First, apologies to Fienberg for stealing his subject line. Second, like James Poniewozik, I'm looking for an excuse to procrastinate on actual work (in this case, a "Sarah Connor Chronicles" season two review), and so I'm going to take TV Guide's bait and complain about their list of the 10 best TV show pilots ever. After the jump, I'll have the basic list (follow the link to Poniewozik's site to read author Damian Holbrook's justification for each item) followed by a lot of carping.
So, the list:
• "Lost" (ABC)
• "24" (Fox)
• "The Shield" (FX)
• "The Sopranos" (HBO)
• "30 Rock" (NBC)
• "Football Wives" (ABC, never aired)
• "Desperate Housewives" (ABC)
• "Saturday Night Live" (NBC)
• "ER" (NBC)
• "Alias" (ABC)
Okay, I should acknowledge some things up front. First, all lists like these are designed to provoke people like me to complain about them, which in turn will inspire more people to shell out for a copy of the new issue. Second, all lists like these are biased towards more recent product, partly by dint of the author's age but mostly so younger readers (or readers without long memories) won't feel left out of the discussion. And, third, this isn't technically a list of the 10 best pilots ever, as "SNL" never had a pilot by the strictest definition, and the "Desperate Housewives" and "30 Rock" premieres changed significantly between the actual pilot and what aired as the series premiere. (And in the story, Holbrook makes it clear he's referring to the aired versions.)
All that aside, several of these shows have no business being on this list, a few others are debatable at best, and there are some glaring omissions.
The "SNL" premiere/pilot/whatever bears virtually no resemblance to the series as it is today, or even to what it was by midway through that first season. "I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines" is funny, and Andy Kaufman's "Mighty Mouse" bit was revolutionary for the time, but most of the rest is either George Carlin monologues or musical performances.
I haven't seen the "Football Wives" pilot (with Lucy Lawless and Gabrielle Union in a remake of the UK's "Footballers Wives"), so I can't speak to its quality, but based on the title of this blog, I can think of at least one unsold (but not unaired) pilot I'd rank higher.
The "30 Rock" premiere, either with Rachel Dratch or Jane Krakowski, is funny in spots, but wildly uneven, and the show took about a half-season to come together. I would also argue that "The Sopranos" didn't become "The Sopranos" until "College," and while the "Lost" pilot is impressive, it wasn't until "Walkabout" that (for me, at least) it became an obsession.
I'd put the "ER" pilot at or near the top of the list. That thing was just as much of an astonishing technical achievement and primetime game-changer for its day as the "Lost" pilot was a decade later, and the characters (Benton and Ross in particular) were more fully-formed from the jump. Placement for "The Shield" is just about right: it's one of the classic cases of a pilot changing everything you think about an actor, a genre, a network, etc., and forcing you to watch it every week.
I've always been lukewarm on "Desperate Housewives," and I thought Jennifer Garner needed a while to grow into her role on "Alias," so that'd be out, too.
Obvious omissions: Like Poniewozik, I'd put "Freaks and Geeks" on there in a second. (When I wrote about it last summer, I said it was one of the best pilots I'd ever seen in terms of establishing the characters, the world and the tone it would use for the rest of its run.) "Arrested Development," too, especially since it's rare for a great comedy to have a great first episode. (See "Seinfeld," American "The Office," early "Simpsons," etc.) I want to say the "Cheers" pilot was great, though I may just be thinking of the opening scene where Sam cards the teenager. ("What was (Vietnam) like?" "Gross.")
The two-hour "EZ Streets" premiere was the first pilot I watched as a professional critic, and may still be the best. "Homicide" got off to a brilliant start, and Martin Sheen's entrance alone should have the "West Wing" pilot in the discussion. At least one of the two Bochco/Milch cop pilots ("Hill Street Blues" or "NYPD Blue") should be on there, both for their entertainment value and for what they meant to television in general, and if there's room for another Milch pilot, I loved the "Deadwood" opener, with Bullock hanging his prisoner under color of law and our first encounter with Al Swearengen and Wild Bill.
I was able to pry Rich Heldenfels away from his latest "Beverly Hills 90210" classic recap long enough to pick his brain, and he pointed to the first episodes of both "Mission: Impossible" and "Dragnet," both of them with elements that "24" would borrow liberally a few decades later. He also wanted me to mention "Jake's Journey" (written by and starring Graham Chapman from Monty Python) in the great unsold pilots category.
Okay, so what else am I leaving out? Or what do you think I'm throwing out that I shouldn't?