Thursday, September 04, 2008

Take me to the pilots

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?


Byron Hauck said...

The O.C. Pilot blew my mind back when it aired and is directly responsible for TV being my primary hobby now, but I'm not sure how well it holds up.

bgt said...

If unaired pilots are eligible, "Heat Vision & Jack" has to be a candidate. I have to disagree on both Alias & Lost, I thought both pilots were extremely strong right out of the box. (Just to prove I'm not a JJ Abrams fanboy, I was not nearly as impressed with the Fringe pilot).

I don't know if "33" would count for BSG since it was preceded by the miniseries, but that has to rank as one of the greatest first episodes of all time. The tension of that episode was incredible.

For ER, it may be because I didn't see the pilot until a year or two into the show's run, but I remember it being very slow compared to the pace the show would achieve by the end of Season 1.

I know "It's Always Sunny" isn't everyone's cup of tea, but the pilot does an excellent job of setting the tone & introducing the characters.

No doubt on "The Shield" - I'd put it very high on the list, if for no other reason than the last 30 seconds when Mackey proves that the show is "so wrong".

Nick Edwards said...

I think the unsold and unaired, but, thanks to the internet, widely seen, pilot for Global Frequency is probably a decent candidate for the list.

-M said...

I'm not sure if these pilots meet all the criteria of establishing a world, tone, and characters and given my age I'm also going to bias young but I vote for the following:

Veronica Mars (So what if this ends up on every "best" list I have? It's not a bias, I swear!)

The X-Files

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia


Burn Notice

Battlestar Galactica (ok, technically a miniseries)

My So Called Life

TL said...

24? Seriously? A plane blows up, Jack keeps driving back and forth between 2 different buildings, and it ends with two cars driving portentously in opposite directions. That's about it.

Anonymous said...

While I have seen a lot of good t.v. pilots, there are three shows that when seeing the pilot episode I was hooked for the duration of the show:

Freaks and Geeks
Veronica Mars

Anonymous said...

Friday Night Lights

Anonymous said...

The OC pilot really was something, though I agree with byron that I'm not sure if it still works.

And to be fair to the Desperate Housewives premiere, when the camera pulled under the pool as the narration talked about secrets that lay beneath I laughed so hard that I watched the whole first season.

If a good pilot tells a viewer what to expect for the rest of the season/series then other show's that pop into my head without really thinking about it include Twin Peaks, ER, Sportsnight, Veronica Mars, Ugly Betty (seriously, the entire show is spelled out in that first hour) and Mad Men (if the pilot hadn't been so amazing I might not have been able to forgive its terrible second episode).

And, Desperate Housewives reminds me, that Dana Delany's two previous shows (Kidnapped and the awesome Pasadena) both had very strong pilots. Actually, China Beach's two hour pilot was pretty amazing as well.

TL said...

Oh, how could anybody have forgot Twin Peaks! (And, if we're going to delve into unaired pilots, Mulholland Dr.?)

Unknown said...


The series took a wrong turn when they introduced Tess late in the first season, and then the second season went off the tracks (with a few standout eps), but the (aired) pilot was spot-on.

Unknown said...

American Gothic

I remember being blown away by the "American Gothic" pilot. I wonder if I saw it today whether I would feel the same.

My So-Called Life
Once and Again
Six Feet Under
EZ Streets
China Beach
Twin Peaks
Freaks & Geeks

Anonymous said...

"The West Wing" is the best pilot I've ever seen. It was the precursor to what was the probably the best two-year stretch any network TV drama has ever had, but also a reminder that Aaron Sorkin's show was never really the same after the 9/11 attacks.
"My Name Is Earl" is the best comedy pilot in recent years. If Greg Garcia is serious about Season 4 returning to the basics of The List and it's anything like the debut show, that'd be great news.
Other pilots I really liked are "Nip/Tuck", "Futurama", "Survivor" (yeah, they had to buy the entire run in 2000, but it was still the first episode and still kicked ass), "NYPD BLUE" and the original "CSI".
A really bad pilot for a good show was "Friends". It doesn't hold up at ALL and none of the Gang of Six is anywhere near as funny in it as they were later on.

Anonymous said...

Totally showing my bias here, but Six Feet Under, Dexter, Moonlighting, Northern Exposure should also make the list.

I'd also agree with BSG except for that whole mini-series deal :) Unfair advantage.

I'm undecided about the Cosby Show- that was a bit uneven as well, but it did a lot in the time it had.

TL said...

Thinking through this, I'm struck by how many shows I've genuinely enjoyed have bad to at best uneven pilots. It's a wonder anything ever gets made.

Anonymous said...

"You got spunk...I hate spunk" that entire scene is hilarious - and I don't have to name the show and you know it and you're laughing.

But it's old, and as you said, these lists don't like old.
So, for more recent shows: Mad Men, 24, The Nine (remember that- great pilot, but...), The West Wing & Studio 60 (another but...), Six Feet Under.

Is it that sitcoms take a while to gel? Is that why there are so few memorable sitcom pilots?

Anonymous said...

My problem with this list is that it's very, very recent shows. What about classics like THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW or TAXI, which had great pilots?

I do love unaired pilots -- I practically memorized both THE GREATEST SHOWS YOU NEVER SAW specials. I have Lee Goldberg's first book of unsold TV pilots, which inspired the specials, though I haven't picked up the second.

One I am obsessed with, though it is hardly brilliant, is SHANGRI-LA PLAZA, a bizarro musical sitcom from 1990 featuring a singing Melora Hardin. The opening credits alone will sear themselves on your corneas.

You can watch it in three parts on YouTube starting here:

I am still waiting for JAKE'S JOURNEY to materialize online -- it was the last project for both Monty Python's Graham Chapman and legendary director Hal Ashby. Anyone know anything about it?

Matter-Eater Lad said...

Seconding Twin Peaks. I just rewatched the pilot and it reminded me just how hard my mind was blown when I watched it in 1990.

The Nine had an amazing pilot, too, but the series fizzled out almost immediately.

Does "Rose," the first episode of the new Doctor Who, count as a pilot?

Anonymous said...

Pushing Daisies, Battlestar Galactica and Friday Night Lights would definitely make my list.

And this talk about TV Guide making a best pilots list got me thinking that someone should make a list of the best TV title sequences. I would list my top 10 here but I think a lot of people would mistake it for a top 10 pilots list. Maybe you could do one, Alan.

Anonymous said...

Watching Leo's entrance scene into the White House in "The West Wing" Pilot changed everything for me.
Never had I seen such attention to detail as well as an abundance of issues thrown at the viewer to catch up with. It just blew me away.


Matthew said...

What about the pilot for Twin Peaks? You can feel television being reinvented as you watch it. By the end of the episode, you're drawn into a compelling mystery, you've have good introductions to a huge cast, all the key conflicts are set up. It's hilarious in parts, disturbing in others, frequently upsetting and haunting. It's a pretty good representation of what the show turned out like, the show's uncomfortable disorienting mix of comedy and horror (the only significant element of the show that they introduced later was the sheer surreal element of the Red Room). The fact that the show beame such a hit really shows what a great job the pilot did in making an impossible series accessible.

David J. Loehr said...

It's funny, when it comes to unaired pilots, people (including Poniewozik) keep bringing up "Heat Vision and Jack" and "Lookwell." I've seen them both, they're amusing, but it's pretty clear why they never went to series. They don't work for the full length of their pilots, what would episode two be like? Or, as Ken Levine likes to say, what would the seventh season opener be?

And yes, "What's Alan Watching" was a lot of fun. I would have liked to see their seventh season opener.

My favorite pilots, in no particular order:

Arrested Development
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The Shield
EZ Streets
The West Wing
Twin Peaks
Northern Exposure
and I'm grasping for a tenth one...

But in all of those, the pilot really does encapsulate the series. Cheers was a good pilot, but Frasier was a great one in that it had to reinvent and ground the character, and it did so with style and wit.

And worst pilots for great shows? 30 Rock is close, but "Head of the Family," which became the Dick Van Dyke Show, might have to be at the top of the list...

Matthew said...

By the way, sorry about that. When I first read the post, noone had mentioned Twin Peaks, but it took me a while to get around to posting, and in the meantime it seems several people raised it. So sorry about the repetition.

"You got spunk...I hate spunk" that entire scene is hilarious - and I don't have to name the show and you know it and you're laughing.

That sounds familiar, but I can't think what the show was.

Anonymous said...

I saw the pilots for Studio 60 and 30 Rock the same night (the one with Dratch, in 30 Rock's case) and remembered thinking "Well, I can't wait to watch the former every week and the latter's terrible!" Of course, I gave up on Studio 60 three episodes in and may as well have a counter on my laptop for 30 Rock's third season premiere. Pilots aren't always good predictors, huh?

My top pilot is definitely Twin Peaks. No matter how many times I've seen it, I still get chills when Jack Nance can barely spit out the words "wrapped in plastic."

Mads said...

Veronica Mars is probably the best pilot I've ever seen (and I agree that the "Freaks and Geeks," and "Arrested Development" pilots were great.) The compelling first season main mystery was laid out, the characters were introduced in a way that was organic and interesting, and the voice-overs were great from the get-go. They also introduced the Veronica-rape story line in a way that felt real and emotional without being over-dramatic. A lesser-show would have turned all that story line into a soap opera, but VM hit all the right notes with it. On many great shows, the pilot is just a starting point that gets you interested and maybe has a hint of the brilliance that's to come (like on one of my favorite shows, "How I Met Your Mother.") But the "Veronica Mars" pilot is one of my favorite episodes of the entire series (and the series was excellent). I'm still holding out hope for a movie.

Unknown said...

Mine, and it's recent, was the pilot for The Riches. The writing, the acting, the unusual world that it exposes are just incredible. Unfortunately, the show itself didn't keep up.

Anonymous said...

I agree on "My So-Called Life" and "Once and Again," but I'm going to suggest something a bit more left field: "Everwood."

It was beautifully shot, wonderfully acted and thoughtfully written. I got the tone and characters right away. And it wasn't your typical WB family drama. It was raw and sad and angry. You had Ephram calling his father a dick to his face.

Definitely a precursor of Greg Berlanti's bright future.

Anonymous said...

Firefly, the 2 hour real pilot.

Eric said...

Both "The Cage" and "Where No Man Has Gone Before" are very strong pilots, though both have significant differences from the Star Trek that aired.

I'd definitely agree with both Hill St. Blues and Six feet Under.

And for all the faults of the rest of the series, the original pilot for the original Battlestar Galactica was pretty groundbreaking.

Chip Chandler said...

I remember "Profit" absolutely blowing me away, and I'd agree with the "MTM" and "West Wing" additions.

Anonymous said...

Some that made me take that second look... or just to see more of the characters:

Northern Exposure

Anonymous said...

NYPD Blue has to be on any top 10 list of pilots. First, it totally changed network TV dramas (at least, IMHO). And second, it has to be listed just because of the pre-release "hype"... including some ABC stations not showing it and the infamous Widmon (IIRC) led protests.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, for me...

Six Feet Under
John From Cincinnati
The O.C.
Studio 60 (the series died quick, but damn, I still adore the pilot)

Though number one, for me, would be The West Wing. There are a number of scenes that do it for me, including the reveal of Martin Sheen as the president, but one part has always stuck with me: "POTUS, who's that? The President of the United States", and then the cut to the intro.

Note: In retrospect, I love The Wire pilot, but it took me a while to 'get' the show, just because from the get go it was so intense.

Anonymous said...

I would definitely keep ER and Lost. I was lukewarm on Doctor shows and ER got me form the beginning to the end. That Pilot alone made it the huge hit is was.

Lost's first episode grabbed me form the opening scene and never let go.

I would add The X Files. Nearly perfect in its introducing the series.

Deep Space 9 had the best of the Star Trek Pilots. Opens with a bang (battle of Wolf 359), good sci fi story and the ending makes you say, "I want to see what happens next week!"

Freaks & Geeks of course, but that goes without saying here :-)

Buffy's pilot was also very solid.

Anonymous said...

I feel so lame, but I just dragged out the first season West Wing disc, and I see what really got me (I think my mouth was hanging open out of sheer awe) - the ridiculously long walk and talk at the start.

Mo Ryan said...

Mad Men.

Twin Peaks, absolutely.

Don't know if it's Top 10, but I totally adored the Reaper pilot. Then.... well....

ADD said...

The Prisoner, Twin Peaks and The Shield would all make my list...

Jeff L said...

Am I reading the right blog? How could you (of all people) not include The Wire, Alan??!?!

Anonymous said...

Friday Night Lights might be my all-time favorite pilot. It was just so perfectly filmed.

I also was immediately sucked in by the pilots for Battlestar Galactica (if that counts) and in hindsight the Wire, although I'm not sure anyone was sucked in by the first episode alone, so it probably shouldn't be on the list.

The Sopranos belongs on the list. It might not have been fully formed out of the gate, but it's characters were rich and I was immediately taken with the dialog, the actors, really everything about it. Lost had that going on too, although I agree that I wasn't on board for good until Walkabout. But just because the pilot wasn't the best episode of the series (or even the season) shouldn't disqualify it.

Anonymous said...

Where the comedy love?

Malcolm in the Middle
The Wonder Years

Anonymous said...

For me the choice is easy. The best pilot ever has got to be Alias. People forget how unconventional it was. It was almost like a feature length movie. By today standards, the whole time-shifting story-telling style is overdone in too many shows. But back then it was still cool. Plus, lets face it. Jenifer Garner really looked hot back then.

Anonymous said...

"Heroes" grabbed me from the pilot episode.

Of course, I don't watch it any more...

Alan Sepinwall said...

Am I reading the right blog? How could you (of all people) not include The Wire, Alan??!?!

As I said in my review of the penultimate episode of season one, the whole of The Wire is always greater than the sum of its parts, and its besides the point to isolate specific episodes as being stronger than the rest. Plus, it's a show where even the creator admits you needed to get to episode 3 or 4 to really appreciate it, which would automatically disqualify it from this discussion.

Best drama ever, not best pilot ever.

Adam said...

Given that most of my favorites have been named (esp. Twin Peaks, Hill St. and ER), can I go out of the box and nominate the Survivor pilot? *That's* an hour that introduced a new way of storytelling, a cast of compelling characters and grabbed you.

Anonymous said...

I'll add on to the raves for West Wing's pilot. Is there a better way to introduce the character of Jed Bartlett than having him burst into the room bellowing, "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me?"

Also, I'll remind you of one you were just talking about: Titus. The pilot, where Titus is afraid Ken's Dead, might be the best episode in an incredible series. Wussy.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Also, I'll remind you of one you were just talking about: Titus. The pilot, where Titus is afraid Ken's Dead, might be the best episode in an incredible series. Wussy.

That's a pretty great one. On the other hand, do we disqualify it because Fox was run by a bunch of wussies who were afraid to show it first, and therefore introduced viewers to the series with the one about Erin getting sexually harassed?

Alan Sepinwall said...

24? Seriously? A plane blows up, Jack keeps driving back and forth between 2 different buildings, and it ends with two cars driving portentously in opposite directions. That's about it.

You raise a good point. 24 may be yet another show where the run of the series makes you think the pilot was much better than it actually was. Some good things in there, and a cool idea, but not an all-timer.

Anonymous said...

Veronica Mars
The O.C. (The first sight of Seth alone, playing video games? PERFECT)
Friday Night Lights
Cover Me.
Chuck( I love the pilot)
Nip/Tuck had a great pilot
American Gothic.

Alan Sepinwall said...

What about classics like THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW or TAXI, which had great pilots?

MTM's a great pilot. Taxi's more of a solid episode of a show that would be great down the road. There's a whole lot of time spent on the John Burns character, for instance, who was such a zero that the show dumped him after the first season.

Alan Sepinwall said...

And this talk about TV Guide making a best pilots list got me thinking that someone should make a list of the best TV title sequences. I would list my top 10 here but I think a lot of people would mistake it for a top 10 pilots list. Maybe you could do one, Alan.

That's a blog post for a different day, but Matt Seitz and I wrote a story along those lines. Maybe I'll dig it up in a while and repost it to to get that discussion going.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Cheers was a good pilot, but Frasier was a great one in that it had to reinvent and ground the character, and it did so with style and wit.


(Slaps forehead)

The rare classic sitcom that started off great.

Alan Sepinwall said...

The Sopranos belongs on the list. It might not have been fully formed out of the gate, but it's characters were rich and I was immediately taken with the dialog, the actors, really everything about it. Lost had that going on too, although I agree that I wasn't on board for good until Walkabout. But just because the pilot wasn't the best episode of the series (or even the season) shouldn't disqualify it.

Both of those I wouldn't object to keeping on any top 10 list. After all, a lot of my complaints about the Fringe pilot isn't that it's bad, but that JJ Abrams set such a high standard with his previous two pilots (for shows where he was hands-on, as opposed to What About Brian or Six Degrees).

Part of my reticence about Sopranos isn't just that "College" was the episode where everybody realized how brilliant it was, but that I've talked about it enough with David "perfectionist" Chase over the years that all I see are the (minor) flaws, like the somewhat hackneyed use of doo-wop music in the scene where Tony runs down the HMO guy.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Malcolm in the Middle

Another good example of a fully-formed comedy right out of the gate. A superb, superb pilot.

"Dude! You hit a cripple!"

Anonymous said...

Six Feet Under
Mad Men
Freaks and Geeks

Anonymous said...

p.s. I don't watch this show, didn't see the pilot, but I've heard the pilot for Reaper (which was directed by Kevin Smith) was pretty terrific. I have no opinion on this, just throwing it out there for others to debate.

p.s. Does the film version of M*A*S*H count as a pilot for the series?

Anonymous said...

p.s. Does the film version of M*A*S*H count as a pilot for the series?

No, the film version was completely unrelated to the series, completely different creative team.

Matthew said...

And this talk about TV Guide making a best pilots list got me thinking that someone should make a list of the best TV title sequences.

Oh, that's a good one. Off the topic, I know, but I would go with
- Doctor Who (particularly the Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, and the new series)
- The Wire (okay, I've only watched the first season so far, but I have had an opportunity to see the other seasons titles, and they are all really great)
- Babylon 5 (I think particularly the third, fourth, and especially the fifth season)
- The Sopranos
- M*A*S*H
- Carnivale
- The Avengers (colour Diana Rigg)
- Freaks and Geeks
- Twin Peaks
- Star Trek

I would be interested in reading the story Alan mentioned.

Anonymous said...

My top 10 pilots of all time would be:

Sports Night
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
The West Wing
Freaks and Geeks
Veronica Mars
Gilmore Girls
Friday Night Lights
Arrested Development
Six Feet Under (I am glad they dropped the fake promos, though)

Marty McKee said...

They only made good pilots beginning in the '90s? Amazing.

Matt said...

The pilot script for Studio 60 was much better than the aired pilot, in part because of a deleted scene between Danny and "not Maureen Dowd" where he figures out the scheme. And the "Alias" pilot is great--especially the final moments with Garner and Garber establishing a parental bond for the first time.

"Picket Fences" (which I watched Season 1 of last year) had a solid pilot, establishing the strange balance of weird and heart that was the show. And L.A. LAw scores points if just for killing a major character in Act I.

Question Mark said...

Studio 60's pilot was unbelievably good. I cannot say how fired up I was for the series after that first episode. Ah, too bad...

The 'Friends' pilot was atrocious in hindsight. People forget that Ross basically asks out Rachel at the end of the episode, which is kind of funny given how the next year (and really, the rest of the series) is spent with them in pursuit of each other.

PamelaJaye said...

I'm so excited that anyone *remembers* Once and Again that i had to dive in early. (we still don't have season 3 on DVD)

ER was great. That one scene with Benton giving the orientation to Carter was shot 24 times before they got it right and twice more for good measure. I don't know how mant pages long it was, but you have to admire it, along with Pres Bartlett's entrance - the West Wing was best early on when there was more humor and personal interaction between the characters.

Of course I would be fond of Grey's pilot, despite the glaaring inaccuracies. Scrubs didn't declare itself till ep 4 - My Old Lady.
Chicago Hope's first 4 or 5 eps were boring gold men debating ethics at a conference table - and then Geiger bit EG Marshall and Adam Arkin freaked out and went Gurney surfing in his undies.

Enterprise's pilot was miles better than most of its first season.

As for how to get and keep an audience, The Pretender set up its two major mysteries in it's first two eps, which really grabbed me in a way that its 1996 classmate, Scott Bakula's Mr & Mrs Smith should have done but, sadly, didn't.

I loved Jorneyman but I was committed before the pilot, so I can't judge. Quantum Leap, anyone?

I also liked Ally and Buffy (though it took me 5 eps for Ally and a while for Buffy - while I saw the pilot of the Practice and didn't watch it again for a yeaar or two)
I was committed to Ally with the pilot, but I didn't fall in love till eps 5 and 6. Buffy took longer (like till she and Angel had sex) The pilot bound me to Willow, but nothing else was holding me. (and mind you, I started watching Buffy on FX in 01)

House was too... orange. the color was just off, and some of the best scenes were cut. Wilson grabbing House's cane in the elevator was awesome - and cut.

Private Practice's backdoor pilot, flashing for Seattle to LA and back gave me whiplash. Last week I edited out all the LA parts (which severely damaged Meredith's closing monologue...

WKRP anyone? The Powers that Be? (I do believe Judge Kittleson slapped the maid and knocked her down the stairs, and that guy from Frasier was suicidal... (our local station replaced it with a Golden Girls rerun and aired it at all odd hours of the morning, forcing me to dredge the (print) TV Guide for it each week).

Veronica Mars had me with the promos (which was tough as it was opposite Scrubs and House)

Mad Men was a curiosity. I think the mystery grabbed me, and that came later. Till then I could just wallow in the way the world was when I was 1.

I was told that the pilot of the Fugitive started six months later, and then they flashed back to the beginning in a later ep. So.. probably not. (I watched it on A&E in the 80's)

I have St Elsewhere and Fame (S1) on DVD and I can't remember the pilots of either.

My brother frequently quotes the pilot of Magnum but I only watched 2 eps of the show. Same with McGyver - when they announced a revelation, I watched it.

Actually, the pilot to Quantum Leap was one of the last eps of it I saw. I was, by then, disappointed that it didn't start earlier in the story (like before Sam leapt - preferably a while before - but i suppose that would not be a great pilot.)

and just for fun, youtube has one ep of Alyson Hannigan's series.. um... the one where the nanny was a witch - (speaking of which - Joan of Arcadia?) um...Free Spirit. It's not a pilot, but I was stunned to see it. I know I watched the show at least once.

Northern Exposure grew on me - I barely remember the pilot, but i missed it when its summer run was over.

The pilot of Studio 60 was better than the whole rest of the series.

Now someday you can do finales we loved/hated! Probably late May...

PamelaJaye said...

um... I forgot Chuck (as did everyone else I guess)
I think I saw the aired pilot...
it was Jake 2.0 but much much much better.

Anonymous said...

for my money the best pilot ever is BOOMTOWN. the show never really lived up to the promise of that episode but it's a masterpiece in and of itself.

Anonymous said...


James said...

The OC's pilot still holds up really well, in fact the whole 1st season holds up pretty well and I still bust out my season 1 dvds and watch it every once in awhile.

Veronica Mars had a great pilot, and is actually really similar in regards to its quality arc as The OC. Great first season, slightly worse second season, shits the bed 3rd season, and slightly redeems itself towards the end. Veronica Mars hit higher highs, and it probably didn't fall off as badly as Th OC did.

My top 5 list would probably go something like:

Veronica Mars
The West Wing
Twin Peaks
The OC
My So-Called Life

Man, I'm just realizing that I'm a total sucker for teen dramas.

R.A. Porter said...

A couple of comments first: @pamelajaye, it's a matter of taste, but I much preferred Jake 2.0 to Chuck. Both the pilot and the show in general. I know I'm in the minority on that.

@matthew l, totally completely agree on the B5 opening titles. Particularly season 4. I get chills just thinking about that one. "The year of pain."

I'd second @anon's vote for ST:DS9. I think that was the best scifi pilot I've seen to this day. I didn't like the show that much going forward - it had a lot of ups and downs - but that pilot was fantastic.

And, because no one else has brought up one of my favorite pilots...Wiseguy. I haven't seen it in a couple of years, and it might really be that it's the entirety of the Steelgrave arc that makes it great, but I remember thinking the pilot was something special when I first saw it.

Rev/Views said...

Am I reading the right blog? How could you (of all people) not include The Wire, Alan??!?!

I suspect it's the same reason no-one else has mentioned it here. The pilot episode for The Wire is not the show at it's finest. It's responsable for a lot of viewers claiming the show is overrated and switching off without giving it a chance.

My favourite pilots are in no particular order:

The Shield
Arrested Development
Six Feet Under
Friday Night Lights
Prison Break (The tattoo reveal just rocked hard - shame about the show now.)

Beyond those six I'd just be naming shows for the sake of filling a list. It's rare that a pilot grabs me; I kind of think maybe Lost should be on the list, but I got so disillusioned with the show during season three that my memory of the pilot is tainted.

Anonymous said...

The pilots I liked were:

Battlestar Galactica
Northern Exposure
Once & Again
The West Wing

Alan, would you be having a similar post about best series finales? I think that would be cool!

Anonymous said...

I think Friday Night Lights should not count, i mean its basically the movie with different actors, and i personally wasnt hooked after ep 6 or so.
Lost should be up there based on the first scene alone, just Jake waking up and running away from something unseen and than the first views of the survivors and some poor guy getting killed in the turbine. I still remember that scene and i dont even like that show that much.

Toby O'B said...

In my list would some of the usual suspects:

Hill Street Blues
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The Shield
Malcolm In The Middle
Studio 60
The West Wing

But here's another one for consideration - Jack & Bobby. That was a very moving episode for me, and I made sure I showed the disk (sent to me by Entertainment Weekly) to all my friends in hopes they'd watch the series.

Anonymous said...

I'd put "Arrested Development" at the top of the list. The tone and characters were so richly formed from the get go.

I disliked the "30 Rock" pilot and agree it took some time for this show to become the gem it is now. It might be my favorite show on TV.

I also wonder if "Sex and the City" shouldn't get a nod. Yes, it was annoying when Carrie talked to the camera, but I remember watching the pilot and thinking "wow, this is something..."

Susan said...

I agree with a lot of commenters that The West Wing has one of the best pilots. Funny and dramatic and a great introduction to the characters, and great writing - it hooked me right away.

Which reminds me that SportsNight did as well. When Casey calls his son to tell him to turn on the tv, because someone is simply running faster than anyone ever has before... I knew this show was going to be something special. (Also, was it in the pilot that Jeremy gives his great speech in his interview with Dana? If so, brilliant.)

Unknown said...

While I love a lot of the shows people are mentioning, I've got to add my support to the Friday Night Lights chorus. That pilot blew me away like nothing else before or since. The scenes of Saracen leading the comeback interspersed with Street on the operating table were simply riveting. After that, I couldn't stop watching.

R.A. Porter said...

@susan, I know in his interview in the pilot Jeremy says Spike Lee should sit down and shut up.

What basketball fan could argue with that?

Anonymous said...

Brooklyn South

Alan Sepinwall said...

Brooklyn South

Really? I'm as in the tank for the Bochco/Milch cop collaborations as any guy on the planet, and outside of the opening 10 minutes -- the big action sequence where one cop gets his head blown off -- it's a really slow hour that, like "Raising the Bar," is content to recycle bits from previous Bochco shows.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I also wonder if "Sex and the City" shouldn't get a nod. Yes, it was annoying when Carrie talked to the camera, but I remember watching the pilot and thinking "wow, this is something..."

SATC really didn't get good until the second season. I haven't specifically watched the pilot in a while, but I don't know that I'd be comfortable with holding up any episode from that first season as an all-timer.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Wiseguy. I haven't seen it in a couple of years, and it might really be that it's the entirety of the Steelgrave arc that makes it great, but I remember thinking the pilot was something special when I first saw it.

It's the entirety of the arc. I had never seen the series when it aired (aside from one or two random episodes where Roger LaCoco was the main character), but not too long ago, I got the Steelgrave and Profitt DVD sets as a gift, and Steelgrave takes quite a while to build. It's not a bad pilot, but the classic stuff comes at the end, not the beginning.

PamelaJaye said...

@r.a. - now i'm going to have to pull out my homemade Jake DVDs (last eps courtesy of SciFi channel)

afterthought - I really didn't fall for the West Wing till later in season 1 - Celestial Navigation, The State Dinner, He Shall From Time To Time, so despite Martin's entrance, I should remove that pilot from my non-existant list.

The ep I would use to hook a new fan? Celestial Navigation. My brother was doing email, with his back to the TV while I was *watching the tape* and it pushed his desire to see TWW from "sometime soon" to right now.

He caught up on seasons 1 & 2 at the rate of 3 eps twice a week, and filled his interim TWW cravings with fanfic that contained spoilers for eps he had not yet seen.

We once did a network upgrade together and caught ourselves pedeconferencing around the small office... (I was 42 at the time)

Anonymous said...

I love going back to read :)

Frasier- yes, I'm glad someone else remembered that

Wonder Years- OMG yes, how could I forget that one?

WKRP- Just watched that one a few weeks ago and it was funny, but a little too "pilot-y" and over the top for me to make a best list

Jack & Bobby- didn't see that one, but I remember everyone just loved it...but not enough to keep watching

Reaper- I have to say I don't get this. I thought the pilot was really wonky, uneven and just awkward (except for the Devil). I had to be coaxed into watching it weeks later. It got better, but I still don't love it.

Buffy- I'm a pretty big Buffy fan, and while I think the pilot was great, it had its issues and doesn't stand up agains THE GREAT.



Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised that no one mentioned The Simpsons. The show didn't hit it's stride until season 2 and peaked in season 4, the season that I would pick as the greatest season in television history.

Watching the early episodes, you can see the writers feeling their way around, seeding the future greatness of the show.

Anonymous said...

In the category of great pilots for shows that went on to fail (like Studio 60), I would nominate The Black Donnellys. It had a great story, double surprise ending, Joey Ice Cream's hilarious narration, and fantastic performances by Jonathan Tucker, Olivia Wilde and others. The rest of the series' short run was uneven, but that pilot rocked. Paul Haggis should have made The Black Donnellys into a movie centering on the Tommy Donnelly character, instead of a tv show about the 4 brothers.

Anonymous said...

These probably have no business being discussed among the best ever, but two pilots I loved far more than the series themselves were "Heroes" and "The Nine." Heroes did a great job establishing some characters but more than that just establishing the mythology itself. The Nine, which started with the quotidian gathering of people at the bank, skipped the robbery itself, and then launched itself into the post-rescue chaos, had one of the best first acts of any TV show I can remember. It dissipated some of that energy by the end of that first hour, but the highs were so high that it was worth remembering.

Anonymous said...

The Simpsons didn't hit it's stride until season 2 and peaked in season 4, the season that I would pick as the greatest season in television history.I agree that season 4 is The Simpsons' peak, but it's not even the greatest season 4 in television history... that belongs to The Wire. The Simpsons is second greatest, perhaps :-)

Anonymous said...

Alias and Veronica Mars are shows where the premises sounded silly to me (student by day and CIA agent/detective by night) but the pilots are what made the difference between me discarding them after the first episode and becoming must see TV for me so both make my list.
I'm going to agree with other posters about Freaks and Geeks, another show where the premise didn't excite me but the pilot made me recommend it to all my friends.
Two shows that haven't been mentioned but rank among my favourite pilots are Wiseguy and Crime Story. They both had such distinct, adult tones that made them unlike anything else on TV.

Anonymous said...

I disagree about both Boomtown and The Black Donnellys. 2 shows where I actually watched the pilots and was so turned off, that I had no desire to ever watch a second episode. For both shows, the premise did not work for me.

Anonymous said...

Don't know if it's Top 10, but I totally adored the Reaper pilot. Then.... well....

It totally got better later in the season, I swear. I was ready to give up on it, and then they started veering a little from the demon-of-the-week formula and ended up with some veddy interesting revelations in the season ender. I swear!

Anya said...

The best stuff in WISEGUY was at the end of the arcs, but the pilot was still pretty cool with Vinnie getting out of prison.

Anya said...

Also I remember watching the pilot of EZ STREETS when I was 13 years old back in 1996 (and I skipped my then fave show THE X-FILES to watch it) and thinking that I had never seen anything like that before.

Anna said...

Oh my god. I nearly had a heart attack... I had scrolled through nearly the entire list of comments here and no one had yet mentioned my favorite pilot ever: Gilmore Girls! Then finally someone did. (One person!?) Seriously, Amy Sherman-Palladino is a genius. (Or at least she was until she and her husband decided to ruin their own show just to spite the network, and then she made that horrible sitcom. But I digress.)

I'm also a little surprised to see so much Northern Exposure pilot love. Don't get me wrong - that's one of my favorite television shows of all time - but I don't think that show got really great until the finale of season one - their first aurora borealis episode, where Joel meets Adam and Chris meets his brother.

Anonymous said...

Like most of the posters here, I'd happily throw out half the TV Guide list. Arrested Development, Hill St. Blues, The West Wing, Mad Men and American Gothic are all pilots that blew me away.

A few worthy of consideration that I haven't seen brought up so far:

- Soap
- the *original* Battlestar Galactica. Sure, the new series is infinitely superior to the '70s version, but the pilot movie was a great attempt at doing Star Wars on TV that unfortunately the rest of the season never lived up to.
- The Larry Sanders Show
- Miami Vice

I don't know these pilots well enough to judge, but I'd think you'd have to give serious consideration to:

- I Love Lucy
- The Twilight Zone
- The Honeymooners
- The Flintstones

And on a lower tier (top 100, maybe), I'm personally fond of the pilots/first episodes of:

- All in the Family (the aired pilot)
- The Bernie Mac Show
- Nowhere Man
- Now and Again
- G vs. E
- The Muppet Show (way better than the first SNL)
- Blackadder
- Monty Python
- Kids in the Hall
- Chappelle's Show
- Significant Others (the 2004 one)
- Duckman
- Eerie, Indiana (the series never lived up to the pilot)
- ReBoot
- Space Ghost: Coast to Coast
- The Venture Brothers
- Ren & Stimpy (premiered on MTV in a grown-up timeslot, if memory serves)
- South Park
- The Tick (the live-action one)

And as far as unaired pilots go, I rather liked Babylon Fields.

I love Dexter, Deadwood and The Wire, but none of the pilots won me over.

Anonymous said...

I agree with many of the pilots listed here, but I haven't heard one mentioned.

Pushing Daisies

Heck, it was a Pie-lotte.

The whole world full blown on your pie plate....


jana said...

Sports Night, Six Feet Under,and even Dirty Sexy Money. Wait...maybe that's my thing for Peter Krause.

Grunt said...

I have to agree with Sports Night and West Wing but NOT Studio 60 when it comes to the sorkin Ovre. Studio 60 was a solid pilot and it was going to depend on which way Sorkin went whether it was going to be any good. As it turned out, when there was a plotting decision to be made Sorkin went in the worst possible direction.

I also would like to agree with ER being an excellent pilot but disagree with those who love the pilots for Buffy and Veronica Mars pilots. Perhaps it is because both of those shows are so excellent that their pilots just don't live up to what they are.

If we're counting first episodes then can we count the first episode of The Prisoner? I know it's the BBC but it was an amazing first episode and it completely sucked you (the viewer) in.

Anya said...

SR-I gotta disagree about the rest of 'Eerie, Indiana' not living up to the pilot. After not watching the show since it aired I bought the DVDs and was shocked at how good it still was.

Anonymous said...

@anya Not meant as a knock on Eerie, just that they really hit it out with the pilot. I didn't see all the episodes, but my recollection is that it looked like the subsequent episodes' budgets were notably lower and their directors not as good.

H E Pennypacker said...

I'd have to nominate

The Cosby Show - like every other family sitcom right up until Cosby chews out Theo "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard" changed sitcoms forever.

Deep Space Nine - opened with a space battle star trek fans had waited three years to see and closed with the main character using the concept of baseball to solve his predicament, inventive and took the star trek universe to place it had never been before - took the series itself till the end of the first season before it produced an ep that good again - and they never looked back.

The Naked Truth - deserves an award for fitting the whole setup into the first 5 minutes of show without batting an eyelid - the first 13 episodes were pure fun, after that they got the jitters