Pilots are interesting beasts in the television world. They’re used to convince a studio to shell out more money for more episodes. In order to do that, a pilot needs to succeed on several more fronts of storytelling than any other single episode. A pilot needs to introduce the major characters of a series in an engaging, often standalone, story that will leave the audience clamoring for more.
Furthermore, a good pilot needs to rely on a strong cast to build a rapport in a short period of time. Writers working on pilots also have to gauge possible long-term onscreen relationships completely blind of actors’ chemistry. Because of these factors, I live by one steadfast television-viewing rule:
Never judge a show by its pilot.
But some series have such strong pilot episodes that you can and should judge them on the pilots. And so, here I have compiled a list of some of my favorite pilot episodes. They aren’t necessarily my favorite shows ever, and they aren’t exactly the best episodes of said shows. These episodes are just the most engaging series-starters that I’ve seen. They also introduce the characters and story arcs in a highly satisfying way.
You can click the episode titles in the list to buy them digitally on Amazon.
I’m only three seasons into The West Wing and based on everything I’ve heard, the quality experiences a steep drop off after Aaron Sorkin’s exit in season four. For the time being, however, this is a fiercely well-written series that takes something I have little interest in (politics) and presents a fictionalized world of them with extraordinarily well-rounded characters.
When I think back to the pilot episode, I’m surprised at how well the characters and world are introduced. From the episode’s cold open (the first of many stellar opening scenes to grace countless episodes to come) to the closing scene and the introduction of Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlett, every line of dialogue carries weight and is delivered perfectly by one of the best cast of actors to be on network television.
And, at least in the next three seasons, the show hasn’t stopped being the engaging, smart and witty drama that its series premiere promised it would be.
I’m one of those obnoxious TV fans who insist that The Wire is the best thing that’s ever been produced for television. People immediately view it as a police show, as if it were akin to NYPD Blue or The Shield. Literally nothing can be further from the truth.
As a journalist working the police beat of Baltimore, David Simon spent a year riding with homicide detectives for his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (on which the series Homicide: Life on the Streets was based). He knew the city and he knew the crime. He would eventually take that expertise and create what many, myself included, believe to be the best all-around television there has ever been.
The Wire isn’t a cop show. The best way I’ve found to describe The Wire is that it’s a sixty chapter visual novel about the death of the American city. It explores the various aspects of the city in such a way that by, the end of the series, we have a panoramic view of the series’ most troubled and tragic character; Baltimore.
The series premiere, The Target, introduces the police case that drives the first season of the show in an episode caked in subtext and realism. This first episode is one of many pieces of a larger puzzle and all the pieces matter.
You’ll notice that not many comedy pilots are on this list. That’s because comedies are much more complicated than dramas. The standard sitcom draws from the personalities of its main cast as the show progresses. Sitcom writers write to their actors’ strengths. Sitcom actors get to know their characters and have more freedom to improvise on a sitcom set. These factors make it hard for a comedy series to get it right in the beginning.
Arrested Development is interesting in its mad genius. The depth of the writing and the clarity of the characters are there from the beginning. The pilot episode of Arrested Development introduces both the style of the series and many of the recurring jokes that run throughout the series. It’s the best comedy pilot I’ve ever seen because it’s the rare one that gives the viewer the best view of what the show will be moving forward.
The Lost pilot is J.J. Abrams’ first movie. Seriously. The production value alone is awe-inspiring. It was the most expensive pilot ever produced at the time. In fact, the executive who ordered the pilot was fired because of the risky investment.
Say what you will about the way the show ended (I loved the finale), the pilot episode of Lost is an incredible example of network television at its best. It’s compelling and introduces an enormous cast of characters, all with surprisingly even distributions of screen time.
Lost’s series premiere is also the only pilot episode I know of that actually makes the standard “Pilot” episode title relevant to the plot. The episode features the survivors of Oceanic 815 trekking into the jungle in search of the cockpit. There, they find the pilot who gives them a key piece of information about their plane crash. It’s a small thing, but it’s something to appreciate all the same.
Full disclosure, it has been a while since I’ve watched the pilot for Breaking Bad. So I’m admittedly a little hazy on the finer details of the premiere episode of the best show currently on television. But that opening scene of the series, with a half naked Walt in the desert holding a gun and apologizing to his family as sirens ring out in the distance, you know you’re in for an incredible ride with Breaking Bad.
As we get closer to the last batch of episodes in August, I’m planning on rewatching the series from the beginning. I can’t wait. There’s no denying that once Breaking Bad goes off the air, there will be a void left in television.
Community is the only other comedy pilot to make my list. Interestingly enough, I added it for different reasons from Arrested Development’s premiere episode.
Community is an ingeniously meta and clever sitcom about a group of misfits in a study group at a community college. As a whole, season one is one of the most well put together seasons of sitcom television I’ve ever seen. Its pilot episode is no different.
Although the characters’ relationships change throughout the course of the season as the writers recognized the actors’ chemistry, the pilot still stands as a great 22 minute Breakfast Club tribute. However the characters change throughout the series, it is still a phenomenal introduction to a group of people who have no earthly business getting along with one another.
If I were listing these pilots in order of preference instead of chronologically and if I weren’t such a diehard Lost fanboy, I would have no problems with putting Boardwalk Empire at the top of the list.
Boardwalk Empire is another prime example of a TV show that premiered with a movie. The show is the likely successor to Breaking Bad for the title of best show on television and its pilot is a great example of just why that is true. It’s highly expensive, ultra violent and very well written and directed.
Martin Scorsese himself directed the pilot and it really shows. He sets a filmmaking tone with the show that the subsequent directors run with from then on. The cast is incredible (I was so happy to see Steve Buscemi finally get his due) and the screenplay sets the stage for an intense and complex 1920s gangster tale.
My current feelings toward the show, and the high turnover rate of showrunners, notwithstanding, Days Gone Bye is still a very impressive pilot episode. Frank Darabont is one of my favorite filmmakers and zombies are my absolute favorite movie monsters. This pilot is a perfect blend of what makes this filmmaker and these monsters great.
Darabont introduces Rick Grimes as the hero of the series, on a quest to find his family. Darabont said that the six episodes that make up the first season of the series should be viewed as one long pilot episode. That works well, expecially considering some of the less enjoyable elements of the season (Vatos was a bit of a waste).
As for the first part of this six-episode run, the world is introduced very well and the episode ends with a shockingly harrowing cliffhanger that is terrifying and gripping all the same
Yes, Sorkin opens and closes this list. The Newsroom is another great display of his brilliance with dialogue. The opening scene, where Jeff Daniels has a breakdown, says all the things that many people want to say but can’t find the words for. From the outset, The Newsroom reeled in an audience.
From there, the episode introduces the characters with Sorkin’s signature style. But it’s a thematic shift in the middle of the episode that takes the series from “intriguing journalistic drama” to “fascinating view of current events.” The show reveals itself to be set a few years ago in an effort to give the stories a backdrop of events in our recent memory.
It was a bold move that was met with applause and criticism alike. The detractors say that hindsight makes it easy for the journalism stories to achieve a level of “perfect reaction.” They make the argument that having all the answers makes it easy for the storytellers to guide the characters into decisions that, realistically, they wouldn’t reach in the moment.
I disagree. I feel like it gives a weight of importance to the storytelling. There was nothing wrong with the fictionalization of the politics in The West Wing. But giving The Newsroom a contemporary backdrop lends a sense of realism and importance to the storytelling.
That does it for my Favorite Pilots list. Leave me a comment and let me know if you agree or disagree.
And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter: @ObsessiveViewer for live-tweets about movies and shows I’m watching and keep up with the blog on Facebook for all the latest posts and blog news. Also make sure you follow my Obsessive Friend Tiny on Twitter @ObsessiveTiny. We have some big things planned in the near future.