greatest pilots

Greatest TV Pilots, Doctor Who, “An Unearthly Child”

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.

Greatest TV Pilots: Life on Mars

Nothing about Life on Mars should have worked. Its premise sounded ridiculous- an English cop gets hit by a car and ends up in the 1970s trying to figure out if he’s crazy or if he really did travel through time. But with “Episode 1”, its pilot, the series hit the ground running, with immediately defined characters, an enthralling plot, witty dialogue, and an intriguing mix of sci-fi and character study.

Pushing Daisies promo picture

Greatest TV Pilots: Pushing Diasies’ “Pie-lette” is a whimsical, ghoulish delight

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.

The cast of Lone Star

Greatest TV Pilots: Lone Star’s fantastic pilot a victim of bad timing

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.

Friday Night Lights title card

Greatest TV Pilots: Friday Night Lights’ pilot spotlights middle America with specificity and grace

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.

Terriers logo

Greatest TV Pilots: Terriers’ pilot quietly and confidently introduces its world

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.

Justified season 1 promo poster

Greatest TV Pilots: Justified’s “Fire in the Hole” explores the man within the iconography

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.

Game of Thrones credit sequence screencap

Greatest TV Pilots: Game of Thrones’ “Winter is Coming” efficiently introduces an epic

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.

Star Trek logo

Greatest TV Pilots: Star Trek’s three pilots provide a glimpse into the development process

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”.

Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow in "Truth Be Told", the pilot for Alias

Greatest TV Pilots: Alias’ “Truth Be Told” is a masterclass in pacing, suspense, and emotion

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.

The Dick Van Dyke Show title card

Greatest TV Pilots: The Dick Van Dyke Show’s “The Sick Boy and the Sitter” remains an effective, entertaining opener

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.

Screenshot from 33, the pilot for Battlestar Galactica

Greatest TV Pilots: Battlestar Galactica’s “33” sets the tone for a bleak, relentless journey

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.

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