Welcome to our list of the best TV show pilots of all time.
Pilots are the episodes that hook us. Some shows have gone on to be wildly successful with lousy pilots. Some shows have failed despite terrific pilots. And then some shows launch with a killer pilot and go on to be a successful series.
Below is our list of what we consider to be the best 75 TV pilots of all time.
1. The X-Files Episode 1.01 ‘Pilot’
Written by Chris Carter
Directed by Robert Mandel
Originally aired September 10, 1993
Though it bore a divisive premise and stubborn personality, as open to gentle mockery and parody as much as it was devoted adoration, there can be no denying that The X-Files was a show that became both iconic, and a vital component of a new wave menagerie that defined 1990s television. Billed as a character driven crime procedural that happened to deal in the paranormal, with conspiracy theories given as much focus as the investigated murders or missing persons, it would grow into a monstrous phenomenon spanning nine years and two movies under the ambitious tutelage of journeyman writer Chris Carter, and set the tone for a new generation of high concept serial drama. Considering its reputation – and latter day hubris – it is interesting that a return to its roots shows a far different vision than that hinted at by UFOs, illuminati shadow groups, and super soldiers.
The manifest destiny of The X-Files may have turned out to be a modern fairy tale set in a fantastical world, but at the beginning things were far more grounded. Inspired by true events, as the opening title card reveals, the pilot episode bears a grimy and low-fi sensibility. It is as if The Night Stalker has been mated with The Silence of the Lambs. Impressively, the use of the FBI has a modest touch; field offices are mundane and drab places filled with overstuffed filing cabinets and white walls; their agents are colorful, distinctive personalities rather than uniformly stoic suits sweeping into crime scenes enigmatically; breakthroughs in invasive, groundbreaking study and investigation are hampered by bureaucracy and personal prejudice. It quickly puts as at ease in following the rite of passage undertaken by scientifically minded, committed idealist Dana Scully, as she is given the strangest of first assignments.
Rather that betraying the low-budget necessities of the show’s opening days, the central mystery of the episode is more mysterious by its simplicity. Teenagers from the community are disappearing in a patch of woods near their Oregon home town, kidnapped and returned hours later with strange marks on their neck and with no memory of the trauma. We get a fleeting glimpse of this occurrence as a young man, shirtless and face obscured, cradles the abductees and carries them into a sea of light and air emanating from the heavens. Just as soon as we see it, it is gone, and we are on the path of the investigators. Gillian Anderson’s Scully, a young and educated rookie agent in the Clarice Starling mould, is tasked with partnering up and ultimately observing on the Bureau’s black sheep. This is Fox Mulder, a laconic and eccentric investigator of ferocious intelligence who has forsaken his career in favor of obsessive pursuit of the inexplicable. Sitting alone in his basement office, mocked by colleagues and shunned by his superiors, former golden boy ‘Spooky’ devotes his time to solving cases lodged in the ‘unexplained’ category, also known as ‘X files’.
And here we have the heart of the episode, one that means the show right from the start transcended gimmicky procedural in favor of something deeper. Mulder and Scully head to Bellefleur in search of the ‘truth’, with Scully logging the movements of the case and adding a skeptical counterpoint to Mulder’s unworldly convictions. Rather than butt heads, however, Mulder sees through Scully’s purpose in being assigned and chooses to play with it, treating his new partner as a potential student and weathering her doubts and slights with good humor born of absolute conviction in himself. Likewise Scully, initially puzzled and then irritated by Mulder’s leaps outside of the realms of known science, finds herself drawn to him and, through the case, finds some morsel of credibility to his pursuits. A double act that would become one of television’s most famed and celebrated partnerships is fledged in a series of intellectual debates and a final denouement that defies comprehension or clarity.
Though it may look and sound different to later episodes, shorn of its unmistakable opening credits sequence and theme song, the Pilot sets the tone for much of the series in its initial salvo while telling a story with deeply cinematic sensibilities that further ignores the demand for ‘monster of the week’ formatting. Conventions are ignored at every turn. There is no grand reveal at the end of the episode, meaning the case does not escape the category of unsolved. Only a vague glimpse of the truth is achieved. Mulder’s assurance that the teens are alien abductees conflicts directly with Scully’s assertion that a person is responsible for their disappearances, yet by the end neither are proven correct. The mystery remains in place. If anything, we are given more substance as the episode ends with the soon to be legendary Cigarette Smoking Man filing away crucial evidence in a Raiders of the Lost Ark style warehouse.
Further to thi, we get an unusual portrayal of the Bureau rarely seen in such material (aside from Twin Peaks perhaps). The central characters’ status as federal agents suggests they will be able to enjoy a great deal of power of investigative freedom, since they work for an organization usually shown to be intimidating and overpowering. Instead, Mulder’s nature and the lack of departmental backing means the duo are isolated and without help in their quest, while the various witnesses and victims are reluctant to help, especially when aliens are mentioned. The best evidence is obtained through breaking and entering, midnight sojourns into the woods and odd experiments on empty roads. Although they are the law, the pair are unable to stop the forces that be from sabotaging their case, in this instance burning down a coroner’s office housing a simian body found in a man’s grave. They may work for the government, but Carter makes no bones about the fact that Mulder and Scully are the underdogs.
Crucially these are underdogs we can root for, and not just because they are truthseekers. While the mysteries that come are suitably murky and ambiguous and worthy of audience engrossment, the show’s success, and the pilot’s strongest component, is the central dynamic between the agents. The lack of a clear explanation is not frustrating, because through the travails we get to enjoy the blossoming of a relationship that is as deep and complex as it is sparkling. David Duchovny and Carter fashioned a modern-day fictional legend with Fox Mulder, a man whose commitment to his cause is sweetened by his charm and openness in the face of persecution and scorn, and his entanglement with Anderson’s Scully becomes an ongoing debate rather than argument, fueled by strong mutual respect that would grow with every episode. The episode’s close isn’t the first hour’s breakthrough moment; that comes some time earlier with a taut and fascinating late night motel room scene as Mulder explains to Scully the personal motivations for his obsession.
In this respect the pilot stands tall not just because it sets up a long-term project of huge interest but also as a sharply written mini-movie featuring superbly understated performances from the two leads. That the two characters can bear such contradictory attitudes and stances on the world and their field, the skeptic versus the explorer, and yet both come across as justified and sympathetic and convincingly avoid the pitfalls of rivalry and resentment is a Chris Carter masterstroke. Of course this relationship would eventually have to develop into the romantic after so many years of toying, and the mysteries they investigated would in turn become a convoluted mythology as fragments of revelation piled up and compounded into a whole, but in those early unrequited days the unknown, both in case work and in personal connection, was tantalizing. It is the ultimate in romance without any of the romance, all hints and nudges.
The show’s genesis into the behemoth that it is today all stems from that low budget case in Oregon and the mystery that they never quite managed to solve, and for that alone the Pilot episode deserves iconic status. In fact, it would be revisited seven years later as a closing of the arc in Requiem, a provisional series finale when contractual issues meant the show could well have seen its final sunset. Watching this episode, perhaps the natural conclusion to The X-Files, provides the best contrast. By then, all was known if not proven and the characters had given in to their unbreakable bond. The journey was complete, a journey that began auspiciously in small town Oregon, without the theme song, and set in motion a television great.
2. The Wire, Season 1, Episode 1: “The Target”
Directed by Clark Johnson
Written by David Simon & Ed Burns
Aired June 2nd, 2002
“Let me understand. Every Friday night, you and your boys are shooting craps, right? And every Friday night, your pal Snot Boogie… he’d wait ‘til there’s cash on the ground and he’d grab it and run away? You let him do that?”
“We’d catch him and beat his ass but ain’t nobody ever go past that.”
“I gotta ask ya – If every time Snotboogie would grab the money and run away, why’d you even let him in the game?”
“If Snotboogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?”
“Got to. This America, man.”
That’s it. That’s The Wire right there. Sixty hours of television, summed up in one exchange. This was a show about many things, but all of it came back around to the failings endemic to human institutions. We often do things because it’s the way that they are done, regardless of whether or not those procedures make any sense. People’s drive for self-preservation and self-promotion are often at cross-purposes with the right thing. It’s so much easier to do the easy thing, to cut corners. But when everyone is doing the easy thing, others suffer. The series started out by showing how this affected the populace of Baltimore through its police department. With each season, it expanded outward, including politics, the school system, and the press. The Wire had a cast so large it makes Game of Thrones look simple by comparison, but the real main character was Baltimore, and the point of following Baltimore for five seasons was to see how its problems reflected the problems of America as a whole.
“The Target” isn’t a premiere so much as it is a start. It has a lot of set up, having an hour to introduce several dozen characters, their situations, and their relations to one another. It has to establish two separate organizations: the Baltimore police department and the Barksdale criminal empire. By the end of the episode, Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) has cajoled the right people into getting an investigation started into the Barksdales, but that’s about it. In any other show, the pilot would end with the team assembled and their first major break having occurred in their mission. The Wire is not any other show.
The episode does not conclude. It just stops. You have to start the next episode to see what happens next, but that won’t end wrapped up in a bow, either. This is how this series works. Its seasons are like books, and each installment is a chapter rather than a self-contained piece. This is almost par for the course with serialized dramas nowadays, but back then, no one had seen anything like it. It’s part of the reason that the show had such a difficult time attracting a substantial audience, and why it never received any awards attention (another reason: most of the cast was not white).
Conventional wisdom holds that The Wire takes a few episodes to get its hooks into the viewer, that there’s a period of adjustment during which one must familiarize oneself with a whole new vocabulary, both of language and of storytelling. But re-watching this episode, I found it enthralling from the get-go, even if I knew where all this was leading. The cold open with the mesmerizing conversation about “Snot Boogie” immediately sets a tone that’s unlike any other drama you’ve seen before. Anyone describing The Wire as the best television series ever isn’t blowing smoke at you. While “The Target” may seem disorienting, sticking with the show will pay off incredible dividends.
“Fighting the war on drugs, one brutality case at a time.”
“Girl, you can’t even think of calling this shit a war.”
– Daniel Schindel
3. Sons of Anarchy, Season 1, Episode 1“Pilot”
Directed by Allen Coulter and Michael Dinner
Written by Kurt Sutter
Aired September 3rd, 2008
It was about time that television tackled the inner workings of an outlaw biker gang. Honestly, it’s rather shocking that it took so long. Kurt Sutter certainly knew what he was doing when he created Sons of Anarchy. The idea was innovative, a bit outlandish and bold — just what the doctor ordered.The ‘FX’ crime drama, soon to be in its 7th and final season, follows the trials and misfortunes of a central California based motorcycle club aptly christened ‘Sons of Anarchy’. The pilot episode introduces Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam), the vice-president and son of the deceased founder of the MC as he is about to become a father himself. Tensions rise as a rival gang, The Mayans, attempt to foil the Sons’ operation and run them out of the local gun business. Despite this explosive setback, the gang is able to come together and support their prince when his son is born pre-maturely, resulting in grave complications.
Sons draws from some of the most compelling and dark of cinematic genres, working together elements from the classic western to the gritty thriller, all while managing to incorporate a mild dose of much needed comedy. Sutter, who also writes, directs and acts in the series, understands how important the principle of juxtaposition is to this kind of narrative. While influenced by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Sons takes the age old story of good and evil and jumbles it around in ways that is both entertaining and thought provoking. As Jax begins to question both his club and himself, we witness his descent into territories traveled by most, yet very rarely in this manner. Audiences at first might find themselves wondering if they would be able to identify with these coarse, hardened characters, yet somehow manage to become drawn into this world of bribery, intimidation and violence, for there is so much more going on here. The relationships between these characters feel genuine and uncompromised. These seemingly seasoned criminals come together as a family, bound together by an oath thicker and darker than blood.
Although Sons of Anarchy primarily follows ‘the boy who would be king’ Jax, his story would be nothing if not for the people that surround him. The cast is truly an exceptional one, each actor taking on an individually provocative and well-written character. With so many different personalities in the series, it is remarkable how credibly each character is showcased, all the while still managing to maintain that believability, even when they are not the primary focus of a particular scene. Every character serves an important purpose, and much like with a king’s court, every subject must serve justly and bravely to keep the kingdom from falling apart.
What makes the Sons of Anarchy pilot so strong is how the audience is made aware that they are about to be taken on a journey through the journals of the late John Teller. When Jax finds his father’s written work, titled “The Life and Death of SAM CROW: How the Sons of Anarchy Lost Their Way”, something inside of him changes, he suddenly sees everything in a different light. Before this he never questioned what he was working for or toward. Through this enlightenment, it becomes clear to him that he must make the required changes to the MC and get it back to what his father originally envisioned when he founded it so many years ago. Jax sees himself as a sort of savior, born to save the Sons. It’s through these writings that he will be defined as a leader, and his club as a family, as they ride and die together.
4. The Wonder Years, Season 1, Episode 1 “Pilot”
Directed by Steve Miner
Written by Neal Marlens and Carol Black
Aired January 31, 1988
The Wonder Years is a series built on and steeped in nostalgia: the first images we see and sounds we hear of the series are news footage of events from 1968, set to the The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn”. But The Wonder Years takes the idea of nostalgia even further: it’s not just a love letter to the Sixties in the suburbs, it is a look back at the trials and tribulations of adolescence, of the singular yet universal experience of being a child perched on the edge of adulthood. Thus, it is a show that appeals to more than just aging Boomers or Gen Xers who may have come of age at or around the same time as Kevin Arnold, the series’ main character – whatever decade it may have taken place, the journey Kevin goes on over the course of the series is a journey of universal touchstones.
With the pilot, director Steve Miner and writers Neal Marlens and Carol Black (who are also the series’ creators) set us on that path, introducing Kevin, his family and friends, and the idea that this is a series that will move forward by looking back. After the archive footage, we see home movies of kids playing in the street as the famous narration of Daniel Stern sets the stage for us. As the camera zooms in and the scratchy home movie filter disappears (thus signalling we are now in the past, not just watching it), we meet Kevin (Fred Savage), his boorish older bother Wayne (Jason Hervey), his best friend, the sickly Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano) and Kevin’s neighborhood crush (and the crush of many, many people who grew up watching this show), Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar). We also meet Brian Cooper, Winnie’s older brother and, to Kevin and the neighborhood kids, the embodiment of cool, someone who is even able to reign in Wayne. While the first four characters we meet will remain integral parts of the series, Brian is that old staple of the TV pilot, a character who is significant only for the way his actions move the main characters into place for the series, disappearing from the scene in the course of the pilot.
After this we move inside for dinner as the rest of Kevin’s family is introduced. The ensuing scene, no more than five minutes long, gives us an immediate impression of the characters: Kevin’s mother, Norma (Alley Mills), desperately trying to keep the peace and her husband calm, Kevin’s father, Jack (Dan Lauria, in an iconic role), a put-upon wage slave who grumbles about the traffic and wants nothing more than to enjoy his cocktail and a quiet dinner, and Kevin’s hippie older sister Karen (Olivia D’abo), who almost immediately shatters the fragile peace by announcing her intention to start taking birth control. All of these characters will grow and deepen as the series progresses, but in one brief scene the pilot gives us a strong foundation of who all them are.
The Wonder Years is technically a sitcom, but it functions more like a half hour drama punctuated by comedic beats. Its humor derives mostly from wry observations (such as when Kevin emerges for his first day of middle school in an ensemble that would put the Partridge Family to shame) or the juxtaposition between Stern’s narration and the events depicted on screen (as during the later scene involving Kevin being grilled by the school principal, his face a canvas of blank innocence while Stern tells us exactly what Kevin is really thinking), rather than from the usual setup-punchline rhythms of a traditional sitcom. In this way, The Wonder Years is an influence on many modern day sitcoms; no less than three series debuting in the 2013/2014 season have adopted its “wistful look back at childhood, complete with narration” structure.
In Fred Savage, Marlens and Black lucked out, finding a child actor capable of not only essentially carrying an entire show, but doing it well. Though there are moments in the pilot which run the risk of devolving into the kind of broad overacting one could expect from a child actor, Savage manages to handle the material just right. Emotions are heightened as adolescence sets in and Savage’s performance lets us see this, but it never devolves into histrionics. During a confrontation with the school principal three quarters of the way through the episode, Kevin is clearly simmering with rage and frustrated by his lack of recourse after Wayne embarrasses him in front of Winnie. Savage’s performance makes this apparent, but it remains subdued, showing a remarkable level of restraint from the young actor.
As the episode climaxes, we learn that Brian Cooper has been killed in Vietnam. This sets the stage for the final scene of the pilot, as Kevin comes across Winnie in the woods where they caught fireflies together as children. He expresses his sorrow, and offers her his jacket. As “When A Man Loves a Woman” cues up, they kiss, both of their first kisses, Adult Kevin tells us. If the family dinner scene earlier in the episode told us everything we needed to know about the main characters and their relationships moving forward, this scene, as the camera pulls back and the music swells, makes it clear where the heart of the show will lie. It’s a fitting conclusion to an episode light on plot but strong in characterization and theme, a perfect encapsulation of a series which will attempt to replicate the complex emotions involved in growing up.
For the purposes of this article, I re-watched this episode on Netflix, which features episodes that have some of the original music replaced due to rights issues. I don’t remember the original pilot well enough to know what, if anything, was changed (aside from the theme song, which is now a cover of Joe Cocker’s famous cover). Reportedly, there is a complete series DVD set in the works that will feature all of the original music.
That’s Robert Picardo, of Gremlins 2, China Beach and Star Trek: Voyager fame, as Kevin’s physical education teacher.
This episode first aired after the Super Bowl in 1988 and though the first season is only six episodes long, it won the Oustanding Comedy Series Emmy that year.
5. How I Met Your Mother Season 1, Episode 1 “Pilot”
Written by Carter Bays & Craig Thomas
Directed by Pamela Fryman
Aired 9/19/2005 on CBS
“Kids, I’m going to tell you an incredible story: the story of how I met your mother.”
From the very moment it begins, How I Met Your Mother is a love story. We haven’t even seen the protagonist yet – just his children – and we’re already being told the ending of the story. Already, there’s a lot of things working against the show, and it’s only existed for twenty-five seconds: thankfully, the twenty-plus minutes to follow are a near-flawless set of character introductions and world building that launched one of the most popular, everlasting comedies in recent memory. Suprisingly enough, it does so without using some of the show’s signature touches: without a ton of self-referential humor to Inception itself with (as it increasingly has over the years), the pilot of How I Met Your Mother is simple, straightforward, and endlessly endearing – until it gets to the end, which nearly undermined the entire series before it started.
Nine years later, it stands to the power of what Bays and Thomas would build over its first few seasons, that How I Met Your Mother became such a success, a show that was one part LOST and two parts Friends, with a couple dashes of Arrested Development and Cheers thrown on top for good measure. There wasn’t one particular thing How I Met Your Mother did better than any of these other shows, but it took those familiar elements and mixed them in a way that was wholly HIMYM’s own, mechanics and storytelling devices that were mostly nowhere to be found in the fairly innocent pilot (save for Barney’s blog), detailing the night Ted met… Aunt Robin Scherbatsky, a woman who Ted would remain in love with for the entire run of the series.
The reveal at the end of the pilot very nearly destroys everything carefully built before it: Marshall’s adorable proposal to his college girlfriend Lily (and his inability to lie, being a second-year law student with a huge heart), Barney’s relentless pursuit of sexual conquest (played brilliantly by Neil Patrick Harris, by the way – his performance in the pilot literally spawned a sub-culture of Bros), and Ted’s lovable tale of losers looking for love… it all almost falls apart when it reveals the entire pilot to be the show’s crutch for the next 200 episodes, that Ted was falling in love with a woman who would not end up being his wife or the mother of his children. By doing that, it removes the whole “will they”/”won’t they” of the entire episode, season, and series – something it took a lot of work for the show to rebuild throughout the first season, and unfortunately returned to far too many times throughout the series.
It initially feels like a neat twist: but years later upon revisiting, it’s the single worst thing about that first half-hour, highlighted by Marshall’s fear of opening a champagne bottle and Barney’s iconic “Haaaave you met Ted?” bar game. Here is Ted, moments after stealing a blue french horn from a restaurant and blurting out “I love you” to a woman he’s on his first date with (just about as “will they, won’t they” as a pilot can get)… and the show reveals it to be nobody, an unrelated aunt who is part of the family, but not the integral part Ted initially builds her up to be. It’s a bit of a rug-pulling gimmick – and tacked onto the end of an otherwise clever, confident sitcom pilot, feels too much like an audience grab for its own good.
Thankfully, Ted and Robin would always be the weakest part of How I Met Your Mother, the perfect couple doomed never to be together: with Marshall and Lily, we had a successful relationship we could watch over the next nine seasons, detailing their professional and personal journeys in such satisfying ways (their wedding… the news of Lily being pregnant… them buying their first house… the classic story arcs for Marshmellow and Lilypad are numerous) that we don’t get to see in the first episode (except for Marshall’s ‘thinking on his feet’ skills and the evidence of a kindergartner getting to second base with Ms. Aldrin). And of course, there’s Barney, the show’s cartoonish center, a man whore whose eventual growth is nowhere to be found in this episode (“Lebanese girls are the new half-Asian girls” he tells Ted, setting the show’s typical bar for racial sensitivity very, very low). Used mostly as a vehicle for sex jokes in the early going, there’s no signs of weakness with the first incarnation of Barney Stinson: in “Pilot”, he’s nothing but an empty suit, parading about telling Ted how to live life and not fall in love – the latter of which Ted Moesby is ready for when we meet him for the first time.
Without the time-jumping or complex homages that eventually became a part of How I Met Your Mother‘s formula, “Pilot” is a fairly standard sitcom pilot, albiet one charming and engaging enough to set itself apart from most of CBS’s comedy line-up for the next nine years (when HIMYM began airing, King of Queens and Two and a Half Man were still ‘hits’ for the network), even in its laziest moments and story lines (Zoey anyone?). Above all, How I Met Your Mother is about the power of love flying in the face of reason, embracing the idea of destiny in a whole-hearted way most sitcoms could only feign – philosophies immediately apparent in the first ten minutes of the pilot, setting the stage for the 200-plus episodes (some genius, some endearing, some astonishingly terrible) to follow.
6. Treme Season 1, Episode 1 “Do You Know What It Means”
Written by David Simon & Eric Overmeyer
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Aired 4/11/2010 on HBO
For many, watching a David Simon series (The Wire, Treme, Generation Kill, The Corner) is about watching the institutional failures of America. And while there’s no doubting the precision with which Simon dissects the various socio-political establishments in America, I always find myself drawn to Simon’s television work for a different reason (besides his fantastic sense of culture, layered characters, and insane dedication to realism), especially Treme. Above all, shows like The Wire and Treme are about the power of humanity, the resilience which everyday people find themselves full of hope, even while everything crumbles around them – be it buildings, communities, or entire cultures.
When it comes to things crumbling in America, Hurricane Katrina is an even more ideal petri dish for Simon’s contemplative dramatizations than Baltimore: in the aftermath of one single event, the most prevalent (and subtle) of Simon’s recurring themes were magnified. Social injustice, obliteration of the blue-collar class, a culture compromised by commercialism… all of these ideas find their way into the 78 minutes of “Do You Know What It Means”, delivered by a variety of colorful characters, from the insanely annoying/endearing DJ Davis and steadfast Albert Lambreaux, to the irresponsible trombonist Antoine Batiste and passionate college professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman, in one of his finest roles). Each of them, in some form, finds themselves butting up against some of Treme‘s Big Ideas, ideas even more nuanced and geographically specific than The Corner or The Wire at its most self-reflective: Davis experiences the commercialization of New Orleans sacred music culture from multiple angles, just as Antoine struggles to find and maintain his place in said culture throughout. Characters mention FEMA,and everyone shares the experience of their house (if you only had four feet of water and lost your roof, you did well) throughout, detailing just how desperate people are for the country to step up and help them rebuild.
But anyone who has watched Simon’s work knows one thing: the government is going to help the people rebuild anything. What they are interested in doing is something that Treme would dip its toes into during later seasons: in “Do You Know What It Means”, the second step to this idea is absent, if only to highlight the other idea, the beating heart at the center of every jazz rhythm and passionate DJ Davis-speech to follow in the series: the one thing that can rebuild a community or a culture is itself, people coming together in harmonious existence to rebuild what was lost, stolen, drowned, forgotten, or left for dead.
It’s no accident so many of Treme‘s musical numbers are about collaboration: the shared spotlight of many musical scenes (including those in the pilot) are about people coming together over a shared love. For the musicians of the show (from Antoine to Kermit and Elvis Costello, to those we haven’t met yet, like Sonny and Annie), Treme is about coming together to create and celebrate music; for others, it’s a different type of love for New Orleans that brings them home. Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo, a personal favorite) comes home seeking justice for others (as she always has, something we find out with the pissed-off cop she runs into at a popular cop diner), LaDonna (Khandi Alexander, delivering her finest on-screen performance to date) returns to run her bar and find her brother Daymo, and Albert Lambreaux returns to rebuild the home he raised his children in (and the bar where he kept his heritage alive)… there’s a little part of New Orleans that draws every character home, even when everything is telling them to drop and leave – like Janette’s struggling restaurant, trying to bring authentic home-cooked food (no Chinese oysters or crawfish here!) to her customers, damned what the cost to her profit margin (or the financial survival of her business) might be.
As much as they shit on the government and the general state of things around the different neighborhoods that make up Treme‘s creative playground, the characters of Treme love New Orleans, a love that seeps through every facet of production, making Treme one of the most distinct, localized television shows in history, dramatic or otherwise. New Orleans is just as much a character as Janette or Albert are, trying to pick herself up from the man-made mess she made for herself – and her soul is a strong one, one that refuses to die in the face of destruction, violence, and uncertainty. There are rumors of Carnivale being canceled in “Do You Know What It Means”, but nobody believes it: deep down, everyone from the city’s unseen mayor to the most destitute, openly desolate characters have faith in Carnivale – even Albert, a Big Chief without any of his disciples around to make outfits and march down the streets, in a parade that may not even happen (a recurring idea throughout is that after Katrina, many people were not returning to New Orleans, doubling down on the troubling aftermath of the storm).
At the core of Treme is this hope in the face of all-consuming depression: and despite these heavy ideas (the pilot literally ends with a funeral procession), Treme remains one of the most optimistic drams I can remember watching. Yes, its as series full of disheartening moments – but at its very heart, Treme was optimistic in ways that The Wire never attempted to approach, suggesting that communities were ultimately stronger than an ineffective government. And with a cast full of lovable characters (yes, EVEN DJ Davis, our pot-smoking Jimmy McNulty surrogate) and an undeniable respect for the power of music in healing and inspiring, “Do You Know What It Means” is a triumphant first hour to a meandering, philosophic, brutally critical series that was light on story, heavy on character, and soaked in a thick coating of New Orleans music, one of the most original, memorable dramatizations in television history.
7. Forbrydelsen, Season 1: Episode 1 – “Episode 1”
Written by Per Daumiller, Torleif Hoppe, Michael W. Horsten & Soren Sveistrup
Directed by Birger Larsen
Aired on January 7th, 2007 on DR1
The Killing, Season 1: Episode 1 – “Pilot”
Written by Veena Sud
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Aired on April 3rd, 2011 on AMC
While most current television viewers will probably have at least heard of AMC’s The Killing (which has been cancelled twice only to be renewed twice and will have a final, shortened season on Netflix), few Americans will have encountered Forbrydelsen, the Danish series The Killing is based on. And though the commonly held opinion of The Killing is that it turned into an elongated train wreck of a story for its first two seasons, there’s an almost unanimous respect for its exciting and well-executed pilot. The Killing‘s pilot certainly owes a lot to its Danish predecessor–and if you watch both back-to-back, it’s eerie how similar the two are down to little details like the main characters chewing gum–but both end up in the pantheon of greatest TV pilots through their own unique forces and strengths.
In both cases, the characters and performances do a ton of heavy lifting. Sofie Grabol and Mireille Enos play Sarah Lund and Sarah Linden, respectively–a detective on the eve of moving away with her family. Sarah isn’t exactly an anomaly in current television, since there are a handful of strong central female detectives out there. Yet, she stands out by being mostly gender non-specific. The way that both actresses carry the character conveys a hardness you would expect to see from a seasoned detective. It’s almost awkward when Sarah smiles because of how immersed she is in a life surrounded by homicide. She is precise, careful to take in each scene through observation set to a signature mystery-like music track. Despite her personal life constantly popping in in these pilots, whether from her soon-to-be husband or neglected son, she can’t quite get out of detective mode. This, we see, is what makes her so good at her job and what will keep her around after these pilots.
The rest of the casts are full of similarly great performances, and it’s a wonder how these pilots manage to immediately establish these characters and tie in both the victims’ families and the respective political sub-plots into the investigation. Lars Mikkelsen as Troels Hartmann in Forbrydelsen is especially fantastic, turning in what is, in my opinion, one of television’s very best performances of the last decade (you might know Lars’ brother, Mads Mikkelsen, from Hannibal; Lars also starred in the most recent season finale of Sherlock). The Killing‘s Billy Campbell does a fine job in the equivalent role, but Campbell’s strengths are somewhat ironically his weaknesses. Campbell brings such warm energy to all of his roles, making it impossible not to like him and consider him someone who could easily be your friend. The character, though (Darren Richmond in The Killing), spends the pilot struggling with the weight of not only a troubling campaign and a potential traitor close to him but also the memory of his dead wife. We see him for the first time at her burial site. Hartmann is much more overcome by the festering grief just bubbling under the surface with Mikkelsen looking like he’s constantly one step away from breaking.
The plots of these pilots are nearly identical, following the events leading up to finding the corpse of a young girl in a submerged car. The three storylines–the detectives, the families, the politicians–will serve as season-long complements, each with their own twists and turns and secondary characters (Kacey Rohl shows up in The Killing as the victim’s best friend, just so I don’t miss any other connections to Hannibal, where she plays Abigail Hobbs). In each case, Sarah is also dealing with the incorporation of her replacement, Jan Meyer in Forbrydelsen and Stephen Holder in The Killing (Joel Kinnaman plays Holder in a role that winds up being much bigger in The Killing than it is in Forbrydelsen). Something that The Killing got plenty of flack for as it was airing was the overuse of the red herring device. Both of these pilots end with a potential suspect in a cliffhanger sort of way, and both series go to that well often and vigorously. Yet, I would argue the strengths of both series is how they handle the device. Simply using red herrings a lot isn’t a poor narrative decision in and of itself. If the red herrings are used poorly, then it becomes a problem. And though Forbrydelsen is more successful at using them than The Killing, both structure so much of their stories around those potential reveals. At least in these pilots, there’s nothing but good police work. That might not have been as applicable in future episodes, but the red herring cliffhangers here are immediate draws and kick off both seasons in a rather exhilarating way.
Another part of what makes a great pilot is establishing tone and atmosphere alongside interesting plots and characters. Forbrydelsen and The Killing absolutely look and feel the part. The endless rain of The Killing‘s Seattle became somewhat of a running joke, but both Copenhagen and Seattle are brought out vividly here with dark and grey color palettes that make even the nicer suburban areas feel off-kilter. As Linden and Holder are driving around Seattle, Holder gives a kid the peace sign only to be given the bird back. It is one of the few advantages The Killing‘s pilot has over Forbrydelsen–that the attitudes of the town’s citizens to both the police and the investigation are laid out better. Both cities are huge parts of why these pilots are so successful. They might go overboard on the typical crime genre qualities, but they are also unashamedly embracing that identity head-on.
It’s hard to get pumped up about crime shows in a television universe saturated with them. Even season-long investigations are becoming old hat. However, from every aspect, technical or otherwise, the pilots of Forbrydelsen and The Killing set up stories that have the gravity and intelligence of shows that demand to be watched. So much groundwork is on display here, and it’s absolutely appropriate that The Killing has found a final home on Netflix, since that service’s way of automatically starting the next episode fits completely with how these stories use closing hooks as transitions. Looking at long term investment, I’m reluctant to recommend The Killing, since some of the criticisms lobbed at it are completely fair (Forbrydelsen‘s first season, on the other hand, is nothing but pure brilliance, through and through; get your hands on it if you can). Looking at just these pilots, though, these episodes are flawless examples of how to get viewers interested in your series. There is total immersion here and without the gift of foresight, they leave you seeing nothing but tons and tons of potential.
– Sean Colletti
8. Damages, Season 1, Episode 1: “Get Me a Lawyer”
Written by Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman
Directed by Allen Coulter
Aired on July 24, 2007 on FX
Making a pilot is a tricky proposition for any show. More than any other episode, the pilot is tasked with the most responsibilities. As the first episode it has to sell the show and gain an audience, while also laying the foundation for the series as a whole. Despite this pressure, some shows deliver pilots that work excellently as singular episodes, while also delivering a superb entrance to the show. One such pilot was for the FX show Damages. Titled “Get Me a Lawyer”, the episode announced the show’s presence with emphasis, advancing both plot and character in equal measure while never feeling overstuffed.
One of the key highlights of “Get Me a Lawyer” is the pacing. Many shows struggle with how to introduce the character, storylines, and world of the show effectively off the bat. Damages, however, manages to seamlessly not only give the audience a feel for these characters and their relationships to each other, it also manages to move the main story forward to a degree that a lesser show would take a few episodes to do. The introduction of every character, beginning with that of Ellen Parsons, occurs in an organic fashion, despite the large cast, and everyone is given ample time to establish their character traits. This does not mean that the story suffers from the focus on the characters. Quite the opposite, in fact, as nearly every twist in the story gets a reasoning for its existence, save for the major ones that are clearly set to be season-long arcs. Without a careful attention to detail, the path the story takes in “Get Me a Lawyer” could have appeared contrived. The fact that the writers avoid this pitfall is one of the episode’s strengths, as each new facet of the story is given enough attention before the show moves to the next point, proving its importance to the overall narrative. While the central mystery that kicks off “Get Me a Lawyer” remains unsolved, this is clearly by design, rather than weak writing. It’s a testament to the pacing that the amount of information packed in this pilot doesn’t feel overwhelming.
The attention to detail also extends to the characterisation. Not only do the central duo of Ellen Parsons and Patty Hewes get fully fleshed out, so do numerous secondary characters, including Arthur Frobisher and his lawyer, Ray Fiske, as well as Tom Shayes. Even David Connor and his sister Katie get some dimension added to their respective characters before they’re thrust into the storyline. “Get Me a Lawyer” also allows for plenty of interaction between individuals, the best example of which is Tom Shayes and Ellen Parsons. Two otherwise unconnected characters who happen to simply both end up working for Patty Hewes, the relationship between Ellen and Tom is given a surprising amount of depth in the pilot. This focus on characters adds authenticity to the closer relationships, such as between Ellen and her fiancé, adding weight to the consequences of the actions that occur during the episode. This is particularly evident in the scene where Patty fires Tom. Despite this being just the pilot, the fleshing out of both characters, the display of Tom’s reverential respect for Patty, as well as the prior scenes showing their easy interaction, all work together to add an emotional punch to the scene.
The job of a pilot is to hook the audience into watching the show, and Damages does this in spectacular fashion. Another particularly strong aspect of the show as a whole, which is evident in the pilot, is the cast. Glenn Close, coming off a role on The Shield at the time, is but one of a number of key performers, as Rose Byrne, Noah Bean, Tate Donovan, Ted Danson, and Zeljko Ivanek have all shown themselves capable of delivering atleast above-average performances in numerous other roles. The writers, in turn, give them ample material to work with, and it’s clear right from the pilot that they are more than up for the task. Close, in particular, is a standout in her part as Patty Hewes, infusing the character with nuance that gains a new perspective with her final scene in the pilot. Her work and the writing in “Get Me a Lawyer” both go a long way towards setting Hewes up as an antihero who will be able to stand with the best in the television landscape, a group with a noticeable dearth of female characters.
This episode also displays how to execute a plot twist effectively. The aforementioned final scene of Patty Hewes, while forcing the audience to re-assess everything they thought about the character, doesn’t come out of the blue. Ellen herself is warned about Patty, warnings that become more ominous in light of her actions, and this in turn muddies up everything the audience thought they knew about the murder that’s revealed in present day. Between its ability to effectively set up the important characters and provide ample interaction between them, as well as get the main plot not only started but advanced a fair amount, Damages came out of the gate with a wonderfully strong pilot, and one that can be shown as an example of how a show can start with its best foot forward.
– Deepayan Sengupta
9. Crime Story, Season 1, Episode 1 “Pilot”
Directed by Abel Ferrara
Written by Chuck Adamson, David J. Burke and Gustave Reiniger
Aired 18 September 1986
There are many reasons why the pilot of 1986’s Crime Story may not be great television.
The 90+ minute story by series creators Chuck Adamson and Gustave Reininger never gains any real traction as they introduce the 1963 Chicago Major Crimes Unit team and their mob rivals. Two veterans from Miami Vice, creators Adamson and Reininger’s ambitious story tries to introduce too many characters from both sides of the law. While focusing on Detective Mike Torello (more on him later), they try to cram everything from cop/mob rivalry and revenge to marital discord into this first episode. With everything they are wanting to accomplish, they lose sight of building any basic structure to this episode as this pilot moves from one plot point to another with little grace or flow between all of its scenes.
Yet this pilot is interesting because as they’re doing all of this plotting, you can see how Adamson and Reininger are laying down a foundation for a serial story. They feel the need to introduce all of these characters into the show and establish what the ongoing conflicts are going to be because these are going to be the basic building blocks of the series. Tough guy Detective Torello and slick mobster Ray Luca are the main drivers of the action. They have their teams and associates, many who are introduced in this episode without ever being given much to do, but the story is almost equally theirs; one man trying to build a team to drive crime out of Chicago and the other looking to prove his worth to the mobsters who want to run the city.The story is not helped at all by what must have been a puny budget. For the opening credits, all of the money must have been spent on getting Del Shannon to rewrite and perform his hit “Runaway” because even a static shot of Torello and his team looks like it’s being shot on an unsteady handheld camera. Throughout the episode, anything that was shot on a soundstage is painfully obvious, with walls that look like they were thrown up the morning of the shoot. No scenes in an office or an apartment feels real. Director Abel Ferrara does what he can with these scenes but none of these environments look like places where people actually live or work every day.
What does make the first episode of Crime Story very, very good is the way that Ferrara captures action. Whether it’s a chase or a shootout, when Ferrara gets to show his characters in their true elements of action and violence, that’s when this episode comes together. Opening with a car chase down a highway, Ferrara follows the action and gets you right up into it. As these vintage cars race down the road, it is tame by today’s standards but Ferrara frames the chase so you’re there for every bullet that is fired, every bump and collision between the cars. Later on in the episode, there’s a shoot out in a department store. The sets are still as chintzy looking as all of the other interior scenes, but Ferrara races around the action, following the multiple gunmen as this elaborate game of cops and robbers spills out into stores and streets of Chicago.
When the episode can get away from fake sets, its use of locations is fantastic. Recreating 1960s era Chicago, Ferrara sets the idealistic vision for this series. From the rain slicked streets to the suits and coats that the cops wear, he manages to envision maybe not what Chicago really was but what we want to imagine that it was. With those vintage cars, the tough guys and occasionally tougher women, and the streets of a city that has been known for its fair share of corruption, Crime Story defines its own conception of what it must have been like for the law and the criminals. This show knew what it wanted to look like even if it didn’t have the budget to pull it off for every scene.
What makes the episode great is a then relatively unknown actor, an actual retired Chicago cop who plays Torello; Dennis Farina. Farina would go on to play all kinds of cops and criminals, tough guys one and all, but it really all starts here. With Torello, he gets to play himself, a Chicago cop fighting crime and corruption. A haggard leading man, Farina would end up being relegated to being one of the supporting characters in this kind of show today but he gives weight and credibility to Torello. With his dark hair and authoritative mustache, Farina carries himself like a man who has walked the beat. As Torello, Farina easily conveys the weariness of a man who has spent day after day trying to clean up the streets of Chicago. An older, tired cop, Torello is devoted to his crusade even at the cost of his own marriage. It’s almost a cliche, but Farina wears the role like an old, comfortable coat that he just can’t bear to get rid of.Farina obviously knows how to play a cop but he also knows how to carry his character outside of the job. One scene in particular shows just how great Farina is as an actor, even this early in his career. After a particularly tough day where one of his men was killed in the line of duty, Farina heads off to a wedding reception to be with his wife, hoping to find some small comfort to end the day with. Instead he finds his wife laughing and dancing with a much younger man. From his perspective, she’s enjoying his attention much more than any married woman should be. Torello leaves without saying anything to his wife and goes to get hammered with his crew at some seedy bar (in the best looking interior shot of the whole show). Drunk and feeling hurt, he begins flirting with a woman across the bar. She’s not the best looking woman but she’s obviously as lonely tonight as Torello is. As he flirts and dances with her, Farina abandons his tough guy act and is gentle and humorous with her. He’s drunk and lonely and she’s there when his wife is somewhere else, dancing with a guy much younger than him. You think you know where this scene is going, but Farina, along with Adamson and Reininger, defies expectations and Torello remains a wonderfully loyal man.
The pilot of Crime Story has a lot going against it, but this only goes to show how a fantastic leading man’s charisma can overcome even the shoddiest production. Crime Story is Dennis Farina’s story, the story of a cop who is tired but who is also unmercifully dedicated to his job. There’s no question of Farina’s believability- he is 100% Chicago cop, down to the gravelly midwestern drawl that tells you that he is a dedicated working man. Crime Story may not be the best told story or the best looking show to come out of the 1980s but when Ferrara dives into the action and Farina gets to demonstrate his quiet yet explosive anger, it is captivating in ways that many much slicker shows never achieve.
10. The Shield Season 1, Episode 1 “Pilot”
Written by Shawn Ryan
Directed by Clark Johnson
Aired 3/12/2002 on FX
After a complete rebranding in 1997, FX turned into a channel without identity, more a virtual dump site for Fox television and film properties than a cable network. They ran reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Married… with Children – so when they stepped into the original dramatic programming ring in 2002 with The Shield, it was a bit of a surprise. TNT had dipped their feet into original programming in the late 1990s (most notably with a Babylon 5 revival and 2001’s hit series Witchblade), but AMC didn’t exist in its current incarnation yet, and HBO was just starting to gain traction with Oz, The Sopranos, and Sex and the City… it was an interesting time in television history, and there’s no doubting The Shield’s role in it all.
Directed by Clark Johnson (yes, that Clark Johnson) and written by creator/EP Shawn Ryan, The Shield‘s pilot immediately established itself as a different kind of cop show (the show’s most quoted line of dialogue in the pilot always a reminder to the audience that things are different here). The Shield was brutal, in-your-face television, one that was willing to take off the slick detective sunglasses and look at the dirtiness underneath, centered on a semi-corrupt task force (working out of a district housed in an abandoned church, no less) in Farmington, California. A premise crazy enough to be based in real fact, The Shield introduced us to Vic Mackey, a person perfectly willing to rip the drugs off a dealer, arrest him for being a dirtbag, then turning around and selling the drugs to his biggest competitor. A cowboy with a badge and license to kill, “Pilot” firmly places its titular character in the gray area between law and criminal, painting around him a backdrop of complex, interesting characters who struggle to embrace their own darkness in the wholehearted, kamikaze way Mackey does.
Just think about how attached to the other characters of The Shield over its 88 episodes – all of those things are fostered in the show’s first hour, a testament to how well the show was able to dive right into its overarching narrative with a confidence in who these people were. There’s the morally righteous Claudette Wyms (an always-terrific CCH Pounder), the insecure, cocky Detective Dutch Wagenbach (one of TV’s most underrated characters of all-time; I have a soft spot for that mushy asshole), the upstart, conveniently minority police captain David Acevada, Danny, Julien… from the start, The Shield painting an intricate mosaic of supporting players who struggled with embracing the dark unknown, an area Vic Mackey consistently made his bitch, a downward spiral into sociopathic evil that begins in the final minutes of pilot – an infamous moment that not only grabbed my attention as a viewer, but remains one of my favorite surprise twists in television history.
It’s really a genius bit, playing on the assumptions we have as Americans about a police show: while there are complex characters to be found on the hundreds of network police procedurals, none of them came close to the dark, intricate caverns of Vic’s morality. A man who will do anything to protect his children, Vic beats the shit out of a naked drug dealer, and assaults a (pedophile) doctor with a phone book after accusing him of not wanting to fuck his teenage daughter: we’ve all seen police characters who “step out of line” to get justice – while Mackey’s actions can be construed as such, the final moments of the pilot flip these around to reveal them as something completely different. All cop shows force their characters to shoot a perp at some point to challenge their morality: no other cop show had a cop murder another cop, in order to cover up a drug deal with an accomplice feeding them drug money from off the streets (making sure they get their cut to keep the peace and everyone out of prison, one of many parallels to HBO’s signature mobster series).
Those final moments are sadistic, magic bits of television: the whole pilot sets up a season-long story where Terry Crowley gets in close with Vic only to turn on him at the last minute. But driven by personal gain, we’ll do desperate things: Terry will make a deal with the feds (a deal Acevada pushes him into for his own political aspirations) in order to further his career – and Vic will kill to protect his, establishing an entire new set of rules and morality clauses for the show to follow over the next seven years, with stolen money trains, life-threatening beefs with the Armenian mob, and a crumbling family of brothers at the show’s always-decaying heart, burying Vic and the rest of the Strike Team in shit pile after shit pile for eighty-plus hours.
But for the entire series, the death of Terry Crowley hangs over Vic’s head: it always defines his relationship with Acevada, remains an important connection between him and his reckless number two Shane Vandrell (Walton Goggins at his very best, let’s not forget) over the years. It’s their shared secret (along with Lem and Ronnie, two minor characters in early seasons who would play huge roles on the ultimate battle between good and evil for Vic’s soul), the biggest skeleton in their closet. It affects everything in the series, right down to the final moments when Vic’s entire career (and the free life of his beloved Strike Team buddies) is on the line – not only is Crowley’s murder at the end of “Pilot” an amazing “surprise” moment, but it’s one of the most significant character deaths in TV history – and it happens in the first episode, one of many story lines in the first episode that would remain central (and more importantly, always interesting) to the show over its wildly successful run.
That’s ballsy: and over The Shield‘s run, that adjective would come to describe the show and FX’s approach to original programming: The Shield wasn’t afraid of depicting the pitfalls of gang violence and drug use on America’s forgotten ghettos, detailing the politicians exploiting it for their personal gain, at times questioning whether the police or the criminals were different at all, two groups willing to do whatever is necessary to protect and further themselves. Meaner, darker, and more contemplative than the average cop show (and packed with creative talent, from Ryan to Kurt Sutter and Glen Mazzarra), The Shield marked a true new Golden Age for television – and remains one of the standards for all cable shows (cop or otherwise) to be judged by in its wake.
“… I don’t trust you as far as I can throw you, but I enjoy the way you lie.”
On a still night in 1876, Seth Bullock executes a man. He hangs him out in front of his jail, from the rafters while a mob demands that the thief be handed over to them for their own version of justice and/or revenge. It’s Bullock’s job as the marshall to perform this act of justice but it’s one that he doesn’t want anymore. There are so many ways this night would be easier for Bullock; he could hand the man over to the mob or he could consider the thief’s propositions for his quick and speedy release with the promise of stolen riches on the way to their mutual destination of Deadwood, a small town well outside of the United States’ borders. Just like Bullock, the dead man’s plan was to head to Deadwood to meet his glorious future there. “No law at all… in Deadwood,” the man ponders, thinking about the promise of that place while realizing his own mortality awaits him. The horse thief doesn’t make it out alive of even the first 10 minutes of this series but he exists as a perfect little microcosm of the hope and reality of what Deadwood could and would be.
David Milch’s Deadwood is about a different kind of wild west. It’s not about cowboys or adventurism or the promise of a new tomorrow although those are all elements that Milch uses in this first episode of HBO’s 2004 series. Revolving around the real-life South Dakota town of Deadwood that grew out of the 1870s gold rush, Milch would blend reality and fiction to explore this lawless town. Deadwood really existed; Seth Bullock, one time lawman and now hardware dealer existed; Al Swearengen, bar/brother owner, really existed. Deadwood was out beyond the borders of the United States so it fell under no jurisdiction. For Bullock’s horse thief, even as he awaited his own execution, Deadwood was the promise of freedom.
As played by Timothy Olyphant, Bullock is a difficult man to read. Why he left Montana for Deadwood is not brought up in this first episode. It’s hard to believe that it was to fulfill a dream of selling boots and porcelain commodes to the greedy men of a greedy town. Once their hardware store is open, Bullock never appears comfortable hawking his goods with his partner and friend Sol Star so when the news of a butchered family reaches him in the middle of the evening, Bullock’s instincts kick in. He is determined to ride into the night to investigate what happened and look for any possible survivors. In that opening prologue, he tells that blood thristy mob, “You called the law in, Sampson. You don’t get to call it off…” Even that early in this episode, Milch establishes the idea of a permanence of law that is tied into more than men’s desires for revenge.
In the town of Deadwood, there may not be law but there is order and order’s name is Al Swearengen. Owner of the Gem Saloon (and brothel,) Swearengen embodies the heart and soul of Deadwood. Ian McShane makes sure that words of Swearengen and Deadwood are delivered with such righteous cussing to show just how rotten the heart of Deadwood really is. Swearengen is a pimp, a swindler, a con man and a black hearted scoundrel but from behind his bar, he controls everything that goes on in his town. The brilliance of this opening episode is that it sets up Bullock and Swearengen as the competing forces of the dark and the light but it never puts the two of them in a scene together. At the end, after Bullock finally delivers maybe the first bit of true justice that the town has ever seen, Swearengen looks down on the dusty street and sees his true opposite.
Milch and director Walter Hill perfectly construct this episode to show these two forces of nature encircling each other in this town by simply showing us their reaction to a murdered family. As Bullock is riding off with a posse that includes Wild Bill Hickok, also newly arrived in Deadwood, Swearengen’s mind races toward calculating how news of the murders could affect his bottom line. Giving a rousing speech about how it would be best to use the night to plan what they’re going to do when they ride out in the morning, he concludes his speech with the offer of cheap booze and even cheaper whores to the delight of everyone in the saloon. He doesn’t care at all about the family; everything that Swearengen ponders comes down to how can he profit (or worse, lose money) on the situation at hand.
Few other shows have been able to capture the poetry of deceit and foul language like Deadwood does. While Olyphant only has two modes in this episode (angry and angrier,) McShane and other fantastic actors like Jim Beaver, Dayton Callie and Brad Dourif deliver Milch’s words with such grace, beauty and power even as their spitting out some of the filthiest words in the English language. McShane particularly delivers a performance worthy of the Devil’s poetry that he’s given. Ellsworth, a prospector who has found his gold in Deadwood, says to Swearengen, “I like the way you lie.” All Swearengen does is plot and lie but you can’t help but fall in love with the way that he does it.
In the prologue where Bullock has to kill a man in the name of the law, Milch and Hill set up the Heaven/Hell dichotomy of Deadwood. The promise of there being no law as you find your riches is also accompanied but the curse that there is no law as everyone else is on the same quest to find their riches. We see so many ideas of what Deadwood could be that obscure what Deadwood is. It is neither Hell nor Heaven but a Purgatory as these men and women are judged by their actions in Deadwood. Men like Bullock and Swearengen find themselves in this frontier and it is up to them to build or corrupt it for the future.
12. The West Wing “Pilot”
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Thomas Schlamme
Originally aired September 22nd 1999 on NBC
It’s hard to argue that The West Wing isn’t Aaron Sorkin’s most successful television show. It ran for eight seasons (five more than his second longest series), outlasting even Sorkin himself (who left after the fourth season), on network TV at a time when the bar for ratings success was much higher than it is now. It racked up 26 Emmy wins in that time, including four consecutive Outstanding Drama Series awards from 2000-2003. And it arguably represents the last great drama of the pre-Sopranos era (even though it ran concurrently with The Sopranos for most of its run). Most importantly, in terms of its success, its setting proved the perfect vehicle for Sorkin’s writing. He consistently fills his shows with smart people, extremely dedicated to their jobs, who create families out of their co-workers and often serve as mouthpieces for his own personal politics and beliefs. With the west wing of the White House, and thus, the whole spectrum of American politics, as his stage, Sorkin gave himself the best possible setting for the lofty ideals and intense dedication of his characters.
With the pilot episode, Sorkin and his longtime collaborator, director Thomas Schlamme, display a strong level of confidence as they introduce the show’s main characters, basic setup, and overall themes. Not only is this an ensemble cast, but one with ensemble storylines, as this initial episode is packed with plot, some of which are resolved within the course of the episode, many of which are left for future episodes to resolve (giving the show a serialized element that will dominate many of the post-Soprano dramas). One by one we are introduced to the main cast as each receives news of a bicycling accident involving “POTUS”: Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), a charmingly-befuddled Ladies Man, C.J. Cregg (Alison Janney), the clumsy but effective press secretary, well-meaning but beleaguered Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), gruff-but-lovable Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), and tough, hard-nosed Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff).
In and amongst these character introductions, Sorkin and Schlamme introduce numerous plotlines: the central plot of the episode, introduced by Sam in the opening minutes of the episode, involves the question of whether or not Josh will keep his job after snarking at a Christian pundit on national TV. Then there’s the emerging story of the President riding his bike into a tree, something that is mostly played for laughs but dovetails nicely with the “Josh’s job” plot by the end, and a situation involving Cuban refugees seeking asylum in Miami, which serves more as a thematic grace note for the pilot than a fully developed storyline. Additionally, there’s a subplot involving Mandy (Moira Kelly), a former member of the President’s campaign team and Josh’s former girlfriend, and two Sam storylines that will play out over the course of the season: his burgeoning romance with Laurie (a pre-House Lisa Edelstein), who turns out to be an escort as well as a bartender and law student, and his blundering of a White House school tour led by his boss’ daughter.
As a result, it’s a marvelously dense episode, crammed with more character and plot development than some series see in their entire run, but Sorkin’s script, Schlamme’s direction and the performances keep everything relatively light and fast paced. There is, of course, the requisite walk-and-talk scenes, in which the delivery of expository dialogue is punched up by having characters recite it while moving briskly through the set, but there’s also quick asides from supporting characters and extras, visual shorthand (like Josh first being seen awakening at his desk) and character relationships established just in the way actors play off one another (it’s clear in this episode, for example, that Josh and Same are bros). There’s a lot going on, but strong hands across the board keep us from getting lost.
Then, of course, there’s the climax of the episode, in which we meet our final significant character of the series, Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlett. Somewhat famously, Sorkin and company originally envisioned a smaller role for the President in the series than what we got – the idea was that the show would focus principally on the senior staff, with the President as a looming, usually off-screen presence that would show up in small doses. But after seeing Sheen in action, the course was quickly corrected, and President Bartlett became a mainstay of the series.
In his first appearance, he enters the scene quietly and humbly, assisted by a cane (in the wake of his bicycle accident) but his arrival is nonetheless thunderous as he commands all the attention in the room, boldly quoting the first commandment to a group of right-wing Christian leaders fumbling to identify it. He immediately takes charge of, and defuses, the situation involving Josh’s gaffe and the Christian Right, before leading his staff back into the White House, delivering a brief parable on the American dream, then telling everyone to get back to work as the camera pulls out, zooming around the magnificent Oval Office set as everyone gets down to business. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the show – this is what we do and why we do it, a fitting ending to an assured and well-constructed pilot.
Sorkin is a writer somewhat famous for his tics and repeated bits of dialogue/character types/etc throughout his writing. Here, in addition to the aforementioned walk-and-talk, there’s a scene featuring two characters discussing an issue at a bar (Sorkin himself appeared in such a scene in A Few Good Men), two instances of the resume dump, in which a character rattles off their past experiences to another character as a convenient way to fill in the audience (first, when Josh asks Donna questions he already knows the answers to about how long she’s worked for him, and then later, when Sam rattles off his credentials to the fourth grade class). Finally, there’s Sorkin’s somewhat problematic tendency to write women who are extremely skilled at their jobs but buffoons in every other walk of life, as at least initially, the C.J. who coolly and easily handles a press briefing is juxtaposed against the C.J. who falls off a treadmill in her very first scene.
Rob Lowe is clearly the Big Star of the show at this point: he gets top billing in the credits, he appears first, and he gets what will ultimately turn into not one, but two different romantic storylines. In fact, Sorkin has said that he initially constructed the show around Sam as the main character. When President Bartlett became more of a featured player, it’s generally considered that it came at the expense of Sam’s role, slotting him into equal footing amongst the rest of the ensemble.
Moira Kelly’s Mandy, introduced in this episode but not to the same extent as the rest of the cast, eventually becomes part of the show’s regular ensemble, at least initially. She represents one of the show’s biggest post-pilot course corrections after the Bartlett change: by the end of the first season, the character was getting barely any screen time, and simply disappeared without mention between season one and two.
Similarly, Dule Hill, who rounds out the initial main cast as Charlie Young, the President’s personal aide, doesn’t appear until the third episode of the series, though early drafts of the pilots contained a version of his character; unlike Mandy, he sticks around for the duration of the series.
Of the main characters we do meet in this episode, Leo is perhaps the most under served relative to his later importance on the show. There’s a small running gag involving his irritation with an error in the New York Times crossword puzzle, and a nice walk-and-talk between him and Al Caldwell, the leader of the Christian delegation in the episode, but that’s about it.
Though not a dated pilot by any means, there are a few things that stick out as being very much of their time: the enormous suits the men wear, for one. The omnipresence of pagers is another (in fact, the big twist in the Sam/Laurie plotline is entirely facilitated by the pair mixing up their pages after their initial tryst). Cell phones are present but of course much larger than what we’re used to these days, and the entire opening act is built around the fact that no one outside the main characters recognizes “POTUS” as an acronym for “President of the United States”, something that is far more familiar to the general public nowadays, in the wake of constant internet and TV news coverage, as well as shows like Scandal, 24 and, The West Wing.
The Sopranos was the show which broke The West Wing‘s Outstanding Drama Series Emmy win streak in 2004.
Despite his sometime maddening tics, I’m a big Aaron Sorkin fan, but while I greatly enjoy and respect The West Wing, I have to say that Sports Night remains my favorite of his various TV series.
– Austin Gorton
13. Season 1, Episode 1: “The Fresh Prince Project“
Written by Andy Borowitz & Susan Borowitz
Directed by Debbie Allen
Aired September 10, 1990
When The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air burst onto television screens in 1990, its Grammy-winning star Will Smith was bankrupt. A sitcom based around him, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air would become his saviour; a show that would catapult him back to super-stardom and his bank balance back into the black.
The Will Smith of Fresh Prince is young and has just arrived from Philadelphia, who has been sent to live with his rich relatives – the Banks Family – in Bel-Air, as his mother hopes that sending him away will provide him with a far better start in life. His background is tragically the same as that of many African-Americans; a single-parent family from a deprived area. The Banks family, on the other hand, come from the other end of the spectrum: affluent and successful. Fresh Prince is the well-known “fish out of water” story where the hip, fashionable Will is placed in the middle of people utterly unlike him. Over the following six years, he will struggle to survive yet grow and mature at the same time.
Will quickly asserts himself when he arrives in Bel-Air as a self-confident character, under the illusion that his relocation is an extended vacation. His boundaries on authority are quickly established from growing up without a father and a lack of a role model as he initially clashes with Uncle Phil, but the importance of first impressions between the two pave the way to what becomes a key relationship in Will’s life.
The way Will’s uninhibited personality immediately disagrees with the high standards of Uncle Phil and his Aunt Vivian provides most of the comedic fodder, which is not only amusing but also relatable. In terms of his cousins, young Ashley makes more of an impression than the vain Hilary and the cultured Carlton. Quickly taken with his charm and the idea of a new face in the household, Ashley immediately takes to him – paralleling the brother and sister relationship that Will was missing from his life.
The core aspects that made Fresh Prince so special are obvious, even in the first few episodes. While the characters will all develop as the show progresses, the characterisations remain broadly constant. While Will and Carlton will go on to grudgingly admit their respect for one another, they remain polar opposites. Even though Philip and Will will share moments of genuine love and tenderness as the surrogate-father/son dynamic grows between them, Will still retains the ability to infuriate.
As funny as the show could be, Fresh Prince tackled some very difficult and serious issues in its own way, from racism to abandonment, drug-use and crime. Nearly two decades on, it is impossible to watch particular episodes (such as the brief return of Will’s father or Carlton’s accidental overdose) and not be taken aback by the sincerity of Will Smith’s performances and the brutal, thought-provoking honesty of the writing. True, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is dated in many ways; a glimpse to a long-forgotten, awkward era. But in many other ways, its message and themes are just as relevant to today’s audiences. It is a wonderful example of how sitcoms can be amusing but serious, with characters that are both whimsical and have the ability to stay with us throughout the years – so much so that we mourn the inevitable passing of cast members.
And it had one hell of a catchy theme tune.
– Katie Wong
See? The Visual Genius of NBC’s Hannibal
14. Hannibal, “Apéritif”
Written by Bryan Fuller
Directed by David Slade
Originally aired April 4, 2013
Piggybacking off the serial killer-themed, semi-supernatural horror trend that had sparked shows like Grimm, Dexter, and The Following, the concept of a Hannibal Lecter-themed television show was not met with much enthusiasm in early 2013. We had too many shows about murder. Too many shows with violence on the air. Not to mention, there had been countless Hannibal Lecter adaptations over the past few years, and none of them had ever been as good as Silence of the Lambs.
And yet, what skeptics didn’t take into account was the genius of Bryan Fuller. As the writer and creator of other excellent television shows, from Dead Like Me to Wonderfalls to Pushing Daisies, it became clear from the earliest episode of Hannibal that it wasn’t going to be like any other crime drama on television.
The genius of Hannibal is how striking it is to watch. From the earliest moments of the episode, the viewers follow Will Graham (played with such wonderful, nervous energy by Hugh Dancy) as he pieces together the murder of a married couple. Their house is white and tan, and when their blood splatters on the wall–it is striking, artistic, almost. Images permeate the episode. The startling murders of a group of teenage girls by a serial killer who becomes known as the Minnesota Shrike result in girls mounted on antlers. Perhaps what is so terrifying about Hannibal is its tableaus: the image of a young girl in a starchy, white nightgown, impaled on deer antlers.
Hannibal’s use of costuming and design plays into characterization as well. Will Graham is dressed exclusively in grays and greens–earth tones that allow him to drift into the background of scenes. Mads Mikkelsen’s Dr. Hannibal Lecter, on the other hand, appears in a variety of colorful, patterned suits. He is impeccably put together, as organized and meticulous in his wardrobe as he is his murders. Dr. Alana Bloom (played by Wonderfalls alum Caroline Dhavernas), a friend of Will’s and one of his few advocates on the show, is dressed in brighter colors–whites and reds and blues. She is a constant source of energy and good nature in Will’s life, and her presence is visually lighter on the show.
What is so rare about Hannibal is that its vision is as essential as its plotting and characters. It very easily could have fallen into the “killer of the week” pattern that so many crime dramas fall into, but the visual nature of the show and the beauty of its wide shots and often horrifying crime scene tableaus sets it above the rest. With its pilot episode, Hannibal set the bar for the look and feel of the show. Whereas many television shows take a few weeks to find their footing, Hannibal knew from its very first blood splatter that it wasn’t a show to write off. In the final moments of the episode, serial killer Garrett Jacob Hobbs lies dying on the kitchen floor. He turns to Will Graham and whispers, “See?” To the viewer and to Will, what is meant to be seen is a little unclear. But it reads more as a call to action: see this show, see its colors and its design and look for what it’s trying to say. There is danger all around the characters in Hannibal, hidden well within sight.
15. Homeland Review, Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”
Written by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa and Gideon Raff
Directed by Michael Cuesta
Origianal air date: Sunday October 15, 2011
In late 2011, Showtime premiered its highly publicized psychological thriller Homeland to much fanfare. Boasting a fantastic cast of well-known faces, a highly original concept, and hot-button issues that touched upon many of the concerns of our time, the series took off almost immediately.
The first episode introduced us to our two central characters, and the dizzying conflict that would account for the main storyline since. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), the chief character of the series, is a CIA agent working on the counter-terrorism front. In the episode’s opening scene, she receives information suggesting that an American POW has been turned, and will be sent back to his homeland as a mole. Enter Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), an eight year prisoner of Al Qaeda who miraculously returns to a hero’s welcome after being presumed dead by everyone, including his own family.
Carrie immediately suspects him, and goes to great, even illegal, lengths to prove he is a traitor. Suffering from bipolar disorder, Carrie has a tendency to fixate and obsess over minutiae, and with Brody as her new target, she will not find herself bored. She’s not the only one wondering if something is amiss though; Brody’s wife (Morena Baccarin) and daughter (Morgan Saylor) also find little of the man they remembered, although they initially chalk their suspicions up to the trauma he must have experienced as a POW.
Brody, for his part, maintains a carefully crafted facade initially, though if he really was just an unlucky patriot who found his way home, the show really wouldn’t have much to sell after its first hour.That said, it isn’t until the final scene that Homeland delivers the goods on Brody in a brutal scene that reveals his true allegiance, and sets up the series for every episode to come.
Grounded with stellar cinematography, brilliant writing and a cast to die for (including character actor Mandy Patinkin), Homeland would go on to win the Emmy for Outstanding Dramatic series, acting wins for its two leads, and a host of technical awards. Here, in the pilot episode, though, was where it all began, and while fans tend to disagree on the path the series has taken since its outset, one consensus remains: that Homeland’s premiere was easily one of 2011’s finest hours of television.
– Mike Worby
16. Newsradio, “Pilot”
Written by Paul Simms
Directed by James Burrows
Original air date: March. 21, 1995 on NBC
As far as sitcoms go, Newsradio is a diamond in the rough. Despite a not-so-unique workplace setting, the show successfully combines wit and physical comedy, without ever feeling dull or predictable. It has the kind of quick, self-sustaining energy that we love about sitcoms, and it all began with the pilot episode. Of course, every series begins with a pilot, but with Newsradio, the first episode never feels forced or stiff in the way many others have. Often times, sitcoms struggle with comedic timing in their first few outings. Featuring a veteran cast, boasting a strong background in comedy (Dave Foley, Kids in the Hall; Phil Hartman, Saturday Night Live; Andy Dick, The Ben Stiller Show), Newsradio hits its stride right from the get-go.
The episode opens with Dave (Dave Foley) arriving at WNYX, a fictional news radio station in New York City. After informing the lobby security guard he doesn’t want to head upstairs until exactly 3 minutes before 9:00, he finally enters the elevator, only to be told he is at the wrong building. In a mad scramble, Dave then hightails it out the door; the security guard’s parting words—‘Welcome to New York’—setting the stage for what we believe is a typical, fish-out-of-water, boy-in-the-big-city comedy.
Newsradio is so much more than that. Even though Dave seems unassuming, he is actually quite competent and only looks like a pushover. In fact, he fits in perfectly with everyone else at the station, and this is what makes the show work. None of the characters are one-note. All of them embody differing comedic functions, yet despite the absurdity that surrounds them, they all seem to know their role. In other words, they actually make the radio station appear somewhat functional. The energy of WNYX is chaotic, but it is also calculated, and so is the comedic energy of the show.
Take Mr. James (Stephen Root) for example. He is the ‘so rich I have no idea what to do with my money’ kind of owner, who pretends not to care about the station, yet obviously does. We meet Mr. James when Dave arrives 15 minutes late, and right away his dry humour is put on display. We also learn that Mr. James has yet to fire Ed (Kurt Fuller), the man Dave will be replacing, and the arc of the episode revolves around Dave trying to find the best way to break the news. If at first it seems Mr. James is merely handing off a task he doesn’t want to handle himself, it later becomes obvious that he has given Dave an opportunity to see how the office functions, and to gain the respect of the staff.
The intimate setting of the office contributes to the chaos of the environment, while also allowing Dave to see how impossible it is to gain complete control. In order to lead the group, he has to become one of them; they have to trust his competence and respect him as a person. What ensues is a series of gags meant to show how hectic the space is. Every conversation is either interrupted or accompanied by work, and the station’s lack of privacy is constantly re-enforced.
A large majority of the physical comedy also comes from the intimacy of the space. Dave’s office becomes a site where important conversations are meant to occur, but as soon as the door closes, a listening ear is not far off. This allows the show to use off-screen space effectively in creating a light-hearted atmosphere of eavesdropping and gossip. On occasion the office will, however, function as a site of seriousness, with a change of perspective letting the viewer know when these moments are occurring.
For example, throughout the series—starting as early as the next episode—there are many instances where personal matters will be addressed in Dave’s office, and as viewers, our perspective will be with Dave. This means we’re in the office, waiting for someone to burst in and interrupt, or overhear a juicy secret. The pilot episode plays it differently. When Dave takes Ed into the office to fire him, we’re aligned with the other characters outside the door.
The sequence is quick and efficient, and it is also a bit surprising, considering the entire episode has been built around Dave’s apprehension. We’ve been expecting an exaggerated drawn out speech, where Dave fumbles and awkwardly breaks the bad news, yet he handles it with expertise. The moment, even though we don’t see it, is effective and refreshing, and sets the stage for the kind of unpredictability the show will become known for.
The pilot has a few hiccups, though. The biggest among them is the presence of the electrician character (Greg Lee), who is underused and miscast – an aspect the studio seems to have noticed as well, as he’s replaced by Joe Rogan in the next episode. In the scene where Lisa is upset, he makes a joke, asking her if she is about to cry. The moment is awkward and devoid of comedy because the delivery is off. When Rogan takes over the role, his boyish over-the-top manner is much better suited for the working-class directness of the electrician character. The appearance of Catherine (Khandi Alexander) in the next episode also adds another layer to the show, as her cold sarcasm contrasts nicely with Bill’s (Phil Hartman) smugness.
All-in-all, Newsradio never received the acclaim it deserves. Featuring an all-star cast, the pilot and the entire series still manages to feel fresh. The laughs are constant, and the writing is stronger than most contemporary sitcoms.
– Griffin Bell
17. Doctor Who, “An Unearthly Child”
Written by Anthony Coburn
Directed by Waris Hussein
Originally aired November 23, 1963 on BBC TV
“Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension?”
Setting aside how iconic Doctor Who has become, in watching its pilot episode “An Unearthly Child”, it’s stunning how ambitious and magical the episode still feels; it’s not hard to see why the show has lasted 50 years.
Technically speaking, “pilot” was not a term used in British television at the time Doctor Who was commissioned and the version of “An Unearthly Child” that aired was not the first one shot. There were adjustments to the characters, especially the Doctor, who was made to be less cruel (at one point he called Susan a “stupid child”), as well as the technical side of the production. The episode benefited from this tinkering, however, and Doctor Who was born.
“An Unearthly Child” begins when science teacher Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and history teacher Barbra Wright (Jacqueline Hill) follow brilliant student Susan Foreman (Carol Ann Ford) home from school and see her enter an old police box in a junkyard. It’s there that they meet her grandfather, a man calling himself the Doctor (William Hartnell) and learn that the police box is actually a disguised TARDIS, a device capable of traveling through time and space.
“An Unearthly Child”, ironically enough, works as a kind of time capsule. This Doctor Who is not the technologically advanced work that NuWho fans are used to. But what these two incarnations of the show have in common, and what’s so evident in “An Unearthly Child”, is the series’ almost boundless energy and fearless ambition. Ian and Susan’s first introduction to the TARDIS and the Doctor is one of the finest scenes of the episode. The viewer immediately feels a connection to their outlandish situation and the adventure that’s soon to follow for both of them.
The people who watch the pilot now tend to only be familiar with NuWho, making the technical failings of that first episode, or any of the classic Who for that matter, stand out. But watch carefully, for these two versions of the Doctor Who pilot are familiar, if only for their inventiveness and choices.
The two versions of “An Unearthly Child” are not without their problems. They feel slightly rushed and it’s hard to watch the show now without attaching the baggage of what we know is coming in the future. However, “An Unearthly Child” is a great introduction to the world of the show and one that sets up the characters, especially the Doctor, incredibly well. For generations to come, Hartnell would define the role of the Doctor and what is apparent, even in “An Unearthly Child”, is how deeply connected he was to the character. Hartnell once said that the reasons he chose to play the Doctor were because it was an opportunity to break away from military themed roles and that he relished what the Doctor meant to people, particularly children. His glee in playing the Doctor comes out, particularly when he’s asking Ian and Barbra to join them in space travel.
For all of its ambitions and potential, “An Unearthly Child” does have some issues. Although charming and intriguing, the characters, with the exception of the Doctor and Susan, don’t seem fully realized. The central story also leaves something to be desired. Fifty years later, it’s a little hard to swallow the idea of two teachers following a young girl from school simply because she seems odd. Those issues aside, “An Unearthly Child” is fearless and charming. Doctor Who would quickly become a cultural touchstone, but this episode stands on its own as a time capsule and a great springboard for a show that would go on to become wildly inventive and influential.
— Tressa Eckermann
18. The Sopranos Season 1, Episode 1 ‘The Sopranos’
Written by David Chase
Directed by David Chase
Aired 1/10/1999 on HBO
When we first meet Tony Soprano, he’s sitting in a waiting room, staring at a statue of a naked woman exposing her breasts. The first shot frames Tony’s face between her legs, then a series of shots closing in on Tony’s face, the statue’s breasts, Tony’s face, and her face in succession. His brow is wrinkled, and he alternates looking at her and looking at the floor. It’s a fantastic opening shot to one of TV’s most cinematic pilots, establishing a number of important details before a line of dialogue is even spoken: Tony’s black shirt and gold watch suggest some sort of upper-class demeanor – the credits preceding it, with the lyrics talking about “the chosen one” embracing the dark side, also further contextualize Tony’s character. He’s obviously a man’s man, the first frame establishing his favorite place to be (between a woman’s legs). But he’s also a dark man struggling with his darkest feelings, his black shirt signifying his refusal to externalize them (the absence of color, or a man who presents himself with no heart and soul) he has inside.
Right away, writer/director David Chase (the only other time he’d be behind the camera would be the series finale) has told us exactly who Tony Soprano is and the difficult situation he’s about to enter. And for the next fifteen minutes, him and Dr. Jennifer Melfi talk about the events leading up to his first panic attack – further introduction to Tony’s life and how he presents himself to the rest of the world; “I’m a waste management consultant” he tells her, and then proceeds to tell a story about a guy who had an “outstanding loan”, as if he were a private banker. These are all entertaining little anecdotes, introducing us to his protege Christopher, a few of his associates, and satisfying the audience looking for the mob show they saw in the previews.
But the most important images in Tony’s reflection are not his daily activities: it’s the ducks currently living in his pool. Tony’s fascinated with those damn ducks, getting excited when the ducklings start flapping their wings, but are unable to go anywhere. He jumps in the pool with them to watch, the biggest grin you’ll ever see on a mobster spreading across his face as he watches them. He calls his family outside to look, but they’re not interested in it at all, dismissing the animals as some stupid hobby of their father’s. However, the camera’s obsession with images of the ducks and the pool quickly reveal their importance: when Tony sees one fly away, he passes out. In an instant, Tony’s problems are clear: he’s afraid of losing his family, watching everyone fly away and being left alone to stand in front of his empty pool.
The other riding undercurrent of Tony’s life is his midlife crisis, his dissatisfaction with what he believes is a softer, lesser world, one where tough men can’t go about their business anymore. “Whatever happened to the strong, silent type?” he asks Melfi, almost a plead by Chase to the audience to let him show us what happened to them, and why they can’t exist in this world anymore. Tony fashions himself as a Gary Cooper type: the tough, hard-nosed cowboy who turns a blind eye to the law, and does what he has to do without complaining. But a semester and a half of college does not a mastermind of psychology make, and Tony’s value in traditional masculinity prevents him from being able to explore the “dysfunction” inside he tries to hide from the rest of the world.
His anger at his proposed degradation of the American man is a very interesting one in a social context: but in strict terms of how it shapes the narrative in the episode, it reveals Tony to be a sad, bitter man who is unwilling to accept that all good things come to an end. His marriage is on the rocks, his kids are growing up, and the garbage business isn’t providing the bread and butter everybody is used to: underneath it all, he’s scared to death, and it comes through in his lividness over the un-James Dean-ization of America (thanks to Gandolfini’s performance, which is still breathtaking to watch, even after seeing the pilot a dozen times in the 14 years since it premiered). Tony can’t keep up with the changing times (his slowly failing business is a hint towards this; Junior notes how the mob “used to be recession proof), and as he watches everything slowly sink, the three people he holds dearest (Junior, Meadow, and Carmela) are showing signs of flapping their wings and flying the roost soon. At the end, Tony Soprano is just like the rest of us: he’s afraid of existing (and dying) alone, the single most important component of Tony’s character that engaged American audiences. He’s a mob god: but he has the same insecurities as us – who wouldn’t want to watch that show?
It’s hard to find something ‘new’ to say about the pilot of The Sopranos: it’s one of the most disseminated pieces of television in American history, the opening chapter to a revolutionary television series. There’s so much love in the pilot, it’s impossible to ignore: whether’s it’s the daily life of a mobster, male pride, and how the inevitable winds of change eventually blow away the most immovable of objects, no matter how much masculinity and marinara sauce it’s soaked in. ‘The Sopranos’ is not just an hour of television about a man and his therapist: it’s an all encompassing mediation on the state of America, it’s culture, and how we’re all probably living in the wrong time as Tony tells Dr. Melfi:
“It’s always good to be in something from the ground floor, but I came to late for that. But lately, I get the feeling I’m coming in the end, that the best is over.”
In the end, The Sopranos is about the end of the American dream. Institutions, technology, corporations: all the things we’ve strived for as a society are the same things bringing us down. Robots take human jobs, institutions force people into boxes (as exemplified by the RICO discussion) and corporations take the power of financial freedom and prosperity out of the citizen’s hands. These things aren’t overtly stated by Chase, but it’s clear how he feels: the best times are over, and clinging onto our old belief systems and ideals just isn’t going to accomplish anything. Tony’s great-grandfathers built a church with no blueprint in front of them: these days, your neighbor probably can’t fix a tub without calling a plumber. The world is changing: and as it does, even powerful men like Tony Soprano are helpless but to mold themselves into new shapes and evolve (the MRI fraud plan he concocts with Heche throughout the episode). And when your one constant (the family, represented by the ducks in the pool) is slipping through your fingers, what do you have left to hold onto?
The answer, Chase tells us with the last shot, is nothing. As Junior’s second birthday party ends (“what, no fucking ziti then?”), the camera quietly pans over the pool until its completely in focus. It’s blue and empty: no waves, no leaves moving around, no ducks floating in the pond. Everybody is gone, and all that’s left is emptiness. It’s a beautiful ending: no matter how hard you try to keep everything the same, the golden years eventually end. The final shot barely shows the last child remaining at the party before he runs out of the frame: the good times are coming to an end, and Tony’s going to have to fundamentally change who he is to save them.
Unlike most attention-grabbing final scenes, The Sopranos ends on a contemplative note, quietly bringing the episode to a close mere minutes after we’re watching Uncle Junior pass the idea of whacking Tony to Livia, and seeing her non-response to the situation. Along with being one of the most important episodes of television, it’s also one of the best: it’s able to establish a universe, set up a season-long conflict, and muse philosophically about the modern world without losing focus of Tony’s emotions. What else can I say? ‘The Sopranos’ is a remarkable episode of television, a combination of intelligence, passion, and classic filmmaking techniques that marked the arrival of a cultural phenomenon.
– Junior’s 13th birthday (the first teenage year, and when the Jewish celebrate a boy becoming a man) also puts into context a lot of thoughts Tony had about his own father. His father shaped him into who he is: how come that’s not happening with Anthony Jr.?
– Livia spouting “he was a saint” at the mention of her dead husband’s name always makes me laugh.
– Carmela tells Tony he’s going to hell right before he enters the MRI machine. A troubled marriage, this is.
– Tony takes his comare to a restaurant, then brings his wife to the same one hours later. Shameless, this guy is.
– the subplot with Christopher whacking “Email” to prevent a rival from bidding on a contract is almost tossed in to show a little dysfunction between Christopher and Tony. It’s ok: Chase would spend plenty of time on the two of them over the series.
– Meadow snuck out because Patrick “needed her” before his swim meet. Naughty little Meadow.
– Father Phil is played by a different actor than in the rest of the series, and it’s funny how marginalized his presence is. Two things that come through: an obvious attraction to Carmela (who calls him a “spiritual mentor”), and his obsession with Tony’s lifestyle, asking Carmela what his favorite mobster movies are.
– Tony to his mother: “I bought CD’s for a broken record.”
– everyone getting confused over Big Pussy and Little Pussy probably went unnoticed by millions upon first viewing, but remains my favorite bit to this day. Even the newscast makes a point to distinguish between them!
– Carmela gets upset that an angry Meadow doesn’t want to have tea at the Plaza Hotel like they always do. Kids just refuse to stay kids sometimes, ‘Mela.
– Melfi to her date: “Neil, shut the fuck up.” Love Dr. Melfi for moments like that.
– I like how Chase doesn’t even make Melfi a pure entity: she’s perfectly willing to whip out the prescription pad, boasting about the wonderful life-fixing remedies modern medicine purports to provide.
– Tony, talking about himself: “Oh, now he’s going to cry. Fuck me.”
– Chase takes a shot at all the mobsters writing books and selling screenplays, when Tony accosts Christopher for threatening to go Hollywood. A man’s gotta have a code, right? Given the contexts of the events of ‘College’ later this season (one of The Sopranos’s finest hours), it makes sense why Tony is so pissed off in that moment.
– Tony talks about dream where he unscrews his belly button, his penis comes off, and a bird flies away with it. It’s kind of a simple metpahor, really (Chase would do much better with dreams throughout the series): Tony is afraid that opening himself up, he’s sacrificing his masculinity, and that will ultimately cost him his livelihood and family.
– Tony refers to the infamous serial killer as “Hannibal Lecture.” Mobsters: not good with names.
– Tony: “nobody appreciates the penal experience anymore.” Such a beautiful piece of dialogue that puts the mob mentality (and how it changed) into perfect perspective.
– Carmela pulling out an assault rifle: always hilarious.
19. Three’s Company, “A Man About the House”
Written by Johnnie Mortimer, Brian Cooke, Don Nicholl, Michael Ross, Bernard West,
Directed by Bill Hobin
Aired March 15th, 1977 on ABC
Three’s Company was the ‘Friends’ of its day; a sit-com about three twenty-somethings sharing an apartment in Santa Monica California going through the ups and downs of life for the singles set of the late 70s. The American version of the UK show ‘Man About the House’, TC was considered a groundbreaking show. Hard to believe just over 30 years ago men and women living under one roof as platonic friends was not only a novel idea for television, but a shocking and controversial premise. Juvenile jokes, double-entendres, and ridiculous plotlines were all part of the fun, but TC was also a true reflection of the shifting morals and values of young America arriving in the last days of disco and jiggle TV.
Several pilots were made with different actors before John Ritter, Joyce Dewitt and Suzanne Somers were selected to play the roommates we came to know and love. There’s Christmas Snow, the somewhat ditzy blond, Janet Wood, the book-smart brunette, and then there’s the silly but lovable Jack Tripper, a sort of man-child who could be serious and career minded one minute, and as goofy as Gilligan the next.
But before he becomes a roommate, Jack is a party leftover, discovered by Chrissy when she turns on the shower and sees him sleeping in their bathtub the morning after she and Janet throw a party for Eleanor, their pregnant, newlywed roommate who just moved out. Having no idea exactly whose friend he is and expecting a girl to check out the newly available room later on, Janet and Chrissy try and get rid of Jack as soon as possible. They are about to wake him but the running water does it for them, as Jack turns in his sleep then jumps up realizing he’s in a bathtub that’s half full. After awkward introductions, the girls discover Jack came to their party with a friend of one of the gatecrashers and passed out after drinking Chrissy’s powerful punch. Though soaking wet, Jack tries to leave but Chrissy tells him he can’t go out like that and to take his clothes off. Meanwhile, downstairs we meet the landlords of the building, Stanley and Helen Roper. Mr. Roper is upset, pacing back and forth, complaining how the noise from the party kept him up and caused a crack in their ceiling as Mrs. Roper sits on the couch in a muu muu dress doing her nails. She tells him the crack was actually from a big earthquake, which excited her because it was the first time their bed moved in years. Still, Mr. Roper wants to go upstairs and complain. Mrs. Roper says it should be the head of the house that goes, so SHE’LL do it later. Back upstairs, Chrissy collects Jacks wet clothes which Janet will put in the over to dry but not before giving him the only thing they have that will fit; a robe that Eleanor left behind. Both girls giggle when they see him in it. Jack asks for a razor to shave, but all they have is a leg shaver and some product normally use to clean the sink. While he’s cleaning himself up, Chrissy and Janet are in the kitchen making breakfast. Chrissy burnt the toast and is trying to scrape the black parts off but it’s not her fault since Eleanor didn’t leave them the recipe. Janet’s scrambled eggs aren’t any better; they’re ready, she says but for the garbage. Jack shows up, and is offered to stay and eat but after one bite he says it’s horrible. Chrissy challenges him to do better so he quickly puts himself to work. He’s studying to be a chef at the L.A. technical college so knows what he’s doing. He asks Chrissy and Janet to get some ingredients he’ll need to make his breakfast creation, eggs madeira funchal but since Eleanor did all the cooking they’re both pretty useless in the kitchen. While Janet is in the living room pouring all the leftover wine from the party into one bottle for Jack to use, Mrs. Roper appears to talk to Janet about the noise. Janet apologizes to her but she’s not as angry as Mr. Roper and tells her to just keep it down next time. As she’s about to leave, in comes Jack, wearing Eleanor’s robe no less, asking about the wine. Janet shoves a bottle into his hands and quickly pushes him back into the kitchen. Mrs. Roper asks what that was, and Janet tries to convince her it was a girlfriend who looks terrible without make-up. Unconvinced, Mrs. Roper tries to protest but Janet rushes her out the door promising to keep the noise down in the future. Back in the kitchen as Jack cooks, the two girls and he discuss their jobs. Jack studies from 8 till 2 and picks up odd jobs on the side. Chrissy works at a pool, (no, she’s not a lifeguard to Jack’s disappointment with a shape like that) a typing pool at an office while Janet works at a flower shop. The Doorbell rings and it’s a tall girl who introduces herself as Patricia Crawford with a firm handshake and shrill voice. This confuses Chrissy at first, who feels the need to clarify that she’s Chrissy Snow not Patricia Crawford but after Patricia explains she’s there to look at the apartment, Chrissy lets her in.
Mrs. Roper tells her husband there’s a man upstairs in women’s clothes. He’s sure she’s mistaken since nowadays ‘they’ all look alike. But Mrs. Roper insists it’s a man, leading Mr. Roper to wonder what kind of game is going on upstairs. ‘Probably something delightfully kinky that only three can play’ Mrs. Roper says, smiling delightfully. For Mr. Roper, just the idea makes him get up and go upstairs, ready to kick the man out.
After a quick tour of the apartment and meeting Jack and Janet, Patricia (Pattykins to her friends) seems interested in the apartment. She has a snooty voice and demeanor, and she’s clearly out of place. Janet tries to let her down easy, telling her a lot of other girls are coming to look at the apartment then whispers ‘there better be’ to Chrissy with a worried look. Mr. Roper barges in in a huff, asking ‘where is he?’ He sees Patricia and tells her to take off her clothes. Surprised, Patricia begs his pardon prompting Mr. Roper to say she doesn’t even sound like a girl and anyone can see that ‘those’ aren’t real, touching her chest. He quickly realizes his mistake and tries to apologize but it’s too late; Patricia calls him a dirty old man hits him with her purse and he scurries out of the apartment, ashamed. Still in shock and saying ‘he touched my bosom’ Patricia exits, stuttering that she could never live there. Neither Janet nor Chrissy seem too disappointed. Patricia came and left and Jack is none the wiser. He’s still in the kitchen preparing breakfast, which is now ready and calls the girls in to come and eat. They gobble the eggs off their plates making yummy sounds as if it’s the best breakfast they’ve had in ages. Just as they’re wishing they could eat that way every day they discovered they can. Jack mentions he’s living at the YMCA because that’s all he can afford while looking for a place to share. Janet and Chrissy give each other a look and realize they have the same bright idea. They leave Jack in the kitchen and head to the living room while eating their eggs to discuss the pluses and minuses if he lives with them. While Chrissy thinks it’s a plus that Jack is cute, Janet doesn’t think she’ll be able to put up much resistance to all of Jack’s sweet talk. Chrissy decides that Janet will have to be strong enough for both of them. They call him into the living room and propose the idea of him moving in and Jack quickly accepts the offer.They lay down the ground rules of the apartment. They’ll share everything Chrissy tells Jack which he’s excited about until Janet clarifies everything means the rent, the food, and the phone bill but nothing else.
Back at the Ropers they’re arguing over if who they saw was a man or a woman. They return upstairs but this time they both see Jack, still in Eleanor’s robe. Mr. Roper tells the three they’re arguing about a question of sex, so Chrissy thinks they came to borrow a book. Mr. Roper goes over to Jack and says it’s not the person he saw before and does his poking chest test. Jack introduces himself and lets him know he’s moving in. When Mr. Roper objects, Jack says it will be platonic which makes Mr. Roper confused until Mrs. Roper clarifies it means like their relationship. It’s not enough for Mr. Roper who still refuses simply based on the fact that it would be a man living with two women. Seeing no other choice, Jack accepts that he has to leave. He retreats to the kitchen with Chrissy, where he takes his clothes out of the oven and begins to get dressed. But after putting on his hot pants he thinks twice about giving up so easily. He decides to tell Mr. Roper off, which Chrissy says she’d enjoy seeing. Flower robe tucked into his jeans, they burst back into the living room, but before Jack can start on his tirade, Mr. Roper stops him. He’s had a change of heart; Jack can stay. The pilot ends after the Ropers leave, and Jack and Chrissy ask Janet how she was able to change their minds. Cleverly, she solves the problem by convincing the Ropers nothing would happen between Jack, her and Chrissy. Jack’s a decent, respectable, and hard -working guy – who is also gay.
To write Three’s Company off as a simple, silly comedy with stale sexual innuendos and an outdated premise is to ignore it’s important place in television history. Men and women living together as a major plot point is laughable today, but in the 70s it was considered as kinky and pushing the moral envelope of decency on television. Like Mrs. Roper, network execs and viewers alike let their imaginations run a little wild with what kind of games might be going on in an apartment with two girls and one guy. The pilot lays the groundwork for so much of what was ahead. The chemistry between Jack, Janet and Chrissy was evident from the get go, as were the personalities of each, based on the lines they were given. There would be 3 more years of Mr. Roper’s cracks about his wife’s looks and Mrs. Roper complaints about not getting any, wearing an endless selection of muu muus. Eight years of knocking on their door and dancing on their floor as it says in the show’s theme song. Misunderstandings of every conceivable type would arise, along with a gigolo neighbor and best friend, different roommates, girl trouble, a new landlord, a restaurant ownership, and more than a few laughs in between. Three’s Company began at the end of a party, but for viewers, the party was just getting started.
20. Miami Vice
Season 1, Episode 1: “Brother’s Keeper” (Pilot)
Directed by Thomas Carter
Written by Anthony Yerkovich
Original air date: Sept. 16, 1984
Hey, Tubbs…ever consider a career in Southern law enforcement?” – Crockett
Miami Vice premiered on September 16, 1984 with a two-hour season premiere. The episode titled “Brother’s Keeper” garnered critical acclaim, and the series went on to become a symbol of the times. Legend has it that NBC President Brandon Tartikoff started the ball rolling after he scribbled “MTV Cops” on a napkin, and then went looking for someone at NBC to produce the show. However the series was actually the brainchild of scriptwriter-turned-director Michael Mann (coming off the critical success of Manhunter), and Hill Street Blues writer-producer Anthony Yerkovich, who was already drafting the idea based by news stories about the thriving drug trade in Florida. But regardless what Yerkovich brought to the table, the show’s most dominant creative force was Michael Mann. What was originally intended to be a series titled Gold Coast quickly veered in an entirely different direction with Mann bringing some of his neo-noir style to this bold new experiment. Mann actually never directed a single episode of Miami Vice, and is only credited as a writer on one script, but the film director, with his distinct aesthetic vision, was heavily involved, overlooking almost every visual aspect and overseeing each script and small detail .
The two-hour pilot that established the show’s style and tone was scripted by Yerkovich and directed by Thomas Carter (who helmed the pilot for St. Elsewhere two years earlier), but Mann established the show’s innovative visual style and was chiefly responsible for guiding in its first seven episodes (by that point, Yerkovich was out and never involved with Miami Vice again). Of the 22 episodes included in the First Season, there are a handful of duds but, the pilot still holds up today. “Brothers Keeper” remains an essential 80s archive piece, demonstrating that style over substance, sometimes works. When watching the pilot, it is easy to see why Vice had such an impact on popular culture in the mid-1980s, and was one of the most popular television shows of the decade. Vice was revolutionary in how it fused its music, cinematography, and imagery, and how it helped define the fashion and music of the period – all while simultaneously maintaining a high quality of acting and storytelling.
“5000 street corners in greater Miami, and Gumby here has to pick ours!” – Crockett
The show features the talents of Don Johnson as James “Sony” Crockett, a former wide receiver turned undercover cop who lives on a sailboat with a hot-tempered alligator named Elvis – and Philip Michael Thomas as Ricardo Tubbs, a NYC officer who heads to Miami to hunt down the man responsible for his brother’s death. Miami Vice followed the adventures of the two detectives as they chased down pimps, renegade FBI agents, arms dealers and drug kingpins. They answered to Lieutenant Martin Castillo (Edward James Olmos) and sometimes worked side by side with Trudy Joplin (Olivia Brown), Stan Switek (Michael Talbott) and Larry Zito (John Diehl). The pilot does a commendable job in establishing a lot in one episode and most of the series regular cast are introduced. While we get to learn a bit about Tubbs, mostly illustrated via flashbacks, Crockett is front and center throughout, balancing his many personal problems with the difficulty of being undercover in some of Miami’s most rotten criminal organizations. Johnson is clearly the highlight here: tough, honourable, charming and undeniably cool. It is easy to understand that after only a few episodes of the series, men all around the world began to sport white suits, with the sleeves rolled up, pastel shirts and expensive shoes without wearing any socks. After Six created Miami Vice dinner jackets, Kenneth Cole created Crockett and Tubbs shoes, and Macy’s opened a dedicated Miami Vice section for young men. Don Johnson’s typical attire of Italian sport coat, T-shirt, white linen pants became a hit and even Crockett’s unshaven appearance inspired men to wear five o’clock shadow. The pilot quickly establishes Sonny as a complex, complicated character, going through a divorce with his wife Caroline who he is still in love with, while having an on/off again romance with fellow detective Gina Calabrese (Saundra Santiago). Vice made a star out of Don Johnson, who eventually won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Sonny, and its easy to see why. Tubbs arguably has the darker past with the death of his brother haunting him, but Sonny feels more human. We immediately sympathize for his character and Johnson brings much depth and humanity to the role. As one of the most famous black/white cop pairings, Tubbs serves as the other half of this dynamic duo. Tubbs comes down to Miami under the guise of Raphael Tubbs with a score to settle. While pursuing a man named Calderone, a known Columbian drug lord, he crosses paths with Crockett who blows his cover and the two are forced into an unlikely partnership. Tubbs is arguably less charismatic here, but still a great character no less, delivering lines with high energy and adding a much needed dose of comedy. Tubbs is polar opposite to Crockett both in looks and personality; but Thomas and Johnson share great chemistry, improving minute by minute as their journey boasts a surprising emotional pull.
“When it gets personal, it gets messy, and when it gets messy, the wrong people get killed” – Crockett
Network executives went after the youth demographic, and the youths of the early ’80s were embracing MTV. Taking advantage of the growing popularity of the network, the show’s creators wisely decided to have music play an instrumental role in the series. Mann brought in Czech composer Jan Hammer, an electronic-music wiz whose moody pieces added an almost foreign feel to Miami Vice. Mann wanted Hammer to do to Vice, what Tangerine Dream had done for his 1981 masterpiece Thief. The Miami Vice theme would go on to become a Top 10 hit, and the soundtrack album became one of the top-selling television soundtracks of all time. Producers allowed Miami Vice a bigger budget, to pay for the rights to popular songs, and sought out the most popular tracks of the day: “Body Talk” plays while Tubbs fights with Calderone early on; “Somebody’s Watching Me” plays while Tubbs visits a strip club and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is heard when the snitch dressed as a woman is gunned down in an alley. Other tracks include “All Night Long” by Lionel Richie (performed by house band in nightclub), and Miss You” by The Rolling Stones, during a stakeout. Nowadays we come to expect popular music featured on just about every television show, but back in 1984, this idea of cross-marketing was unheard of. Together, the visuals and the music make Vice ahead of its time. As Lee H. Katzin, one of the series’ directors, once stated, “The show is written for an MTV audience, which is more interested in images, emotions and energy than plot and character and words.”
The most obvious example of this is the sequence nearing the end of the pilot, with Crockett and Tubbs speeding through a nighttime, downtown Miami, while riding in a Ferrari Daytona Spyder, set to Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight.” This scene is arguably the most memorable and famous scene from the series, and is regularly cited as one of the greatest, most influential moments in the history of television. The music of Collins and the cinematography work together masterfully in a four-minute clip set to almost the entire length of the song. The diagetic sound is kept to a minimum and cinematographer Robert E. Collins beautifully captures close ups of Crockett, Tubbs, and the car, with the city lights reflected across the ferrari’s polished black exterior. During the some five and a half minutes, we get flashbacks to Rafael’s murder, cinematic shots of the Miami nightlife, and a touching moment in which Crockett pulls over to call his ex-wife and validate their once relationship: “It was real, wasn’t it,” asks Sonny. This original sequence in Miami Vice became a landmark in television history and no doubt led to the heavy integration of pop music laid out over climatic scenes on television. Decades later, we owe it to Miami Vice for pioneering this movement in television history.
“My badge says Miami, but here lately it’s been looking a lot like Disney World!” – Crockett
If there is one thing both supporters and detractors of Miami Vice can agree on, it is that the show is incredibly stylish. People magazine called Miami Vice “the first show to look really new and different since colour TV was invented.” The series was obsessed with sound, image and spectacle and critics, cultural commentators and even the odd literary scholar were drawn to the striking visual and aural characteristics of the show (the key characteristic of Vice was a pallet free of earth tones, as decided by Michael Mann). When Miami Vice was nominated for 15 Emmy’s in its first season, and picked up awards or cinematography, sound editing and art direction, it was evident that the industry also recognized these technical accomplishments. Vice broke all the rules of prime time television and the risks paid of in dividends. While “Brother’s Keeper” doesn’t feature the most groundbreaking narrative nor witty dialogue, the visuals and the music make up for any shortcomings, elevating the pilot to whole new level.
In terms of storytelling and subject matter, Miami Vice wasn’t breaking new ground, but Vice was a giant step toward the more mature TV dramas of today and would forever change television. And “Brother’s Keeper” is without a doubt, the most influential two hours of television from the 1980’s.
– Ricky D
The first season of the show has a surprising number of famous guest stars, including Bruce Willis, John Turturro, Jimmy Smits, Pam Grier, Dennis Farina, Michael Madsen, Ving Rhames, Gene Simmons,
Luis Guzman, Eartha Kitt, Little Richard, Nathan Lane, Frankie Valli, Miles Davis, Phil Collins, Kyra Sedgwick, Ted Nugent, Jan Hammer, The Fat Boys, Leonard Cohen, Bill Russell, Frank Zappa, Michael Bay, Tommy Chong, Gary Cole, John Leguizama, Lee Iacocca, Liam Neeson, Laurence Fishburne, Ron Perlman, Willie Nelson, Steve Buscemi, Bill Patxon, Don King, Helena Bonham Carter, Vincent D’Onofrio, Viggo Mortensen, Annette Bening, Lou Diamond Phillips, Melanie Griffith, George Takei, Captain Lou Albano, Benicio del Toro, Ben Stiller, Alfred Molina, Issac Hayes, James Brown, Chris Rock Sheena Easton, Julia Roberts, Tony Sirico, and Michael Chiklis.
21. Sports Night Season 1, Episode 1 ‘Pilot’
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Thomas Schlemme
Aired 9/22/1998 on ABC
Before The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin wrote a little ABC comedy about a nightly sports show called Sports Night. Like everything Sorkin, it’s long-winded, sappy, critical, and dense as all get out: but it’s also witty, heartwarming – at at its best, inspirational. In my humble opinion, it’s one of the best scripts he’s ever written, able to balance a huge number of characters, introduce them, and establish a complex, developed newsroom rapport -and at the same time, tells a number of highly personal stories about the five characters at the heart of the show.
And Sorkin wastes no time getting into it: the opening scene hits the ground running, with the Sports Night team making last minute preparations for the 11pm show. We met Dana, the show’s executive producer, the guys at the desk controlling the sound and video feeds, Natalie the producer working underneath Dana, and Dan and Kacey – the stars of Sports Night, based on a combination of Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, and Craig Kilborn, whose broadcasts inspired Sorkin while he was writing The American President.
What the opening scene points out carefully is that while this newsroom appears to be running smoothly, as they try to remember exactly what country Helsinki is in. We don’t know it quite yet, but something is very wrong: and when their boss Issac walks in to check on things, he asks if Kacey’s in a crappy mood. Seconds later, we learn that Kacey’s in the middle of a divorce, one that’s affected his on-air performance of late.
That’s all before the opening credits roll: in a matter of minutes, Sorkin’s established an entire newsroom full of characters, the professional hierarchy between them (everyone answers to Natalie, Natalie answers to Dana, and Dana to Issac) – and that even though things appear to be great, Kacey’s presence hangs in every conversation. But hey, they guy’s going through a divorce, and everybody’s got to get a break once in awhile, right?
It turns out that’s not true for Kacey: the morning staff meeting is one of the pilot’s key scenes, again juggling a ton of narrative balls at the same time. In that meeting, we get a little more insight into JJ (the face of the network), and his dissonant relationship with Issac, the managing editor of the show: he’s a protective boss, the kind that fights the network when they try to step in. Although not a main cast member, JJ is a character who will play an important role in the second half of the freshman season, but in the pilot he exists to put a very real face on the vague statement of “network pressure”, a person who both disrupts the team’s creative process and stands to threaten their jobs if their said process doesn’t bring in the audience.
Sorkin makes it an important point to show how awful the “network” can be sometimes: JJ demands they cut a story about an African runner who had his legs broken for protesting, but has healed and will be running in the World Games at the age of 41. It’s a story of inspiration, perseverance, and love for sport – and JJ wants nothing to do with it, because the 11-17 year old crowd who tune in during the AM don’t want to hear about running. In a way, the scene foreshadows the future of broadcasting: just turn on the Today show or SportsCenter if you don’t believe. Today is just a glorified YouTube channel with dumb celebrities, and SportsCenter is this neutered PR machine for the sports world: how did that happen? The commercialization of news: executives who make decisions based on numbers on a sheet, not what their eyes and brain (and the American people who pay to watch their shows), ultimately commoditizing the news market to the point where it would be unrecognizable to Edward R. Murrow today (even if we could get him to comprehend the internet).
But I digress: Sorkin smartly stays away from presenting his socio-political ideals (about 0.5% of the political hubris we see in The Newsroom, at least) in the pilot, and quickly moves the focus back to his characters. We then meet Jeremy Goodwin, the “super cute” assistant producer interviewee that Natalie’s swooning over. It’s quite a memorable introduction, as a nervous Jeremy screams out exactly the answer Dana’s looking for (“what are you strong sports?” she asks him. “Football” he says, to which she replies “Let’s talk about basketball!”) in the middle of a freak out. As the “new guy” in this bustling machine of sports news, Jeremy’s a nice little anchor for us to hold onto as we learn alongside him how Sports Night makes it to air (though we only get a couple of scenes with him in the pilot – and oddly, none between him and Natalie).
Of course, Sorkin saves his biggest moments for the four cast members at the heart of the show: Dan, Kacey, Dana, and Issac. Of the four, Dan’s is the most light-hearted, talking about his “New York renaissance” to everyone, coming up with the cheesiest things to do to celebrate the city he lives in (after the show finishes, he tells Kacey he’s going to get a hot dog and ride the Staten Island ferry in the middle of the night, just for fun). But even the young, handsome semi-womanizer has a heart: he’s dedicated to Kacey, even if he’s attacghing himself to a sinking ship. Partners on-air for a decade, the pilot goes far out of its way to show how important their friendship is to each other, especially when Kacey mentions leaving the show.
It’s not that Kacey doesn’t give good reasons – a basketball star arrested and arraigned in court is a sports story hanging around in the background of the episode, and Kacey uses it as an example to say “I’m sick of this” – it’s that they aren’t the right reasons. Dan doesn’t exactly know it, but Kacey’s divorce and the loss of his son (he only sees him Wednesdays and alternate weekends) has sapped him of his inspiration: he’s forgotten why he does what he does, and instead, finds himself grasping for low-hanging fruit as an excuse to back out.
But Dan doesn’t want to back down: the next episode would show us just how stubborn a man he was – but in the pilot, he’s being stubborn because he’s trying to save his friend. He begins yelling at him, a clear sign that a very real fracture may be forming in their relationship as Dan gets in his face and calls him out: but they never finish, when Kim runs onto the set to tell them something amazing’s going on. Remember that African runner (whose name I can’t even begin to spell)? Well, it turns out he’s not only running in the race, but winning it – and at a record pace, circling the last lap to head toward the finish line and the world record.
The newsroom comes alive in that moment, men and women in business attire clapping and cheering for a man they’ve never met. And in that moment, the light comes on inside Kacey. He runs into the nearby office, and calls his ex-wife to wake up his son. “Just watch him run. He’s not doing much, he’s just running faster than any man has run before.” It’s a big emotional moment, and one that could come off as cheesy with a lesser script – but given the context of his conversation earlier with Dana (“I love doing Sports Night, I get a rush when we’re on air at 11pm that doesn’t come down until 3am… and you’re screwing up my show” she tells him), it puts it all into context for us. Why do something in life if you don’t truly love it? It was a question Kacey thought he had an answer to – but didn’t realize how much he was fooling himself until he saw that man running ahead of the pack, alone, as he headed toward the finish line. They can bend you, but you can’t let them break you: and Kacey finally embraces this, a new man once he sits down next to Dan to begin the show. “It’s not that my teases are better than yours,” he says to Danny, “it’s just that they’re vastly inferior to mine.”
And as the pilot began with the show opening, the pilot closes with the next night’s opening, images that remind us of the cyclical nature of news. The stories may change, but the process remains the same: find the story, write the story, tell the story. And for two beautiful, too-short seasons, Sports Night did just that. People have their allegiences to The West Wing – but for me, Sports Night is Aaron Sorkin’s finest work.
– at the very close of the episode, Kacey goes up to Dana and tells her “no one can produce this show but you.” It’s a hint towards their romantic moments later on, but there, it’s a touching moment between friends who’ve been struggling. He hugs her, and she sheds a quick tear before barking out orders to Natalie. Not a moment of weakness for her at all – instead its a moment that shows both her emotional depth and her ability to control it, something most female characters don’t get the chance to do.
– I didn’t talk much about Dana, but it’s Felecity Huffman at her absolute best. She’s intelligent, high-strung, endlessly knowledgable – and most importantly, she’s extremely confident in her job and abilities. Too often we see the women struggle to figure out what they want in life: Dana knows exactly what she wants, and how she plans to get it. Just a fantastic character.
– Kacey explodes on JJ, threatening him with a foot up the ass if the “voice of the network ever comes out of his mouth again.”
– seconds later, JJ begins a comment towards Issac, who points a finger at him and growls: “Don’t take me on.” Robert Guillaume is just terrific on this show.
– Sports Night won 3 Emmys combined between 1999 and 2000: all related to cinametography, either directing or editing. How did this not win a writing or performance Emmy?
– It’s far away, but William H. Macy’s arc in season two produces some stellar episodes.
– Jeremy’s third suggestion for the Knicks: “tell Spike Lee to sit down and shut up?”
22. Pushing Daisies, “Pie-lette”
Written by Bryan Fuller
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Aired October 2nd, 2007
The facts are these: a series about death, loneliness, romance, PIs, and pie shouldn’t work. Especially on network television. And yet for two seasons, it did. Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies premiered in the fall of 2007 as the highest rated new series, with 13 million viewers tuning in for the pilot, “Pie-lette”. It would eventually drop in the ratings, squeaking out a renewal due to uncertainty over the writers strike before being cancelled the next season, but those who tuned in for that first episode were treated to a delightful, whimsical flight of fancy the likes of which are rarely seen on American television.
Bryan Fuller has a history with darkly comedic, metaphysically tricky shows. His previous series, Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls, both feature their female protagonists dying (or nearly doing so) in the pilot. In Dead Like Me, George (née Georgia) stays dead throughout the series, becoming a Grim Reaper. On Wonderfalls, Jaye’s brush with death is short-lived, as she coughs up the sandwich she nearly choked on only to discover that she now hears voices imploring her to help people. The premise for Pushing Daisies, that a young man has the miraculous and unexplained ability to touch dead things and bring them back to life, feels like a natural fit for Fuller. Throw in a dead heroine and comedic hijinks, and we have a series.
What sets this show, and more specifically this pilot, apart from Fuller’s other work is its heightened tone and style. From the very first moments of the pilot, Fuller adopts a fairy-tale aesthetic, with a narrator telling the tale of our protagonist, Ned, and his childhood friend, Chuck (née Charlotte). Practically, there is a tremendous amount of setup needed for a premise like this. The voice-over smooths out the edges of the plot, urging viewers to suspend their disbelief. Creatively, it fills in the audience without forcing exposition onto the rather detached and taciturn Ned, who prefers not to discuss himself. Pilots are always tricky- every detail must be considered and any one choice has the potential to derail a production. For Pushing Daisies, perhaps the single best decision Fuller and Sonnenfeld made was casting Jim Dale as the narrator. Not only does he do a fantastic job, but to a generation of American children, he’s the voice of Harry Potter, having narrated the American audio books, and his voice instantly conveys trust, storytelling, and magic.
That choice meshes wonderfully with the design of the show. Usually in television, the director of the pilot sets the visual tone for rest of the series and Sonnenfeld’s colorful, bold approach instantly sets Pushing Daisies apart. As with so many auteuristic films, a viewer could see a screencap from any scene in this episode, or those that would follow, and instantly identify it. Pushing Daisies looks like nothing else on television, both before or since, and in a network landscape where sameness is encouraged (particularly in procedurals), these bold visuals are a welcome treat.
The actors at the center of “Pie-lette” have their work cut out for them, given Fuller’s heightened dialogue and the core absurdity of the plot. Ned (Lee Pace) is a pie-maker who runs a diner, the Pie Hole, and who can touch dead things and bring them back to life, until he touches them again, killing them permanently. After one minute of life-after-death, though, someone/thing of similar evolutionary complexity nearby will die in their place. Chuck (Anna Friel) is the murdered childhood sweetheart Ned brings back to life (to stay), Emerson (Chi McBride) is his PI business partner (Ned interrogates murder victims to help find their killers), and Olive (Kristin Chenoweth) is the waitress at the Pie Hole.
Lesser actors would let you see the strings or keep you from being swept into this stylized world, but this cast commits fully and doesn’t look back. Pace is particularly strong as the withdrawn Ned, always a difficult emotion to convey, and McBride wrings every laugh he can out of his scenes, providing a much-needed antidote to the saccharine Ned and Chuck. Emerson’s introduction on the roof of the Pie Hole is great, as is Chuck’s, attacking Ned (still in defense mode after her murder), and though Olive could be used better, her blatant amorous overtures to Ned tell us a lot about him while still feeling within the bounds of this larger than life setting. Ellen Green and Swoozie Kurtz are also fantastic additions as Chuck’s shut-in aunts, Vivian and Lily- just odd enough to mesh with the world without pushing it into ridiculousness, and Field Cate does great, understated work as Young Ned.
This is certainly not a series for everyone. It’s bold in its story, aesthetic, and tone. Some will find the central romance treacly and overly sweet. Some will be put off by the gruesome and creative deaths. Others will find the blend of introspection, whimsy, detective noir, and epic romance too fractured for them to enjoy. Fuller and Sonnenfeld don’t care. This is their story and their world; viewers can take it or leave it. “Pie-lette” is a charming breath of fresh air in the often stale world of network drama, a true indicator of the series to come, and one of the most unabashedly unique, creative pilots ever made.
23. Lone Star, “Pilot”
Written by Kyle Killen
Directed by Marc Webb
Aired September 20th, 2010 on Fox
Before everyone got to know James Wolk as the intriguing Bob Benson of Mad Men, he was the lead of the short-lived FOX series Lone Star. Notoriously short-lived, in fact- the series was cancelled after only two episodes, despite receiving rave reviews from critics. Lone Star was created by the then untested Kyle Killen, whose script for The Beaver was admired around Hollywood but, at that time, had yet to be produced. Along with Wolk, the series starred Adrianne Palicki, Eloise Mumford, David Keith, and Jon Voight, along with a supporting ensemble. The reason Lone Star failed to reach an audience, however, had little to do with its cast or creator, and certainly not its quality; it was a victim of terrible timing. With the US still reeling from the financial crisis of 2008, no one in America wanted to watch a series about a con man.
The pilot for Lone Star doesn’t pull its punches. The opening scene, a flashback, introduces us to a young Bobby and his con man father, John Allen (David Keith). Bobby scrambles to pack his life into a suitcase while an angry mark beats down the door of their hotel room. He’s clearly terrified, despite his father’s attempts to reassure him. This experience has happened before and will happen again, and this childhood will turn Bobby into either a replica of his father or a reaction to him. For a show centered on such a despised figure, particularly at the time, it’s important that we see our lead at his weakest and most vulnerable. As we’ll see, Robert/Bob (James Wolk) is still very much this scared boy, desperate to have a closet and some permanence, instead of a suitcase.
After flashing to the present and briefly getting to know Robert’s girlfriend, Lindsay, and his picturesque life in Midland, Texas, Killen reinforces the opening scene with a montage of Robert conning a series of marks out of their savings, promising a specialized drill and an extraction technique that will turn previously unusable rock (presumably something like shale?) into natural gas and liquid money. Perhaps this show would have been more palatable to viewers if we didn’t see Robert actively on the con, if we didn’t see his victims, but it would have been utterly dishonest as well. We see how good he is and we also see how miserable this makes him. He’s gregarious and cheerful on his flight out; afterwards he’s weary, with the barest of smiles left across his face. After a call home to Lindsay, we meet Cat and discover Robert is married and living a second, more privileged life in Houston. In the first six minutes of the pilot, we have met our lead and seen his three most important relationships- with his wife, his girlfriend, and his father.
The rest of the pilot sees Bob (as his Houston family knows him) getting a promotion that will put him high up in his father-in-law’s oil company, where he can take the company for millions before hitting the road. In Midland, the jig is up- a lawyer is inquiring about land rights and will shortly discover Robert doesn’t own any and therefore can’t have any wells. Robert has bilked his neighbors out of their life savings, including Lindsay’s parents, and it’s time to run. The trouble, in both cases, is that not only does Bobby hate this life, conning people, he truly loves both of these women and is desperate not to hurt them. His solution: he’ll work his new job straight and use his position there to turn the Midland scam into a real deal, or at least enough of one to pay his neighbors back. After getting his father ever so tentatively on board, Robert celebrates- he takes Lindsay to Vegas and they get married.
One would think this approach to the con man, the scammer with a heart of gold as it were, would be at least somewhat palatable to viewers, but perhaps this second bold move, having Robert say unabashedly, and honestly, that he loves both of these women and intends to remain married to them both, was too much for audiences to handle. Those few who tuned in, at least. Viewers love a likeable scoundrel trying to change his spots, particularly if he’s doing it for the love of a good woman (see Lost’s Sawyer for one recent example). For the love of two good women, though? Maybe not.
Watching this pilot, several things jump immediately to mind, the first being that it’s astonishing that a network signed off on this premise in the first place. It shows great taste and restraint from Fox. As much as they have been maligned by viewers over the years, particularly genre fans, for cancelling series like Lone Star, it’s important to remember that they gave the show a shot in the first place. They ordered it up, stayed out of Killen’s hair creatively (at least as far as these less viewer-friendly aspects are concerned), and marketed it (there was a significant push for this series at the time and it had a strong timeslot). Did they react hastily, pulling it so quickly? Probably. In today’s television landscape, this show would almost certainly have aired all its episodes, moved to a burnoff slot or saved for the summer. But Fox supported this series through development and its early production and without them, we wouldn’t have seen even the two episodes that did air.
This is an astonishingly strong pilot for such a tricky premise and a very confident debut for Killen. It’s refreshing to see such a subtle approach to such complicated emotions and storytelling. Marc Webb, director of (500) Days of Summer and The Amazing Spider-Man, shoots it well and the casting throughout is fantastic. It’s great to see Voight in such a well-suited role and it would have been a lot fun to watch him play with the character over several years. Palicki, who gave a star-making performance on Friday Night Lights that somehow hasn’t translated to more and better roles, is great here and Mumford manages to make the earnest, sweet Lindsay more than the cliché small town girl she almost should be. David Keith is predictably good as the scoundrel father as well, but the breakout is James Wolk, whose thoughtful, layered performance only improves on repeat viewings.
As mentioned above, James Wolk has been a hit on Mad Men this season and he also left an impression during his stint on Happy Endings, but carrying a show, as this performance must, is a different beast entirely. Robert/Bob is a con man, so he must be believably charismatic and likeable, but Wolk is also playing Bobby, the scared, miserable child without a home. He needs to stand up to heavyweights Keith and Voight and create bonds with Palicki and Mumford meaningful and believable enough that the audience will buy into the premise. It’s a tall order, but Wolk pulls it off and manages to get the audience on his side to boot. Bobby’s desperation with his father is palpable- he’s barely holding on and that fear, that frailty, along with his determination to somehow put everything right, manages to pull the audience into rooting for him.
Perhaps the most telling scene of the pilot is the tour of Robert’s supposed drill site. An investor, Larry (Tommy Townsend), has demanded to see the well, which of course doesn’t exist, and so Robert arranges a tour of an existing facility, posing as a location scout for a film. The casting of the mark is spot on, perhaps too good- when we see Robert not only put Larry’s fears to rest, but take this older, apparently proud and hardworking man for an additional $40k, our hearts break for him and, at the time, many must have identified strongly with his potential/eventual victimhood. It’s easy in these scenes to watch Townsend, who’s giving a strong performance, but if you watch Wolk, you’ll see Bobby’s eyes peering out through Robert’s face, his heart just as broken as the audience’s. He didn’t want to take more of this man’s money, but he can’t refund him either and, when Larry asks to invest further, there’s no reason he can give to save this man that won’t also give himself up. Counterpointed to this, of course, is Bobby’s father, who all but licks his chops when he sees Robert reel Larry back in. It’s a simple scene, but one that tells the viewer everything they really need to know about our lead and why he’s willing to try so dangerous a gambit to put things right, and wash himself clean of his past.
In the time since Lone Star came and went, its creator and most of its cast have continued to other, more successful projects. Killen had another critically acclaimed, under-watched one-season show in 2012 with Awake and has a new show headed to ABC this fall, Mind Games. Wolk is on Mad Men, Voight’s new series Ray Donovan premieres this week, Keith is on Hawaii Five-0, and Palicki and Mumford continue to work in features. Promising shows fall apart all the time due to creative or financial problems, usually without actually making it to air. Though we only got two episodes (come on, Fox- make the other produced, but shelved episodes available online!), at least this interesting, if doomed, series actually got to be seen. If you’re at all interested in this cast or this creator, or just good television in general, search out Lone Star. There have been few network pilots as good since.
24. Cheers Season 1, Episode 1 ‘Give Me A Ring Sometime’
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
Directed by James Burrows
Aired 9/30/1982 on NBC
Every time I watch the Cheers pilot, I’m always amazed at just how low-key it is. ‘Give Me a Ring Sometime’ doesn’t try to get anybody’s attention with flashy characters or some convoluted premise: as the cold open suggests, this is just another day at a bar in Boston, where an ex-baseball player serves his friends and lends his ear to the working man. It’s suck a quiet, unassuming scene, it’s no surprise that it didn’t draw in a huge audience for the second episode (or the entire first season, really). As Sam prepares the bar for work, a clearly underage kid comes in and tries to order a beer with a military ID. Sam can see the it coming a mile away, and after the kid calls his Vietnam experience “gross”, sends his on his way.
That’s it; the first two and a half minutes have no importance attached to them, no important bit of Sam’s character shining through (except the hair and that iconic smile, of course). And although it goes out of its way to try and avoid some kind of definition, that opening scene speaks to the foundation of the series: this is a bar where people meet and share stories, often times covering up their insecurities with stories that lead to laughter. Of course, Cheers is a little more thoughtful and sentimental than the opening scene suggests, but the framework is right there in the opening scene.
Smartly, the show doesn’t drop us into the world of Cheers without anchoring us to a character and their perspective: for all intents and purposes, we see Cheers through the eyes of Diane Chambers, a teaching assistant waiting for her fiancee to return and whisk her away to the Barbados to be married. The last place she wants to be is some blue collar bar – which may or may not be a little shot at the audience, a way to say “Who says America doesn’t want to watch people just hanging out in a bar?” It’s the antithesis of everything a modern comedy pilot is: there has to be some hook, some catch to bring it the advertising bucks and set a show on the quick path to syndication money piles. Cheers throws that concept to the wind, and even asks the world through Diane Chambers in the final scene: what better place to learn about life than in the places we all come together?
It’s this simplicity that makes ‘Give Me A Ring Sometime’ the definitive comedy pilot. Look how smoothly characters are introduced: their expositional moments bubble organically from conversations, and before we know it, we’ve established Carla as the fireball (her opening monologue when she busts into the bar late for work is expertly delivered by Rhea Peralman), Cliff as the know-it-all (though I don’t think we learn his name in this episode, and he wouldn’t be a main cast member until season two), Norm as the bar regular, and of course, Sam “Mayday” Malone, the show’s true core and the owner of Cheers.
Cheers always took time to tell the stories of others (the pilot is really about Diane than the bar itself), but it always found its way back to Sam Malone, the ladies man who lost everything except his bar, the very same place his downfall from fame began. It’s really one of the greatest premises for a character I’ve ever seen, especially when you think about baseball and its deepest philosophies. Best of all, they don’t try to define Sam solely on his successes and failures: like everyone else in the bar, he’s been a victim of life’s basic, cruelest realities, and is just trying to make the best of what he’s been able to hold onto.
It speaks to the very blue-collar nature of Cheers, both as a show and a location – as the ending reveals, the show’s not just about people hanging out, but how meaningful a community really is. It’s almost a religious thing: people come to the bar (which, when sitting at a stool, puts people’s arms on the counter as if it was a place to pray) to reconcile life’s difficulties and disappointments. It’s not a quite a confessional, but it’s a place where we can share and heal: when you’re in a place where “everybody knows your name”, it feels like it’s where you belong, where you can be understood. In simple terms, Cheers is a little piece of heaven, and Sam Malone is the fallen angel here to help us all along (notice how characters revere Sam as a “baseball god”).
Cheers doesn’t go out of its way to suggest some of these more spiritual things, but when Sumner leaves Diane alone and jobless in the bar at the end, there’s a beauty to to the moment where Sam reaches out and offers her a job. Initially she laughs it off (again: who would want to spend a half hour of their week hanging out with bar regulars?), but when she realizes she’s educated but unqualified for anything, she resigns herself to taking the waitress job Sam offers after repeating a complicated bar order back to him.
In the en, people went to Cheers because it was a place they could join others at their lows, and help each other heal. And eventually, that’s why millions of people tuned into the show and it became one of the most revered sitcoms in history: whether it was the show’s best episode or its worst episode, Cheers always delivered on its promise to be a place where people were familiar, and would always find a way to make you laugh, even on the worst days of your life. We all want to have hope and something to believe in: and in its own way, Cheers provided that, the special place we could all come together and share, the one place where “everybody knows your name.”
– I didn’t even talk about my favorite character ever on Cheers, but it’s because he’s mostly comic relief in the episode: Coach, played wonderfully by Nicholas Colasanto. I always felt Woody was a much more one-dimensional character than Coach, who had the ability to make you laugh and cry in the same breath. In the pilot, he’s just getting confused a lot, but later episodes would reveal him to be the guiding light for Sam, Diane, and many other characters on the show.
– Diane recites the story of Sumner proposing to her, and notes that the piece of poetry he quoted was “Donne”, to which Sam responds “I sure hope so.”
– as a man named Ron exits the bar, he stops to thank Sam: “Thanks for letting me bend your ear, Sam.” One line was all it took to establish that Sam was a man we could trust.
– Diane: “You’re a magnificent pagan beast.” Sam: “Thanks, but what’s the message?”
– Coach (talking about Sam): “He was a great drunk!”
– It’s weird to hear Carla say she had four kids – she would have eight by the end of the show’s run.
– the men in the bar debate the sweatest movie ever. Nominees included Rocky II, Ben-Hur, Alien, and Cool Hand Luke.
– Sumner, on the phone with his ex-wife: “Barbara…. your depth frightens me.”
– the ending is so perfect: Diane dictates the show’s mantras about the microcosms of life that a bar is, only to find out they didn’t speak English. Another bit of meta, saying “we know, we know… don’t try and teach us, just make us laugh!” Thankfully, Cheers didn’t try too hard to subscribe to this idea in early seasons.
– Cliff’s first little known fact is that women have less sweat glands, but they’re bigger, so they sweat more.
– Norm’s first entrace: “Whaddya know, Norm?” “Not enough.” Pretty tame.
– Carla referring to Diane: “how long is the wind convention in town?”
25. Mad Men, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”
Directed by Alan Taylor
Written by Matthew Weiner
Original Air Date: July 19th, 2007
Definition displayed before the episode:
“MAD MEN. A term coined in the late 1950’s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue. They coined it.”
With a stunning title sequence that features a man’s silhouette plummeting past skyscrapers adorned with advertisements, the pilot episode of Mad Men opens with an exacting acknowledgement of the commercialized happiness that America bought into after World War II. Creator Matthew Weiner delivers a spellbindingly stylish microcosm inhabited by driven people who are unwittingly entrenched in layers of systematic oppression. Putting all of its aesthetic charms aside, Mad Men breaks ground by examining how we resist or embrace change through uncertain and often ugly choices.
Appraising an America on the precipice of social revolution, the series premiere swirls around the seemingly enviable life of dapper Don Draper (Jon Hamm). A persuasive New York advertising executive at the top of his game, Draper is at a nexus of power built upon white male privilege. The pressure on both men and women to achieve what society deems as successful for them is crushing. Affairs and insecurities are kept out of sight- not to be openly recognized except to shame the weak. Total ostracisation from society is palpable with the slightest of missteps. Making it a hard watch is the fact that these refined, pedigreed people and the glamorous places they inhabit are as troubling as they are entrancing. The painstakingly lavish attention to period detail certainly draws the audience in but the shiny veneer only thinly disguises how carefully these characters have to walk on eggshells in order to prevent their polished realities from collapsing under the weight of unspoken feelings. So well-packaged is the distracting artifice of the show that it’s easy to forget that what characters can’t reveal or aren’t capable of articulating truly makes them historically and emotionally resonant. Their misdeeds are not beyond reproach just because of the era but their confusion, silence and desperation are more understandable given that they were born into a patriarchy that threatens to obliterate anyone who poses a threat to it.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” addresses the gamut of issues that Mad Men continues to come back to time and time again. The rampant and blatant prejudices of the mid-twentieth century are used to shockingly convey how far society has come but a good deal of the show also stresses the consequences of self or society imposed isolation. At work Draper eloquently extrapolates on the basic needs that drive everyday people to buy products but his personal motivations remain largely unknown as he interacts with people. His slick, confident and steely demeanor projects a facade of perfection but little of his true self brushes up against life. Just as Don sells products to the public, he sells the best version of himself to his co-workers and family. The real Don is deeply buried, dormant- someone who came from too much pain to share it with others. Draper’s lies have lives of their own and reveal a monstrous, shallow shell of the American Dream- having everything a man is supposed to want but finding no reason to cherish or respect it except as an obligation. He shows no trace of guilt while cheating on his wife. It is simply part of his day and a part of a routine that helps him cope. Is there a real man behind the mask who knows what he needs to be fulfilled? Or is his thirst for power and sex unquenchable? Hamm is restrained but finely conveys the undeniable cracks in Draper’s masculine armor by adding slight inflections to a normally unwavering voice and subtle winces when caught off guard.
The ensemble cast is brimming with memorable characters embodied by undeniably talented actors. Roger Sterling (John Slattery) barely registers as Don’s boss with his ultra casual demeanor but his deadpan quips are razor sharp enough to steal scenes. Within moments of the audience being introduced to go-getter Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Draper’s disdain for his greedy ambition is immediately apparent. We don’t see too many shades of grey when it comes to young Pete- just that he is overly eager to please, keen to mimic the bad behavior of the successful and usurp absolutely any power that seems remotely up for grabs. The repulsion that Pete’s presence is able to illicit in such a short time is a testament to Kartheiser’s considerable ability. The circuitous bad decision-making and unlikeability of many of the characters are what keep the story fresh amid points of interest in history that we can see coming from a mile away.
Ken Cosgrove, Paul Kinsey and Harry Crane establish themselves as a trio of laughing hyenas who mostly take their high-powered lives for granted as they snark about relationships or work. The suffocating, congratulatory male camaraderie in this episode is celebrated and cemented by Pete’s traditional bachelor party at a strip club where expectations to reaffirm virility with one another run high. Far more intriguing than them is advertising artist Salvatore Romano, whose homosexuality has to be denied and overlooked in order for him to remain amongst an elite workplace. For Salvatore passing for straight means making lusty and derogatory comments about women that “real” men would make. The posturing of everyone trying to fit into a mold of normalcy to uphold boundaries and suppress desires is as sickening as it is fascinating. Carrying along the plot are brisk pacing and upbeat music which stand in direct contradiction to the sad pretenses of communication that make encounters almost completely devoid of profound connection.
The intimidation of women is pervasive during these first intertwining stories but is particularly disturbing when Pete thinks he’s entitled to take whatever he desires and as Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) introduces an innocent Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) to the secretarial pool. Peggy’s demanding new job entails sacrificing everything to be at the beck and call of the ad men. Joan reinforces that women are rightly subjected to a deep scrutiny of how pleasing they are to a man’s eye and should treat beauty as one of the most important aspects of their employment. Joan’s body is gazed upon as a perfectly managed example of how a woman working under men and designed for their consumption should look. She revels in the management of herself for men and takes pride in getting attention from it. Nearly everyone that Peggy meets is concerned for her welfare because she doesn’t dress sexily enough. Most of Joan’s power lies in appearance and how tightly she controls the women who work in the office but her wisdom from the get-go is sadly based on subservience. However naive and aiming to please men Peggy appears to be in this episode, the wide-eyed curiosity that’s briefly glimpsed in Olsen here leaves her poised to upend the expectations of what a woman can accomplish.
When Rachel Menken seeks to have the same quality advertising for her family’s jewelry store that any other business in the upper echelons of corporate America would want, Don’s firm Sterling Cooper is unprepared. Menken goes up against anti-semitism as she tries to deal with a workplace that’s used to Jewish people working completely separately from Manhattan’s upper crust. On top of that Don spews hateful ignorance about a woman’s place when faced with brashness and honesty from the opposite sex. He rears up in cynical nastiness to her positivity about love, scoffing that “…What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” The constant reassertion of male superiority betrays how afraid everyone is about stepping out of the roles that keep their lives navigable. Rachel is the first woman we see that challenges Don to be more than who he is expected to be and is a bright, transformative spot in an otherwise bleak prognosis for how spiritual growth could develop during the series.
Mad Men establishes itself as an extremely self-aware series that doesn’t judge its characters but neutrally presents them in a constant struggle against the flaws they’ve inherited from a society that’s just beginning to be recognized as a work in progress. They are twisted up in a world of unequal footing, barely cognizant of the inane rules that entrap them but are tangibly facing rapid developments that will irrevocably alter them whether they want them to or not.
– Lane Scarberry
26. Friday Night Lights, “Pilot”
Written and Directed by Peter Berg
Aired October 3rd, 2006 on NBC
The opening images in a pilot are usually incredibly specific ones. They’ve been chosen as the very first thing viewers will see, what will introduce them to this series and help them decide whether to tune in or flip to something else. In Alias, it’s Sydney Bristow’s face, her head held under water. In Battlestar Galactica, it’s a ticking clock. In Justified it’s a man in a cowboy hat and boots, heading to a duel at high noon. In Friday Night Lights, it’s Texas. This is a series that, more than any one character, is about a community. It’s about the people who fill that community, from all walks of life, and what ties them together or tears them apart. Friday Night Lights and Dillon, Texas are at once diffuse and distinct, an analog for so many of the small towns across the Midwest and a story that could only be set here, in this particular corner of the world. This blend of universality and specificity is what makes this pilot, and the series that would follow, so memorably and compellingly come to life.
The opening shots of the Texas landscape are gorgeous. Writer/director Peter Berg knows this part of the country extremely well and he takes full advantage of it throughout the pilot, putting viewers inside a car, looking out the windows at the surroundings and, as in the first minutes, listening to the radio. It’s fitting that the very first bits of dialogue are of the Dillon community expressing hope and fear about the coming game. If there’s a central character, it’s the Dillon Panthers’ new head coach, Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his relationship with the town is demonstrated elegantly through the constant buzz of debate and pressure about the opening game of the season. Eric is a man of few words. By using the radio, random townspeople, and of course Chandler’s performance, Berg holds true to that while still telling us reams about our lead.
The pilot very quickly and efficiently introduces audiences to each of the main characters. Coach Taylor and his players are interviewed for local news outlets, and in some cases are seen briefly at home, and we get a sense of the female cast through brief interactions cleverly spliced with the interviews and buildup to the game. The dialogue is easy to follow and shows a clear understanding of who these characters are. Though the series would later struggle with how to expand the journey of a couple of its characters, everyone is fully formed here, down to the tease for Landry’s eventual Christian speed metal band. With only a few glances, we have a sense of the backstory between Lyla and Tyra. An understated scene early on tells us all we need to know about Matt and his Grandma. Smash is brash and cocky, with a hint of the personal tragedy that inspires his dedication and focus, and a natural opposite to underachieving screwup Tim. As for star quarterback Jason, he’s introduced very carefully; he’s confident and likeable, but relatable. An athlete, but not necessarily the stereotypical jock many viewers may have less than fond memories of.
The build to Friday’s game is constant and deliberate. By the time we get there, the stakes are easily felt, not only for the students, but most pointedly for Coach Taylor and his family. The shooting of the game is energetic and fun and, in a brilliant move, announcers call the game, providing play-by-play and color commentary to help those viewers less familiar with the sport keep up. For those football fans watching, though, the voiceover feels natural and helps add to the aesthetic. A show centered around a town as football-obsessed as Dillon, with a coach and team as most of its main characters, needs to execute its games well or lose credibility. Berg succeeds here with flying colors and with Coach Taylor’s mantra, “Clear eyes, full hearts. Can’t lose”, he perfectly encapsulates not only the philosophy of his main character both on and off the field, but of the show itself.
Other aspects of small town life are wonderfully portrayed as well, from the local diner, The Alamo Freeze, to that dreaded aspect of so many Americans’ lives, faith. Television skitters away from conversations about or depictions of faith constantly. There’s little exploration of it in any meaningful way and often the tiny bits we do get are either saccharine schmaltz-fests or comedic dismissals. In Dillon, faith is a part of everyday life and if a moment of crisis occurs, it’s completely natural for many of the townspeople turn to it for comfort. This, along with the relaxed, beautiful cinematography, spot on music, and recognizable dialogue and relationships make Friday Night Lights and Dillon feel more like an actual, living place than just about any network series in recent memory.
Spoilers for the end of the pilot follow. If you’ve read this far and haven’t seen the episode yet, stop here. Also, do yourself a favor and watch Friday Night Lights. You won’t regret it.
Though most of the pilot plays very straightforwardly, setting up the world of the series, in the final moments we realize that we’ve been watching somewhat of a premise pilot all along. We think we’re being set up for a fairly standard last minute, dramatic victory high school sports story, and we are, but there’s a terrible twist- a bad tackle by Jason leaves the star athlete motionless on the field for what feels like an eternity. Watching the pilot again, knowing what’s coming, the moment looms, almost in slow motion. The first time through, it seems like a familiar ploy emphasizing the Big Play that’ll turn the game around. Every time after that, it feels like a dreaded inevitability. We want it not to happen, we want every moment we can get of Jason on his feet, his future gleaming ahead of him just as he’s envisioned. It’s a testament to Berg’s direction that we feel the power of this moment on every viewing.
There is tremendous power in this scene, and those that follow it. From the simple length of time spent before anyone even moves to the deathly silence that passes through the until recently raucous crowd, no one on that field or in those stands are breathing, and the audience isn’t either. There’s a clear understanding of the significance of what’s happening, both to us and the characters, and it’s haunting to see both teams utterly still, on their knees on the sidelines, silently praying for Jason to stand up, or at least move. We then realize why we’ve spent the few scenes earlier watching backup QB Matt throw around a football and his best friend Landry talk about how he’s practically not even on the team. Rather than the story of collegiate hopeful and rising star Jason’s climb to future success, we’re about to watch underdog Matt get thrown into the deep end.
The final plays are appropriately confusing and sloppy and while the last-second-amazing-pass-to-win-the-game is cliché, it’s one we’ve earned as viewers- we don’t want to see these kids lose the game right after seeing their friend and leader carted away to the hospital. This pilot could be criticized for its lack of an ending, and accurately- it all but ends on a cliffhanger, but where it closes feels appropriate. Where do you close the curtain on this part of the story and do so honestly? The game-winning play would be missing the point, the group prayer, though powerful, would be unsatisfying, and at the hospital with Jason’s family receiving the news of his condition would sacrifice the communal element of the story. Instead, we see the team, and a significant portion of the town, pour into the hospital to wait, as we must, while we listen to Coach Taylor’s beautiful and honest words. It’s an emotional end to a powerful, impactful pilot, one that stands up with the best television has to offer.
27. Saturday Night Live, “George Carlin/Billy Preston, Janis Ian”
Written by Lorne Michaels, Michael O’Donoghue, Anne Beatts, Tom Davis, Al Franken, Marilyn Suzanne Miller, Herb Sargent, Tom Schiller, Rosie Schuster, Alan Zweibel
Directed by Dave Wilson
Aired on October 11, 1975 on NBC
Possibly (and very arguably) the most influential television show of all time, Saturday Night Live (SNL for short) is American comedy (albeit with a bit of Canadian help) exemplified: irreverent, absurdist, made for short attention spans, and continually being both panned and lauded by critics. Whether you still lock your door in fear of Land Shark, turned the show off in 1980 and never looked back, or are in need more cowbell, you know the magic that is SNL. Like a boy band or Santa Claus, we each have our favorites and picture a certain cast as the “real” SNL. For example, there are people who swear by the “Cat Laser” videos and see Andy Samberg as the show’s pinnacle performer. Go ahead and scoff, but it is that very reaction that shows how deeply SNL has impacted you and so many others, making it a shared experience across generations.
Rather than being a sitcom or schticky variety hour, SNL combines humor, topical discussion and music to not only entertain, but also reflect on the state of things while managing not to be a complete Debbie Downer. In lieu of a library, you could use a decent season from SNL as a snapshot of culture, public opinion, and politics within the year that that season aired. This is why the first episode is all the more important, marking the beginnings of a program that’s influence pervaded not only our TV screens, but also our country’s ongoing social commentary. With these lofty thoughts on a sketch show, let’s move on to the wolverines!
Not actually called “Saturday Night Live” until 1977, NBC’s Saturday Night premiered on October 11, 1975. The debut episode included three monologues by host George Carlin, songs from Billy Preston and Janis Ian, Andy Kaufman’s now-iconic stand-up, a headline-filled short film by Albert Brooks, an appearance by a few Muppets you’ve probably blocked from your memory, a even less memorable bit of volleyball-themed stand-up by Valri Bromfield, and sketches involving “The Not Ready For Prime Time Players” (Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner).
One of the best cold openings in the show’s history, the “Wolverines” sketch was hilarious with absurd dialogue between John Belushi and head writer Michael O’Donoghue (“I would like… to feed your fingertips… to the wolverines.”) and a meta quality (Chevy Chase steps into the scene as a “Stage Manager” and looks into the camera to exclaim “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”) that set a surrealist tone for rest of the episode. Speaking of surreal, Andy Kaufman stood on a bare stage and lip-synched to a “Mighty Mouse” record, one of the first of countless “love or hate” moments for SNL. Other highlights include Weekend Update with Chevy Chase (introducing America to the charismatically quick-witted comedian, remember this was 1975), the Bee Hospital sketch (featuring the show’s first recurring characters: The Bees, aka the Players dressed in bee costumes) and the fake ads (although six seems a bit excessive).
As for the host, George Carlin is a comedic genius, but his SNL stint wasn’t his best, mainly consisting of three rambling, pedantic monologues, which weren’t helped by him being admittedly coked-out at the time. Albert Brooks’ short film “The Impossible Truth” was funny, but again felt somewhat misplaced as more “let’s make a statement” satire. Oh, and the Muppets. There were Muppets, not the Muppets you remember, but a green monster king Ploobis, his crony Scred and their deity the Mighty Favog in “The Land of Gorch”. Rather than digging into their sketch more, just forget it as part of “What were they smoking?” SNL history. This isn’t to say that any of these are low points particularly, but that they haven’t stood the test of time in relation to the rest of the episode. Also, if you’re bored of laughing, check out Janis Ian performing “At Seventeen” and “In The Winter,” both are great anthems for when you really need a good cry.
For SNL nerds, here’s some trivia to end on. Gilda Radner was the first Not Ready For Prime Time Player to be hired, while Jane Curtin and John Belushi were the last two. Albert Brooks was originally approached be the show’s weekly host, but turned it down in order to make short films and suggested that they have a different host each week. Due to a longer-than-planned dress rehearsal, Billy Crystal’s stand-up act was cut from the final taping. The concept of a three-blade razor parodied in the fake ad “Triple-Trac” became reality in the ‘90s. Last and most likely least, in regards to the Muppets, head writer Michael O’Donoghue said, “I won’t write for felt.” Also for more information on behind-the-scenes at SNL‘s Studio 8H, Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests is a good place to start.
– Dianna Drumm
28. Terriers, “Pilot”
Written by Ted Griffin
Directed by Craig Brewer
Aired September 8th, 2010 on FX
Terriers had a quietly unassuming first, and only, season. A PI series closer tonally to The Big Lebowski than The Big Sleep, this was a show far more interested in examining its characters and building its reality than demanding the world’s attention; perhaps it suffered for that- the show garnered terrible ratings and remains one of the more shockingly overlooked series of the past few years, rather than the television successor to Chinatown it deserved to become.
From its first moments, the Terriers pilot radiates understated, confident cool. We sit with our leads in their truck, getting a feel for their dynamic and not really caring that we have no clue what’s going on. Griffin and Brewer are in no rush to give us answers; this show will be about our leads, not the cases they work, so the opening job, while entertaining, matters far more for establishing that core relationship than any shenanigans with Winston. By the end of the teaser, we know that Donal Logue’s Hank is resourceful, Michael Raymond-James’ Britt is a schemer, they care for each other and demonstrate that by giving each other a hard time, and they both know when to run.
After the credits, set to the wonderfully catchy “Gunfight Epiphany” by Rob Duncan, the plot thickens. We meet Hank’s ex-wife Gretchen (Kimberly Quinn) and discover, thanks to some rather deft exposition, that Hank is a former cop who probably lost his job due to his struggle with alcoholism. He and Gretchen have been separated for a year and while she looks great and well put together (giving us a glimpse at what Hank may have been like several years ago), he continually struggles to make his alimony payments. In one exchange, we have a much clearer picture of who our lead is, who he was, and perhaps who he wants to be. At the same time, we’re getting the setup for the rest of the episode- an old drinking buddy of Hank’s needs some help.
The rest of the episode follows a fairly straightforward trajectory, with Hank and Britt investigating a case that gets twistier and more dangerous as it goes. Along the way, we meet Hank’s former partner, Detective Mark Gustafson (Rockmond Dunbar) and the extremely pregnant Maggie Lefferts (Jamie Denbo). Maggie is a character we’ve seen time and again in PI stories, the helpful low-level attorney, but making her a third-trimester expectant mother adds an entertaining flavor to her scenes. Gustafson also fills a familiar role, that of the wary occasional ally on the force, with Dunbar bringing some needed depth; Mark and Hank clearly have a history and their relationship appears refreshingly complicated. While neither character is particularly new, Denbo and Dunbar’s takes are far more suited to longer-form storytelling than most of their noir antecedents, as both feel like wholly realized individuals with lives outside of the action of the story.
The villain of the piece, while surprisingly vanilla for a season-long adversary on a noir-inspired PI series, works well in this context. Christopher Cousins as Robert Lindus is very believable as the weasely adulterer, but he has an ordinariness that makes his later murder of Hank’s friend come as a surprise. We can see him easily as a philanderer and corrupt developer desperate to regain a damaging sex tape, but he doesn’t feel overtly threatening. For the first part of the episode we really aren’t sure whether Hank’s client killed her boyfriend or Lindus’ men did, and that’s thanks to Cousins’ subtlety.
While the central case is important and very clearly sets the tone for most of the rest of the series, it’s the interpersonal dynamics that are the most satisfying and a big part of that is Laura Allen’s Katie. A friend of Hank’s as well as Britt’s girlfriend, Katie is very important to making the show work, as she represents both leads’ abilities to maintain functional, healthy relationships. It’s wonderful to see the close, fully platonic relationship between her and Hank, something all but nonexistent on television. While we don’t get any backstory to how these three met each other, it does seem like Hank and Katie may have been friends first, with Hank having introduced her to Britt, and rather than the eye-rollingly standard pilot setup for an eventual love triangle, there isn’t a whiff of romantic attraction between them. They also avoid the cliché on the other end of the spectrum, with the girlfriend as the long-suffering nagging woman looking to settle down who constantly disparages her man’s nogoodnik friend. As with Maggie and Mark, Katie is a complete, complex character and it’s encouraging to see such a normal, yet interesting female lead, particularly on a detective or noir series.
The acting across the board is great, but the comfortable rapport between Logue and Raymond-James is essential. The series wouldn’t work without it. Michael Raymond-James has yet to break through in a meaningful way, though some TV fans will recognize him from Once Upon a Time, True Blood, or his memorable one-episode appearance on The Walking Dead, and Donal Logue’s continual underuse in television and film is astounding. He works consistently, but rarely is given the opportunity to flex both his dramatic and comedic chops. Raymond-James uses roguish charm and a quick wit to mask Britt’s vulnerability, Logue brings intensity, weariness, and regret to the outwardly affable Hank, and Allen makes Katie playful and fun, but responsible. One would hope writers and directors would see Terriers and place its central trio at the top of their wish lists, but unfortunately they remain for the most part overlooked and under-appreciated, not unlike the series itself.
With its sun-dappled setting, slacker leads, and relaxed approach, it would be easy to pass over Terriers in favor of a more stylized or showy detective series. This laid-back exterior, however, masks the careful direction, efficient writing, and rounded performances of a truly great series, one whose entire run lives up to the promise of its charming, memorable pilot.
29. Eastbound and Down Season 1, Episode 1 ‘Chapter 1’
Written by Jody Hill, Ben Best, and Danny McBride
Directed by Jody Hill
Aired 2/15/2009 on HBO
Let’s talk about the game of baseball for a bit – and more importantly, the physical construction and parameters of the game. First of all, there’s the field: a diamond with four points, each separated by ninety feet for a total of 360: the amount of degrees in a circle. Now, let’s look at the baseball: unravel its skin, and you’ll notice the pattern of the stitches make the infinity symbol around the white leather that makes up its shell. Metaphorically speaking, the baseball is our soul, something we try to find (with a swing) or protect (with a pitch) as we run away from home base (literally, home) and towards first, embarking on the adventure to find ourselves – with the ultimate goal of returning to the place it all began, to begin the journey anew the next time around the order.
It’s like a dream, isn’t it? Every time you step to the plate or onto the rubber, it’s an opportunity to define yourself, to display your one true swing (shout out to Legend of Bagger Vance) and fulfill your destiny. You want to embark on this journey so badly you can taste it in your mouth, sweating in the summer sun and trying to find that one moment where potential and kinetic energy meet, that instant where everything in life falls into place for you to chase your wildest dreams around the bases. Baseball is called “the perfect game” for a very simple reason: it’s the game of life, the one we always fantasized about as a kid.
Another interesting component to the philosophical foundations of baseball is the absence of time: a baseball game isn’t played until two teams of nine players complete nine full innings (of three outs apiece). There are no time limits (if a game isn’t completed and it gets too late, the game is picked back up at a later time), no arbitrary way of ending the game (except if the home team scores more runs in eight innings than the road team in nine: it is a fair and just game, after all) before it reaches its natural conclusion. In the end, the goal is the same: you want to make it around the bases to reach home plate, the same place that white ball reaches hundreds of times in the game.
In the end, there’s only one rule – if you can keep hitting or mowing down hitters, the dream won’t end. Your cyclical adventures around the bases continue, and as long as they do, you never have to face the realities awaiting all of us at the end of our most lavish romances (save for the occasional heartbreaking loss – but hey, every love hurts sometimes). It’s all good and well; but when we age and finally have to face Father Time, we leave the one place we can try and ignore his ever-looming presence: the baseball field, the one place where time doesn’t exist at all (Field of Dreams making a little more sense?). But that moment will come when you stop hitting – and when it does, what you are left with is your friends, your family, and your community: your home, returning to the people (and often, the place) where your journey began.
When Kenny Powers was 19, he stepped up to the plate of life – and in his words, “changed the face of baseball.” He was as superstar, a reliever whose catchphrase (“You’re fucking out!”) and arrogance could only hope to meet the heat of his fastball. It was his gift from the heavens, an arm blessed by the gods: but Kenny didn’t treat it as such, and as his fastball lost velocity, his career spun out of control. He made anti-Semitic comments in New York and anti-gay ones in San Fransisco that lead to a swift exit; steroid allegations turned his time in Boston into a nightmare, leaving him to play out the sad end of his career for the lowly Seattle Mariners, the last pitch he ever threw a meatball that was hit a hundred feet over the fence of the game’s new superstar, symbolizing that Kenny’s soul – for the time being – is now lost.
The pilot cuts immediately there to a shot of Kenny sitting at a desk, with the phrase “Several Shitty Years Later” quickly narrating the events of the time in between then and now. He’s at Jefferson Davis High, the place where Kenny’s career began as a hotshot starter banging the girl with the biggest boobs in high school. Except that was twenty years ago, and now his old flame April is engaged to the principal Terrence Cutler, whose “athletic achievements” make Kenny sneer. Turns out you can’t just go back and pick up where you left off 20 years ago, because people change: his brother Dustin is married with three kids, and April wants nothing to do with Kenny, despite the magical history Kenny tries to draw from their reunion.
Eastbound and Down‘s world in the first season is very different than that of seasons two and three, and not just in setting: these are the darkest chapters of Kenny’s life, the first time he had to look in the mirror and face the facts: he’s a big ol’ fucking has been, not even famous enough to get a prostitute to deliver a house call or a group of kids to remember him as anything but the guy “who ruined baseball”: it details the very thing no sports fan or pundit ever wants to discuss, and it’s painful as hell to watch. All we remember is the glory: we don’t stick around for the inevitable downfall, which for those that aren’t revered as legends can be a very painful journey backwards in time.
For a comedy pilot, ‘Chapter 1’ is a lot lighter on plot and character than the first eight hundred words here might suggest: there’s barely any time spent with the other people re-entering Kenny’s life, the attention squarely focused on the depressed, frustrated Kenny Powers. If Danny McBride wasn’t so damn funny in the pilot with his improvisation, it would be the most fucking depressing half hour of television ever produced: in one scene, Kenny’s trying to cry quietly in the basement of his brother’s house so nobody else has to hear how devastated he is that he had to finally wake up from his dream, and it’s one of the most heartbreaking, hilariously awkward things you’ll ever see.
But everyone has to wake up at some point – and that’s what makes Kenny such a relatable character despite being a massive, ignorant (and racist) asshole 99.95% of the time. We’ve all been where Kenny was, whether if it was when we were eight, when we realized being awesome at Operation didn’t mean you’d be a good doctor; or at thirty, when we got fired from the job we thought we’d have forever. Life has a way of kicking you straight in the ass – and when you lose yourself, both Eastbound and Down – and the game of baseball – suggest that the best way to find yourself is by going home, to be around the people who know who you really are, and love you in spite of it.
Although its brash humor and seemingly unlikable protagonist suggest otherwise, Eastbound and Down is about the most romantic aspects of baseball, a sport where men fight for the ultimate right to go home. In my humble opinion, the show slowly lost that idea as it became more popular – but hot damn, ‘Chapter 1’ is a beautiful piece of tragic comedy.
– for more in-depth thoughts about the symbolism of baseball, a few bits of literature to check out: Robert Coover (who wrote about the symbols of the baseball as infinity and the soul), Robert Kelly’s essay ‘A Pastoral Dialogue on the Game of the Quadrature’, and anything you might be able to find on the web from Stephen D. Mosher, a former professor of mine and the single smartest person I’ve ever met in my life.
– “I was handed the keys to the kingdom… but sometimes when you bring the thunder, you get lost in the storm.”
– Kenny to his brother’s wife: “You named your kid after the Titanic? You gotta be fucking kidding me… what’s this one’s name, Shrek?”
– Kenny Power’s audio book was titled “You’re Fucking Out, I’m Fucking In,” and plays quite frequently as narration throughout the first season.
– Stevie is barely a character on this episode, but would become one of the funniest and annoying presences on this show.
– “Why do I gotta pay for a goddamn hotel room? I gotta house – just come over and we can do the blowjob here. And can I wear the Scream mask as I do you from behind?”
– when Kenny realizes the kids think rehab is where you go after surgery, Kenny says: “Yeah, I went to rehab; I hurt my nose.”
– the double entendre Kenny drops on Terrence is hilarious; when Terrence asks if he wants a smoothie, Kenny’s deadpan response is “No, I’m straight.”
– Clegg to Tracy: “What you need is a shit ton of Valtrex.”
30. 30 Rock, “Pilot”
Written by Tina Fey
Directed by Adam Bernstein
Aired on October 11, 2006 on NBC
What can be written about the pilot episode of 30 Rock “Pilot” that hasn’t already been espoused across the interwebs and blogosphere? Well, nothing too enlightening (look elsewhere for comparisons to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, etc.). The show has an incredible following of professional and unprofessional nerds alike, garnering award after award and profitable syndication deals along with a countless number of show-related memes all over the internet. Trying to string together a few words on the show’s impact makes this writer go “Bleurgh.” Hopefully with that self-referential tongue-in-cheek reference, all non-30 Rock fans have scattered off to the other pilot reviews on this website. If not and you’re planning to hate, take a hint and scat over to Game of Thrones or Archer.
Originally airing in 2006, 30 Rock was a bastion of American wit in an era of battling the growing popularity of reality television and internet videos. After seven seasons, the show cemented written comedy’s place on network television, which should never have been questioned in the first place, and continues to be the definitive noughties workplace sitcom (get at me, you limey The Office bastards). The unadulterated love of Tina Fey and her cohorts for television shines through and enables 30 Rock to so masterfully lampoon its very own medium, the workplace sitcom, with some tricks of the trade they picked up at Saturday Night Live. Through utilizing age-old conventions and broad comic strokes, Fey and company make the audience both laugh at American comedy television and appreciate it all the more. As a female writer and SNL nerd, I cannot express my admiration enough for Tina Fey, suffice it to write, “I want to go to there.”
Back to “Pilot,” the name alone rings with a shoptalk sense of humor and though the episode certainly lacked the smoothness and spitfire wit of later episodes and seasons, it served well to pilot the audience into the chaotic world of gags, egos and mayhem at the offices of The Girlie Show (or TGS for short). Generally, there are three schools in regards to when 30 Rock won you over: the seventh episode “Tracy Does Conan,” sometime during season three (or to be honest, whenever you first spotted Jon Hamm as a guest star), and not yet (why are you still reading?). Many fans of the show still have yet to watch “Pilot” and it is highly recommended to do so (which should be made abundantly clear by the “Great TV Pilot” in this piece’s title). Not only will “Pilot” clarify a few in-show jokes (Jenna’s “Muffin Top” has been there from the very beginning), but the episode introduces each character and their motives so succinctly that it would be a shame for any real fan to miss, even if you’re “living every week like it’s Shark Week.”
The show opens with Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) waiting in line for a breakfast hot dog at a street vendor. When a man tries to bypass the line, she will not stand for it and buys all of the hot dogs to give to “the good people.” Within this one scene, we know that she isn’t fussy, does not stand for douche-snozzles, and won’t hesitate to go above and beyond in order to prove a very valid point. Instinctively, we know her character through and through and we like it, even with the clunky That Girl-esque theme song that plays as she hands out extra hotdogs to passersby. We root for Liz Lemon, not because she’s sharp-tongued or wears reasonable shoes (though both help), but because she represents the hard-working, passionate albeit sometimes awkward person who may have a piece of lettuce in her hair or be dating “The Beeper King”, but won’t let these things phase her or the quality of her work, or at least not for longer than an episode arc.
Within the next few minutes and without the cringe-worthy amount of expository dialogue you’d normally find in a pilot, the audience is introduced to her workplace, the madhouse of TGS, a SNL-style live sketch show with more gags going on behind than in front of the camera. Characters include Lemon’s shoulder-to-lean-on producer Pete Hornberger (Scott Adsit), the paranoid diva and Lemon’s best friend Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), the too-attractive-for-her-own-good assistant Cerie (Katrina Bowden), the overly enthusiastic page named Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), and an unruly writer’s room which includes porn and trucker hat-enthusiast Frank (Judah Friedlander) and Harvard man Toofer (Keith Powell). Once we’re comfortable enough with this shenanigan-laced balancing act, Fey throws us a magnificent curveball in the form of Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming for General Electric (a real-life NBC sponsor, how meta), as Lemon’s new boss.
Now there’s a character (hubbah, hubbah), Jack is a devilishly middle-aged sort of handsome, shark-like executive who plans to make TGS his own, including browbeating Lemon into submission (“You have the boldness of a much younger woman.”). In “Pilot,” they are adversaries with the seeds of their forthcoming “mentor-mentee” relationship about to be planted by way of “lunatic” movie star Tracy Jordan. As a first move, Jack convinces Lemon to meet with Jordan (a man who recently ran through traffic in his tighty-whities screaming “I am a Jedi!”) about whether or not the troubled albeit popular actor will join the “TGS” cast to capture the coveted 18-49 male demographic. In spite of the two not quite hitting it off, Lemon comes to the conclusion (although she may have been under the influence of alcohol and AIDS-injected chicken nuggets) that Tracy will save her flailing show and that Jack was right all along.
“Pilot” provided the show’s premise without overselling, set the absurdist tone in an all-too-real workspace, and gave us a few early laughs that would become heartier as the characters continued to unravel and develop before our very eyes, tackling issues ranging from body issues to high-level politics. Although some of the jokes may not quite work as well as in later episodes, like Jenna’s flirting with Jack being interrupted by Kenneth’s hemorrhoid cream delivery, the episode still succeeds in what it set out to do – to entertain and/or make us laugh while setting the audience up for more to come. Even in this first episode, every pratfall and fart joke seems part of an intricately humorous anecdote from Fey’s *ahem* Lemon’s life and part of a larger commentary on the modern American workplace, particularly the role of women. For those with discerning taste, this is the pilot for you. For those without discerning taste, this is the pilot for you and maybe, just maybe, thanks to Mark Twain Prize recipient Tina Fey, you’ll develop discerning taste, at least in comedy television.
31. Futurama, Season 1, Episode 1: “Space Pilot 3000”
Written by David X. Cohen and Matt Groening
Directed by Rich Moore and Gregg Vanzo
Aired March 28th, 1999 on FOX
An average half-hour TV comedy lasts for 1,260 seconds, yet it only takes twenty-five of those seconds for The Simpsons’ presence to be felt in “Space Pilot 3000.” Some of that influence is visual, as Futurama’s inhabitants bear the same over-inflated eyes and pronounced overbites of their yellow counterparts. Yet the biggest piece of The Simpsons to be found in “Space Pilot” is its humor. After those twenty-five seconds are up, the episode has already delivered three punchlines, one twisting Star Trek with Donkey Kong and another printed on a pizza box. Rapid-fire pace, pop-culture literacy and sign gags- three hallmarks The Simpsons had already honed to perfection in the ten years it ran before “Space Pilot” ever aired. Futurama series creator Matt Groening and head writer David X. Cohen (both of whom have a long history with The Simpsons) share writing duties here, experimenting yet always doing so within a Simpsons context; a new spin on an old idea.
The benefit is that right out of the gate, “Space Pilot 3000” has an established sense of humor and a considerable amount of polish. It burns through exposition at a rapid rate, but does so simply and clearly, preventing viewers from getting lost along the way. Fry is already in the future by the time the opening credits roll, and the rest of the episode is surprisingly bare bones. Fry doesn’t want to be a delivery boy. Leela needs him to be one. Establish a quick status quo at the end and that’s it. Yet a simple story provides plenty of time to flesh out the show’s futuristic universe, and “Space Pilot” sees the inception of a number of Futurama staples: transport tubes, robots, the underworld beneath New New York, the Head Museum and Richard Nixon as a force for evil. By keeping only the essential elements (characters included- Fry, Leela, Bender and Professor Farnsworth are the only four regulars with any screen time), each element gets the exact attention it deserves.
Yet the defining aspect of “Space Pilot 3000 is its cynical streak. The Simpsons, at their core, are a loving nuclear family, whereas Fry lives such a sad and pathetic life that he’s ecstatic to learn that everyone he’s ever known is dead. The pilot ends when our three heroes find a “doddering old relative to mooch off of” and take over for an old spaceship crew that was devoured by space wasps. Likewise, the world of the show is teeming with little morsels of ugliness: suicide booths, corrupt cops, and a “do what you gotta do” attitude where Rosie the Riveter is now a paunchy construction worker who looks like he’s been crying recently. New New York is a vast machine and each individual is one more nameless, faceless cog, so when Fry, Leela and Bender ultimately come together, it’s because each character strives for a measure of individuality. It’s the silver lining in the bleak and the weird of Futurama. The weirdo can find solace with other weirdos.
Futurama continued to bloom after “Space Pilot 3000.” Its pop-culture leanings grow nerdier, its world expands outward and, true to sci-fi form, the show even plays with a bit of time travel. The pilot’s most ingenious moment is also its most deeply buried- as Fry first falls into the cryogenic chamber, Nibbler’s shadow is visible just under the desk, cementing from the very first episode a deeper level of science fiction and a more complex overarching storyline. Futurama may have begun life as a space-age Simpsons, but those foundations laid in “Space Pilot 3000” held Futurama up through cancellation, movies, revivals, and so much more.
32. Justified, “Fire in the Hole”
Teleplay by Graham Yost
Directed by Michael Dinner
Aired March 16th, 2010 on FX
From its opening pan down to its final moment, the pilot of Justified, “Fire in the Hole”, is focused on one thing- introducing audiences to its lead, US Marshal Raylan Givens, played by the wonderfully iconic Timothy Olyphant. He enters in grand fashion, shot from behind in a suit and white hat, striding forward determinedly to parley with a baddie and run him out of town. It’s a scene lifted directly from any number of Westerns, with slight tweaks that let the audience know Raylan isn’t in his proper place. The bright sun, latin music, and white surroundings of the Miami poolside table where we first meet Raylan are visually striking, and upon first viewing he looks at ease in this setting. As we’ll discover later in the episode, however, this is not where Raylan is meant to be- he belongs, much as he would hate to admit it, in his home of Kentucky.
Each scene in the pilot builds on the previous to give us a clearer picture of Raylan. First we see a basic sketch, the White Hat riding up to save the day. Then we find out Raylan’s becoming a liability and he’s shipped back to Kentucky. We spend time in Harlan, get to know Art and the other Marshals in the Lexington office, are introduced to Winona, and meet Boyd and Ava, two characters from his past. More than the specifics of these characters, though, we get a strong sense of the environment Raylan was raised in, for better and worse. Yost and Dinner don’t shy away from the darker side of Harlan. Boyd and his white supremacists are appropriately scary, and while there’s plenty of fantastic humor mined from Raylan’s interactions with Dewey and Devil, they still feel dangerous. By the end of the pilot, we think we have a good sense of the man at the center of the action, as does he, but in a wonderful final touch, we learn that perhaps we’ve only scratched the surface, as Winona intimates.
While we explore much of Raylan’s background in the pilot, perhaps the single most important element of his development is notably absent- his father, Arlo. Returning to the pilot after four seasons, it’s notable how early Yost introduces Raylan’s troubled relationship with his father. With Elmore Leonard’s short stories as a blueprint, Yost and co. have a very clear picture of their lead and this surety comes through onscreen. It takes a particular presence to slip into the boots and hat of someone like Raylan without seeming like a kid in fancy dress. His outfit is a costume of a sort, clearly, but it’s one Raylan is very comfortable in, one he chose for himself, and without the right actor, the character could easily become a joke. Fortunately, Olyphant, already a veteran of traditional and deconstructionist Western television (thanks to his time on Deadwood), is utterly confident in his role.
Along with its clear focus on Raylan, “Fire in the Hole” also firmly establishes Harlan. The scenery is gorgeous, with the rolling greens standing out in stark contrast to the bright whites of the opening Miami sequence. There’s a sense of history to every building we see, from Ava’s house to Boyd’s church, and the feeling that long after these characters leave, they’ll still be there. Unfortunately the series isn’t able to film in Kentucky due to budget constraints, but loving, detailed attention is paid to make sure these people, and these places, feel as authentic as possible. When Raylan says of Boyd, “We dug coal together”, that may not mean much to the audience, but it has true power to them and speaks of an experience unique to this part of the country and perhaps even this town.
Boyd, and his relationship with Raylan, is the final important element of the pilot. Raylan casts a long shadow, as does Olyphant; he’s a larger-than-life character who commands the attention of the audience. For Justified to be wholly satisfying, Raylan needs an antagonist who can match him, in charisma as well as intelligence. Boyd Crowder, as played by Walton Goggins, fills this role beautifully. It’s no surprise that Yost changed the end of Leonard’s short story of the same title to keep Boyd alive. With Raylan being such a notoriously accurate shot, him wounding Boyd rather than killing him, apparently unintentionally, is far more interesting and provides fertile ground for the writers to explore later in the series.
With its strong identity, sense of place, and focus, Justified‘s “Fire in the Hole” serves as an incredibly satisfying, yet intriguing pilot. It’s a perfect introduction to Elmore Leonard’s Harlan County and, more specifically, Raylan Givens.
33. Game of Thrones, “Winter is Coming”
Written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss
Directed by Tim Van Patten
Aired April 17th, 2011 on HBO
Author George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has been a hit among genre fans since its first installment, A Game of Thrones, hit bookshelves in 1996, so when showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss sold HBO on an adaptation of the book series a decade later, they knew they had a daunting task in front of them. Martin’s world is sprawling, with hundreds of characters, rather than the normal handful, decades of complicated backstory, and a distinct, if quasi-medieval, social structure. The reach of the series is significant, with settings ranging from arctic tundra to scorching deserts and an ominous touch of the magical, which invades the more mundane elements of the world, expanding in scope and power as it goes. It would be easy for one tasked with adapting these novels to become lost in minutiae or distracted by the more fantastic elements, but from the very first episode of Game of Thrones, Benioff and Weiss steer clear of these pitfalls, confidently focusing on the familiar and familial to create a compelling and intriguing story.
The very first moments of the pilot draw in the audience with the memorable and striking image of the Wall, impossibly high and bone-chillingly cold. Director Tim Van Patten’s methodical approach to this first scene imprints the Wall in our memories and stresses its importance in everything that’s to come. While many were shocked by the turns the story would eventually make, Benioff and Weiss are clearly telling the audience with this opening, just as Martin did, that the story of Game of Thrones is not that of the Starks or Lannisters, but one of cold; one of Winter and the terrifying things that are waiting, north of the Wall. After this genre-heavy first sequence, and one of the most intelligently and creatively designed credit sequences on television, we cut to the meat of our story, the likeable and very relatable Starks of Winterfell.
Excepting the few brief scenes with the Targaryens in Pentos and Lannisters in King’s Landing, the bulk of the action takes place with the Starks at Winterfell and this focus helps ground this potentially overwhelming world. The dynamics at play here are fairly straightforward, with the loving family of a kind and just lord about to have their lives upended by change. We immediately like tomboy Arya and identify with moody teen Jon, who doesn’t quite belong, and after the scares of the opening, the warmth of Winterfell is much appreciated.
The writing is very efficient, with the more complicated backstory and political considerations neatly paraphrased in Catelyn and Ned’s conversations. Benioff and Weiss parcel out information over the course of the episode, starting with the Stark’s interfamily dynamics (the bow and arrow sequence), then the Wall and the Night’s Watch (the execution), and finally the Realm (the arrival of the King). They aren’t afraid of text, but they use more cinematic means to tell the story when they’re able; we know everything we need to about King Robert and Queen Cersei’s relationship from a few shared words and glances when they arrive at Winterfell and later at the feast. Fans of the books will pick up on the long history of Robert and Lyanna, but those new to the series would be forgiven for missing this, and frankly, at this point, it doesn’t really matter.
Though it has nothing on the bold moves that would shock audiences later in the story, ending the pilot where Benioff and Weiss do makes another strong statement- this will be a series unafraid to buck the conventions of television. If the opening sets up the larger, more mythical stakes of this world, the closing sets up the just as meaningful personal stakes with the potential murder of adventurous tween Bran by Jaime Lannister. It also sets up the larger format for the series, one of an ever-continuing serial rather than the more traditional self-contained episode structure adhered to by most shows, even those featuring highly serialized, season-long arcs.
The performances are strong across the board, with Sean Bean’s Ned Stark serving as our center, and the various production elements are fantastically executed, from set design to costuming to effects. Benioff, Weiss, and Van Patten make a fantastic team, bringing this complex and potentially confusing world to life in comfortably familiar ways. It’s no surprise, with such a powerful pilot, that Game of Thrones was an instant hit for HBO and it’s a credit to the entire production team that the series has managed to live up to, and exceed, this standard of quality ever since.
34. Star Trek, “The Cage”
Written by Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Robert Butler
Produced in 1964-65, Aired October 15th, 1988 in syndication
“Where No Man Has Gone Before”
Written by Samuel A. Peeples
Directed by James Goldstone
Aired September 22nd, 1966 on NBC
“The Man Trap”
Written by George Clayton Johnson
Directed by Marc Daniels
Aired September 8th, 1966 on NBC
Star Trek is a beloved series and, thanks to its longevity in syndication and on DVD, its sequels, and its recent big-screen reboot, it remains as pop-culturally present now as it’s perhaps ever been. The USS Enterprise and her crew have become iconic but as with most shows, Star Trek faced a difficult development process. The series shot two very different pilots, “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, neither of which were actually used to premiere the show to audiences. That privilege went to “The Man Trap”, and while the second pilot did air a couple weeks later, the original pilot wouldn’t see the light of day for over two decades, though parts of it were worked into the season one two-parter, “The Menagerie”. The evolution of Star Trek over these three influential episodes, “The Cage”, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, and “The Man Trap”, not only lets audiences in on the tricky world of pilot development, it also gives fans a rare glimpse into the birth and growing pains of an eventual classic.
Perhaps the single most recognizable element of Star Trek is William Shatner’s performance as Captain James T. Kirk. No matter what scene one skips too, genre fans (heck, most TV fans and a large selection of the general populace) will be able to identify the series the moment Shatner comes onscreen. It’s notable, then, that neither Shatner nor Kirk are in the original pilot, “The Cage”. The episode has a distinctly different feel, with its darker, more tortured lead, Captain Christopher Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter, fresh from a traumatic battle and considering resigning from Starfleet. The notion of the Captain feeling this guilty after losing crewmates on a botched away mission feels almost bizarre; we’re conditioned to expect a few Red Shirts to bite it in any given episode and never hear them mentioned again.
This darker, more contemplative tone is present throughout much of the episode. Captain Pike lands with an away team on Talos IV and discovers a group of humans who have been stranded on the planet for the past 18 years, ever since their ship crashed there. In a rather hilarious bit of foreshadowing, the group consists of mainly of older male scientists and an 18-year old blonde knockout, Vina (Susan Oliver). It’s no surprise when Pike is captured by the Talosians and discovers the rest of the survivors are nothing more than illusions designed to put him at ease.
The design for the Talosians is simple but effective, with mostly humanoid features and large, bulbous heads. They are highly intellectually and scientifically advanced and can fabricate any reality they like via mental projection. With their planet dying, they’ve created a zoo and want a human male to mate Vina with. Eventually, Pike escapes, using a rather Kirk-like primal anger to block out their higher level abilities, and we learn Vina, rather than beautiful, is horribly deformed and scarred from when her ship crashed. She chooses to stay behind, preferring the illusion of youth, beauty, and vitality to her reality. The gender politics of this, as well as the general damsel-in-distress role of Vina, are less than ideal, but she does get a few solid jabs in during one of the fight sequences (an imaginary beast conjured by the Talosians) and at least she makes her own decision at the end.
More evolved is the casting of Majel Barrett as Pike’s Number One. She has a limited role here, but is extremely competent in her job and treated with clear deference and respect by her subordinates. Of course this is undercut later in the episode when she’s positioned as a frigid ice queen and unsuitable mate for Pike, but it’s at least laudable that creator Gene Roddenberry wanted a strong woman as the second highest ranking officer on the Enterprise. There are touches of the series to come, with Leonard Nimoy as the only recognizable cast member, but this Spock is a different character entirely to who we’ll come to know later on, from his physicality to his demeanor to his dialogue. Rather than the uniforms we expect, the crew are all dressed in gold, peach, or blue turtlenecks/sweaters and slacks (the women as well, in a pleasant surprise) and the lack of any red clothing is striking.
However, one significant difference stands out above the others- more than the different Captain, more than the different Spock, and more than the different uniforms. The bridge of the Enterprise, and the rest of the ship for that matter, is peopled almost entirely by blond and brown-haired white men in their 20s and 30s. They look and sound blandly Midwestern, or what Hollywood seems to think is Midwestern, and this homogeneity on a series that would push the racial boundaries of television is downright weird. This is a pilot that we know was reworked; watching now, we don’t expect all the pieces to be in place. Seeing such a different starting point than Roddenberry’s oft-discussed post-racial utopia though, one of the most influential and memorable aspects of the show and its legacy, certainly separates this Star Trek from the series that will come.
After seeing “The Cage”, executives at NBC decided it was too intellectual and needed some more action and, in what was a rare move for the time, commissioned a new pilot. Jeffrey Hunter wasn’t interested in this new direction for the show and parted company with it, paving the way for William Shatner to come to aboard as James R. Kirk (the T. would come later). The second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, features far more of the staples we expect from Star Trek, including the trademark opening narration, complete with captain’s log and stardate, 3D chess, and a much more familiar, emotion-less Spock from Nimoy. His opening scene this time around includes some incredibly uncomfortable yellowface, but fortunately this choice seems to disappear shortly into the episode.
Red Shirts are still not to be found, but we do welcome a third familiar face to the cast with the introduction of Scotty (James Doohan) at the teleporter controls. George Takei appears in the episode, but only as a glorified extra, so it’s hard to tell how much, if any, of Sulu had been developed at this point. The inclusion of a non-Midwestern accented engineer in Scotty and non-white crewmembers, even in the background of scenes, does a lot to help the whitewashed feel of “The Cage”. Gone is the strong female Number One however, and any of the other non-blonde women, but those who remain are at least still allowed to wear the more functional slacks, as opposed to miniskirts and go-go boots.
The story centers around a crewmate, Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood), who is knocked unconscious when the Enterprise crosses a barrier in space (our first subspace anomaly!) while following the SS Valiant’s flightplan and wakes up with telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Kirk has been investigating the destruction of the Valiant and it becomes clear pretty quickly that the Valiant’s captain chose to self-destruct the ship to keep his newly psychic crew from escaping to roam the galaxy, and perhaps conquer Earth. Mitchell, after demonstrating many of the abilities we saw from the Talosians, starts to slip further and further from his humanity, considering himself a God.
Psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Dehner (Sally Kellerman) also went unconscious at the barrier and eventually manifests similar abilities. Down on remote planet Delta Vega, Kirk is able to get through to Dehner and she helps him stop Mitchell, dying in the process. With the loose ends tied up, and a not insignificant pile of casualties on hand, Kirk returns to the Enterprise and makes an entry in his log, noting that both Dehner and Mitchell died in the line of duty. This approach to the death of crewmates is far closer to what would come than the first pilot’s more realistic take.
It’s a shame to lose the strong female presence of the original Number One on the show, but the professional and capable Dehner does help to mitigate that loss. More important is the Kirk/Spock dynamic, which would become the backbone of the series. We have philosophical discussions of emotion versus logic between the two and once Bones joins the crew, this relationship will find its place quickly in the series. Another fun first is when Kirk manages to tear his sweater-like uniform open during the struggle on Delta Vega. He also does a completely needless somersault, which stands out to these Galaxy Quest-loving eyes.
While the version of Star Trek in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” is the one ordered up by NBC, it seems appropriate to spend a few minutes on the episode chosen to function as a pilot for the audience. “The Man Trap” continues the development of the cast from the unrecognizable group in “The Cage” to the crew we’ve come to love, Red Shirts, miniskirts, and all. Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) joins the action and Sulu is given a full name and occupation, but the most significant addition is Bones McCoy (DeForest Kelley). The story makes plenty of time for Kirk and McCoy to interact, as they are 2/3 of an away team (the non-Red Shirt contingent) visiting an old flame of McCoy’s on a planet, Nancy (Jeanne Bal). Pairing Kirk with McCoy in the audiences’ first episode with them is smart. Before we start having Kirk and Spock debate their very different worldviews, it’s nice to get a sense of who Kirk is as a leader, a friend, and a man.
Once again, the plot deals with an alien creature using mental manipulation on the unsuspecting crew, this time to keep itself concealed while it feeds, and once again, we have the projection of a beautiful woman manipulating men into danger. The audience can see the twist coming a mile away, but Bones can’t due to his personal history and we understand and respect that, allowing us to root for him rather than roll our eyes at his oversights. The writer, George Clayton Johnson, also knows when to change things up, switching to an evil doppelganger of Bones wreaking havoc instead of Nancy. The creature design here is fittingly bestial and scary and the creature is used just sparingly enough to remain effective. The ending of the episode, with Bones choosing between Kirk and Nancy, works very well and establishes even further the bond of these two men. It’s definitely the most emotionally gripping conclusion of the lot, though Star Trek would frequently end on notes more similar to the pilots than this.
Even at this point, the show is not wholly formed. Chekov (Walter Koenig) is nowhere to be seen and while the Kirk/Spock and Kirk/Bones dynamics have been firmly established, the trio will take a bit more time to really gel. As with the other two pilots, the music is well written, if not particularly subtle, and helps elevate the action and the effects, for their time, hold up better than expected. It’s interesting that all three episodes, rather than focusing on something more traditionally sci-fi, opt for a form of psychic ability as the main threat. Perhaps in this futuristic setting, in this far-distant utopia, science is no longer terrifying, so the writers go to the fantastical instead. The series will get better at its technobabble in the future, allowing more of an illusion of science to the fantasy and allegory, but given the setting, straight fantasy is only a hop, skip, and a jump away and the heightened performances and bright sets and costumes help everything feel of a similar world.
The progression is stark: first a more introspective, dour series, then an adventure serial and finally a character examination of one of our leads. Usually a transition like this would take place behind closed doors, with fans not privy to the work in progress, but the realities of television in the 60s, namely the lack of home video or even reruns in certain cases, meant studios didn’t expect fans to go back, rewatch, and analyze like this. By looking at these three episodes, we can see a myriad of series that could have been- a second pilot with Majel Barrett as the new lead, rather than William Shatner, with Spock as an everpresent racist Chinese stereotype, or with peach as the dreaded uniform color to be avoided like the plague. The series could have gone wrong in any number of ways in its journey from “The Cage” to what we now know as Star Trek. Fortunately for us, it avoided the major pitfalls, even its eventual cancellation, to remain one of the most popular and enduring franchises in television history.
35. Felicity, “Pilot”
Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by J.J. Abrams
Originally aired, September 29th, 1998
J.J. Abrams knows how to write a pilot, and it all started here with Felicity, the story of a girl who decides to chuck her dad’s life plan of Stanford and medical school, all in order to go to New York and make her own decisions. That’s right, before Hannah Horvath sat in a restaurant to be told she was getting cut off by her parents, Felicity Porter suffered the same fate, and was the original NYC gal trying on her own to become an artist—except dealing with it much younger, and much less nakedly (it’s perfectly quaint now to watch the scene where Felicity’s RA walks in on her on—oh my gosh—her nightgown!).
But it’s the youth that’s important here. While Girls may perfectly capture the confusion of the post-collegiate transition for many, Felicity is still #1 when it comes to that jump from high school to university. By building the inciting incident around Felicity following a boy she barely knows across the country, Abrams ingeniously dramatizes the magic, and ultimately, embarrassment, that can occur when ridiculously heightened adolescent feelings suddenly find themselves in an 18-year-old body, with the legal power of agency.
While many things, including the voice of Janeane Garafolo as Felicity’s pen-pal, endanger steeping it firmly into the 90’s, the pilot remains fresh today due to the aching sensitivity of Keri Russell’s performance. From the way she covers her mouth in surprise, to her sorrowfully beat down expression when she realizes her new roommate has zero interest in even saying hello, the character itself becomes one of the quietest little powerhouses ever seen. As for the character, Felicity is neurotic with an artistic temperament, yet also a reasonable everygirl who hasn’t experienced much, thereby opening the pilot up to every universal, raw emotion in a teenager’s moleskine. Russell and Abrams make sure, moment by moment, and line by line, that you won’t want to put it down.
– Michael J Narkunski
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Damon Lindelof and J.J. Abrams
Originally aired 9/22/2004 (Part I) and 9/28/2004 (Part II)
What amazes me about the LOST pilot nearly ten years and six seasons later is how little of the show’s trademark philosophies and story lines exist in the two-part premiere (or how subtly they are presented, save for a few obvious images). Although it’s a bit of a gamble, it actually alleviates a lot of the strain other pilots (comedy or drama) put themselves through, forcing themselves to define a show’s characters, intentions, and formula in the first episode, lest they be passed up by networks.
Even more impressive about this narrative gamble were the stakes behind: in 2004, ABC was lagging behind the competition in just about everything, and greenlit a $10-14 million budget for a complex, elaborate pilot to be filmed in Hawaii (oh and don’t forget: transporting an entire decommissioned plane to be ripped to pieces on the beach). Throw in a script that was re-written twice, characters whose roles were changed, shifted, or dramatically re-imagined in the process, and a tight schedule to produce the pilot, and a dramatic, intriguing two hours of television reach almost legendary status, given the situation at ABC and the ambitions of the creators behind the show.
As millions of fans around the world remember, LOST begins with a man in a suit, who awakes on his back in the middle of some trees. He sees a golden lab walking around (spoiler: it’s Vincent), and stumbles out onto the beach, where he’s met with the serene sound of ocean water and the beautiful landscape of huge volcanic-looking islands around him. He hears a sound, turns his head – and then everything goes to shit, as he notices the aftermath of a violent plane crash unfolding underneath him.
It only takes a few minutes before we get our first cameo from Superman Jack: the next five minutes are spent following Jack with a number of tracking and Steadicam shots (trademarks throughout the pilot), as he moves from a panicked pregnant woman, an old black woman who stopped breathing, and a man trapped under a plane engine – and then back to the pregnant girl, who nearly gets crushed by a plane wing.
It’s relentless, mostly wordless, and a decade later, still as heart-pounding as it was the first time around. There’s a young guy walking around, barely cognizant to the destruction happening inches away from him, a blonde girl screaming her brains out, and a whole lot of dramatic explosions and shots of Jack sprinting around the island. It really does a great job grabbing the viewer’s attention quickly, putting aside names (except Jack’s of course; gotta introduce that protagonist) and backgrounds to throw the audience into the same state of shock the characters are.
Once it calms down, the show very, VERY slowly starts laying out its cast and characters. Since it’s a network pilot, we gotta start with the meet-cute between Jack and Kate, which occurs when Jack enlists her help stitching up his side. It’s an important scene, one that both establishes the tone of the show (dramatic swells of music, super intense interactions with long pauses and a touch of a humor) and shows us that while there is chaos all over the world, Jack is the guy we can attach our anchor to. He talks Kate through the surgery, recalling a story of his own first surgery and imparting a very, very important bit of knowledge to her. While talking about his first surgery, he tells Kate “I decided to let the fear in… I made a choice.”
Any fan of the show knows what a cornerstone this particular phrase is: as we’ll learn in the coming episodes, every single character on Oceanic Flight 815 made a choice in their lives, a choice that set them on the path to this island. Whether they recognized it at the time or not, that choice wasn’t the right one – and as we see when it starts raining, and the bald man with the scar on his face raises his hands to the dark sky and smiles (the first of many, many religious parallels made on the show), they are on this island for a re-birth, a chance to make a new choice, one that may lead them on the paths to self-redemption.
I’m getting ahead of myself, of course – the first hour of the pilot hardly introduces us to the cast of merry wanderers before the first night arrives, and all the survivors watch as a strange-sounding behemoth rattles all the trees in the forest, making a rattling, wailing sound and scaring the shit out of everybody watching. It’s about 20 minutes on the dot when LOST begins to shift from what I like to call a “trauma drama” (a pilot where a huge event drives everything), and slowly starts to reveal the many dark mysteries within. Right now it’s just a scary sound in the distance (Walt: “is that Vincent?” uh…. no), but it’s a huge bit of foreshadowing that there are many, many weird things awaiting these unsuspecting people in the future.
The next morning, Hurley wants to remove some of the stinky dead people from the plane, and Jack’s concerned about a man with a huge piece of shrapnel poking out of his mid-section. But Jack and company are still in the mindset we hear vocalized by Shannon’s shrilly, bitchy voice, thinking that someone is going to get to them soon. Who wouldn’t? In the modern day and age, the idea of a “deserted island” completely isolated from civilization isn’t one that enters the minds of many people. But it quickly becomes clear that nobody knows where they are, and they head out to find the cockpit in search for answers.
So they set out in the rain for a little adventure; and for seven or eight minutes, LOST muddles out the beautiful landscapes and turns itself into a wildly effective horror sequence (it’s really J.J.’s finest sequence directing the pilot) as Jack, Kate, and Charlie make an important discovery (well two, if you count Charlie finding his heroin): the pilot is alive, and explains what the hell happened to them – aka, he tells them “we turned around when the radio went out… so we’re basically fucked right now,” with everyone looking for them in the wrong place and what not.
Then he gets ripped violently out of the plane (complete with a very B-movie esque blood splash on the window that is fucking terrific), and the three run out of the cockpit, the camera following Kate as she loses the guys around her and cowers the a thicket of trees. She tries Jack’s advice for calming down he explained earlier – another early sign of a connection between them, and reinforcing the idea with the audience that Jack is a leader – and we spend a good twenty seconds with a Steadicam in Kate’s face, a frightening sequence that is undercut with this touching moment of Kate embracing the idea of taking control of the narrative (at least in her mind), something she’ll find herself doing a lot of soon.
Part two of the pilot really goes heavy into the mystery, adding a few dashes of symbolism as they slowly tease out the the true material of the show. The easiest (and most iconic) of these to spot is when the bald, scarred man (yes we all know his name in hindsight, but we don’t learn it in the pilot) meets Walt, a kid who is running on a streak of bad luck with his mom being dead and his dead not knowing his age and all. When explaining the game of backgammon to Walt the man picks up a black and white piece, and the shot frames his hands up at his face, the black piece juxtaposed with the man’s one scarred eye.
It’s brief, but really sums up the show’s entire focus for six seasons: put aside all the twists, characters, and unresolved plot lines, and LOST was about two things: choice and redemption. The iconic opening credits play into this, very reminiscent of images like the opening moments of Rocky, when the white letters of the protagonist’s name crawl across a black background. Rocky is about a man’s redemption and overcoming evil (white over black), and a lot of LOST is about the same thing: presenting the good and the evil in people, and allowing them to make the choice on which to embrace.
Of course, there are many others – but at their core, they all are about the dissonance between two philosophies. Some of these are external (science and faith), others are internal, but they all stem from the differing perceptions in a community – and how it’s impossible to reach the right answer when you’re alone. The show gives us numerous examples of this: a failing marriage; a barely-existent father/son relationship; and of course (only time I’ll mention anything non-piloty), Jack and his father, the core emotional dynamic of the show that’s NOT EVEN INTRODUCED IN THIS EPISODE (how crazy is that?!!)
In this fashion, ‘Part II’ is a little more subtler than the first, dropping a few easter eggs here and there that would only become clear with the retrospect of having watched the series. Then again, ‘Part II’ is also the episode that puts the great American debate between rednecks and Arabs, a little sub-plot that felt shoehorned in for the sake of having some kind of post-9/11 attitude thrown in. This will come to a head in later episodes of course, but it’s fairly annoying here, more of a convenient story beat to hit – one that only works because we know nothing about these characters yet (it wouldn’t work if we did, knowing both the characters). But after some shouting, fighting, and Sawyer shooting a polar bear, all the pretty survivors (minus Jack, for once) make their way up the mountain to try and get the Sayid-modified transmitter to work, giving us one of the most dramatic and mysterious scenes ever seen on network television – a scene that captivated the minds of millions of Americans by closing the episode with a question (actually identical to the first part of the pilot; in both, Charlie’s question is the last line of dialogue):
“Guys… where are we?”
And that’s where it ends: with a small group of the 40+ survivors facing the knowledge that someone else was stranded there 16 years ago – and probably never was rescued. They’re stranded, 1,000 miles off course, on an island that nobody is looking for them on: in other words, they are royally fucked, and there’s only way for them to survive: together. Notice how nobody does anything alone in this episode: from the moment Jack enters the sea of bodies, explosions, and (white) smoke on the beach, he – nor anybody else – is ever alone. Call it a convenience of introducing a huge cast in an effective manner – but I call it exactly what Charlie has written on the tape wrapped around his fingers: fate.
To call LOST a ‘great’ pilot is really selling it kind of short: it’s one of the most ambitious and engaging pilots ever produced. Backed by Michael Giacchino’s masterful score (he’d later lend that same knack for emotional swells and compelling arrangements with his Oscar-winning score to Up), LOST clearly was holding all its character-based ammunition back for the first season, instead playing heavily to the traumatic events of the first 48 hours of the island, setting the stage for an elaborate, endlessly entertaining adventure to follow.
– you can read Randy’s episode by episode reviews of LOST‘s first season over at Geeks Unleashed.
– Kate tells Jack she might throw up on him, so he tells her a story about nerves “like angel hair” and spinal fluid leaking out of a patient during surgery.
– to calm down Boone, Jack tells him to go get a pen (Boone’s lifeguard training taught him to shove ink-filled objects in people’s throats). Later, he comes back to him with five different pens.
– Hurley provides most of the comic relief in the episode, especially when he tries to tell Jin that he’s not interested in eating fish.
– we spend a few brief moments with an Asian couple, where a dominating husband has left a woman with a buttoned top and a tendency to stare at things.
– Rose recognizes the sound in the woods: “I grew up in the Bronx” she says. The sound she’s referring to is an old taxicab meter indeed used in the sounds of whatever is hiding out in the woods.
– LOST’s version of a sexy-sex, audience-grabbing, trailer-friendly scene: Kate washing her dirty clothes in the ocean, complete with gratuitous body shots as she stares off into the distance, thinking deep thoughts.
– Jack likey alcohol.
– Rose’s husband went to the bathroom as the plane went down, and she sits on the island with her wedding ring in hand, wondering where he went.
– Charlie’s reaction to the sounds in the woods: “Terrific.”
– I laugh so hard every time Hurley passes out during the marshal’s surgery.
– Love how they play out the in-plane flashback from three different perspectives, establishing the show’s rampant use of flashbacks, and allowing for little crossover moments like Charlie running away from the attendant, plus the harrowing image of the plane ripping in half from the turbulence. That shit is hard to watch.
– The writers go out of their way to make us hate Shannon: she’s fucking tanning on the beach a day after a plane crash! Boone calls her out in wicked fashion, too: “You’re being worthless.”
– Kate reaacts soooo slooowllly to everything that happens around her, so the camera can stare at her photogenic face for periods of time.
– the bald man: “One is light…. one is dark.”
– there’s a long pan of Kate looking up the mountain they need to climb, and you can just see what’s she’s thinking through the 15-20 sec ond long shot: “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”
– Sawyer: “I just shot a bear!!”
– that French recording has played 17,294,533 times without anybody hearing or responding to it. If that doesn’t put dread in your heart, I don’t know what does.
– I really love Jin’s journey in the first few seasons, but it takes some time to get moving. Early on, some of the “look how traditional and borderline-absuive their Asian marriage is!” is a little tedious.
– Charlie + Driveshaft = greatness. Every time.
– BLACK SMOKE.
– it is weird to watch pre-Ben and Desmond episodes? They’re such integral parts of the show, and nowhere to be found until season two.
– watching the first scene of the pilot always reminds me of the last shot of the show, and I get sad for a few moments. Can’t help it: I’m human, damnit!!!
– they present Locke as a mysterious character, but barely spend any time with him. Really burying the lede with that one.
37. Alias, “Truth Be Told”
Written and Directed by J. J. Abrams
Aired September 30th, 2001 on ABC
J.J. Abrams has become a household name, particularly in the nerd sphere, but when Alias premiered in 2001, only a handful of genre fans had ever heard of him. Known primarily as the co-creator of the WB college drama Felicity, Abrams hadn’t had an opportunity to stretch his sci-fi muscles. This changed when, prompted by his pondering, “What if Felicity became a spy for the CIA?”, Abrams developed, pitched, and sold Alias.
This pilot has a lot of work to do. Alias centers on Sydney Bristow, a part-time grad student, part-time superspy who discovers after the death of her fiancé that rather than the CIA, she’s been working for enemies of the US government and that her father, with whom she’s had a strained relationship for years, not only is a spy, but is one of the founding members of this anti-US group. When Sydney decides to go to the actual CIA and work as a mole to bring this organization down, she learns that rather than her enemy, her father, who is in reality a double agent, will be her main ally. Got all that?
What makes “Truth Be Told” so remarkable is its effortlessness. Abrams knows he has a ridiculously convoluted premise to establish, but he focuses in immediately on character, trusting his lead, Jennifer Garner, to shine and draw in the viewers and by prioritizing in this way, he makes an incredibly tricky balancing act look easy. The pilot opens with one of television’s most successful examples of in media res storytelling. A heartbeat, and then a girl with bright red hair being held under water. When she’s let up, she’s in a strange room, being thrown around and pelted with questions in unsubtitled Chinese. The audience has no clue what’s going on, but that image, of Garner’s face as she looks in utter fear at the opening door at the end of the room, is visually striking and incredibly powerful, burning itself into our memories as we cut back to the same girl, now with brown hair, relaxed and finishing up a college essay.
Abrams takes his time letting us get to know Sydney the student and his comfort with this setting, after his years on Felicity, is obvious. We may be intrigued by the opening, but we’re quickly drawn in to the smaller scale drama of Sydney, her boyfriend Danny’s proposal, her best friends, and her strained relationship with her father. Only after we have a strong sense of this aspect to Sydney’s life are we introduced to her work and the set of people inhabiting that world. Abrams slowly layers the complexities of Sydney and her life- first we have Sydney the student, then the girlfriend/fiancée, then the best friend, then the daughter, then the employee. Once we feel we have a clear picture, he starts adding complications, with Will’s unrequited feelings for Sydney and Danny’s reaction to finding out about her real job. It is only after 15 minutes or so that we return to the opening action, with the SDAP (Sadistic Dentist of the Asian Persuasion, as he was known to fans for years) making his dramatic entrance.
There are many strengths to this pilot, perhaps the most important being Jennifer Garner’s fantastically confident and heartbreaking performance, but the one more writers and directors would benefit from studying is Abrams’ pacing. At each turn, he gives viewers just enough time to digest the latest morsel of plot or character development. While Danny is leaving Sydney his fateful message, we see Sydney in action, getting a sense of just how good she is. We meet the SDAP, far more genial at this point, putting the beginning scenes in a bit more context, and if we weren’t sure about Danny earlier, by the end of his message, we’re hoping these crazy kids will work it out. Much of Sydney’s journey through the pilot, let alone the first season, doesn’t work if we don’t feel her utter agony over Danny’s death and though we’ve only just met any of these characters, because Abrams has devoted so much time to this relationship, and handles the reveal so deliberately, we’re gutted right along with Sydney.
The rest of the pilot proceeds almost straightforwardly, catching up to the opening sequence and continuing from there, saving the last twist for the very end. Abrams keeps us in Sydney’s headspace with his pacing, languishing with her after Danny’s death, speeding up as we get further from it, and kicking into high gear with the two main action beats, the parking garage and Taipei sequences. They’re exciting, satisfying, even funny, and feel very based in character. By the time we get to the final scene, we know Sydney inside and out. We know each of her main relationships, we know how she talks, how she thinks, and how she fights, and we can’t wait to see what will come next. This is incredibly confident work from Abrams, who had only directed two episodes of Felicity prior, and with slight tweaking and a little more story, “Truth Be Told” would translate easily to the big screen. It’s one of the best action pilots ever made and it introduced the world to Jennifer Garner and J.J. Abrams, director in grand style.
Particular mention should be made of the running time- rather than the standard 42 minutes, this pilot runs for 63, and ABC deserves credit for airing it as event television, in one uninterrupted, commercial-free slot, with only ads from sponsor Nokia airing before and after the pilot. Eventually, the series would come off the rails, with increasingly preposterous plot machinations required to keep the gang together, but for its entire first two seasons, and stretches of its later three, Alias delivers on the promise of its exciting, compelling, emotional, and truly great pilot.
38. Archer, “Mole Hunt
Written by Adam Reed
Aired on September 17th, 2009 on FX
Archer, or “Duchess,” as his emasculating spy code name is revealed in the first scene of this wonderfully twisted pilot, is the rare lead that’s completely at odds with all of the rest of the characters on his own show. Everything revolves around him, but not really because he’s so great or heroic, but just because it is that way in his own mind; and everything’s about him at his home, because, well, he makes sure of it. After all, there are two things his butler can’t allow in there: dogs and his mother.
But after the teaser (which is a hostage situation revealed as role play scenario, perfectly setting up the “play” espionage that the rest of the series will engage in), a dog is exactly what Archer wakes up to in his own apartment, besides a stewardess with a paddle imprint on her butt. Archer wakes up to a dog—it’s shown—not because his butler made a mistake, but because Archer himself made a drunken exception. But to Archer, that is his butler’s mistake—for listening—and one has to wonder if he’s almost correct for planning to pour grade “coarse” sand into his beady little eyes.
See, the meat and potatoes of the show is more than just wacky James Bond antics set in modern day-ish Manhattan, with over-sexualized main characters who can’t stop harassing each other and talking bodily functions (although thank god it is that). It’s more about the keen observations into how being a narcissistic savant actually affects people’s perceptions and plays out in day-to-day life. While a lesser pilot would focus on an ISIS mission, “Mole Hunt” understands there will be plenty of that to get to, and makes sure we fully, down to the nubs, understand Archer’s selfish motivations and have time to react to him as an audience first, before we get to him doing anything even resembling heroic.
So many famous running jokes of the series, surprisingly, have their beginnings right here, and have to do almost completely with Archer’s jerkiness. Cheryl (or Carol) calling herself different names has its origins in Archer not remembering hers, even after multiple liaisons. And “That’s how you get ants” actually starts with Archer saying it after purposefully spilling coffee on the floor for practically no reason.
So, yes, in the end, our hero shoots the “bad guy,” but not until we totally sympathize with the bad guy more, since all Archer did all episode was torture people, and use his so-called “favorite section heads” to help him out of debt, while the mole actually respected his co-workers that weren’t even his (“You guys should really be nicer to Pam”). This is a hilarious move for a first episode, and has bravery that Archer will continue to repeat to great effect in its continuing run. Sometimes likeability can be a true sticking point in series like these, predicated on a main character’s failings, but the series has yet to mis-step and yet to hold back. The pilot especially is just as effortlessly skilled as its main character.
– Michael J Narkunski
39. The Dick Van Dyke Show, “The Sick Boy and the Sitter”
Written by Carl Reiner
Directed by Sheldon Leonard
Aired on October 3rd, 1961 on CBS
The Dick Van Dyke Show is one of the most enduring sitcoms of television history. While most series fall from recognition shortly after their finales, it remains a staple of Best Comedy lists to this day. The premise is very straightforward- Dick Van Dyke stars as Rob Petrie, a comedy writer at the fictional The Alan Brady Show. He’s married to Laura, played by Mary Tyler Moore, and the two have a son, Ritchie, and live in New Rochelle. We follow Rob at home and at work, where he often shares scenes with fellow writers Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie) and occasionally with their straight-man producer, Mel Cooley, played by Richard Deacon.
The pilot opens simply. Laura’s in the kitchen cooking when Ritchie comes home from his friend Emily’s house. Emily’s come down with a fever and when Ritchie turns down his normal afternoon snack of milk and a chocolate cupcake, Laura’s worried. It’s an interesting way to open the series, one that immediately places importance on Mary Tyler Moore and the family aspect of the premise. In the original pilot, which starred Carl Reiner, the first scene followed Rob as he drove to work in New York and then interacted with his coworkers. CBS wanted the leads recast, which led to a new pilot and a new approach. By letting us get to know Laura first before focusing on Rob, the central relationship has parity; she’s not just Mrs. Rob.
The opening scene also succeeds in getting us to like Ritchie. Though he’s in danger of crossing over from cute to annoying or precocious, Reiner and Leonard make him feel like enough of a real kid to avoid that, and Larry Mathews’ energy is infectious. After our introduction to the Petrie house, we cut to Rob at work and meet the writing staff of The Alan Brady Show. The writers have an easy chemistry with each other and this is obviously a world Reiner knows very well; he based the series on his experiences writing for Your Show of Shows. This was one of the very first examples of a TV show featuring a show-within-a-show, and yet it still plays well to an audience very familiar with this setting. Reiner treats his audience intelligently, letting them fill in the gaps and not over-explaining the specifics of how being a comedy writer works.
The rest of the pilot centers on very familiar elements. Rob wants to go to a work party downtown while Laura wants to stay home, as she has a feeling Ritchie is coming down with a fever, and when they do eventually decide to go to the party, calamity befalls the babysitter, who hits her head. The party, in the meanwhile, provides an excellent opportunity for Van Dyke, Amsterdam, and Marie to show off, with Van Dyke highlighting his physical comedy, Amsterdam some one-liners, and Marie her killer Jimmy Durante impression with the song, “I Wish I Could Sing Like Durante”.
Rob and Laura return home before too long and discover the injured babysitter with her parents, but that Ritchie’s just fine, and the episode comes to a close. The chemistry between Van Dyke and Moore is playful and endearing and they’re the textbook definition of likeable and Amsterdam and Marie keep the show from becoming too saccharine. It’s a great balance and based on this episode alone, it’s easy to see how The Dick Van Dyke Show became such a hit and why it’s endured when most of the other comedies from this era have fallen by the wayside.
40. Spaced “Beginnings”
Directed by Edgar Wright
Written by Simon Pegg & Jessica Stevenson
Many pilot episodes focus too much on exposition and establishing who the series’ characters are. In those instances, pacing and humor frequently fall by the wayside. Spaced’s first episode is anything but a slow, disappointing introduction of characters and grating jokes. From the opening scene, intercutting Tim Bisley (Simon Pegg) and Daisy Steiner (Jessica Stevenson) leaving (or in Tim’s being thrown out of) their current flats, “Beginnings” is a surreal look at two people who meet by accident and form a friendship of necessity.
Tim and Daisy are London twenty-somethings who first meet in a café. Daisy first makes the mistake of thinking Tim is a drug dealer, but the two eventually bond while they search for available flats in the newspaper. After knowing each other for barely two weeks, they decide to pose as a professional couple to meet the requirements of an ad for a flat on 23 Meteor Street. Tim and Daisy spend a day concocting elaborate anecdotes from their fictional relationship and learning as much as possible about each other’s pasts in order to seem like a convincing couple in their meeting with the building’s chain-smoking owner and landlady, Marsha Klein (Julia Deakin). Despite their off-putting over-eagerness in the interview, Marsha lets them have the flat.
Part of the appeal of Spaced is its constant referencing of pop culture, especially with Tim’s character. We first see Tim as his five-year girlfriend, Sarah, dumps him for another man. Heartbroken, Tim rejects Sarah’s criticism that he can’t be emotional by professing the tearful effects of the finale of Terminator 2, with the thumb and the molten... This highlights one of Tim’s biggest problems in the series and a main source of the show’s humor. That is, his emotions are inexorably linked to cult films and comics, and he is very nearly unable to act like a real adult. “Beginnings” also includes sly references to The Shining and Scooby-Doo. These references are not wholly gratuitous, however. Many of them mirror the relationships within the show and/or serve to reveal character flaws. When Daisy investigates Tim’s room – “playing Scooby-Doo” – Daisy and Tim say that, as children, they always pretended to be Daphne and Freddie. Now adults, the camera pulls back to reveal Tim dressed exactly like Shaggy and Daisy like Velma. Expectations are not always reality.
This is where Spaced resonates with audiences. It is by no means a revolutionary sitcom: a guy and a girl need to find a new home. Tim and Daisy are very different people – a nerd and a normal girl, to put it as simplistically as possible – but they come together to get a flat in a building populated by bizarre neighbors, artist Brian (Mark Heap) and the drunken Marsha. But in some respects, the characters in Spaced had never been seen on TV before. Spaced was truly ahead of its time. You could go as far as to call it the first comedy for the Millennial generation, but labels like that usually incite harsh debate. What set Spaced apart from other sitcoms was its inclusion of characters who relate to the world around them almost exclusively through the lens of pop culture. The struggle for these people throughout the series is then to learn to interact and relate to others in the real world. More and more since the mid-2000s, shows have been doing exactly this with characters more in tune with pop culture and references galore.
Written by Ronald D. Moore
Directed by Michael Rymer
Aired January 14th, 2005 on Sci-Fi
Remakes and reboots have become reliable staples of the Hollywood blockbuster genre for decades, but TV has had far less success recycling older series, with recent attempt like Knight Rider and Charlie’s Angels among the more notable failures. When word came out that Star Trek Deep Space 9 alum Ronald D. Moore was reimagining the Star Wars-inspired ‘70s sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica, reactions were mixed from both fans and detractors of the original. Moore’s first outing was a miniseries telling the backstory of the series, showing the Twelve Colonies’ fall to the Cylon attack and the coming together of the ragtag fleet, led by President Laura Roslin and Commander William Adama, but when BSG was picked up to be a continuing series, Moore took a very different approach.
“33” picks up an unspecified amount of time after the end of the miniseries and throws the audience in the middle of a crisis. The fleet is on the run, with the Cylons following them in relentless pursuit, somehow finding them 33 minutes after each jump to deep space. The military and civilian leaders have been pushed to the brink and the ships are starting to fall apart. They’re on their fifth day without sleep and are quickly approaching the point when their bodies and minds must break down. As Dr. Gaius Baltar says, “Everyone has their limit”.
The decision to begin the series in this way is a bold one. From a purely aesthetic point of view, it takes the show’s very attractive cast and makes them look absolutely terrible. They’re pale, bloodshot, and exhausted. Any viewers who tuned in to see pretty people in shiny spaceships having wacky adventures can immediately tune back out- this is not the show for them. “33” sets up immense stakes and a tense, stressful tone that has the potential to scare away less committed viewers. Moore and Rymer knew the kind of show they wanted to make and they did not compromise.
Whereas the miniseries features a lot of spectacle, “33” focuses in on the performances. Grizzled, weary determination drips from Edward James Olmos and Michael Hogan and beleaguered grace from Mary McDonnell. James Callis has the showiest role as the constantly hallucinating (or is he?) Baltar and Callis brings much-needed, twitchy hilarity to the otherwise dour episode. Moore is judicious in his use of Baltar, letting him bring humor or dread as needed and then slip to the background before he becomes a distraction.
Though the episode is very actor-centric, Moore and Rymer also know the power of a strong visual and use two in particular to striking effect. Conceived in the aftermath of 9/11, BSG has several very powerful references to that attack over the course of the series and one of them is the photo of the Unknown Soldier we see in the pilot, a simple black and white print of a man, fallen to his knees and staring at the burning skyline of a major city. As the pilots file out to return to their vipers, each in turn touches the photo, a remembrance of their communal loss. The second visual is the slow pan from Lt. Dualla as she goes to add a photo of her family to the board dedicated for those hoping to find their loved ones among the survivors, a board that has grown to completely cover both sides of a hallway, an impromptu shrine to everyone the crew has lost.
“33” is an intense episode, with the ever present ticking of the many clocks a reminder of the certainty of the fleet’s doom. The handheld style brings immediacy and the scoring subtly works to maintain that pressure. Fortunately, at the end of the episode, we’re offered a brief respite, with the news of a birth on one of the ships and the rare opportunity for Roslin to raise the white board tally of the fleet’s population. Battlestar Galactica’s exploration of humanity under the direst of circumstances is bleak, hard, and grueling, but at its center lies a thin strand of hope, the hope that ends the miniseries and “33” as well. The look of overwhelming joy in Roslin’s smile, following such a painful day, is wonderful and the perfect note to go out on. BSG would reach tremendous highs and offer fans discussions of morality and the human condition found all too rarely in television, but “33” remains one of its absolute best episodes, a perfect mission statement for the series to come.
42. Six Feet Under
Written by Alan Ball
Directed by Alan Ball
Aired 3 June 2001 on HBO
There’s a moment in the pilot episode of Six Feet Under which perfectly captures the tone of the show. On his way to pick up his son from the airport, Nathaniel Fisher ends a phone call to his wife Ruth by promising he’ll give up smoking. He stubs out his cigarette. Then he smiles a little private smile to himself and flips another smoke into his mouth. It’s only when he bends to light it, that the bus bearing down on him at the intersection is revealed.
Death is everywhere: the loose stairtread, the drunk driver heading the other way as we drive home, the coughing fit which pops that weak artery, the poorly ventilated space heater. As Nathaniel’s demise demonstrates, if one thing (smoking) doesn’t get you, another thing (the bus) will and, because Death has a sense of humor, it will usually be the last thing you expect that does you in.
And no death happens in a vacuum. The pilot sets the structure for every episode which followed in the show’s five seasons: a death, closely followed by its repercussions. The Fishers run a funeral parlor and are used to both the death and the repercussions, usually in the form of grieving relatives. What they are less used to is being the grieving relatives. The death of Nathaniel means we get to know the characters at their darkest hour. And what we see isn’t pretty. The briefest of introductions are swept through before the blade falls: dowdy Ruth snipes at her husband, prissy middle son David raises an eyebrow as he listens to his parents bicker, prodigal son Nate boffs his fellow passenger Brenda Chenowith in a supply cupboard in Arrivals and youngest of the family Claire smokes meth with her charmingly unstable boyfriend Gabriel.
That is, of course, the Fishers Before. Bereavement rarely brings out the best in people and the Fishers are no exception. The Fishers After do not improve. Nate and Claire slump on a couch together during the service, both bitching about how bad they feel. ‘This isn’t all about you!’ roars Nate at one point, the unsaid thought ringing clear as a bell: ‘It’s about ME!’ David, a gay of the so-far-into-the-closet-he-is-in-Narnia type, hisses at boyfriend Keith to leave before you embarrass me when he turns up to offer his condolences. Ruth swipes crockery from her kitchen counters when she hears the news, then later confesses an affair to her horrified children, that way that you do when their father has just died.
Dysfunction is always entertaining and the Fishers are riddled with it, but the tricky part is also making the characters likable. Six Feet Under pulls this off with the choice of actors. All of them are standouts – especially Michael C Hall as David and the superb Frances Conroy as Ruth – and the quality of the leads is matched by the supports: Freddie Rodriguez twinkling as the mortuary assistant Federico, luminous Joanna Cassidy as Brenda’s psychiatrist mother Margaret and the gravel-voiced Richard Jenkins playing the dead Nathaniel Sr. with a somber glint of madness in his eye.
The return of Nathaniel and the rest of the dead as the series continues, is the final and strongest card in Six Feet Under’s hand. We’re treated to touches of the surreal at earlier points in this first show – David’s silent internal scream as he offers condolences to a family while digesting his own news is a perfect example – but the arrival of Nathaniel while David repairs the scratches on his father’s corpse lifts the drama to a new level of twistedness. Oh no tuts Nathaniel as David applies filling compound to the gouges, you’re doing me? You’re the worst one we’ve got.
Death is everywhere and the dead are always with us. Our parents may depart, but they still ask us why we can’t be more like our brother. The Fishers, more than any other family in any other drama, have to deal with an issue which is going to affect us all: our life, everyone’s life, is finite. Watching them cope, fail to cope, fumble and recover gives us this one important hope: that one day when the inevitable arrives, we’ll have the grace to face it with some dignity.
– Cath Murphy
43. Taxi, “Like Father, Like Daughter”
Written by James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, David Davis, Ed Weinberger
Directed by James Burrows
Aired September 12th, 1978 on ABC
Comedy pilots are hard. Even the best sitcoms often take a while to find their voice, hitting their strides halfway through season one or even in season two. The cast needs to gel, the writers and actors need to find the right levels for each character, and the series as a whole needs to establish its tone. Given a talented and motivated showrunner, writing staff, director, and cast, each of these will come, with time, but it is extremely rare for all three to come together immediately, in the pilot. As a rule, frankly, comedy pilots are bad. One exception to this rule is Taxi and its pilot, “Like Father, Like Daughter”.
The premise of Taxi is a straightforward one- it’s a workplace comedy set in the fleet garage of a New York cab company. The cabbies are colorful characters with various day jobs , with the central figure as the exception to this and the dispatcher acting as an antagonistic figure. The cast is fantastic. Judd Hirsch stars as Alex Rieger, a full-time cabbie and the straight man to the various characters around him. Danny DeVito plays Louie De Palma, the vile dispatcher, in what would become his breakthrough role. Marilu Henner is the female lead, playing Elaine O’Connor Nardo, a hotel receptionist/cabbie and divorced mother of two, and the supporting cast is rounded out with struggling actor/cabbie Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conaway), prize fighter/cabbie Tony Banta (Tony Danza), and mechanic Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman). Christopher Lloyd would join the regular cast in season two as the spaced out Reverend Jim Ignatowski and while Lloyd becomes a fantastic addition to the cast, his presence is not missed in the pilot.
The plot of the pilot is about as straightforward as the premise itself- Henner’s Elaine comes to the garage on her first day fo work and is introduced, along with the audience, to each of the cabbies. When it’s discovered that the pay phone is broken, allowing free calls, the main cast rushes to take advantage and make a few international calls, revealing aspects of their personality in the process. Bobby calls the National Theater of London and tries to talk to Sir Lawrence Olivier, Tony calls Bangkok and tries to reach a memorable fling from an R&R trip to Thailand while he was serving in Vietnam, and Alex calls his ex-wife in Brazil and tries to talk to his daughter, who the wife took with her when she moved there with her second husband 15 years prior. This leads to a road trip to Miami, with Alex rushing to catch his estranged daughter during her brief layover on her way to college in Portugal and Bobby, Alex, and Latka tagging along for fun.
The episode clearly and quickly establishes each of these characters and their relationships with each other. It’s efficient and laugh out loud funny, with the character-based humor still effective and entertaining 35 years later. When we go to Miami the humor continues, but there’s also an affecting bit of drama, as Alex recounts to his daughter his memories of raising her for two years before her mother moved them away. Hirsch is great in this scene and the decision to include this dramatic moment gives the audience a much fuller picture of the lead than one expects in ~23 minutes.
Taxi was a hit series for most of its five season run and, watching the pilot, it’s easy to see why. The show has fallen from the public consciousness to a surprising extent in the past 35 years; TV fans looking to fill in the gaps of their sitcom knowledge don’t seek it out the way they do Cheers or M*A*S*H, and that’s a real shame- this is not a show that deserves to fade into obscurity. The next time you’re looking for a comedy to watch, do yourself a favor and check out Taxi. You’ll be glad you did.
44. The OC, Episode 1, Season One: “Pilot”
Directed by Doug Liman
Written by Josh Schwartz
Originally aired Au
It’s 2003 and the first week of August. In one month, it’s back-to-school time. But before that, newbie showrunner Josh Schwartz is coming to get you. He’s coming to claim your soul – to sink his hooks into you and drag you into the deepest recesses of his soapy teen drama. Little do you know how much this 90210 knock-off will surprise you with its stubbornness, subversiveness, intelligence and, most of all, heart. Welcome to the dark side. Or, if you prefer…*punches reader in the face*…welcome to The O.C., bitch.
The O.C. had no right to be as good as it was. Most of these characters appear to be walking, talking cliches: the nerdy kid who gets picked on, the silent brooder from out of town who shows him life outside of video games and comic books, the popular-but-secretly alcoholic girl and her surfer boyfriend who has about as many brain cells as fists. But as you watch, you realize how self-aware this show is and how it’s taking familiar stories and infusing them with renewed vigor or letting them run alongside very unconventional storylines for this kind of show or even just poking fun at itself. If some things didn’t click – a troublesome mid-season story or an uninteresting character – Josh Schwartz had about a million other things to occupy each 45 minutes. The end result, even after a truncated final fourth season, was something truly engaging and worthwhile despite what the haters would tell you (I was going through high school in tandem with these characters and had to make sure no one knew I watched this show). It made premier critic Alan Sepinwall write a friggin’ book about it. And it all began with a kid named Ryan Atwood.
The O.C.‘s pilot begins with the event that eventually takes our protagonist (Ben McKenzie, most recently of Southland fame) out of Chino and into Orange County: his brother steals a car while Ryan is with him, and the two get arrested. Public defender Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher) pays him a visit and ends up bringing him home for the weekend after Ryan’s mom kicks him out. In these first few minutes, so much of what the show represents is set up. Ryan tells Sandy: “Where I’m from, having a dream doesn’t make you smart. Knowing it won’t come true? That does.” As our viewpoint character, we are also aliens entering into the Cohen home with Ryan and slowly feel its residents chip away at that worldview. Mother Cohen, Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), is the resistant one in the pilot – she’s just looking out for her family. But Sandy and Seth (Adam Brody, who literally forced his way into this role) begin to melt away some of Ryan’s natural defenses bred from conditioning and skepticism with their up-front emotion and sympathy. Even the theme song, Phantom Planet’s “California,” is a huge contributor to the tone of the show and would end up being associated with it more than the band (and The O.C. began to focus more and more on being a vehicle for bands trying to break through). As soon as we meet Seth, we’re given a definitive scene of the two main boys playing video games – during which Seth doesn’t think before he speaks and asks if Ryan wants to play Grand Theft Auto, because stealing cars is cool, right? Later in the pilot, the boys return home to talk about the events of the party they were just at. This would go on to be called Seth-Ryan time, something I’m sure rubbed off on more than just me and my brother.
By the end of the pilot, so many ideas have been introduced surrounding all of these characters, including Summer (Rachel Bilson) and Julie (Melinda Clarke), who were given “Guest Star” credits initially but went on to become two of the most important characters in the series. There’s even an unintentional joke thrown in when Kirsten approaches Ryan to explain why she wants him to leave: Ryan is making bacon, which surprises her because we’ll soon find out just how bad Kirsten is at cooking. The adult drama is especially interesting. That would be the thing that would make the series more universally relevant. The Fab Four kids – Ryan, Marissa, Seth, Summer – would always have things going on, but sometimes those plots would play B-story to the A-stories of Sandy, Kirsten, Jimmy and Julie and the show was better for it.
Josh Schwartz took a lot of risks with The O.C. The first season touched on every single thing that the pilot even peripherally sets up, which made successive seasons intriguing if just to see what Schwartz could do after burning through so much story. But most of those risks eventually paid off, and you can really see a behind-the-scenes passion in the pilot. Right down to the way it is shot, the pilot is trying to convince you it has a story to tell and that the integration of this kid into this society is just as important for the people around him as it is for him. Like another one of my favorite shows, Spartacus, it’s easy to write off The O.C. without giving it much of a chance to impress you. And I understand that. If we had seen a preview for a show like this at the most recent broadcast network upfronts, we probably would have all been rolling our eyes. But if you haven’t seen this series – more than just an episode here or there – you’re missing out on seeing a great writer pull off a great series in a very difficult context. The pilot serves as a representative introduction to a series of seven initial episodes that aired before a break that was over a month long. More than that, it’s also a great episode of television. If that introduction isn’t enough to convince a viewer to keep watching, then fair enough. But the challenge here, unlike with things more immediately appealing, is to watch in the first place.
45. Chuck, Pilot: “Chuck Versus the Intersect”
Written by Josh Schwartz, and Chris Fedak
Directed by McG
Originally aired, September 24th 2007
Pilots are always a tricky business. Some make a spectacle of themselves with an extended runtime or are churned by adverts months in advances; some have the unenviable task of juggling world building, establishing character relations, and stringing out multiple storyline threads for the entirety of the series. Television pilots require a unique blend of instant gratification as well as playing the long game. A pilot has to establish many things, but above all, it must create the foundations for characters that audiences will fall for and become totally invested in. People tune in ritualistically for these characters week in and week out. Viewers form familial bonds and sometimes a sense of entitlement towards television characters which can result in a rabid fan base. A great pilot has to create the basis for this attachment in 45 minutes of runtime.
Chuck is the story about the eponymous underachieving twenty-something (Zach Levi) suddenly endowed with a supercomputer with both the CIA and NSA’s greatest secrets right in his noggin. The beginning scene of the pilot is a microcosm of what the show would always maintain throughout it’s run. Chuck floundering questions from women his sister set up for him juxtaposed with rogue agent Bryce Larkin stealing the Intersect, escaping guards, and being gunned down before sending Chuck the government’s greatest asset shows the series’ irreverent approach to the action comedy genre. Simultaneously, it establishes Chuck’s character as the geeky, slightly wounded (in more ways than just chafed fingers), and loveable protagonist as well as the exposition and set up for the show’s high concept. Juxtaposing humor and action cuts to the core of what the series had always been known for.
After unknowingly downloading the Intersect into his brain, the pilot covers a rather atypical day in the life of Chuck. He works at the tongue in cheek Buy More and even more so Nerd Herd division, spending his days fixing phones with his motley crew of misfits and best friend Morgan (Joshua Gomez) until CIA agent Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) walks into his life. The dangerous and beautiful women paired with the bumbling guy is a well played out trope, but here it is played so earnestly by both Levy and Strahovski. From the subtle glances between each other as Chuck reenacts a girl’s ballet recital or the bookend beach scene, the pilot establishes these two characters, their relation to each other, and sets up 5 years worth of fan frustration, angst as only the creator of The O.C. knows, and ultimately, one of the most rewarding relationships in television.
With a cast ranging from Firefly alum Alec Baldwin as the gruff NSA agent Casey to great supporting characters like Morgan, Ellie, and Captain Awesome, the pilot hilariously introduces a roster of supporting characters full of potential. The writing is a clever blend of wit and heart. The music throughout the pilot and continuing throughout the series becomes a character in itself with its indie and, at times, nostalgic rock bend . The pilot with Chuck’s Tron poster and a Prince/Burton’s Batman reference sets the show to be a geekishly cult favorite, spawned for and from children of the 80s.
Chuck is not and will never be master class small screen cinema. Throughout it’s years, it had gone through ailing ratings and ups and downs in story telling as plots suffered from overreaching, but the show had always stayed true to its DNA as established in the pilot. Chuck had always been about a guy who is saddled with information and power capable of toppling regimes, but when it came down to it, he’s still him. When faced with life or death situations like the bomb in the pilot’s climax, he doesn’t solve it using tech or government resources but in his own curious and hilarious way that is absolutely “Chuck.” Chuck has always been about the growth of a wounded slacker as he is continuously thrown into perilous situation after situation. However, he always faced it his way–with quirk and heart. Chuck‘s pilot is one of the best because it acts as a microcosm for what the show would be. It is the recipe for which the rest of the series was always drawn from. The action, the music, the humor, the heart, and the relationships.
Chuck had always been the little show that could. Underdogs and everymans have always had a knack for getting audiences riled up and heavily invested. Chuck and it’s titular wounded slacker hero was no different. The series, over its five season tenure, experienced dwindling Nielsen ratings but survived on its fans flocking to social media to keep it alive, helping the show win various fan awards and even starting a few grassroots campaigns. Chuck, much like its titular hero, has always dodged the bullet upfront after upfront and was even given a bowing out season with enough heads up for writers to create an oh-so-rare-in-television true and satisfying ending. And it all started with the little pilot that could.
46. Roseanne, Season 1, Episode 1 “Life and Stuff”
Directed by Ellen Falcon
Written by Matt Williams
Aired October 18, 1988
Roseanne is not a sitcom with cardboard cut-out characters; absolutely not about filling out TV stereotypes. There’s no wacky neighbor, there’s no contrived plots. As much as I love Seinfeld, too many shows since rely on having stories generated by its characters’ selfishness. Further, it’s not even until a much later season that Roseanne trots out a “boys and girls compete” episode, a well that even really great sitcoms go to multiple times in any given year.
Roseanne doesn’t have to do these things very much because it is primarily about the fundamental question of, how will this family get along? No story must be concocted, because the characters are too busy actually living daily life, not to mention doing it hilariously. With some sitcoms, we talk in terms of “the one when…” (Friends famously acknowledges this in its episode titles), but with Roseanne it’s a way bigger framework of emotion, attitude, and chemistry to single out too many single plots whatsoever.
This is all set up remarkably in the pilot, which at first glance doesn’t seem too ingenious, but succeeds because of its sheer raggedness and authenticity. First moment: A kid gives his mom a knot in his shoe to fix. She ribs him to wear loafers instead. She ultimately fixes the knot and throws it back while telling him to eat his breakfast and not the pie because it’s “contaminated,” all with a kind of warmth but also genuine exhaustion. There’s history with these people. “Don’t spill the milk this time!” she includes.
In a nutshell we are already shown the biggest ultimate weapons of the series: its wit and its balance between love and soft attack. Then, when the father, Dan, comes in, the picture is complete. The viewer can tell Roseanne lights up, yet they’re immediately and purposefully trading harsh barbs. Roseanne’s suddenly not just a funny central character dealing with her messy family. She thinks herself a martyr, sure, but her family gives back what she throws, as if to say, we know you do a lot, Mom, but get over yourself. It’s telling that Dan gets the first spontaneous applause of the show with his counter-attack of asking for toast when he’s told to stop asking for coffee, which Roseanne has to laugh at, too, in spite of herself.
The power dynamic of the household fittingly opens back up again, though, when Roseanne goes to work. Again, it’s not the typical sitcom bifurcated home and work scenario. At the factory filled with women, Roseanne is still talking only about her home, and we see how Roseanne views it as an individual. When Roseanne’s friend sings Dan’s praises, Roseanne launches into a muffin-aided monologue about how he didn’t come that way–in the end, taking a big bite out of his “male ego.” She sees herself as the wizard behind the curtain, and the truth behind this assertion is left ultimately up to the audience, their fickle applause the prize.
When flighty sister, Jackie, enters, we finally do see a case where Roseanne has a clearer upper hand, although it’s a bitter victory. While the home scene ended with Dan trapping Roseanne into a long, improvised story that ended with a punch line at her expense; here, Roseanne operates the exact same way to Jackie, except it’s not just at her expense, it’s at the expense of her optimism, teasing her about a success seminar. So she may have got the laugh, but also the harder life. In one fell swoop, Roseanne is on top and the bottom at the same time, a place her and the rest of the family will occupy during the remainder of the series (even the controversial last season, wherein a winning lottery ticket only inverts where the top and bottom lie).
Finally, after a trip to her daughter’s school to get a better glimpse of the different ways Roseanne acts with authority (with her boss, brazen; with a dippy teacher, considerably more so), and a nice pilot motto to embroider on a pillow (“Our whole family barks”), Roseanne goes home at the end of the day to find confirmation of her muffin-alogue. Dan hasn’t done what he promised by fixing the sink, while she has done everything. Or has she? They have a more serious, passionate fight. Dan is incensed. Roseanne’s had enough. The morning looks one way, the night looks another in this house, we see.
Soon enough, after a daughter’s injury, the two come to a truce. But the barbs and accusations still ring in our ears. They were funny. They were painful. They were true. Is it all worth it in the end? Mostly, but both characters at the core seem unsure. Fortunately, we have next week to think and joke about it some more.
Michael J Narkunski
47. Friends Season 1, Episode 1 ‘The Pilot’
Directed by James Burrows
Written by David Crane & Marta Kauffman
Aired September 12, 1994 on NBC
(note: you can read Randy’s episodic reviews of the first and second seasons of Friends at Processed Media).
Need I introduce Friends? I’d be hard pressed to find a person over the age of eight who hasn’t passed along an episode of the show at some point in their lives – especially considering it’s still in heavy syndication on networks like TBS and Nickelodeon. But I’ve always found Friends a fascinating case of a show that managed to stay on TV for over 200 episodes, while never really being a great show (save for a handful of episodes) – and in fact, being surprisingly mediocre for most of it. There aren’t any seasons that begin to approach the brilliance of Cheers‘ first season or Seinfeld at its best (I’d even argue that Frasier was a better show than Friends in the long run), but somehow, it’s a show that remains in the collective minds of almost any TV viewer as an all-time great.
Going back and watching the Friends pilot from the fall of 1994 is an interesting experience – even for myself, someone’s who watched through the entire series at least a half-dozen times. One of the more difficult tasks of ensemble comedies – especially multi-camera shows filmed in front of live audiences – is to find the right balance of personalities among a large cast. Most struggle doing it with two to four, and Friends took on the daunting task of featuring six main cast members, with a concerted effort to keep all six of them equally involved in story lines.
Needless to say, this makes chemistry in the pilot very important, and that’s where Friends nails it in the first half-hour in ways the majority of comedy pilots don’t even sniff at. That camaraderie is one of the things that would define the show throughout its series, and in the pilot, it gives this version of New York a familiar and lived-in kind of feel. Part of this comes from the great weaving of mythology into the various plots – one of many strong parts of the show the writers would eventually beat over the head until it was a bloody mess in later years – which gives every member of the Central Perk Six established relationships to lean on. It makes the obligatory character exposition feel a lot less overt, much more confident and relaxed than one would expect from a pilot, where writers aren’t trying to define characters as much as sell them as marketable to network executives.
Ross is arguably the most fully-rounded character on the pilot, a man whose dealing with some of the biggest blows a young adult can take to their self-confidence. His wife’s left him to move in with her lesbian lover, and the biggest, most unfulfilled crush of his life is now best friends again with his sister – hardly the situation a vulnerable, nerdy paleontologist wants to be in. Unfortunately, it’s nearly undermined by David Schwimmer’s performance: his stage background shows a little too much on camera, and his grandiose gestures and character tics undermine some of the more mature emotional beats his character has in the pilot (there’s a bunch of them). To Schwimmer’s credit, it’s tough material to do with a pilot when an actor hasn’t had a lot of time to invest in the character – but the writing of his scenes are so good, some of his physical pandering for the sake of humor undermines it a bit.
As the other tentpole of the show’s central story, Rachel’s character is an interesting – and contradictory – little bit of 90’s feminism. The pilot is really Rachel grabbing a hold of her independence, cutting the cords (and credit cards) from the two men in her life: her father and her fiancee (while unknowingly, a new one steps in to take her place). It marks the beginning of her transformation into a self-respecting, independent woman – something that oddly takes until after she breaks up with Ross to become, but that’s a conversation for another day. Thankfully, the pilot finds enough balance between “funny” ditzy Rachel and this newborn Rachel, one who is trying to take control of her life, instead of having it be dictated for her. The reward for this? A waitressing job at a coffee shop – a lovely little bit of misery that remains my favorite bit of the pilot to this day.
Smartly, the writers counter Rachel’s super-emotional tendencies in the pilot with their other important female character: Monica’s plot reveals her to be much less of an emotional roller coaster than most mid-20s single women were portrayed in the early 1990s when it came to sexual relationships (as she dates a man who lies to her about not sleeping with anyone for years, just to bang her and dump her). It also established Monica as the most level-headed character of the group, something the writers would begin to quickly unravel throughout the first season. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s Ross’s brother: their sibling dynamic always proved for some entertaining moments (plus it gives us their father Jack Gellar, always a welcome presence on the show).
It’s funny to think now how much NBC was uncomfortable with the Monica plot, going so far as to hand out questionnaires to test audiences to see if they thought Monica was slutty. In the original script (which had the awful title of Insomnia Cafe) she didn’t really ever care about Paul, and that small concession was made to the script, which I don’t think really affected the story line at all (it actually makes it more believable); I just find the dated reaction to her behavior to be hilarious, considering the landscape of females in network sitcoms today.
Not all the characters were so lucky to get great introductions: Joey and Phoebe’s first appearances are anything but original, and they barely register a meaningful on-screen presence at any point. Joey is a goofy womanizer who just wants to wear leather and fuck chicks, and Phoebe a hippie who plays her guitar in the subway (in a deleted scene), just a pigtail rocking vapid bohemian type with a depressing family story. Their two characters are the most frustrating in the pilot and really, throughout the series: although the writers would never short sell them on endearing tendencies, I don’t feel like the show ever really found their characters, save for a few choices moments in seasons three and four (arguably the show’s best, save for the Ross/Rachel material in the fourth season).
Of course, that leaves us with good old Chandler Bing – the most misrepresented character in the pilot. There’s a delicate balance of Chandlerism that Friends hadn’t quite figured out by the time the pilot was written: finding the balance between constant Chandler snark and an actual, emotional human being was something the show was always struggling with, and in ‘The Pilot’, boy, does it make him an unlikable presence. Sure he’s funny, but it’s a desperate funny in a way that doesn’t become redeemable until his past is explained in greater detail as the first season progresses; here, he’s kind a of a dick (and a badly dressed one at that). Add to it that he doesn’t really have much to do (Ross’s big bromance moment comes from his ice cream conversation with Joey), and although Chandler would be one of the strongest characters in the early seasons, he’s oddly floating in the wind as the show establishes its more emotionally appealing side. Would it be a mistake to focus on the most damaged person in the pilot? Probably – and in that context, it makes more sense why Chandler’s not much more than a string of sarcastic remarks here.
But where Friends struggles with character, it gets it right is how it establishes its interpersonal relationships, presenting us with a group of archetypal characters played by a energetic, youthful, and – most importantly – photogenic cast, letting the chemistry of both carry the weight the predictable story arcs of the pilot quite couldn’t. Friends was exactly what its title suggested – a show about people hanging out – and at that, ‘The Pilot’ does a pretty damn good job of it.
– Joey wears so much leather in the pilot, it’s not even funny.
– there’s a great little running gag of Chandler trying to interpret his dreams in the opening and closing scenes of the episode, a moment that almost feels like a tease of its long-time Thursday night companion Frasier.
– In reality, the first episode of Friends doesn’t do much but present itself as a Seinfeld knock-off with a little less intelligence and a bigger heart – something a lot of reviewers caught onto during its premiere, and rightfully so: a few of Friends‘s earlier scripts were written from rejected Seinfeld scripts and story ideas.
– speaking of Chandler, his character bugs me in the pilot. He’s all sarcasm without the heart he’d soon have in
– there’s a great speech deleted from the broadcast version (available on DVD) from Chandler when he’s talking to Ross about how lucky he’s been compared to him and Joey: “Look, Ross, you gotta understand, between us we haven’t had a relationship that has lasted longer than a Mento. You, however have had the love of a woman for four years. Four years of closeness and sharing at the end of which she ripped your heart out, and that is why we don’t do it! I don’t think that was my point!”
– another sign Friends was supposed to be the successor to the Cheers throne: the first four episodes are all directed by long-time Cheers director James Burrows.
– there are some terrible haircuts in the pilot. Monica, Chandler, and Joey all benefit from a fresh cut before the filming of the second episode.
– the first sign the creators of Friends can’t keep their continuity straight: Ross’s parents already know Carol is a lesbian (Monica tells us this with a joke about the phone conversation), but the second episode revolves around Ross trying to tell his parents about Carol. (Yes, and the fact that Rachel knew Chandler, although this was more of a sign of the show’s laziness and self-obsession in later seasons, than a lack of continuity here.) Oh, and Barry’s last name in this episode is Finkle, not Farber as it is throughout the rest of the series.
– If there’s one line that sticks with me from the pilot after 18 years, it’s Ross’s final one: “I think I just grabbed a spoon.”
48. Firefly, Episode 1, Season 1: “Serenity”
Directed by Joss Whedon
Written by Joss Whedon
Originally aired 12/20/02
Determining which episode of Joss Whedon’s Firefly is the actual pilot may be a sticking point for many. The two-hour pilot “Serenity” was intended as the pilot, but Fox executives rejected it and used the series’ second episode “The Train Job” as the network pilot. While “The Train Job” is a good episode with a lot of action, the original pilot shows us the backstory of the tight-knit Serenity crew of Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds, Zoe Alleyne, Wash, Kaylee Frye, and Jayne Cobb and properly introduces us to Simon and River Tam, and thus the show’s major conflict.
Firefly highlights Whedon’s ability to write great, believable dialogue and situations in otherwise alien settings. This rebel crew of Unification War survivors fly through space illegally salvaging cargo and above all avoiding the Alliance. At first, this crew might turn you off of the show, with their literal melding of space odyssey and cowboy western by way of keeping the accent and their tendency to swear in Chinese. Whedon’s Sci-fi fantasy takes some getting used to, but these minor stylistic choices fall by the wayside once you are truly invested in the characters.
Helmed by the stubborn Captain Mal (Nathan Fillion), the ship Serenity is nothing short of a family. In truth, this is a human drama that sees everyone from Mal’s devoted right hand, Zoe (Gina Torres), to the violent, insolent Jayne come together in the vastness of space in this surrogate family of outcasts. No member of this large ensemble is superfluous; they each have personal crises to address and the screen time to develop their personalities, motivations, and faults.
“Serenity” is a remarkable achievement, pulling you into a fully-developed vision of space in 2517, complete with rebel-government conflict and assimilated cultures. Despite the wishes of Fox executives, Joss Whedon did not rush into action mode with this series. Rather, he slowly introduces us to this new world before revealing the eccentricities of the Firefly universe.
– Katherine Springer
49. The Black Donnellys “Pilot”
Directed by Paul Haggis
Written by Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco
Original air date: February 26, 2007
“So where are the bodies?”
And so The Black Donnellys pilot opens, with an imprisoned Joey Ice Cream being questioned by the police over bodies that have presumably gone missing at the hands of the four Donnelly brothers. The Black Donnellys‘ premiere episode is a frenetically-paced pilot brimming with series potential–in a single episode (narrated somewhat unreliably by Joey at some indeterminable point in the future), the audience is given a glimpse into the troubled lives of the show’s titular family, an Irish clan living in New York City’s infamous Hell’s Kitchen, as well as a solidly well-written episode whose plot functions as a full story in and of itself.
Joey launches into his story from the very beginning (when the brothers are kids) and tells the cops about the time a car with an unknown driver ran over, and shattered, young Jimmy Donnelly’s leg while he was sitting on the sidewalk. Fast forward to the future, and Jimmy Donnelly is the indisputable black sheep in a black family; he’s a drug-addicted deadbeat with a penchant for violence and terrible decision-making (ranging from stealing a truck full of hundreds of Hawaiian shirts to kidnapping the nephew of an Italian mob boss). Two of his brothers, compulsive-gambler Kevin and baby-faced womanizer Sean, are as hopeless as Jimmy, but poor Tommy (played wonderfully by Jonathan Tucker), the brother who has the best chances for an honest future thanks to his artistic skills and college education, will never leave the city if he can’t let go of protecting his criminal brothers.
The episode handles its characters perfectly by exploring their individual qualities whilst simultaneously highlighting their ties to one another. One memorable scene, set during a wake, shows Tommy Donnelly bouncing from brother to brother, asking just how much Kevin owes mobster Louie Downtown in gambling debts, and culminates in Tommy helping his brothers drive the aforementioned stolen truck (full of Hawaiian shirts) to a buyer. The scene shows everything the audience needs to know about Tommy–how willing he is to do anything to protect his siblings, even if crime is involved–through his interactions with his beloved brothers. Even sideline characters, like hero-worshipping tagalong Joey Ice Cream and the brothers’ unknowingly-widowed (no one has the heart to tell her that her husband’s dead) childhood friend Jenny (Olivia Wilde), are fully-fleshed out in the pilot’s hour-long timespan.
Since the show involves an Irish family in a multi-cultural city, traditional stereotypes and cultural tensions are briefly touched upon. Some are hilariously explored, like when Joey tells the cops during his narration: “The Irish have always been victims of negative stereotyping. I mean, people think we’re all drunks and brawlers, and sometimes it gets you so mad, all you want to do is get drunk and punch somebody.” Others are underlined by tragedy, like Jimmy’s hatred of all Irish because Irishmen brutally killed his father.
By the end of the episode, a heartbreaking climax results in an even more devastating final five minutes, as a twist reveals who drove the car that broke Jimmy’s leg, and present-day Tommy Donnelly makes a decision to protect his brothers that not only cements his ties to the city (assuring he’ll never be able to leave), but also culminates in him taking over the neighborhood and becoming the very person he never wanted to be. (In a cruel twist of fate, Jimmy Donnelly gets picked up by the police on the very same night Tommy destroys his future and is sent to rehab, where Joey informs us he turns his life completely around.)
Joey incorrectly believes the bodies Tommy’s decision left behind are the ones the police are searching for, but the episode ends with a riveting cliffhanger: “Those weren’t the bodies we were asking about.”
Unfortunately, the series never proved as great as its pilot; The Black Donnellys was canceled shortly after the pilot’s premiere and only survived a single season. But, even if you don’t want to watch the whole series, the pilot works as a standalone piece of quality, must-see television.
50. Carnivále, “Milfay”
Written by Daniel Knauf
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia
Originally aired: September 14, 2003
From the first few remarks of a cryptic prologue, Carnivále’s pilot, “Milfay,” ushers in a different sort of drama, a form of storytelling comfortable with its own weirdness and undaunted by grandiose ideas. Just as one might expect from the acts of a traveling circus, there’s much more to Carnivále than meets the eye, and its ambitious first episode deals with themes of magic and a conflict of biblical proportions.
In the first few moments of Carnivále’s inception, Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) keeps vigil over his dying mother’s sickbed. When he reaches out to help her, she shrinks from him as if he were evil incarnate. A carnival passes by later as Ben digs a grave and argues with a demolition worker sent by the bank over who has rights to his mother’s property. A few carnies throw together an impromptu funeral service for the departed woman, but before she is comfortably in her tomb, a bulldozer levels Ben’s dilapidated home and he’s on board the caravan for the long haul.
Unsettled by the shackle around his ankle, several of the carnival’s workers treat Ben with the same mistrust that his mother did. But acting on orders from their reclusive and Oz-like director, Samson (Michael J. Anderson), the diminutive co-manager, insists on employing Ben. Despite the suspicion surrounding him, Sophie (Clea Duvall), a fortune teller, suspects Ben is something special, and their bond is cemented further when he rescues her from an attempted rape. Sophie’s intuition is dead on. Ben wields a power he has yet to understand, one that gives him sway over life and death itself, but he is also a tortured soul, not only because of his mother’s zealous rejection but also because of recurring nightmares that almost prove deadly to a psychic who intrudes on his dreams. Somewhere far removed from the circus, a fledgling evangelist, Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), shares the same nightmares. In addition to these terrors, he is also prone to holy visions that include blood, snow, and neon crosses, and even during his waking hours, he has started to evidence unusual powers that manifest the sins of his congregation in unbelievable ways.
A number of elements converge to make Carnivále the amazing spectacle it is, and all those ingredients were evident straight from the start of “Milfay.” Carnivále benefits from the earnest acting of an outstanding cast, an enigmatic and enticing storyline, and most of all its perfectly attuned atmospheric setting. It was stroke of pure genius to set this story in 1930’s America. If ever there were a time period in this country’s relatively youthful history that resembled the end of the world, it was during the Great Depression. The show’s heightened need for survival extends beyond an eerie supernatural threat only a few characters can perceive to the day-to-day struggle to satisfy basic human requirements.
The drabness of the Dust Bowl could also suggest the setup for a perfect dichotomy between reality and the wonder of a magical battle with apocalyptic stakes. However, the magic of the show is presented with a similar mundanity. “We sell dreams,” Samson tells Ben, and Sophie later observes that the people they entertain are sleepwalking and it’s their job to wake them up. Either way, the carnival isn’t an escape from reality, it’s an augmentation of it. Magic is definitively real to these folks. Sure, Professor Lodz (Patrick Bauchau) might be addicted to absinthe, but he lacks no confidence in the prophetic veracity of his visions. In this episode, we see a kitten raised from the dead, a woman vomit an impossible fountain of coins, the sky rain blood, a catatonic woman move objects about with her mind, and a little lame girl healed of her lifelong condition. And all of this is treated matter-of-factly. Magic is not the gaudy light shows of Harry Potter. It’s as ordinary as anything else in this world.
It quickly becomes obvious that Carnivále possesses the kind of plot that is propelled by its mysteries. The show’s creator, Daniel Knauf, supplied his vision with a complicated mythos that demands a lot of concentration. Rich with symbolism, the pilot episode deals out its clues liberally—repeatedly visiting images of a dead tree tattoo, an inverted tarot card, a vaguely familiar signet ring, etc.— but it stops just short of explaining their overall relevance. Dream sequences and montages encompass a season’s worth of imaginative material. It’s the equivalent of flipping puzzle pieces face up without any other effort to order or assemble them, but these teasing fragments promise something entirely surprising and wholly worthwhile, igniting an undeniable eagerness for the full picture.
51. Oz Episode 1 Season 1 ‘The Routine’
Written by Tom Fontana
Directed by Tom Fontana
Aired July 12, 1997 on HBO
I once was asked to describe the show Oz in terms of other shows that it what I told them was that it was The Wire-in a prison meets Game of Thrones with less subtlety and more full frontal nudity. Going back and watching the pilot a few years after having finished my first run through of the series, I wasn’t far off. Either way Oz was the grittiest, darkest that show HBO had ever produced when it started in the 1996, and since its run ended in 2003 little has come in its wake to take that title away.
The pilot episode of Oz was aptly called “The Routine” and it laid out much of what would make this show memorable. In the words of narrator Augustus Hill (played by Harold Perrineau Jr) “Oz, that’s the name on the street for the Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary. Oz is retro, Oz is retribution. You wanna punish a man? Separate him from his family, separate him from himself, cage him up with his own kind.”
And much of what you see on the show is the men of Oz trying to deal with being caged. Those with the possibility of parole trying to stay out of trouble (or trying to not get caught) and those without, exercising what agency they have while incarcerated.
The episode can be loosely separated into three parts. The first fifteen minutes are dedicated to, new inmate, Tobias Beecher – a lawyer convicted of manslaughter and driving while intoxicated. Beecher is absolutely terrified entering the prison especially once he meets his cell mate Simon Adebisi who hints at a future of molestation if they live together. Then he meets Vern Shillinger at a meal who tells him to request a cell change and like that, Beecher thinks his stay in Oz won’t be that bad. That is until Vern, his new cell mate tattoos a swastika into his rear during their first night together. Gritty dark drama is what Oz did best, and it was never done better than by taking the everyman Tobias Beecher and throwing him to the dogs.
The second part of the episode is only about eight minutes long and is dedicated to Kareem Said – A devout Muslim convicted of Arson. After talking with the unit manager Tim McManus he takes control of the Muslim group at the prison and preaches non-violence in the face of the other black inmates who try and start a fight. This part of the episode seems unfinished, but showrunner Tom Fontana lays these kinds of stories over multiple episodes creating that sense of sustained conflict that runs through the show.
The last part of the episode is dedicated to Dito Ortalani, one of the aforementioned ‘lifers’ who was imprisoned for first degree murder is a part of the Italian mob in the prison. Hot headed and vehemently homophobic, when he nearly beats a man to death in the showers, McManus puts him to work in the AIDS ward to try and teach him a lesson. He meets an AIDS victim there who asks him repeatedly for death. When he finally learns some sympathy for his condition and agrees to put him out of his misery, he’s caught smothering the patient and beaten and sedated by guards. Then, in a final and brutal irony, he is burned alive by his enemies for the man he beat earlier in the episode.
The brutality of “The Routine” of life in Oz is possibly the most consistent theme the show had. Prison life is no easy time, and while the show delved into more political topics in later seasons, it was always under the guise of how throwing violent men together in a prison simply breeds more violence.
52. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Unaired Pilot
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
Season 1, Episodes 1-2, “Welcome to the Hellmouth”/”The Harvest”
Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Charles Martin Smith/John T. Kretchmer
Aired March 10th, 1997
When it comes to the modern evolution of vampires in popular culture, everything started with a blonde girl arriving in a seemingly boring town, destined to fight the forces of evil while surviving the troubles of high school.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer began as a usurpation of the classic tale of monsters chasing young blonde women – this time, she chased them. The original 1992 film starring Kristy Swanson and Luke Perry was met with mixed reviews (though it has since gained a cult following) and five years later when its scriptwriter Joss Whedon reviewed and revived Ms. Summers back from the world of the undead, the show’s success was far from certain.
The two part series premiere, “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “The Harvest”, was actually the second version of the pilot; the original unaired version differs greatly, mainly due to changes in featured characters, casting, and storyline. Whedon extends the plot to accommodate two episodes and changes to the cast are reflected in the staging and scripting, such as the casting of Alyson Hannigan as Willow and the inclusion of redeemed vampire Angel (David Boreanaz). Although perhaps not the most complex of plots, the series premiere certainly benefits from Whedon’s now-trademark sharp wit and carefully observed comments on popular culture.
As a result, Buffy quickly caught people’s attention, from the first chords of the sit-up-and-take-notice theme tune to the obvious appeal of Sarah Michelle Gellar in the lead role. It is in her that teenage girls, already trying to find their own identity and place in a male-dominated world, have a role-model they can relate to, particularly as Gellar was only a few years older than them at the time. Yes, Buffy‘s characters are shown to be at times weak, annoying, confused, or lost in their own skin, but this is what makes them both believable and likeable.
It is also perhaps the first television show that uses the alienation, pain, misery, and confusion the show’s audience felt every day growing up as metaphors for what Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles faced in each episode. In the Buffyverse, pairing off with a stranger at a club could not only be unwise – it could get you killed. And as those watching the show grew up and started to take their first, uncertain steps into the world of dating and clubbing, the unspoken lessons didn’t go unnoticed.
Whedon’s modern reinterpretation of the vampire is fresh and original. Gone are the capes and neo-Victorian imagery of Dracula pastiches or Anne Rice. These vamps are dark, born of demonic possession of dead human bodies and – perhaps most importantly – actually dangerous. The vampires of Sunnydale, CA are cool yet mysterious and monstrous killers. Furthermore, Whedon planted the seeds of an intricate and interesting mythology integral to vampires, which grew in the following seasons.
In truth, the appeal of Buffy isn’t solely the excellent script or the fresh and original plotlines, it’s that it speaks to teenagers. Buffy Summers is a young woman with a great responsibility she never asked for, unable to tell her mother what she is going through because she wouldn’t understand and because Buffy fears rejection – in other words, what almost every teenager feels. The vampires too, while evil beyond redemption, represent something about the mindset of all of us in youth: immortal, immune to disease and sickness, possessed of great strength and always utterly, über cool. Teenagers have no concept of their mortality or physicality and they’re desperate to hide their vulnerability and insecurities in a persona of bravado and brooding ‘depth’.
Maybe then, the secret behind the success of Buffy‘s pilot episodes and the subsequent success of the show as a whole is not so much that it relates to us in our awkward, baffling teenage years but because it was us onscreen. The failings, flaws, and weaknesses of the Scooby Gang were ours, but then again, so were their triumphs.
– Katie Wong
53. Prison Break, Season 1, “Pilot”
Directed by Brett Ratner
Written by Paul Scheuring
Originally aired: August 29, 2005
This is a grand age of serialized TV drama where networks don’t shy away from airing shows with complex arcs. There’s a downside to this extended story line, however. Creators may plan out multiple seasons for their characters, but they slow the pace down to a crawl. The episodes feel their length, and the audience is just waiting for the rare moments when something happens. Glacially paced series like Flash Forward and The Killing had a good start but became nearly unbearable by mid-season. Thankfully, there are amazing shows that dive into the action like every episode is their last. Even long-running classic shows like Battlestar Galactica and Lost didn’t waste any time and delivered remarkable drama from the start. Another intriguing example is Prison Break, which premiered on FOX on August 29, 2005. Its first season is set up like one long story where Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) purposely enters prison to break out his brother Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell). Even when its original 13-episode run is extended to a full season, the writers keep their eye on the ball. The pace stays relentless, and they keep raising the stakes until the final episode.
The pilot is directed by Brett Ratner, who’s largely considered a mediocre filmmaker at best. His style is the right choice for this show and brings a relentless tenacity to the material, however. Michael throws himself into the plan with no parachute, and the camera work matches this courageous (and possibly foolish) venture. The opening segment provides a glimpse at Michael’s plans for the prison and the characters that he meets inside. He robs a bank, receives his sentence, and the action moves to the prison in record time. This is a wise choice from Creator Paul Scheuring, who also wrote the script. He doesn’t waste time on unnecessary exposition and trusts the audience to follow along. It’s thrilling to watch this type of show because it’s so rare, particularly for its era. Its closest companion is 24, which used a similar focused approach in its first season. Both shows recognize that modern audiences are ready to jump into the action without understanding the destination. Scheuring sets the stage for a brilliant opening run and puts all the pieces in place in the opening episode.
The breakout star is Wentworth Miller as Michael, the brilliant engineer who knows the prison inside and out. He’s aided by the world’s most complex tattoo, which actually includes the plans of the facility. This device is a great visual to close out the episode, though it does require him to wear long sleeves a lot more than your normal guy. The make-up crew only has a certain budget! Miller does an excllent job showing Michael’s brilliance and the arrogance that nearly jeopardizes the plan. He also shows the charm that draws the eye of Dr. Sara Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies). It’s clear this isn’t the typical prison thug, and even the stern warden Henry Pope (Stacy Keach) recognizes the difference. The pilot sets up Michael’s relationships with both characters that are essential to the first season. His cellmate Fernando Sucre (Amaury Nolasco) is already pining for his girl outside, so that painful story line begins right away. We’re also briefly introduced to important supporting players like John Abruzzi (Peter Stormare) and “C-Note” (Rockmond Dunbar). These guys will join the ever-growing gang that decides to try and escape Fox River. It’s surprising that the nuttiest inmate doesn’t even appear in the premiere. Robert Knepper makes quite an impression as “T-Bag”, but he arrives in the next episode. There’s a real depth to the cast that keeps it from being a one-man show. Dominic Purcell eventually becomes the co-lead as Lincoln, but the pilot is definitely Michael-centric.
Beyond the prison story, there’s also a conspiracy surrounding Lincoln’s incarceration that eventually becomes much larger. The shady organization is represented by Paul Kellerman, played with glee by Paul Adelstein. He’s an intriguing villain because there’s so little information about him at the start. He murders a bishop in pilot, so it’s clear this guy means business. It’s refreshing to note the limited time spent on this conspiracy in the beginning. It grabs far too much screen time in the later seasons and changes the tone of the show. Michael may have to escape yet another prison, but that attempt lacks the focus of this brilliant season. In the opening shot, Michael stares at a giant board of information and is ready to strike. There’s no going back from this move, and his determination sets just the right tone. This isn’t an out-of-control criminal taking another shot at something daring. Michael is a straight arrow who’s leaping completely out of his comfort zone to save his brother. He may need to cross some serious lines to succeed, and it’s certain to be a painful experience.
Prison Break may not rank among the best shows of the past decade, but it’s consistently entertaining and is worth revisiting. The relentless pace barely lets up and keeps raising new obstacles for Michael and Lincoln along the way. There are a few missteps in the early going, particularly the saga of Lincoln’s son LJ (Marshall Allman). A show with this many characters does not need a precocious teenager, particularly one with such little personality. LJ plays a key role in the plot and makes sense from that standpoint but his scenes are one of the pilot’s few blemishes. Another less-exciting character is Veronica (Robin Tunney), Lincoln’s lawyer and former girlfriend. She investigates the conspiracy from the outside but isn’t as engaging. Even so, neither plays a major role in hurting the momentum. So much happens at Fox River that it easily outshines those concerns. The pilot sets the stage for an incredible opening season that is perfectly designed for a home marathon.
54. Rome Episode 1 Season 1 ‘The Stolen Eagle’
Written by Bruno Heller
Directed by Michael Apted
Aired 2005 on HBO
We have Band of Brothers to thank for Rome. The success of that collaboration between the BBC and HBO cemented the partnership which made the show possible. It helped that the HBO bosses at the time were fans of I Claudius – the BBC produced series based on Robert Graves’ books, which established the crowd-pleasing potential of the period by leavening the dull history bits with the spectacle of John Hurt as Caligula exercising his god-fantasies by getting his sister pregnant and snacking on her unborn child.
HBO liked the idea of Rome, which fast forwarded past the antics of Caligula et al to the equally eventful but slightly less colorful period when Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, so much that although the original pitch was for a mini-series, the network commissioned a full 12 episodes. At $100 million for the whole series, and HBO picking up the tab for $85 million, the investment was substantial.
Yet it paid off. Rome’s mixture of historical veracity and personal drama garnered rave reviews and a jangling bagful of awards. It hits the ground running from the first episode. Caesar (Ciaràn Hinds at his gloomy best) strips the vanquished Gaul leader Vercingetorix naked and has him kiss the Roman eagle, symbol of Rome’s might. Mark Anthony (James ‘Following’ Purefoy) looks on, smugly. But it’s not all about the big wigs. While toga-ed senators declaim in the Forum, two ordinary grunts (Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson) comb the Gaulish countryside for that same Roman eagle, now stolen by brigands. The story of the search does two things: it establishes the relationship between Vorenus (McKidd) and Pullo (Stevenson) – a friendship which will mirror the troubled bromance between Caesar and Mark Anthony – and, as the straightforward theft morphs into an attempt to create a political scandal, prepares the viewer for the intensely complex plotting and scheming the series has in store for them.
The impact of Rome on the shows which followed can’t be overestimated. The full frontals and clever opening titles of Game of Thrones? Check. The lush visuals and precision-choreographed set pieces of Boardwalk Empire? Check. The blending of historical fact and sudsy drama of Vikings? Double check. Rome did it first and, arguably, better because it did it all at the same time.
Rome ran for only two seasons. The reason? Remember that $100m price tag. Writer Bruno Heller had planned three further seasons: two set in Eygpt and a fifth covering the rise of a prophet in the Near East (yes that prophet). He got wind of the cancellation in time to shovel several decades of history into the final few episodes. As with other fine shows which deserved a longer life, rumors of a Rome revival periodically circulate, as does talk of a film version. So far these have come to nothing. But as Vercingetorix discovered, it’s best not to underestimate the power of Rome.
– Cath Murphy
55. Boardwalk Empire “Boardwalk Empire”
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Terrence Winter
Original air date: September 19, 2010
“You can’t be half a gangster, Nucky. Not anymore.“ – Jimmy Darmody
The pilot to Boardwalk Empire had to live up to a wealth of expectations, from creator Terrence Winter’s success with HBO’s previous hit The Sopranos to the involvement and direction of Martin Scorsese. The 70 minute, beautifully shot episode brought Prohibition to life in rich detail with a stellar cast of characters. The episode captures the fraught tensions between those running “The World’s Playground” of Atlantic City and the onslaught of Prohibition.
Scorsese’s direction treats viewers to intricate and spectacular sets, fantastic costumes, and trademark Scorsese style, including long tracking shots, jump cuts, and brilliant parallel editing. So much intensity is captured in the simple intercut sequence of Jimmy’s son playing with his toy soldiers and the military training of the Prohibition agents. The boardwalk features dozens of era-appropriate displays such as incubator babies, palm-readers, and midget boxing. All this under the shower of bootleg liquor, thanks to Nucky Thompson’s operation. Steve Buscemi here has a stand out performance, showing that he can shine in a leading dramatic role.
Where this pilot truly excels is in its characters. As the central protagonist of the series, Nucky is portrayed as a criminal in all but name, and he is pointedly reluctant to become a fully-fledged gangster. It would be easy enough to populate a series about big-time bootleggers with blood-thirsty, ruthless men, but Nucky sets the standard for the principled, albeit law breaking gangster.
This pilot is sure to point out, however, the motivations of its large ensemble. The character of Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) is a perfect addition, firmly tying the story to 1920s America. Darmody spends much of the first episode coming to terms with his experiences in World War I. He explains away his involvement with Al Capone, saying that the war has left him with no future other than violence. On the other side of the Prohibition movement, we see the Women’s Temperance League and, much more disturbing, Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon) who carries out his duties for the Department of Internal Revenue, spurred by his puritanical religious fundamentalism.
The Boardwalk Empire pilot builds slowly, introducing a fantastic cast of characters including the abused Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald), Nucky’s mistress Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta), and the Chicago gangster Al Capone (Stephen Graham). Although it doesn’t try to transcend its genre, it builds upon gangster classics like Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino. The pilot is more than just an introduction to the East Coast world of drinking and gambling but a view into that world on a collision course with the law.
– Katherine Springer
56. M*A*S*H, “Pilot”
Directed by Gene Reynolds
Written by Larry Gelbart
Original air date: September 17, 1972
Any film buff knows the legacy of Robert Altman’s 1970 black comedy film MASH. First realizing that you’re laughing hysterically and then intellectualizing that the context of the humour is a “meatball surgery army base” in the middle of the Korean War says some interesting things about where we can find comedy. When Larry Gelbart went to adapt the film for television he kept that dark comedy style, mixing laughs with the daily reminder of war and tragedy and the show was successful for eleven seasons ending in 1983 with what is recognized as one of the greatest finales in the history of television. That legacy though, often overshadows the early seasons and in particular, the pilot episode. Starkly funny and all-encompassing of the elements that would make MASH a classic of comedic television, “Pilot” is one of the best first episodes ever to air on tv.
The first minute takes us around the camp of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital with a few joking introductions to the various characters (including a great intro to the relationship of Frank Burns and Margaret Houlihan) and then leads into the title sequence when helicopters arrive to bring wounded for surgery. A balance is struck throughout the episode of humour and tragedy: the war and its effects on the doctors are contrasted with their coping with humour and sarcasm. The rest of the episode runs the gambit of jokes from MASH’s first three seasons, the mischievous (and unfortunately slightly sexist) acts of Hawkeye and Trapper John, the clueless Colonel Henry Blake and his near-psychic Company Clerk Radar, the loveably hateable nitwit Frank Burns.
The best thing that they introduce in this episode is the concept of being “regular army.” Above all else, MASH is political (especially in the later seasons) and a lot of that stems from the conflict between the regular army and the draftees and doctors. Because so many from the MASH outfit were drafted, their opposition to both the war in general and the hierarchy and rules of the army is the most common theme throughout the show’s course and it’s not at a loss here. Towards the end, Hawkeye and Trapper essentially commit mutiny by sedating their commanding officer so they can hold a party. When a general visits the camp unexpectedly and casualties arrive, he sees the two of them work in surgery and refuses to arrest them because they are so effective. This rule breaking is the real message of the episode (despite being one of the more purely humorous episodes the show has to offer): the army’s rules are as futile as the war and Hawkeye and Trapper subvert them both. The episode isn’t perfect (particularly in its portrayal of women) but this is still one of the best episodes the first three seasons has to offer.
– Jonathan Marsellus
57. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, “Pilot”
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Thomas Schlamme
Original airdate September 18, 2006
For one blissful pilot we were allowed to believe that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was going to be the return to television that Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford and Aaron Sorkin deserved. It was funny, wry, and features pretty much everything that’s ever been great about Sorkin.
There have been many unfair comparisons to 30 Rock which started around the same time but really the only similarity was that the two shows featured plots that revolved around fictional shows, in this case it was a late night sketch show called Studio 60. That’s where the similarities end. There was more of a biting humor and realism to Studio 60 on the Sunset strip that all came out in the pilot.
The show starts with an epic Network style meltdown by show runner Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch), which leads to his firing. Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peete) the new network President of Entertainment who’s anxious for success decides to rehire Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford), a former producer on the show and Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) as the new director and head writer, respectively.
Matt’s anxious to work with his ex-girlfriend, Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson) a multi-talented performer, and one of the main stars of Studio 60. She’s a devout Christian, slightly neurotic and charming. Danny and Matt scramble to get their footing, running a show that lost its way.
Towards the beginning of the show director Cal Shanley (Timothy Busfield) has an exchange with one of the techs about a cut skit. “It was smart”, she says. “It never had a chance” he replies. Sorkin may as well have been predicting the fate of his own show. From the first episode until its unfortunate cancelation Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip had a wonderful hold on itself. It knew exactly what it was and by the end of the pilot so did the audience. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip had so much to offer. In a rare turn we knew everything we needed to know about the show by the end of the pilot. The audience was given a fast paced, frantic, and thoroughly fearless show.
58. Freaks and Geeks Episode 1 ‘Pilot’
Directed by Jake Kasdan
Written by Paul Feig
If there’s such thing as a perfect pilot, Freaks and Geeks‘s first hour is it. Most pilots are mish-mashed groups of scenes with some overly constructed jokes, an audience-grabbing plot hook, and numerous scenes where characters explain who other characters are. ‘Pilot’ is the exact opposite of that, a beautiful, detailed photograph into a high school in suburban Detroit on the first day back from summer vacation. From that first scene, where an overwrought confession of love between a football player and cheerleader (“I just love you so much… it scares me”) is shoved off-frame to introduce us to the ‘freaks’, Freaks and Geeks established itself as a different kind of high school show, one that wasn’t afraid to be honest about shitty high school life when you’re not “one of the cool kids.”
The first characters we meet are the male freaks – ironically the three actors who would become the biggest stars in the wake of the show. Daniel Desario (James Franco) is telling Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel) and Ken Miller (Seth Rogan) about his Molly Thatchet t-shirt he wore to church: “Why not, man? It’s church; we’re supposed to forgive people there.” Taken at face value, the line is one of Paul Feig’s many attempts to throw his anti-religious views to unsettle the masses of broadcast audiences, but it’s also an indictment on what the high school experience is like: everybody in high school wants to present their true identity – but are mostly ridiculed and rejected when they do so. Everyone’s always telling you as a kid to “be who you are”… but what if who you are is something the social lemmings in school reject?
The simple answer? You’re screwed. For every small personal or moral victory you might gain in the four years between middle school and college, it’s met with a doubly embarrassing and humiliating experience. Take Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) and his friends, Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine) and Bill Haverchuk (Martin Starr, in arguably the show’s best role); they try to stop the class bully Alan (Chauncey Leopardi) from picking on them, only to endure triple the ridicule and physical intimidation from standing up to him. Sam even conjures up the nerve to ask out his biggest crush Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick), but she’s already got a date (but promises to save a dance for him, which hardly turns out the way he expects).
For every positive moment in high school, there are three or four negative ones we tend to forget as the years pass. Writer Paul Feig hasn’t forgotten these moments of insecurity and struggling with self-definition, centering his musings on Lindsey Weir (Linda Cardellini), one of the school’s best students who is struggling to deal with the death of her grandmother. People are noticing – her friend and mathlete teammate Millie (Sarah Hagan) can’t believe she’s not signing up for the academic decatholon, and Sam’s friends ask her why she’s walking around with her dad’s bomber jacket on all the time.
In one of the pilot’s best scenes, her brother Sam comes to talk to her after she explodes on her father Harold (Joe Flaherty), who tries to point his daughter in the right direction by pointing out that everyone dies when they do things wrong. When Sam asks her (in Millie’s words) “why are you throwing away your life?”, Lindsey’s response is heartbreaking. She was alone with her grandmother when she died, and saw how scared she got when she saw “nothing” waiting for her as she felt herself dying. “She was a good person – and that’s what she got,” she tells Sam, and Lindsey’s search for identity snaps into place: she’s coming face to face for the first time with the biggest existential question of them all… what the hell is the point of all this?
One of the reasons Freaks and Geeks is an all-time favorite of mine (second only to The Wire) is how no character is ignored through the series. There’s a noticeable lack of characterization with Ken in the pilot (except that he’s a wiseass), but Feig takes a set of archetypes and defines them in a way nobody had tried to before. Even the bullies like Alan and Kim Kelly (an absolutely magnificent Busy Phillips) get defined a bit: as the geek seer Harry Trinksy (Stephen Lea Sheppard) tells Sam and company when they’re considering fighting Alan, the reason he’s picking on them is probably because he wants a friend, and just doesn’t know how to express his feelings. It doesn’t forgive him for being as asshole (as Harry’s friend points out), but it fills out a snot-nose shithead like Alan, and make him a much more three-dimensional character than he had any right to be (and would be expanded on later in ‘Chokin’ and Tokin”).
Oddly, the part of the pilot Feig, Apatow and company attribute most to the early dismissal by most of the series is the presence of Eli, a mentally retarded character played very heavily by Ben Foster. I tend to disagree – Eli’s one of the more important characters of the pilot, revealing to Lindsey what a self-righteous journey her public displays of rebellion have been. When she calls out the kids who are joking around with him (in a semi-mean way, but are still being friendly), she insults Eli, who runs away and falls, breaking his arm in the process. It’s a brutal reminder to Lindsey about how honesty can be such a double-edged sword in a world like high school – and a condemnation of her attempts to appeal to other students by being his date to the dance (which he cancels).
Although every minute of a pilot is tough, the final sequence is really the hardest. It’s what defines a show for an audience, giving them a reason to come back next week for another episode. A lot of these lead to forced emotional moments or plot set-up for a potential series: Freaks and Geeks does none of these, pushing most of the characters aside to focus on Lindsey and Sam at the homecoming dance. Sam finally gets the dance with Cindy he’s been dreaming about – but it’s not a slow song like he thinks, as Styx’s ‘Come Sail Away’ goes from its slow opening chords to the moving, dreamy prog rock beat of the verses and chorus. Lindsey apologizes to Eli, and lets all the problems of her life melt away around her as they sway to the increasingly-loud soundtrack, finally taking off her father’s bomber jacket and enjoying the moment she’s in, and not worrying about the ones past and to follow. It’s simply a beautiful, beautiful conclusion, one that still makes it quite dusty in my office whenever I’m watching it.
We all know the unfortunate fate of Freaks and Geeks, dismissed by NBC and America, cancelled before airing its final handful of episodes (which would show up later in the fall to little fanfare). But like many cult favorites, its cancellation was a blessing in disguise: there are no blemishes of failed story lines, cast changes, or the inevitable dip in quality shows see in longer runs. For 18 episodes, Freaks and Geeks is near-perfect television, a depressingly poignant look at high school (and the world) in 1980, with a few hopeful moments thrown in to remind us that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, a time when we can look back and remember the trials and tribulations much more fondly than we could actually living it.
59. Batman Beyond, Season 1, episode 1: “Rebirth Part 1“
Directed by Curt Geda
Written by Alan Burnett and PAul Dini
Originally aired, January 10th, 1999
It’s a delicate balancing act to create a pilot that both delves into a story as well as be as thoroughly entertaining as possible. It’s even harder to delve in to an established universe with brand new characters and stories while not altering the source material, and Batman Beyond did that in spades; establishing new and exciting characters within a world where many of largest stories have already happened, when also creating a one of the darkest, more adult themed kids cartoon shows ever produced. That darkness was ever present with the first episodes “Rebirth” and “Rebirth Part 2”.
In the first frames, we meet our old familiar hero Bruce Wayne (voiced by Kevin Conroy in his finest of Batman performances) in 2019 as he encounters one of the last nights as The Dark Knight as he attempts to rescue a kidnapped heiress in a new high-tech suit that enhances the skills of the wearer. During the struggle, he suffers a heart attack and had to resort to the one tool that has defined him and defied him: the gun. From this action, he had to lay down his cowl and officially claim “never again”. Fast-forward 20 years and we are introduced to rebellious teenager Terry McGinnis (voiced by Boy Meets World’s Will Friedle), as he initiates his own brand of street justice on a member of The Jokerz, a psychopathic gang formed in the image of The Clown Prince of Crime. It becomes apparent that this kid is not from any background of fame or fortune, rather of one consisting of raw experience with the seedier parts of Gotham, now Neo-Gotham. With a chance meeting, McGinnis is brought to Wayne Manor, where Bruce saves him from a Jokerz attack. Once again, Bruce starts to experience heart problems after fighting off the gang, and McGinnis carries him back to the Manor, where he discovers Bruce’s secret, and subsequently dons the long forgotten cowl.
The true majesty that this pilot has lies in the fact that it is so grounded and real with it’s characters; creating a dark and often terrifying world where greed and corruption is the norm. Everyone has a motive and no one is completely safe. These similar motives form the friendship between the two Batmen. Without spoiling anything, they come to an understanding with each other, an understanding of grief and true suffering.
Everyone was hesitant on the introduction of a new Batman, especially one that isn’t Bruce Wayne and directly following the incredibly successful Batman: The Animated Series and The Adventures of Batman and Robin. That worry quickly washed away, however, with the way the character was handled: with true, undeniable anger, the same as if not more than our usual Caped Crusader. This is not a “happy” kids series where the hero always wins; Bruce pushes this new Batman to his physical and mental limits, and it shows itself excellently. McGinnis does not have the same finesse that Bruce had in his prime; in fact, he is often beaten as much as he wins. With that inexperience, McGinnis becomes this incredibly relatable character of which reminds us that anyone can be Batman as long as they are as committed as these two powerhouse characters. This series became the first series of Batman to remind us that it is possible to be a hero.
– Will Cowan
Written by Dan Harmon
Directed by Justin Lin
Original airdate September 17, 2009
The aughts emerged right off its centennial heal with an array of sitcom comedies heavily revolving around groups of various character types. In 2003, the dysfunctional wealthy Bluth family came about in Arrested Development. In 2005, it was the depiction of the everyday lives of Dunder Mifflin paper employees in The Office. And on September 17, 2009; we got the social misfits of Greendale Community College portrayed in Community.
Created by Dan Harmon on NBC, the series follows a group of community college students: Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) a suspended lawyer, Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs) a former anarchist activist, Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) a pop-culture-obsessed film student alluded to have Aspersers, Shirley Bennett (Yvette Brown) a Christian single mother with an alcoholic past, Annie Edison (Alison Brie) a compulsive over achiever, Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) a former high-school star quarterback who lost his scholarship, and Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase) a millionaire who enrolls into college due to boredom. Straight off the beginning scene of the show’s pilot, we are introduced to these archetypes laid out neatly by the corky Dean Pelton (Jim Rash), centralizing the universe that the audience is in. What makes the pilot so strong, is purely the setup. With the preamble of so many backstories among so many oddball individuals, the expectations are set extremely high for episodes to come. We can only expect humorous things to come about as the details to these stories surface and character relationships intertwine.
Some may argue that the first episode isn’t as grand as other pilots or as funny compared to proceeding episodes, especially looking back on seasons two and three. Although the humor isn’t as mature as that of episodes like Modern Warfare or Critical Film Studies, the pilot displays great promise of great things to come, which is exactly what a pilot should do. To all those naysayers out there I say: What good is a television show if it’s only as good as its pilot?
To its promise, the pilot also introduces a new trend to modern day television by injecting heavy uses of meta-humor and popular culture references, often parodying film and television clichés and tropes, without explanation or hand holding the viewer. It is with early signs in the pilot, liberally referencing The Breakfast Club via the obvious comparison with the early morning study group and Jeff’s blatant callout to the Hugh’s title, that we will get more complex homage to forgotten films like My Dinner with Andre in the episode Critical Film Studies. Its smart comedy that doesn’t pander, but rather challenges the viewer to be on the same page as the show.
To praise the setup and promise of a pilot is directly related to its writing. Thus the strength of the first show is that of Dan Harmon. The world of sitcom television introduced a talent that can make us laugh while also making us think. If that was ever a testament to its humor, it’s evident in the failures of the fourth season when David Guarascio and Moses Port replaced Harmon as showrunners and executive producers. As a result ratings dipped, the show went into hiatus beyond its original 2013 season premiere airing date, and showrunners like executive producers Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan and lead actor Chevy Chase among others left the series early. Despite troubling times, on May 10, 2013, the series renewed for a fifth season and Dan Harmon is rumored to be in talks of possibility returning to the show. Whether or not this is true, or whether the magic promised by the pilot will return is unsure, but if all else fails there is always Netflix to resurrect it from cancellation.
61. Dexter, Season 1, “Dexter”
Directed by Michael Cuesta
Written by by James Manos Jr.
The pilot episode of a show that you love represents a vacation in time, a chance to go back down memory lane and smile, grin or laugh at the way things once were. The awkwardness of first meetings, how different they were as people, the sense of blind wonder at what may come; it’s an oddly personal experience, rather like remembering your first day of college. Like watching old home movies, the nostalgia is mixed with embarrassment, amusement and, perhaps in small doses, regret. Even the best shows can have strange pilot episodes, full of quirks that were quickly dropped without explanation, elements that were mostly best left out, some which sadly didn’t make the transition from trial run to the full program.
What is truly remarkable about Dexter’s 2007 pilot, simply entitled “Dexter”, is that its growing pains are far less pronounced, its vision is clearly long term and that it sears the screen with a precocious confidence that made Showtime picking it up simply inevitable. Despite the fact that it should be a nervous outing put together under extreme pressure by show runners undertaking a most dramatic of final exam, you’d be forgiven for thinking that on this occasion the network had already agreed a four season deal before filming had even commenced. Being based on a novel may have helped the narrative flow, but the tease of an ending and the composed, assured handling of introductions goes beyond being exciting, prosperous and commercially viable.
The episode doesn’t beat around the bush one iota, opening with the titular character on the hunt for his prey in the cloying night of Miami’s dark streets, his dark musings adding poetic commentary to his even darker arts. “Tonight’s the night” Dexter says by way of first impression “It’s going to happen…again…and again….Has to happen”. As much as this is a sinister insight into the mind of a serial killer hiding in plain sight, it is also a great line that has an element of meta about it. He’s effectively telling us that this is only the beginning, we may be starting with a bang but this is a minefield that will not remain undisturbed. True to his word, Dexter actually manages to execute two unrelated victims on his screen debut by entirely separate means. We learn the basics about the bad guys, and see them go. Curiously, one of the few pilot schemes that didn’t cross into the long term show, was the maverick and variable manner in which the protagonist set about his kills; first time round he digs up the victims of his victim and confronts said monster with them, sans wrap and scalpel; this is followed up by a strange face mask he adorns while butchering a snuff video enthusiast. The more ambiguous morality and taste of Jeff Lindsay’s novels is more profound in this entry, and this carefree and spontaneous style would later be replaced by loyal routine and ritual in trying to make Dexter a little less…willingly evil.
It’s one of the few casualties of contracting. As well as meeting Dexter the killer, we meet Dexter the friend, brother, colleague and boyfriend, meaning sharply written and casual enter stage right moments for the rest of the cast. Of the principals, character development earned over years of strife and suffering become clear; only Angel Batista, Vince Masuka and James Doakes are as familiar as they were the last time you saw them. Even Dex himself is different, but more obvious are Debra Morgan, here an overeager and excitable force of nature, Maria LaGuerta, power player and snarker with her affections directed to our unlikely hero, and Rita Bennett, shell shocked and meek young woman cowering in her shell. In short order, we get to know these gals and understand them, with little visible effort on the part of the script. That flashing forward seven years show so much change is a testament to the adventures to come, and how ingrained they are in the show’s psyche. You almost mourn the loss of innocence and hope of Deb as much as you swell up with pride at the degrees in which Rita rediscovered her confidence, drive and determination.
Michael Cuesta’s direction set the tone for a visually gorgeous first season, one with very cinematic sensibilities. There is a flair and creative ambition in every shot, with rich use of color and a search for perfect frames that in places is almost artistic. Normally a first episode will be downscaled, but if anything this looks like the first hour of a well financed crime thriller. Coupled with a sparkling script by show creator James Manos Jr. and you have an episode that, objectively, stands out as one of the series’ best. The narration is apt and witty, with Dexter showing us through his life and sharing his thoughts with an elegant but naturalistic choice of words and great ear for catchy phrases. We learn him quickly, and learn he is not just a bog standard psychotic killer; there is depth and method in his madness. That’s not to say that the episode is a moral pleasure to watch, far from it. There is a dark and disturbing undercurrent that runs within the episode, a sense of ethics and balance gone wrong, that can make one ill before making one feel satisfied. Empathizing and connecting with Dexter Morgan is not something to be taken lightly.
Even if you feel put off by the tone however, you most likely will stick around for the mystery; seamlessly worked into the plot is the birth of the Ice Truck Killer arc, a story epic in emotional substance and storytelling that would define the show’s later success. In great thriller style, we do not see the nemesis, and will not do for some time yet, but he becomes a character in his own right thanks to the bloodless body parts he leaves behind, along with the sense of significance and mountain of unanswered questions. Intriguing is probably too soft a word to use, tantalizing would be more appropriate. The first season was probably Dexter at its very best, in terms of narrative direction and long term focus, and the pilot is the perfect opening chapter. We are transitioned into the story and in relaxed style are given a recap before the action begins. By the time that Dex decides he wants to play, closes his fridge door and ends the episode, we are already hooked. This excitement is not lost on repeat viewings.
Although the show perhaps has not held on to this quality of presentation and story, particularly in light of a shaky fifth and inferior sixth season, Dexter’s pilot instantly returns you to a world where the drama to come was merely hinted at, a shimmering dark light on the horizon, and reminds you of just how great it was to be caught up in the dark tapestry of D Morgan’s story in the early days. An effortlessly confident and assured debut, the pilot set the tone and started the show as it intended to go on. Nostalgia indeed…
– Scott Patterson
“12:00 am – 1:00 am”
Written by Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Original airdate November 6, 2001 on FOX
24 changed the landscape of television and it helped to change viewers. Suddenly audiences knew that we should expect more from a show. The pilot episode, “12:00 am – 1:00 am” took off like a shot.
Kiefer Sutherland, in what would become a role of the lifetime, played Jack Bauer a wholly imperfect man whose trying to save a marriage that’s already pretty much broken, who cheated on his wife with a co-worker, can barely control his teenage daughter and also happens to be in charge of protecting the world from evil. “12:00 am – 1:00” opens on Super Tuesday with five concurrent storylines. Jack’s just reunited with his estranged wife Teri and his rebellious daughter, Kim sneaks out of the house to meet with her friend, Janet, and two guys.
Jack’s called to the Counter Terrorist Unit by his co-worker Nina Myers. Richard Walsh informs them that David Palmer, the first African-American presidential candidate is a possible target for assassination. In what would becoming a running theme on 24 Walsh pulls Jack aside and tells him that there is a mole inside of CTU, only adding to his problems.
Teri leaves to meet with the father of Janet and they go to look for the two girls. Kim grows uncomfortable with the two boys after they refuse to drop her off at home. It becomes clear that the two men want to kidnap them. David Palmer learns that a journalist is planning to publish a story about his son and attempts to stop her.
The final storyline follows a young woman named Mandy who seduces a photographer while on board a 747 flying towards Los Angeles. We watch as she methodically sets up a bomb and straps on a parachute. Seconds after she blows open the plane door it explodes in the sky.
Sutherland once called 24 “a show of consequences”. The first episode demonstrates this perfectly. As the minutes tick by the tension and dread climbs to an almost unbearable level. It’s a common thread that each season had. That ticking clock wasn’t a gimmick it was just another way to notch up that absolute and unmistakable tension 24 would become known for.
Kiefer Sutherland would go on to win two Emmy’s and a Golden Globe for his role and the pilot showed an extremely gifted actor taking on a role that he was meant for. In the often crazier, outlandish moment of 24 Sutherland would hold down the show and become the unlikely character audience members could relate to.
“12:00 am- 1:00 am”, is one of the most effective, powerful, and completely enthralling pilots ever produced. It’s essential viewing that draws you in from the first tick of that clock to the last.
63. Arrested Development Episode 1 ‘Pilot’
Directed by Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz
Through satirically playing with the most outrageous parts of the average household and destroying the concept of normality, the sitcom family often represents a caricature of our own upbringings. It can be argued that the sitcom is a ruler of modern society given that the most popular television shows by far, are the ones that feature dysfunctional families; but it wasn’t always that way. It wasn’t until the 2000s that the rise of family comedies broke format and content. In 2013, the saccharine sitcom is long gone and a cast that, generally speaking, nobody wants to relate to drive these sitcoms. Although Arrested Development wasn’t the very first to do this, it is most definitely one of the most strongest.
During its short run from 2003 – 2006, Arrested Development won six Emmys and one Golden Globe, received critical acclaim, and picked up a cult following. Despite all of this, ratings remained low and Fox cancelled the series after its third season. However after seven long years, it finally returned to our screens through on-demand Internet streaming media Netflix.
“Now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together. It’s Arrested Development.” The first thing you’ll hear when watching the pilot of Arrested Development is the voice of Ron Howard, who is narrating the life of the Bluth family. Shot in documentary style, the pilot begins with Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) eagerly awaiting his father, George Bluth, Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), to name him the new partner of the family business. Completely adamant and fully expecting to become partner, Michael tries to show his son George Michael (Michael Cera) that hard work and determination will get you ahead in life. To his dismay, his father hands the company over to this mother, Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter) instead.
During the course of the pilot, we meet the rest of the Bluth family, who are introduced as idiotic and narcissistic people. Michael’s twin sister, Lindsay Bluth Fünke (Portia de Rossi), is an “activist” forming hilariously outrageous organisations such as H.O.O.P. (Hand Off Our Penises) – her anti-circumcision movement.
Their older brother, George Oscar Bluth II, a.k.a. G.O.B. (Will Arnett) is a dedicated albeit terrible part-time magician that constantly messes up his “illusions”. There’s also the youngest brother, Byron “Buster” Bluth (Tony Hale), who is a man-child still living with his mother. He has extensively studied subjects of little practical use that range from Native American tribal ceremonies to cartography. It all sounds ridiculously absurd on paper and probably shouldn’t work but thanks to phenomenal writing, a brilliant cast and flawlessly executed scenes, it does. As we continue to watch it’s easy to realise exactly why Michael is thinking of leaving his family and job behind.
After we meet Michael’s stupidly oblivious brother-in-law, Tobias Fünke (David Cross), his socially awkward son, and his irresponsible and deviant niece, Mae “Maeby” Funke (Alia Shawkat), we discover that George has been defrauding the investors of his company, and the police subsequently arrest and imprison him. With their patriarch gone and their assets drying up fast, the Bluth family are left to figure out how to manage their lives as well as the company. Between the family using money unnecessarily and spending ten years of his life managing the Bluth Company, Michael has had enough and wants to skip town. Frustrated with his family failing to recognise that he’s the only one capable of running the business, Michael threatens to move to Arizona. With the only guy that can hold them together seconds away from leaving the family, they decide they need to have an intervention. The pilot ends with him ultimately deciding to stay in California and help is family pull themselves together.
Pilots tend to have difficulty captivating audiences, and it seems Arrested Development is no different. Although the pilot is entertaining, the show definitely requires some time for viewers to warm up to it. But once you become well acquainted with the characters, and the show’s dry sense of humour that is dependent on ridiculous, idiotic logic continuously displayed by the Bluth family, that’s when you’ll fall in love. With so many strong characters playing such prominent roles, series creator Mitchell Hurwitz does an absolutely outstanding job in managing each story. The script is consistently sharp featuring a number of killer lines and insanely elaborate plots. Not to mention, the ridiculous amount of clever visual gags and recurring lines. Arrested Development is a show that literally needs to be re-watched as it’s virtually impossible to pick up on all the jokes during the first viewing.
Throughout the series the show subtly suggests that, like its characters, most of us are afflicted with “arrested development.” Much like the Bluths we all have our flaws, and many of us are stuck in patterns of behaviour that stop us from maturing as an adult.
The pilot depicts Michael’s family as caricatures, all clearly in varying states of arrested development. However, Michael is the only one the pilot doesn’t mock. He is depicted as a caring and level-headed, single father who is extremely under-appreciated and often screwed over by his selfish family. It seems that he cares first and foremost for his son as he decides to stay in California and help the family after witnessing a moment between George Michael and Lindsay. Even though he had been hell-bent on moving to Arizona he stays because he knows that’s what George Michael really wants and perhaps needs. Michael Bluth is, of course, the most sympathetic and maybe even relatable character. To some extent, we can project ourselves onto him considering the peculiarities that our own families possess and because of this, most of us feel sympathy for Michael. Don’t many of us often think of ourselves as the sane and reasonable one in the family? I am confident each member feels that they’re the most sensible while the rest of us are crazy.
The notion that every member of a given family likely perceives themselves as the most normal one suggests that we all have a slightly altered perception of ourselves. As the series progresses, we see hints of Michael’s own arrested development. Like his family, he repeats the same mistakes and proves his behaviour lacks self-awareness. By watching Michael (the character we can identify with) do this, we are presented with an opportunity to reflect on ourselves – making Arrested Development a show that not only makes us laugh, but prompts self-examination as well.
The show features no laugh track and really rewards fans for paying attention and continuously re-watching. The pilot lays down a base for each character and from here on nothing changes. Arrested Development is one of the most interesting, hilarious and important sitcoms ever to be written. It is without a doubt, one of the best televisions shows ever.
64. Breaking Bad, Season 1, “Pilot”
Directed by Vince Gilligan
Written by Vince Gilligan
Originally aired, January 20, 2008
Who is Walter White, really? As we careen ever closer to the final eight episodes of the best drama currently airing on television, AMC’s Breaking Bad, it’s fair to assume we no longer have to ponder the answer to that question too deeply. When its pilot aired in January of 2008, however, we were presented with a man of extremes. On one side of the spectrum, Walter White was a milquetoast high-school chemistry teacher, someone who hoped he could impress upon the youth of Albuquerque, New Mexico the importance of science in the everyday world. He was comically unthreatening, all the way down to his wormy mustache. On the other side of the spectrum, Walter White foiled two fearsome drug dealers the only way he knew how and was ready for an explosive faceoff with the cops, and maybe even the DEA. All in the span of 48 minutes.
Though Breaking Bad’s pilot isn’t anywhere close to its best episode (or the best drama pilot ever made, for that matter), it sets the tone for the entire series excellently. There’s a lot to set up, you’d imagine: how does a law-abiding citizen who can barely hold a gun without acting as if it’s about to blow up in his hand choose to cook crystal meth? Series creator Vince Gilligan, who wrote and directed this episode, lays out all the cards smoothly and confidently, even after indulging in one of the most familiar tricks in the modern-TV-drama playbook, the in medias res opening. (We open with Walter White, wearing nothing but a green dress shirt and underwear, pointing a gun as menacingly as he can at the source of oncoming sirens, after crashing an RV while wearing a gas mask.) Even in that opening, we can detect what have become hallmarks of this pitch-black character study: the contrast of suspense and silliness, as the big glasses Walter wears plus his tighty-whities is hard not to snicker at; the mystery set up in the first five minutes, to be solved somewhere down the line (the second season sets up various mysteries in opening sequences, only to be paid off in the season finale); and the striking if inexplicable imagery, such as Walter’s pants flying in the air, in slow-motion, beautifully filmed and framed. (Michael Slovis, the show’s superlative cinematographer, wasn’t on board for the pilot. Oscar-winner John Toll had the honors this time.)
It may be hard to remember that Walter White, now much closer to Scarface than Mr. Chips (as Gilligan once described the show’s arc), had a long way to go to embrace the darkness bubbling in his soul. Even in this pilot, as well as the following episodes, he’s less spiteful and cruel and more bewildered, totally in over his head. The pilot episode is almost a time capsule, reminding us of a time when Walt’s partner-in-crime Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, a jittery live-wire from the first episode) was the one who had more control, if only because he knew the world of drug-dealing more than his old chemistry teacher did. This is a period when Walt was weak, and only began to attempt to reassert his masculinity and dominance in a world that had written him off as being bland and spineless. There’s no Los Pollos Hermanos, no airplane, no Jane, no Mike Ehrmantraut, not even Tuco and his mute uncle Tio. Walter White is a conflicted man in the pilot. The Walter White we know now, the man who so freely lies to everyone around him including himself about the terrible deeds he commits or has committed, would look at the Walter White of the pilot and squash him like a bug.
The shift in Walter’s character can be equally attributed to the sterling writing from Gilligan and the rest of his staff, as well as to the justly lauded lead performance by Bryan Cranston. Cranston, so gleefully cartoonish on the Fox sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, has won countless awards for his work here, and why not? Cranston’s greatest skill on the show, and he has many, is visualizing what it looks like to watch emotions roiling under the surface, this close to spilling over and destroying everything possible. Because it’s just the pilot episode, there’s maybe not as much time for us to see Cranston run the emotional gamut as he’s done in the other 53 episodes that have aired as of now. But Walter’s choice, after finding out that he has inoperable lung cancer and only a few years to live (if he’s lucky), to get into the crystal meth trade so that he provides for his family still makes enough sense, largely due to Cranston’s performance.
The rest of the episode is equally stellar, rarely taking a moment to breathe. The pacing is so fast and the stakes so clear, so that the pilot emphasizes for us the urgency that will be present in every hour. Even if many of the show’s most beloved supporting characters or settings don’t make even a cameo appearance in the pilot, Breaking Bad’s opening episode is an impressive promise that’s been paid off in spades so far. Even if—God forbid—the show’s finale this September ends up disappointing people even a little bit, it’s safe to assume that Breaking Bad started on the right foot, with a clear vision of bringing a commonplace family man into a vast, seedy criminal underworld.
— Josh Spiege
65. The Cosby Show, “Theo’s Economic Lesson”
Written by Ed Weinberger and Michael Leeson
Directed by Jay Sandrich
Aired September 20th, 1984 on NBC
The standup comedy boom of the 1980s led to a glut of network sitcoms centered around standup comedians. It was a pretty straightforward formula- find a popular or promising standup, have them create and star in a half-hour comedy based on their material, and sit back and count your money when it becomes a hit. Of course, at least as many series missed as hit, but that didn’t stop network television from being littered with mostly male comedian-based family comedies. It’s easy to lump these shows together as mostly uninteresting or uninspiring, often dated sitcoms (with a few exceptions, like Seinfeld, rising above the others), but there’s a very good reason the networks followed this formula so rigidly- they wanted to find the next The Cosby Show.
When The Cosby Show premiered, conventional wisdom said the sitcom was dead. Not only was the sitcom dead, NBC was too, after several seasons firmly entrenched in third place (this is of course before FOX). No one wanted to watch a family comedy; audiences wanted action series like The A Team, Knight Rider, or Dukes of Hazard. There had been series focusing on African American families, but not many in an upper middle class or affluent setting. The Cosby Show changed that, making its characters a relatable upper upper middle class family who happened to be African American, rather than the other way around, and rebooted NBC in the process, reinvigorating the sitcom as a genre audiences were interested in watching. As it’s such an influential and important series, it’s easy to overlook one important element when discussing The Cosby Show– from it’s very first episode, it is a damn good show.
The pilot of the Cosby Show, “Theo’s Economic Lesson”, follows the example of The Dick Van Dyke Show by opening with the rest of the family before bringing in the titular lead, the star viewers would be more familiar with and who they’d be looking forward to seeing. From the first moments, the characters feel like a family, each of the children with a distinct personality and specific role in the family dynamic. Phylicia Rashad (or Ayers-Allen as she is credited in the pilot) is a beacon of authority and calm and her presence immediately sets the tone for the family and the series. This is confirmed when Bill Cosby comes in and joins the scene. Cosby and Rashad have fantastic chemistry and put the Huxtables right up there with the Taylors from Friday Night Lights as contenders for the title of Best Married Couple in TV history. What’s particularly impressive, though, is the casting of the children. Casting children can be a bit of a crapshoot, but here they manage to find not only kids who can deliver their lines well and with good timing, but who have a great and natural chemistry with each other.
There are certain timeless truths to family dynamics and by drawing most of its comedy from this well, The Cosby Show is just as relevant today as when it originally aired. Eldest children will always want their younger siblings out from underfoot while they get ready for a date and underachieving children will always have a prepared explanation when their parents question them about a bad report card. This episode’s take on that particular idea , with high schooler Theo trying to explain to his father why his four Ds aren’t a problem, is perhaps the highlight of the pilot, with Cosby’s Cliff bemusedly listening to Theo’s reasoning before demonstrating some basics of economics to him and, later, laying down the law. While the majority of the pilot focuses on the family, we do get one scene of OB-GYN Cliff at work, psyching up a father who’s freaking out during his wife’s labor. Though it’s a little odd to have just one scene in a different setting, the bit is funny enough that it works and because the tone of this scene matches so closely with the rest, it doesn’t feel particularly jarring. It’s the only piloty scene in the episode- while it’s good, the show would later back away from showing Cliff and Claire (Rashad) at work, so this is an example of the show figuring itself out.
From its familiar, comfortable characters and tone to its laugh out loud humor, the pilot for The Cosby Show is a fantastic episode and watching it, it’s easy to see how this series saved NBC and revived the sitcom. It’s very difficult to understand how both ABC and CBS passed on the series before NBC managed to scoop it up, but thankfully they did- with its huge ratings, The Cosby Show did a lot, as a lead in, to bolster both Family Ties and Cheers in their struggling early seasons until audiences found these shows as well and made them hits. Yes, The Cosby Show was incredibly influential, but more importantly, it is entertaining, warm, and hilariously funny.
66. Suits, “Pilot”
Written by Aaron Korsh
Directed by Kevin Bray
Original airdate June 23, 2011
Legal dramas have always been a dime a dozen on TV so it’s pretty easy to dismiss USA’s Suits, but within the first few minutes of the pilot episode viewers can tell that Suits isn’t quite like other shows on television.
Set at the powerful Manhattan law firm Pearson/Hardman, the pilot opens when Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres) is trying to close out a massive case. “Get me Harvey”, she says. Harvey turns out to be Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), a slick lawyer who she has helped turn into one of the greatest in the city. We’re introduced to Harvey wearing a killer suit, playing a game of high stakes poker, and doing what he does best- closing a massive deal. Or as he puts it, “I close situations”. His talents eventually land him a senior partnership and the chance to hire his own associate. Harvey’s ultimate goal is to shake up Pearson/Hardman and find someone who “thinks on their feet”.
By contrast, Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams) is a pothead college dropout who also happens to be a genius with an eidetic memory; once he reads something he never forgets it, which comes in handy when he’s taking the bar for other college students. His childhood friend Trevor, a pot dealer, convinces Mike to make a drug drop off at the hotel where Harvey is interviewing associate candidates. The drop turns out to be a set up and he runs into one of Harvey’s interviews. In true Harvey fashion, he picks Mike to be his associate after Mike impresses him with his memory and law knowledge.
What sets the show apart so quickly is the intricately drawn characters. You know within the first hour that you are watching some of the most perfectly imagined characters on television. Harvey might be the kind of man who literally backs away from pro bono cases and claims to only care for himself, but he takes a chance on Mike because Harvey sees something in him, something that makes him willing to risk his license. Mike might be a stoner but he’s dedicated, smart, and more than willing to change. Macht and Adams are one of the best teams on TV and both are gifted actors. The pilot also introduces us to a great set of supporting characters. There’s the slimy yet strangley amusing Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman), painfully smart paralegal Rachel (Meghan Markle), and quirky, dedicated assistant Donna (Sarah Rafferty).
The pilot benefits from what has become Suits‘ trademark slam-bang dialogue, which whizzes around the sleek Pearson/Hardman offices at a mile a minute. It’s as if The Good Wife, if it had more movie references, had a baby with Aaron Sorkin, blessing the TV world with Suits.
In just under three seasons, Suits has easily taken the title of Most Addictive Show on TV and the pilot is an audacious example of why.