Starting a new TV show is a tricky piece of business. Not only is it tough to sell a network on your premise over the hundreds of other people out there trying to do the same, but then you’ve got to somehow convince a large enough audience to give that show a chance and fit it into their already slim entertainment free time. Honestly, the only way to really ensure that both sides are sufficiently blown away is to develop a pilot episode that leaves them with no choice but to beg for more.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, which is why a truly great pilot episode tends to stand out so much. Long after the show is over, or after the series lost its initial audience, these pilot episodes remain a special piece of entertainment that are capable of drawing us back into a series time and time again.
Here’s Screen Rant’s take on the 15 Best Pilot Episodes Of All Time.
15. Peaky Blinders
The brilliance of Peaky Blinders (aka the best show you aren’t watching) as a whole is the show’s level of patience. Unlike other crime-based series that rely on big moments to keep you hooked, Peaky Blinders instead puts its faith into the strength of its characters. The writers clearly believe that they are intriguing enough to compel audiences to stick around long enough to what they are going to do next. Peaky Blinder’s unique ability to build a roaring fire off of a slow burn was on full display in its inaugural episode.
As we watch Thomas Shelby stride confidently through town atop of a horse while Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” plays in the background, we are instantly transported to this world and are compelled to see what secrets its dark corners hold. By the episode’s shocking end, there is no doubt that you’ll be tuning in just to experience what these larger than life thugs will go through next.
14. Prison Break
In retrospect, Prison Break’s previews did a poor job of really conveying what the show was about. They presented Prison Break as more of a traditional prison show with an emphasis on the escape, which isn’t really what made this series so special. It was a simply marketing mistake though, one that Prison Break’s pilot soon remedied.
What’s so great about the first episode of Prison Break is how quickly it begins to weave the grand scheme that makes the first season as compelling as it is. In just 50 minutes, we are not only introduced to nearly every major player in the show and their individual motivations, but we are genuinely invested in what will happen to each of them. Few other shows have ever successfully introduced so much content in such short time.
Here’s hoping the inaugural episode of the revival is half as good.
13. House of Cards
Though Netflix had dipped their toes in the waters of original programming before, House of Cards was something of a “make or break” proposition for the content provider. If it was a success, they were going to be the pioneers of the future of content delivery. If it failed, they were going to have to face the full wrath of a million doubters.
To help make sure that House of Cards didn’t fail right out of the gate, David Fincher and his team made the wise decision to focus almost entirely on Kevin Spacey’s brilliant performance during the show’s first episode. We would eventually learn that House of Cards was full of compelling character and fascinating plots, but this pilot wisely honed-in on Spacey’s maniacal politician character and let him hold our hands en route to a marathon binge session.
12. Arrested Development
John Lennon once said that being honest may not get you a lot of friends, but it will always get you the right ones. It’s a philosophy that Arrested Development embraced right from the start. This ultra-dry comedy about a family losing their fortune and their minds was unlike any television show that had come before (or since). It was a strange corner of the programming world that was destined to cause many viewers to shrug their shoulders whenever they looked for the jokes.
What’s so great about the pilot is that it makes no concessions in its vision just to attract a larger audience. Many of the show’s running gags and trademark character traits are established in this episode that doesn’t really give you time to fully understand what’s going on. It’s a sink or swim introduction that immediately lets you know whether you love the show or not.
11. The West Wing
The West Wing is a true ensemble show. Along with the show’s outstanding writing and somewhat unique premise, it is the strength of its characters and the actors that portray them which makes The West Wing the incredible show that it is. That being said, much like House of Cards’ initial episodes, a big part of what makes you want to continue watching more The West Wing immediately is Martin Sheen’s stunning portrayal of President Josiah Bartlet.
Unlike the 13th entry on our list, The West Wing made the bold decision to withhold Sheen’s appearance until the very end of the episode. In these final moments, Sheen delivers a speech that ranks among the series’ best scenes and quickly establishes himself as the glue that helps the already brilliant cast we’ve spent the rest of the episode with come together. How could you possibly look away?
10. Freaks and Geeks
The problem with many shows based around teenagers is that they tend to be made by people who have clearly forgotten what being a teenager is like for the average person. They showcase beautiful twenty-somethings playing popular high schoolers whose problems border on parody. At first, it appears that Freaks and Geeks is going to be the same kind of show, as its opening scene focuses on a football star comforting his cheerleader girlfriend by reminding her that they are forever.
As it turns out, in Freaks and Geeks‘ case, this scene is actually a parody. From there, the show quickly shifts the focus to the outcasts that are the true stars of the series, running through the series’ main cast and showing off a little bit of what makes each of them so interesting. In short order, Freaks and Geeks was able to speak directly to a section of the audience who had never been treated as important before by this genre of show. It’s hard not to fall in love with that.
9. Miami Vice
When you’re starting a revolution, subtlety is kind of overrated. What you need is a blunt force message that immediately appeals to everyone that runs across it. It’s a lesson that is perhaps most enjoyably learned by watching the Miami Vice pilot.
Miami Vice wasn’t interested in portraying the cocaine-fueled and vibrantly colored world of Miami in the ‘80s as it necessarily really was. It wanted to showcase it in a grand way that viewers typically only associated with movies around that time. This show’s two-hour pilot was the most stylish piece of entertainment that anyone had ever seen play out on their television screen. In retrospect, it was a brilliant snapshot of the culture of the times, but in the moment, it was simply the most exciting episode of television that you could watch.
8. The Shield
By the time that The Shield started billing itself as an “edgy cop show,” viewers had already been treated to a great number of edgy cop shows that had slowly dulled the supposed edge of watching a group of detectives that drink a little too much deal with the morally gray world of law enforcement. While their cynicism was somewhat justified, this series’ pilot shows how wrong the doubters truly were.
The Shield’s “heroes” aren’t really heroes at all. They aren’t even anti-heroes. The show’s first episode accurately portrays them as thugs with badges who spent more time working for crooks than putting them behind bars. When the pilot ends with Detective Vic Mackey putting a bullet in the young police officer that threatened his group, nobody watching is left with any doubt that the edge of the genre was most certainly back.
7. Battlestar Galactica
There’s actually some debate regarding which episode qualifies as Battlestar Galactica’s pilot. Some argue that it’s the miniseries’ debut hour which revitalized the franchise in a way that nobody thought was possible. Others say that it’s the series’ first “official” episode, 33, which proved to be a textbook example of how to create television tension. The funny thing about the argument is that both episodes could easily be considered among the greatest pilots ever.
For the sake of discussion, though, let’s say that the miniseries’ premiere constitutes the pilot. What makes this debut so special is how it was able to balance grand scale sci-fi conflict with more intimate debates regarding politics and religion. It was a whirlwind of emotions and spectacle that grabbed you by the throat and refused to let go. In a single hour, it completely surpassed the achievements of the previous series.
6. The Walking Dead
If you ever wondered why some fans of The Walking Dead have sky-high expectations regarding the show’s individual episode quality, it likely has something to do with the quality of the series’ debut effort.
Former showrunner and pilot director Frank Darabont clearly recognized the onscreen potential of The Walking Dead comics, and did a brilliant job of using the series’ initial comics as a fairly strict storyboard for the first episode. Even so, what sets this episode apart from the pack is the director’s ability to translate what made the comics so special to the world of television. Though the show’s most shocking moments were still yet to come, this pilot made it clear that the world of The Walking Dead was an unforgiving and utterly compelling one.
Seriously though, how many shows can you think of that would have the guts to shoot a zombified child in the head in the opening scene?
5. Twin Peaks
How do you explain Twin Peaks to someone that’s never seen it? If you describe it as a murder mystery, doesn’t that kind of sell the show short? If you go a little more in-depth to convey the show’s bizarre writing and characters, do you risk turning them off to the experience by dwindling too much on the stranger elements? It’s a real problem, one that’s going to become much more prominent again in the very near future.
The solution, of course, is just to show them the show’s pilots. Even after watching the series several times, what stands out about the show’s pilot is how it effortlessly introduces us to the million little touches that make this show so great. Watching the eccentric Dale Cooper make his way into the equally quirky town of Twin Peaks to solve a violent murder was so different that you just had to see what was going to happen next. No matter how much you know about the Twin Peaks’ lore, this pilot episode is able to effectively reset the concept and get you hooked yet again.
4. Mad Men
You may like Mad Men because it’s a smart show that’s well-written and focuses more on characters than it does on major watercooler moments, but the reason that most people fell in love with the show initially is because of its style. Mad Men may not intentionally try to romanticize its time period, but the show is so beautiful that you can’t help but become slightly obsessed with it even as the darker aspects of the era are brought into the light.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the series’ pilot. The smoke-filled rooms, sleek business attire, the muted colors clashing with the bright glow of freshly poured drinks; every frame of Mad Men’s pilot episode could easily be a painting. The episode itself is no slouch either, as Matthew Weiner and crew essentially treated this debut as a short film that has just enough hooks to leave you needing to know what comes next.
3. Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad is not a show that sold itself to many viewers based on the concept alone. Though there is a certain appeal to the idea of a high-school science teacher being forced to make and distribute meth in order to pay for his cancer treatment, there were also some valid concerns that goes along with that premise regarding just how much mileage you can really get out of the idea.
The mileage would come a little later, but what Breaking Bad’s pilot effectively managed to do was sell us on the potential of the concept through characters and style. In his early days, Walter White represented the everyman rebelling against a modern world that couldn’t care less about his plight. He became an antihero that we could all get behind, while Vince Gilligan’s brilliant visual vision painted his journey as a true epic.
2. The Sopranos
It’s difficult to remember now, but The Sopranos was initially treated as a comedy by many people who associated the show’s premise with the movie Analyze This, which also followed a mobster going through therapy. Interestingly, David Chase reportedly even sold the show, somewhat, as a comedy in order to make it more relatable to cautious HBO execs.
One episode in, however, and audiences everywhere quickly discovered that The Sopranos was no laughing matter. In this debut effort, we all learned what Tony’s therapist eventually comes around to understanding, which is that Tony Soprano is a bonafide sociopath with little human merit. Yet, he was such an utterly fascinating sociopath that we, much like his therapist, couldn’t stop watching even as he committed unspeakable acts. Top it all off with a memorable sequence involving ducks leaving a pool and some of the most thoughtful meditations on modern America ever uttered, and you’ve got a pilot that ranks among the best mob works ever — in any medium.
It must have been tempting for J.J. Abrams to slowly introduce viewers to the world of Lost. Sci-fi shows have a reputation for alienating a large section of their potential viewer base by presenting a world that is just too weird for them to get behind, meaning that Lost’s most obvious path to success at the time was for it to exercise a level of patience that allowed the most cautious viewers to feel comfortable.
Instead, Lost did the exact opposite. It gave us about thirty seconds to breathe as it opens on Dr. Jack Shepard lying on a beach before introducing us to a scenario right out of every traveler’s darkest nightmare. Lost’s opening sequence is arguably equal to the opening of Saving Private Ryan in how it sucks you in and refuses to let you catch your breath, but Saving Private Ryan never went on to also introduce a dozen little plot threads that you simply had to discover the answers to quite like the Lost pilot does.
What was your favorite TV pilot of all time? Let us know in the comments.
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