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.
Greatest TV Pilots
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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”.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.