Note: We are speaking here today about pilots in terms of, “the premier episode of a TV series” and not just the best TV characters who also flew planes/helicopters. If I was concerned with the latter instead of the former, it would just be Tim Daly and Steven Weber from Wings, tied, ten times.
Also Note: There are spoilers herein. You’ve been warned.
This week marks the unofficial-official beginning of Fall TV Pilot Season. The various cable and streaming channels/services have, of course, gotten a head start on the networks with shows like Disenchantment, Jack Ryan, and Mayans MC having already dropped but this week, the Big Four and a Half (as I am proposing they should be called since The CW still doesn’t quite count, I think we can all agree) started putting their new wares on display. As has become the norm, this season is relatively grim, although I will give the networks credit for greenlighting fewer shows that appear to be truly horrific and settling instead for only marginally mediocre fare. Still, the fall’s slate isn’t very inspiring and has me pining for better days and considering the best pilots I have seen in my years of studious TV watching. Thus, a list of said best pilots because, after all, I do love a list.
I have long been fascinated by the pilot process and I think there are four qualifiers for what set the very best pilots apart from the rest. A great pilot must:
1. Be of the highest quality in its own right. Bad or mediocre pilots that spawned great shows will not be considered (see: Star Trek the Next Generation);
2. Establish tone, plot, and/or storyline of the show that is to come;
3. Give a strong introduction to the main characters who will dominate the series henceforth;
4. Represent a show that lives up to the promise of the pilot (within reason).
We’re only talking about hour-long shows here, no sitcoms/half-hour dramas as these are completely different mediums that deserve their own conversations. So, say goodbye to Modern Family, Arrested Development, and other sitcom favorites with great pilots. Likewise, I’ve only included shows I have seen all (or the vast majority) of as it would be foolish to speak to or against the merits of a show I know little about. This list includes The Wire, West Wing, Six Feet Under, and a host of others I’m sure I should have seen by now. (I’d say I’m sorry but, y’all, there is SO MUCH television out there, what do you want from me?!) A few great pilots or pilots of great shows that missed the boat here because of one qualifier or another: Homeland, The Walking Dead, The X-Files, Fringe, Heroes, and, perhaps most devastating to me personally, Studio 60, an incredible pilot that unfortunately wrote a check the resulting show could never cash. I also tossed out Battlestar Galactica, because its “pilot” is really a three-hour miniseries which isn’t a fair comparison to the rest of these shows, and Firefly, because its pilot wasn’t actually the pilot that viewers saw and the episode that served as the pilot is probably the worst episode of the truncated series. These all feel like relevant qualifiers to me but I’m sure many of you will be angry about these exclusions and I accept your judgment.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Stranger Things (“The Vanishing of Will Byers”), Deadwood (“Deadwood”), Game of Thrones (“Winter is Coming”)
All of these episodes had a spot in my top ten at one point or another before succumbing to the strength of those listed. I love them all, however; they are all excellent pilots that follow the above rules quite well. “Winter is Coming” gets extra credit for being the flashpoint for virtually everything that has happened in the Game of Thrones universe, quite a feat given the sheer number of characters, storylines, and insanity within the show. If I had to present an argument as to why I excluded each of these from the final list, I would say “Winter is Coming” is only a so-so episode of Game of Thrones in its own right, “The Vanishing of Will Byers” is a little too concerned with the “Mystery Box” element of its narrative, and Deadwood takes about three episodes to truly establish the world in which it inhabits so “Deadwood” is more like the first portion of an extended pilot in my view. These are small complaints about shows that, again, I really dig but they’re enough to bump them off the top ten list proper.
10. Justified, “Fire in the Hole”
Of all the pilots listed here, I think this one is by far the weakest in its own right (a good episode, not great) and in fact, I excluded it in most of my early drafts. But as I considered my must haves for a great pilot, “Fire in the Hole” scored high in terms of setting the tone for what was to come while also giving us a substantive taste of our two main characters, Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder. Indeed, one of the very first lines spoken by Raylan regarding Boyd, “We dug coal together”, became a consistent theme for the next six seasons and serves as the final words spoken in the finale. That kind of symmetry is too much for me to pass up, especially considering how great this show turned out to be after its first season.
9. 24, “12:00 am-1:00 am”
The legacy of 24 is difficult to contextualize in 2018 but in the moment, it was a show unlike any other and the pilot set the events that followed over the next nine years into motion with rapid fire speed. 24 is, I think, the first network TV show to hint at the Prestige TV era that was to come and served a multi-generational audience with a wholly unique, pulse-pounding thrill ride with every single episode. This pilot serves as one of those, “Where were you when…” pop culture moments and that ticking clock was all anyone could talk about in the days following the premier. There are many, many, episodes of 24 that are better than this one, but the experience of this particular hour sets it apart in my mind.
8. Pushing Daisies, “Pie-lette”
Oh, what could have been. The WGA strike in 2007 claimed a handful of TV and movie victims but for my money, there is no greater loss than Pushing Daisies. This is a beautiful, quirky, expertly crafted pilot that sets the tone exquisitely, no small feat considering the very odd subject matter. To this day, it stands as the prime example of how to set up an off-beat series and I only wish the show would’ve been given the room to build upon the promise it showed in its truncated first season. You deserved better, Pushing Daisies.
7. Breaking Bad, “Pilot”
A small confession: while I fully grasp the greatness and significance of Breaking Bad, I think its first ten episodes or so fall somewhere between “average” and “good.” Somewhere in the second season, Vince Gilligan found the right gear and the show never lost its pace again but the first season in particular is a bit of a slog for me. The pilot, though, is an outlier, a gripping hour of television that sets the wheels turning on the next 61 episodes of the show many consider the best of all-time. This episode worked in the moment but more importantly, it really works when you look back on it in the context of where the series ended up. I’m not completely sure Gilligan had the entire thing mapped out all along but regardless, when you re-watch this pilot now, you see the seeds of what would come to pass, especially in regard to Walter White, and the myth of his goodness.
6. The Shield, “Pilot”
Over the years, whether due to its lack of streaming availability or the sheer number of white male anti-heroes we’ve encountered since it premiered in 2002, The Shield’s legacy has gotten overlooked. You rarely hear it discussed in the same glowing terms that most of its Early Prestige TV era luminaries receive if it’s even mentioned at all. I think is a massive mistake as The Shield had more influence on the next 15 years of television than any other show besides The Sopranos. This pilot lays the groundwork of what the series, and maybe more importantly, its main character (Vic Mackey), would be perfectly. In the closing moments, you get one of the greatest lines ever delivered on a TV drama (Vic, menacingly laying a phonebook in front of a smug child predator, saying, “Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop.”) that makes you love Vic, followed immediately by the revelation that Vic is a cop-killer. The episode forces you to wrestle with the concepts of good and evil, a continuous theme throughout the following seasons, while telling you exactly who these characters really are at their core.
5. The Americans, “Pilot”
Over its final season, The Americans solidified its place among the Prestige TV greats for anyone who previously held doubts about its legacy. (For the record, I’m not one of these people and for my money, this was the best show on television in a couple of stretches.) But the pilot itself remains criminally underrated, rarely breaking into the “best of” conversation despite its abject brilliance as a stand-alone hour of TV, not to mention the ways in which it sets up the show for the long haul. This structure of this episode is PERFECT, bringing you into the lives of two would-be villains (on paper, that is) then showing you both sides of their lives, topped off with an, ahem, effective use of “In the Air Tonight.” It is the final scene, however, that escalates the tension to the point of inducing a heart attack and sets the narrative of the next 75 episodes on its axis.
4. Friday Night Lights, “Pilot”
I’m extremely in the bag for FNL given that I think it is the best network TV drama of all-time and also my son is named after one of the characters. But setting aside all biases, I can objectively tell you that FNL is the best network TV drama of a- okay, I might not be able to set aside said biases. The structure of this episode, directed by Peter Berg in one of his most-lucid periods, is utterly brilliant, described by Berg himself as taking the All-American Boy, building him up, and then breaking him. It’s a gut-wrenching, gripping hour of television that serves as a perfect example of what the show would be for the next five seasons. It introduces all the important characters with simplicity (the complexity comes later) and backing it up with what might be Coach Eric Taylor’s greatest words playing out over the final scenes. I’ve watched this pilot a dozen times and remain fascinated by its perfection.
3. Lost, “Pilot Parts 1 and 2”
I’ve gone through a dozen stages of feelings with Lost over the years. On the one hand, it nearly (*insert David Caruso putting on sunglasses gif*) lost me multiple times, the finale is disappointing at best, and when you weigh the whole of the series altogether, I’m not sure it’s more than average overall. And yet, it was watercooler TV for six years, dominated my pre-Peak TV brain in a way no other show had before, and features some truly outstanding highs despite its immense level of difficulty. I think this episode, which premiered over two weeks in September 2004, is the best episode of the show which is both an incredible accomplishment and a major culprit in the disappointment that followed. JJ Abrams asked questions in the first two hours that never got answered satisfactorily but for a brief moment, the questions were enough to keep us totally enthralled and Lost was omnipresent culturally. To this day, this pilot remains the only one that I remember where I was and who I was with when I watched it and it is the first one that springs to mind when someone mentions TV pilots. There’s something special about that.
2. The Sopranos, “Pilot”
The Godfather of Prestige TV (I am CERTAIN I am the first person to make this allusion, I should trademark this), this episode is routinely brought up in the “Best Pilots” conversation and yet it is somehow still underrated. There was no blueprint for what David Chase did with series at large (which is part of my argument for this being the best show of all-time) but that holds even more truth for the pilot. The best drama pilots ever up to this point were (in some order) Twin Peaks, NYPD Blue, and Hillstreet Blues but all of those episodes were built like Lost’s pilot, with the intent to offer a mystery (who killed Laura Palmer), a surprise twist (Officer Licalsi is a mob informant), or a cliffhanger (two police officers are left for dead) to entice viewers to come back the following week. This episode is quite the opposite: viewers tuning in expecting a violent mob drama were instead treated to a sulky, depressed, middle-management mob boss whose teenage daughter hates him and who is…obsessed with a family of ducks? The violence would come later in the series, to be sure, but instead of falling back on the more reliable tropes his viewers expected, Chase built the pilot entirely on the characters and their everyman troubles. It makes perfect sense in hindsight, seeing as how The Sopranos was always a slow burn rather than an action-thriller, but in the moment, it was an incredibly bold move and one that resulted in fantastic returns.
1. Mad Men, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”
Without the blueprint left behind by The Sopranos, I don’t know that Mad Men exists, though this could be said (and has been) for a litany of Prestige TV shows. Mad Men, though, took that blueprint and, instead of trying to copy it (which many shows did), actually built upon it (which many fewer shows were successful at), even perfecting it. The pilot is no exception, a glorious hour of slow burn drama that sells the lie of Don Draper’s glamorous life as a top-flight ad executive and then hammers you with the revelation that, oh by the way, he’s a married family man whose entire existence is fraught with dishonesty. Essentially, Matthew Weiner took the Sopranos template and added a hook that, while not a traditional cliffhanger, is no less jarring. This revelation laid the foundation for much of what followed throughout Mad Men’s run: you saw Don’s conquests in the forefront but in the back of your mind, you were waiting for the other shoe to drop, for one of his myriad lies to be found out. Of course, that was the point, because that paranoia dominated Don’s life and, as much as any show before or after, Mad Men understood how to perfectly frame itself so that you always felt you were walking in the protagonist’s shoes. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, then, is this brief, unknowing (to the viewer at the time, that is) respite from what is to come, allowing you to see Don as everyone else sees him, before you spend the next six years seeing him as he sees himself. It’s an exquisitely shot episode that provides immediate depth to both the characters and the settings and gives you incredible insight into all that is to come.