10 Best TV Pilots Ever –
It can often take a while for a TV show to really find its feet, settle into its groove, and become the series that will eventually be known as a classic.
Sometimes it needs a few episodes: BoJack Horseman, for example, took around half a season to really get going. Others need longer: Parks & Recreation and The Office (U.S.) didn’t properly click until Season 2, and it was even longer for Seinfeld, despite it being one of the all-time greats.
For other shows, however, time is a luxury they can’t afford. First impressions matter when it comes to television, with pilots being used to sell a show to networks long before audiences will even have a chance of seeing it. Get it wrong and your series could be dead on arrival; get it right, and you might well have an instant hit – or set an impossible standard you can never quite live up to.
A pilot needs to stand on its own two feet, but at the same time provide an entry point into a larger story; it needs to be accessible, but set things up; it needs to establish characters, settings, and storylines, but can’t give everything away. It’s a delicate balancing act, and one that these shows have managed better than any others.
10. Gilmore Girls – Pilot
Few fictional settings have arrived as fully-formed as Stars Hollow, the small town full of big personalities that lies at the heart of Gilmore Girls.
A lot of TV shows turn into pop-culture comfort blankets over time, but Gilmore Girls might be the only one that serves as such from the word go: with rapid-fire dialogue laced with numerous references, a brilliant mother-daughter dynamic, a tease of Luke and Lorelai’s potential romance, the blossoming of Rory and Dean’s romance, quirky characters who instantaneously feel lived-in, and more coffee than is possibly healthy, the pilot gives us a taste of just about everything we’d come to love about the show.
Most importantly, though, it establishes the conflict between Lorelai and her parents, bringing in themes regarding money, class, and independence that would serve as such a key part in making this show much more than the one where everyone talks too fast.
9. Freaks And Geeks – Pilot
Freaks and Geeks not only launched the careers of Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, and many others, but it also stands as one of the most authentic – and hilarious – high school series ever created.
That’s true right from the word go, with Pilot focusing not on the football players and cheerleaders, but the outsiders of the school (after a great moment of parody to start off with). Exploring both of its titular groups, the series shows us its beating heart right from the off, and expertly distinguishes each one of its characters.
None of them feel like tropes, but instead real portrayals of what teenagers are actually like, and it’s one that holds up even now. Funny, warm, and completely fresh, Freaks and Geeks’ ending may have come WAY too soon, but at least it had a perfect beginning.
8. The West Wing – Pilot
The West Wing’s first episode begins with Leo walking-and-talking as the opening credits play. It ends with the brilliant arrival of Martin Sheen’s President of the United States.
From the first minute to the last, this is pure Sorkin; whip-smart, full of incredible dialogue, and politics that will actually give you a sense of hope. The episode also decides to withhold POTUS until its final moments, a decision that came about because Sheen wasn’t originally intended to have more than a recurring role in the series, but one that totally hooks you on the show.
After 40 minutes of being invested in some excellent staffers, Sheen’s arrival feels like the main event; the pièce de résistance that fully binds everything together, and ensures that by the end of the episode, everything that would make The West Wing so great is firmly in place, complete with a show-stopping line delivery from the President.
7. The Walking Dead – Days Gone Bye
Since its pilot, The Walking Dead has arisen to the top of the TV food chain and fallen to the bottom, but its first episode remains one of its very best.
Written and directed by then-showrunner Frank Darabont, the episode is an exercise in world-building alongside creating tension and some genuine moments of horror – even now, this remains one of the show’s scariest to date.
Beginning with Rick Grimes in the hospital and gradually showing us the world gone to hell, Days Gone Bye – which closely follows the comic it’s inspired by – immediately sets Rick upon a journey and, crucially, makes it one we want to follow him on. Full of suspense and moments of gore, this was a shocking hour that showed exactly what a comic book series can be on cable, turning a zombie story into prestige TV.
Forget what The Walking Dead’s become. Instead, remember what it used to be.
6. Mad Men – Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Pilots are, effectively, an advertisement to sell you on watching the rest of a TV show, so it should come as no surprise that one of the very best is from a show about the people who adverts.
Although a very subtle hour of television, everything in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is selling us on Matthew Weiner’s product. There’s a basic setup, complete with gorgeous period detail, smoky rooms, and sharp suits. Then comes the main premise of Don Draper, ad-man extraordinaire with something troubling behind him. And there’s the final hook, which shows us – in a frame that looks like it’s ripped from an advert – this businessman-cum-lothario is, actually, a family man as well.
His new secretary, played by Elisabeth Moss, allows for some exposition to ease us into the world, and the very deliberate pacing is mixed with the thrill of watching Don do his thing in the pitch meeting.
Consider us sold.
5. The Sopranos – The Sopranos
A towering crime epic. An engrossing family drama. And, at more times than it perhaps gets full credit for, a jet black comedy.
There are plenty of labels you can put on The Sopranos – none of which fully do it justice – and what’s so impressive about the pilot episode is how they’re all present in that opening hour.
The series opens with Tony Soprano, and sets about getting him to open up too as he visits psychiatrist Dr Jennifer Melfi. James Gandolfini is a dominating presence, but what makes Tony is interesting is the way that’s juxtaposed with a sense of sadness and even vulnerability here.
The world of The Sopranos, as we’re introduced to it, is of one in decline, and Tony is a man clinging to power in his crumbling kingdom. There are moments of crime and violence, and those of humour. There are epic speeches, surrealism and symbolism – the ducks! – and above all else, a gangster with a family, or rather, a family man who is a gangster. TV would never be the same again.
4. Arrested Development – Pilot
Arrested Development’s first episode doesn’t play by the conventional rules of what a TV pilot should do, but then that’s fitting for a series that consistently defied all convention across its initial three-season run.
Pilot plunges viewers into the dysfunctional world of the Bluth family, starting jokes that would soon become running, and introducing us to each character and all of their alarming traits in turn.
Taking place at George Bluth’s retirement party, it’s a perfect example of crafting a TV comedy; the gags themselves come thick and fast, while immediately giving us a sense of each character, but the true craft is seen when rewatching it, learning just how much foreshadowing and setup there is in this first episode. The second instalment may be an all-time great, but the DNA of the show is right here from the off.
3. Breaking Bad – Pilot
The dad from Malcolm in the Middle manically drives an RV through the desert, wearing nothing but his tighty-whities and a gas mask.
Plunging us straight into the middle of the action, as it would so many times over the series, Breaking Bad makes an indelible first impression, before beginning a riveting story of a high school chemistry teacher who develops cancer and needs to make some money.
Back then there was no way of knowing where things would be headed, or just how dark Walter White’s fall would be, but the pilot episode ensures you’ll stick around to find out, while serving as a gripping, unique, and suspenseful hour of TV.
With some stunning direction, a tightly written script from creator Vince Gilligan, and a surprising, mesmerising performance from Bryan Cranston, a TV phenomenon was born, even if most of the world wouldn’t discover it for a few years yet.
2. Lost – Pilot
Even just keeping this to Part 1, Lost would still make the list, but its two-part pilot was a stupendous effort in building a TV show that would entrance, engage, and enrage audiences for years to come.
Director J.J. Abrams plunges us straight into the action, with Jack waking up on the beach, and the burning wreckage of the plane crash still surrounding him. There’s panic and desperation in what’s one of the most exhilarating opening TV sequences ever made, after which it settles into what’d become the proper Lost groove.
We get to meet and know the key survivors, both on the island and through the flashbacks that would become so crucial. But it also sets the tone for the mystery elements of the show too: Where exactly are they? What is that French radio transmission? Was the pilot just killed by a cloud of smoke?! A POLAR BEAR?!
Super exciting and even more intriguing, the show may have lost its way at times, but there was no way viewers weren’t coming back for more after this.
1. Twin Peaks – Northwest Passage
“She’s dead, wrapped in plastic.”
With just five words, one of the most gripping, groundbreaking, and gloriously weird TV shows ever jump-started into life.
Agent Dale Cooper arrives in the town of Twin Peaks, and even just through a call to the unseen Diane he’s established as a force of good; here, clearly, is a man who sees all the beauty in the world amidst its terrors.
And what terrors they are, with the murder of Laura Palmer sending shockwaves through Twin Peaks and TV screens alike. Those townsfolk are what help make the pilot – and the show as a whole – so great, with each one more bizarre than the last.
Completely disturbing and yet equally bewitching, this was both pure David Lynch and yet just about accessible enough to hook viewers who could sense the strange alchemy and deeper mythology at work here. It’s an episode that once you watch, you can’t stop thinking about – what more can a first episode do, really?
It’s a DAMN good TV pilot.