the helpless victim of another shooting, a harsh reality for the unfortunate residents of the neighborhood. As the neighbors watch from their stoops, all too scared to confess any knowledge of the man’s death, it’s clear all this could have been avoided somehow.
Across the street, detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) questions one of the young man’s known friends. He tells him about his nickname Snot, a result of him having a runny nose one day. His birth name was Omar Isaiah Betts and his tendency to rip off players after the weekly craps game was what ultimately led to his death. He snatched and ran every night and despite the consecutive beatings he’d receive in retaliation, he always did the same thing. Rather than tracking him down and getting the money back, this time someone decided to take out his aggression with a gun. McNulty wonders why anyone would let him play if he always stole the money on the ground and the man’s friend responds by saying, “We got to. It’s America, man.” The intro poses a paradox that parallels the struggle between the police and criminals on the streets. Despite the constant arrests, drug busts and failed ways to better their lives, both sides continue to meet at a standstill. They continue their ways of life, but can’t see an end road in sight. There’s no middle ground to be reached and for this The Wire finds its characters at an impasse. Much like Snot Boogie, they can’t help but repeat the same mistakes and we watch for five seasons as little improvement is made for those left to witness the violence.
1. Breaking Bad – RV Crash
Heisenberg, Walter White, The One Who Knocks – whatever you call him, there’s no denying that Bryan Cranston has etched his name firmly in the annals of television history with his performance as a chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin in Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan broke every standard definition of what a cable network show could be by crafting a series which constantly questioned the limitations of moral reasoning. There was a time, however, where siding with Walter White’s cause didn’t make you sound like a crazy person. He was still a cancer patient with a bleak outlook and family to look after. The diagnosis was bad and he was willing to do anything he could to leave his family with some extra cash before his departure. Sure, a meth cook probably wasn’t the best solution, but you’re not always thinking rationally when it comes to the ones you love. We felt for Walt and we wanted him to succeed. My, how things changed.
Bryan Cranston in tighty whities is the image most people will remember when reflecting on the opening minutes of AMC’s groundbreaking show. Not much is known about the man behind the wheel of the RV when we first witness it hurdling down the road in a frenzy. We see him in nothing more than an apron and a gas mask while the vehicle is riddled with the aftermath of a bad drug experiment gone wrong. As the motorhome comes to an abrupt halt, crashing to the side of the desert road, we see Walter rip off the mask and cough hysterically. In a hurry, he pulls out a camcorder and records a message for his family, telling them some truths about him will soon be revealed. It was never meant to come to this. He only wanted to do right for those he cared about, but nothing good ever comes from a life of crime. With sirens sounding in the distance, we know the cops are on their way. Pulling a gun from his underwear, he points it at the winding road ahead and waits for their arrival. There are many great cold openings throughout the five season run of Breaking Bad, but none left us more curious about what lay ahead than the first. We’re given only a brief moment of insight into the protagonist’s motivations for his wrongdoings. Many questions arise: why is he in the middle of nowhere?; What happened in the RV?; why is he wearing tighty whities? All of these are answered in time, but nothing can erase that first moment of tension as one man awaits the consequences of his actions.
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