Billed as a character driven crime procedural that happened to deal in the paranormal, The X-Files was a show that became iconic and defined 1990s television. Though it may look and sound different to later episodes, its Pilot sets the tone for the series.
Greatest TV Pilots
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 Lector-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 Lector adaptations over the past few years, and none of them had ever been as good as Silence of the Lambs.
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.
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. 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 – and he’s obviously a man’s man, the first frame establishing his favorite place to be (between a woman’s legs).
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.
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.
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.