Best TV Pilots

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the shield pilot

The Shield ‘Pilot’ (aired 3/12/2002)

“Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop.” – Vic Mackey

The Shield‘s first episode is essentially an hour-long mislead, setting up a character (Terry) and a story that appeared to be the main arc of the first season. It spends an hour setting up Terry as the new guy who’s going to be a snitch for the government, persuaded by David Aceveda to find evidence on Vic Mackey and the controversial Strike Team, in part to further his political career. But that all comes crashing down in the final scene, when Vic puts a bullet in Terry’s face, and the episode closes as we see the last thing Terry sees in his life – Vic looking down at him, shaking his head.

In an era full of shows looking to be the next The SopranosThe Shield distinguished itself by presenting us with a complex anti-hero, a cop who’ll do anything for his family and friends, even if that means killing another cop. It finishes a relentless hour of in-your-face storytelling and brash dialogue with a very haunting moment, a decision that would carry heavy weight throughout the entire run of the series, right up to the season finale seven fantastic seasons later.

the wire pilot

The Wire ‘The Target’ (aired 6/2/2002)

“You can’t even call this shit a war.” – Ellis Carver

“Why not?” – Thomas Hauk

“Wars end.” – Ellis

I dare you to find a scene in ‘The Target’ that is perfectly written and poignantly shot – the first hour of the best television series in history is as good as it gets. Never has a show painted such a complex picture in its first sixty minutes, challenging viewers to watch dramatic television in a completely different way. It’s not so much an introduction to a world, as it is a glimpse into an existing one; to call The Wire a ‘realistic’ portrayal of Baltimore and the two sides of the American drug war is a severe understatement.

For some, ‘The Target’ is an instant turn off – it’s full of complicated street and legal language, and never pauses for unnecessary exposition or overtly dramatic moment. Never had a cop show shown so much dedicated respect and revere for police work – and by the same token, the respect it showed the people of the street, who were mostly faceless villains on other shows.

If there’s a pilot better than ‘The Target’, I’ve yet to see it – never had a television show been so hopeful and so scathing at the same time, fleshing out one of the most complex worlds and story lines in TV history with an eloquence (and love for the word ‘fuck’ that only Deadwood could match) and complexity other writers could only be jealous of. To put it simply, ‘The Target’ is flawless television.

lost pilot

LOST ‘Pilot (Parts I & II)’ (aired 9/22 and 9/29/04)

“Guys… where are we?” – Charlie Pace

On their own, the first two episodes of ABC’s Lost are the greatest television movie ever made: opening with a traumatic plane crash, and detailing the mysterious first few days of the survivors on a strange island. Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof struck gold with LOST – and I’m not just talking about the $10 million budget; the two opened network television to a new, ambitious style of filmmaking that had the slick technical aspects and lush production values of a movie, with all the intricate character work and metaphors of great television dramas.

Best of all, it had a well-defined protagonist, a doctor named Jack who just wanted to go home and bury his father, but found himself stranded on an island, with a group of people looking to him for guidance. Packed to the brim with mystery – and at times, embracing a horror-like quality the show would slowly shed over the seasons – the first two hours of LOST is adrenaline-filled television with a heart and mind, capped off with an absolutely terrific final scene.

freaks and geeks pilot

Freaks and Geeks ‘Pilot’ (aired 9/25/99)

“Is it just me or does the whole world suck?” – Lindsey Weir

Lindsey Weir hates high school – as does every other freak and geek on the main cast of Freaks and Geeks, still one of the finest television casts ever assembled. But what’s really great about the ‘Pilot’ is how it finds meaning in its protagonist beyond the normal frustrations of high school: it’s about mortality, a teenage girl dealing with the eye-opening death of her grandmother, and how it causes her to question her entire identity.

There’s also just a fantastic cast of characters, headlined by Lindsey’s puberty-stricken brother Sam Weir (John Francis Daley), classic burnout Daniel Desario (James Franco, doing his best James Dean), and Sam’s skinny friend Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr). Although it doesn’t try to transcend its genre with original story lines or quirky characters – it does it by taking those stock characters and stories and adding layers of dialogue and loads of 1980’s-era details in its middle-class Michigan setting.

The Freaks and Geeks pilot is a remarkable achievement – it wasn’t flashy or concerned with parody, capturing the awkwardness and frustrations of high school with an honesty rarely found on network television – plus it closes with the greatest school dance scenes ever put on film. Of all the pilots on this list, Freaks and Geeks is probably my favorite.

sopranos pilot

The Sopranos ‘The Sopranos’ (aired 1/10/99)

“What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.” – Tony Soprano

When we’re introduced to Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), he’s in a psychiatrist’s office, trying to figure out why he had a panic attack. But as he explains the events leading up to his panic attack, creator/director/writer David Chase introduces us to his world of New Jersey and his life in the mob – and more importantly his family, defined through a metaphor involving Tony and his pool (a literary device that would continue to carry heavy weight through the series).

The Sopranos was a show that changed television forever – and its first chapter stands as a testament to the storytelling to follow. While most mob shows and movies are about the FamilyThe Sopranos wasn’t trying to hide anything in its title: at its core, it’s about Tony Soprano, his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) and children Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler) – and of course, his amazingly complex mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand) and uncle Corrado ‘Junior’ Soprano (Dominic Chianese). Both a deep character study, and a verbose mob drama punctuated by acts of violence, ‘The Sopranos’ is a flawless introduction to a classic series.

cheers pilot

Cheers ‘Give Me A Ring Sometime’ (aired 9/30/82)

“I need a waitress – you need a job. You like the people here. You think that they like you. And the phrase “magnificent pagan beast” has never left your mind.” – Sam Malone

So many shows are in a rush to introduce characters, situations, relationships – and in the case of comedy, get laughs – that pilots often work against their own strengths, front loading their first episode in order to attract attention to a series. ‘Give Me A Ring Sometime’ is the direct contradiction to that philosophy, a workplace sitcom that took its time introducing everyone and defining who they were.

It also helps the pilot is from 1982 – it benefits from a 24-minute running time, giving every character plenty of time and interactions to flesh out who they were, whether it was Diane, a visitor waiting for her fiancee to return, nightly regular Norm Peterson (“Norm!”) , or bar owner Sam Malone, a smooth-talking former baseball player and recovering alcoholic.

Everything about ‘Give Me A Ring Sometime’ builds slowly, patiently selecting moments to accentuate humor, and knowing when to back off and let characters like Sam and Coach talk about the old days of baseball, or Carla’s sad story about life. And it does so with a slightly restrained air, less of an introduction to a new world, and more like a quiet peek into one that already exists. Top it off with characters that were written perfectly from the first scene (unlike other comedies, Cheers never had to ‘tinker’ through its first season to find the winning formula), and it’s no wonder why ‘Give Me A Ring Sometime’ is often considered the best pilot in history – a title it’s perfectly deserving of.

e and d pilot

Eastbound and Down ‘Chapter 1’ (aired 2/15/09)

“Everyone wanted a piece of my shit. Just a man with a mind for victory and an arm like a fucking cannon. But sometimes when you bring the thunder, you get lost in the storm.” – Kenny Powers

The first episode of Eastbound and Down is a comedian’s comedy show: it’s depressing and bitter as hell, balancing its many laughs with the sadly-believable plight of Kenny Powers, disgruntled former MLB reliever. After drinking, snorting, and generally wasting his fortune, he moves back to his hometown, and takes a job as the substitute teacher at his old high school.

Everything for Kenny Powers is shitty when we meet him: his old flame’s engaged to some tight-wad principal, his pot-smoking brother’s become a father and husband, and everyone who used to admire and respect him now laughs in his mulleted face. And despite it all, Kenny remains a naive asshole who hasn’t grown up one iota since he left his hometown over a decade ago.

Most people remember the episode for its many quotable moments or jokes, but what sticks with me whenever I watch it is how bleak it is. Even black comedies have their light moments, but every humorous moment in the first episode only reaffirms what a shitty life Kenny has, and how desperate he is to avoid those truths.

sprts night pilot

Sports Night ‘Pilot’ (aired 9/22/98)

“I love producing Sports Night. I live from eleven to midnight and the rush is so huge, I don’t come down ’till three o’clock in the morning. I love doing Sports Night… and you used to, too.” – Dana Whitaker

Before The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin created his first television show about a sports news network, after watching Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick during the heyday of SportCenter in the mid-1990’s. Long forgotten by many TV viewers (it was canceled after its second season in 2000), Sports Night still remains one of my favorite network comedies of all-time.

The script for Sports Night’s pilot is everything great about Sorkin – grandiose monologues (Jeremy Goodwin’s introduction is still one of the best character intros ever for a comedy), back and forth walk-and-talks, and a fully-realized cast of enigmatic characters. For a 22-minute pilot, Sorkin manages to weave an impressive amount of plot and exposition without feeling forced, detailing the different relationships on the show while everyone attempts to broadcast a feature on an African runner, despite pressure from the network to appeal to the masses.

At the center of the great ensemble cast (which include Felicity Huffman in arguably her best role) are the show within a show’s co-hosts, Casey McCall (Peter Krause) and Josh Charles (Dan Rydell). The episode really takes off when the recently-divorced Casey confronts Dan about possibly leaving the show, culminating in a beautiful scene where Casey rediscovers his love for sports.

Full of hilarious – and heartwarming – moments (Dan’s “New York renaissance” still cracks me up), Sports Night is one of the tightest comedy pilots ever produced, establishing Sorkin as one of the finest writers of his generation.

party down pilot

Party Down ‘Willow Canyon Homeowners Annual Party’ (aired 3/20/09)

“Are we having fun yet?” – Henry Pollard (and everyone)

At its heart, Party Down is about failure. It’s the blackest of comedies, a show that buries characters in their delusions to avoid the truths they don’t want to face. The first episode sets this up perfectly, portraying failed actor Henry Pollard’s first day working for the Party Down catering company he left to become an actor years ago.

It takes place at the most depressing of settings (a desperate, suburban homeowners party thrown by an unhappy couple), but it features some hilarious plot lines: Constance’s speech about disappointment (“that shit rocked my world”), or the side plot where Roman is fucking with bird-brained Kyle, Party Down’s first half hour is one of its best, a pitch-perfect portrayal of the depression-riddled underbelly of Hollywood.

****

Honorable Mentions: Twin Peaks ‘Northwest Passage’;  Deadwood ‘Deadwood’;  Arrested Development ‘Pilot’;  The Pretender ‘Pilot’; Undeclared ‘Pilot’

4 Comments
  1. Inigo says

    Interesting choices although I’m not sure I have a clear idea as to what specifically makes a pilot great, particularly as so many are from shows that became critically acclaimed over their course leading to the suspicion that the assessment is by way of hindsight.

    “You want to know how I lost my virginity? So do I.” The most egregious absence for me in this list is the pilot of Veronica Mars. As all pilots must do, it introduces dozens of characters, backstories and seeds for a future that excites anticipation and does so with wit and energy. Most beautifully, it immediately belies the froth implied by the “teenager-as-part-time-PI” premise by giving us a jaded and damaged heroine who is smart with the observational skills on class, politics and people of a modern-day Jane Austen. Underpinning it all is a strong father/daughter relationship that is the only solidity in the life of one who has lost her best friend to murder, her virginity to rape and her place in her world. Very noir and yet very funny, the pilot delivered great things and promised more. All within 42 minutes.

  2. Jack Deth says

    Hi, Randy:

    Excellent selection of prime pilots!

    I would go a bit 1980s old school and include the pilot episode for Michael Mann’s produced ‘Crime Story’.

    Wonderful attention to detail and the abilities of a Major Crime Unit in early 1960s, pre Miranda Act Chicago.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      I’ll second that, Jack. Mann brought in Abel Ferrara, who usually directed features, to helm the pilot and the shootout in the department store is masterfully done. The only thing even stronger is the coda with Farina standing over his nemisis prone on the floor, putting a bullet into the floor by his head: “See how easy it is? I just wanted you to see how easy it is.” Definitely a hell of a pilot.

  3. Dan Heaton says

    Great list! A lot of these would make my rankings, especially The Shield, Sports Night (even with the laugh track), Freaks and Geeks, and The Wire. I’d definitely put Twin Peaks on there, which made your honorable mentions. The pilot of Alias is also really strong and feels like a movie. It also introduces many elements that remain part of the show right to the end. Firefly also has a great original pilot, even though it was pushed aside by the network.

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