What is the last show you watched from the moment it started airing to the moment it ended? While many of you will no doubt name a fairly recent show, there is a respectable amount of televisions fans who will also admit that they rarely tune in for a show’s pilot episode and stick with it through the end. That’s because getting people to watch a pilot is a tricky proposition. In order for a show to be a hit from day one, that first outing often has to be something truly special. It has to be the episode that ensures missing any subsequent episodes isn’t an option.
As important as the pilot is, however, it is sometimes just a part of a show’s legacy. There have been great shows that began with terrible pilots, and there have been terrible shows that had an exceptional first episode. In reality, the pilot is an artform unto itself. It may technically be part of a larger narrative, but in reality, it often stands alone when the series is finished. To that end, there are some pilots which are looked back upon as something close to perfect, and there are some pilot episodes that leave us all wondering how a show ever managed to survive it.
These are the 10 Shows that Had a Perfect Pilot (and 6 That Were Terrible).
16. Perfect – Dexter
The biggest challenge facing the Dexter pilot wasn’t necessarily getting people to buy into the idea of watching a television show about a serial killer, but rather to convince them that a show about a serial killer protagonist has more to offer than just the premise. It had to convince audiences that the show had something to offer once the element of shock ceased to exist.
The pilot episode of Dexter achieves that considerable feat by using Dexter’s unique role in life as the basis for a compelling mystery. While the initial outing delves deep into Dexter’s twisted psychology with readily apparent glee, it also carefully unfolds a universally compelling murder mystery that shows that Dexter can also serve as one of the most fascinating police serials on television. Even now, the pilot serves as a reminder of how the show functions at its best.
15. Perfect – House of Cards
While it’s not fair to say that everyone thought Netflix was crazy for announcing that they were going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on original content, it’s safe to say that many subscribers envisioned a future where they were going to have to hang a lot of the service’s bad drawings on the refrigerator so they didn’t lose their self-confidence. House of Cards wasn’t the first Netflix original series, but it was the poster child for the company’s massive investment in original content.
Within 10 minutes of the show’s opening, fans knew Netflix had struck gold. Watching Kevin Spacey mug the camera as he silently suffocates an injured dog may sound like a strange way to introduce a show about U.S. politics, but we soon learn that scene would serve as the suitable foundation for a pilot episode – and show – all about a world where twisted morality rules the day.
14. Terrible – Doctor Who (Reboot)
There needs to be a word for that moment that comes when you finally convince someone to watch a new show and you watch in awkward horror as they simply do not latch onto the series – and sometimes, outright reject it. It’s a feeling that many people who have tried to introduce someone to the first episode of the rebooted Doctor Who series may know all-too-well.
The first episode of the rebooted Doctor Who is far from the worse thing that has ever aired on television, but in terms of pilot episodes that represent the best qualities of the show itself, it is among the worst. The main problem with Rose is that the creators clearly weren’t sure what they wanted the show to eventually become. That, or they were trying to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. This results in a bizarre influx of forced humor made worse by the pilot’s downright awful special effects and Christopher Eccleston’s awkward attempts to ease into the role.
13. Perfect – The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead has fallen on hard times in recent seasons in terms of creative impact. At present, the show is struggling so hard to re-find that spark that once made it appointment television that you might find yourself questioning just what it was about the show that made you fall in love with it in the first place.
If you ever need to answer that question, watch the pilot episode again. The Walking Dead’s pilot is maybe the only episode of The Walking Dead which Frank Darabont was able to create without compromise. What really stands out about “Days Gone By” all these years later are the episode’s traditional horror elements. There’s very little dialog in this episode, as much of the focus is on survival in a world that feels entirely devoid of hope. It’s a “show, don’t tell’ style of television that few shows – including modern Walking Dead episodes – can replicate.
12. Perfect – Pushing Daisies
Based solely on the history of creative concepts on network television and how often they tend to make it outside of the inbox of executives’ secretaries, Pushing Daisies should have never made it on the air. A show about a pie maker who has the ability to raise the dead? Honestly, who is going to watch that?
Oddly enough, the pilot episode of Pushing Daisies supports the argument that the series deserved to be on television about as well as it supports the argument against the show’s network slot. The episode, titled “Pie-lette,” is such a weird and wonderful examination of the kind of creative content the show’s premise can contribute that it almost damned the show’s writers to an eternity of chasing its greatness. This pilot episode stands shoulder to shoulder with the films of directors like Wes Anderson and Tim Burton as one of the best examples of how compelling truly quirky entertainment can be.
11. Terrible – Parks and Recreation
You’ll have a hard time finding a Parks and Recreation fan who will tell you that the show’s first season is its best. For that matter, you’ll have a hard time finding a fan who will tell you that it’s good. The show’s six episode long first season is plagued with a shocking lack of creative direction. The Office elements of the show’s premise border on parody, and few characters get a chance to shine.
As uneven as the first season can be, the pilot episode of Parks and Recreation is simply bad. None of the characters were written in ways that would play off the strength of the actors – even Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson is devoid of notable personality – and the Ann/Leslie relationship takes up a disproportionate amount of screen time as the two work to solve a giant hole in the ground that has since come to represent the pilot’s role in the series.
10. Perfect – Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks fans have a bad habit of scoffing at those who simply do not like the show. “How,” they say as if they’ve just been informed that the person they are speaking too has never eaten chocolate, “can you not love such a brilliant and inventive show?” The answer, more often than not, is that Twin Peaks is weird in a way that just does not speak to people the same way that it speaks to others.
Even those who don’t religiously tout the show’s brilliance will typically confess that they too enjoyed the near-perfect pilot that kickstarted one of television’s strangest shows. One of the best things about the film-like first episode of Twin Peaks is the way that David Lynch suppresses his urge to just get weird with it and opts instead to tell a compelling murder mystery that so happens to be punctuated with hints that something stranger lingers in the dark. That same quality highlights another pilot yet to appear on this list.
9. Terrible – How I Met Your Mother
To be perfectly honest, How I Met Your Mother is a pretty uneven show all-around. Even when the series was at its best, you could always rely on a few stinker episodes dragging down the good times. When the show became truly awful in its later seasons…yeesh. Still, there are seasons and episodes of How I Met Your Mother that are so good that they completely justify the show’s incredible popularity.
None of those qualities can be found in the pilot episode, however. The main problem here are the characters. Either a major character is one-note (horndog Barney and lovelorn Ted) or they have no note at all (Lily). Meanwhile, much of the episode is based on Ted’s pursuit of Robin, which is so painfully presented that it invokes the feeling of watching every “Will they or won’t they?” storyline from Friends in rapid succession. The episode even ends with the hint that the show’s creators were going to drag the “How I Met Your Mother” part of the premise out as long as possible.
8. Perfect – Game of Thrones
In retrospect, the first 10 minutes of Game of Thrones clash wildly with the rest of the series. While much of Game of Thrones focuses on political infighting and the shocking incidents that happen to major characters, Game of Throne’s pilot opens on three nameless men who encounter the White Walkers that appear sparingly throughout the rest of the show.
As odd as the show’s opener is, it’s now clear that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss knew that there was no way they would ever be able to capture everything that was great about Game of Thrones in a single episode. Instead, they wisely chose to tell a much smaller story that brilliantly teases you with tantalizing mentions of what lies beyond the world in-frame. This pilot organically introduces us to everyone we should know, and does that so well that we are immediately hooked the moment the episode’s twist ending fades to black.
This stands in stark contrast, of course, to the show’s original, unaired pilot, which was a disaster is every way.
7. Perfect – Battlestar Galactica (Reboot)
The debate wages on whether Battlestar Galactica’s pilot episode is the two-hour mini-movie that kickstarted the new series or the first official episode of the series. It’s a meaningless debate once you realize either could be considered one of the greatest pilots of all-time. For the purposes of discussion, however, let’s say that the pilot is the first official Battlestar Galactica episode, “33.”
The biggest challenge facing “33” was that it had to take a step back from the grand scope of the Battlestar Galactica mini-movies and prove that the show was capable of telling more intimate stories not wholly reliant on big-budget battles and grand conflict. The episode focuses on the crew’s need to make a jump every 33 minutes in order to outrun their captors and how this is affecting every remaining human. It’s not often that a series begins with an episode that shows many of the main characters near the brink of death, but that’s part of the reason why this one must be considered one of the best.
6. Terrible – Star Trek: The Next Generation
The nicest thing you can say about Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first season is that you don’t technically have to watch it to enjoy the rest of the show. The Next Generation is great because it really expanded on the underlying intelligence of the best original Star Trek episodes while occasionally serving an appropriate amount of weirdness. Next Generation’s first season feels more like a continuation of the Original Series’ infamously bad third season.
“Encounter At Farpoint” isn’t the first season’s worst episode, but it is a truly dreadful pilot. Captain Picard is an unlikable charisma vacuum, Data is a budget Spock, Wesley Crusher is seemingly a shot at the Star Trek fan base, and everyone is involved in a plot involving a space jellyfish masquerading as a space station. It’s a casserole of bad ideas topped off with cheese and spread unevenly across a painful 90-minute runtime.
5. Perfect – The Sopranos
There are many terrible pilots on this list which earn that reputation by virtue of the fact that they don’t represent what a great show a particular program would become. In many ways, the first episode of The Sopranos suffers from that same problem. In an effort to convince HBO that The Sopranos was worthwhile, David Chase intentionally toned down many of the more eccentric elements of the show (extended dream sequences, musings on the state of society, etc.) in favor of a more traditional mob tale with a few twists.
Years later, many people would point to The Sopranos’ pilot as the show’s finest hour. While this first episode lacks some of the more subtle touches later incorporated into the series, it is brimming with personality and features a relentless pace not typical of the average Sopranos episode. It’s a bounty of entertainment highlighted by intelligent observations that speak to a broad audience.
4. Terrible – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Another running theme of the worst pilots is that they tend to kick-off the worst season of otherwise good shows. The biggest problem with Buffy’s first season is that it chooses to emphasize high-school television tropes over serialized storytelling. That leads to many episodes about picking the right outfit punctuated by appearances of killer computers and other such fantasy reject nonsense.
The best thing you can say about Buffy’s pilot episode is that it at least tries to lay the groundwork for concepts that would become the series’ core. Unfortunately, almost everything else is just…wrong. Xander skateboards, the theme music is just slightly off, most of the characters are straight out of Clueless, the effects are laughable, that awful character Jesse is shoehorned into too many scenes, Angel is at his Anne Rice dullest, and someone unironically uses the word “freakazoid.” It’s stunning that this is the same show that produced episodes like “The Body” and “Hush.”
3. Perfect – Breaking Bad
A lot of people find that they have a hard time moving from Breaking Bad to another show. While there are other series that are as brilliant as Breaking Bad, there are few which are as fast-paced. Slow Breaking Bad episodes do exist, but they are such an anomaly that you’ll likely struggle to think of them. This beloved series just refuses to let off the gas, and somehow maintains an incredible level of tension throughout.
That pace is immediately established by the show’s opening episode. Within minutes, we are gawking at a man in a gas mask and tighty-whities driving an RV through the desert at speeds that exceed what you thought an RV was capable of achieving. Not long later, we are fully convinced that this same man is our undisputed hero despite the fact that he has just committed murder in the name of continuing to sell drugs. That’s just impressive.
2. Terrible – Seinfeld
In a making-of documentary, Julia Louis-Dreyfus commented that she’s never seen the Seinfeld pilot episode, and doesn’t plan on ever watching it. Once again, she proves to be the smartest of us all. In case you’re wondering, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is not in Seinfeld’s pilot episode, nor is much of the humor and intelligence that would help the series become one of the best shows of all-time.
Yes, there are many things about Seinfeld’s first episode which are different from the rest of the series. Elaine isn’t there, Kramer’s name is Kessler, Kessler owns a dog, George exists for Jerry to bounce dialog off of, and many famous locations – such as the diner – are entirely different. There are hints of the Seinfeld formula here and there, but the pilot is a surprisingly routine sitcom in which the payoff is a joke about Jerry dating an engaged woman. We’re a long ways away from “The Contest,” folks.
1. Perfect – Lost
Once upon a time, pilots existed as a way to show networks and audiences exactly what they could expect from a series. Granted, shows grew beyond the initial idea of a pilot, but the that first outing was still there as an assurance. Do you like this series about the couple arguing over a burnt pot roast? Come back next week for more of the same!
Lost changed that formula in a slight, but meaningful way. Lost’s pilot episode wasn’t there to assure you that it was going to be one kind of show or another. It was there to let you know that if you watched Lost, you were never really going to know exactly what to expect. Lost would later lose viewers because of so many unanswered questions, but the dangling threads and cliffhanger style of Lost’s pitch-perfect pilot lured audiences into a world where the conversations that existed about what could happen in a show were just as relevant as what actually did happen.
What other TV shows had an absolutely perfect (or downright terrible) pilot episode? Let us know in the comments.
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