The Best Drama Pilots of All Time
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The Best Drama Pilots of All Time

By Daniel Carlson | Seriously Random Lists | June 11, 2012 | Comments ()


Pilots are strange and wonderful things. They have to be gripping enough to make you want to tune in for 10 or 20 more episodes to see what's going to happen, but they also have to give you time to breathe. They have to introduce a ton of characters, but they can't sacrifice story momentum. Most of all, they have to do their best to set the tone and voice of the series, even if those things wind up maturing over time in unexpected ways. Sometimes they don't always get it right. My favorite comedy on the air right now, "Parks and Recreation," didn't find its voice until its seventh or eighth episode, and the pilot of last season's "New Girl" only hinted at the warmth and weird camaraderie that would evolve throughout the year.

Sometimes, though, a pilot episode will knock it out of the park, in effect forcing what follows to work harder to measure up to the first few minutes of the series. Some pilots are so good they even manage to outclass what comes after, or at least cast a long and imperious shadow. The pilots below are outstanding for the way they define their series and get to the heart of what matters in the stories they're going to tell, whether it's small-town relationships or twisted spy stories. This list is just for drama pilots; the comedy list is coming soon.

The first two hours of "Lost" are some of the most exciting adventure-based storytelling in modern TV history. The two-part pilot is epic in scale -- with a budget reported to be between $10 million and $14 million, it was the most expensive pilot in ABC's history -- and every cent shows up on screen. Action, mystery, drama, and a host of strong characters fighting for survival: it's almost a movie unto itself. When the monster eats the airplane's captain, you know something's very wrong with the island, but when the survivors decode a distress call that says "The others are dead. It killed them. It killed them all," you're hooked. For all the show's later missteps, this remains a phenomenal episode.

"Twin Peaks"
It's amazing something as twisted and unique as "Twin Peaks" ever made it to broadcast television. The pilot episode -- released as a standalone film in Europe, with a different ending -- perfectly sets the mood for David Lynch's surrealist soap opera, from the dead girl wrapped in plastic to the psychic mom cursed with visions of a killer. Some of the more iconic moments from the series don't occur here (Cooper's infamous dream doesn't show up until the end of the third episode), but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better way to start a mystery story than this.

"Friday Night Lights"
I checked out "Friday Night Lights" when the first season hit DVD. I'd heard good things, but I'd also grown up in Texas, and I didn't know if I'd be able to enjoy a show so enamored of the small-town sports culture that had never captivated me. By the end of the first hour, I was doing my best not to cry and already reaching for the remote to cue the next episode.

"The Walking Dead"
The pilot of "The Walking Dead" is miles better than everything that came after it. It's a spare, haunting, eerie episode that sets up the zombie-filled post-apocalypse with surprising grace and restraint. It relies on subtle horror to get the job done, and there are few sequences more disquieting than watching Deputy Rick Grimes make his way alone through a city overrun with jerkily animated corpses.

"The West Wing"
"The West Wing" came blasting out of the gate with its first episode, which won three Emmys and was nominated for a fourth. (The show earned nine Emmys its first year, setting a record both for most awards in a single season and most awards for a show's first season.) The pilot finds the staff already working hard to serve the president who acts as a father figure for them -- over the years it's revealed that their real fathers are either dead, dying, or absentee -- and their actions are warm and blessedly free of irony. Creator Aaron Sorkin was always fond of big gestures and grand ideas, and the pilot culminates with the president storming into a meeting, reciting the Ten Commandments, and getting the rhetorical better of a gang of right-wing fundamentalists. It's an hour defined by optimism and commitment, and it never fails to offer a captivating look at an alternate world where domestic issues and relationship problems trump war and terrorism.

"Breaking Bad"
The opening moments of the "Breaking Bad" pilot are jaw-dropping: Walter White drives an RV through the desert with an unconscious passenger, trying to outrun police sirens. Then he stops, films a brief message of love for his family, and draws a gun to stand his ground against whatever comes. Also, he's not wearing any pants. Creator Vince Gilligan shoves you right into the action, but the real skill comes when he's able to cut back in time and show how organically Walter's desire for family security morphed into a burgeoning criminal enterprise. (If he could only know the Heisenberg he'd become.) A thoroughly riveting hour.

"Six Feet Under"
Grief, anger, betrayal, and the most emotionally raw funeral in TV history. Not bad for one hour. Alan Ball's HBO drama offered a moving, nuanced look at life and death through the eyes of the Fisher family and their funeral home, and the series' debut is packed with the strange and heartfelt ideas that the show would continue to explore over five seasons.

J.J. Abrams knows how to do pilots. The first episode of "Alias" is a fantastic table-setter for the action and mystery to come, even if the show couldn't sustain that level of focus over five season. (The first two are stunning, and the third is still quite good.) It's taut and economical, taking Sydney Bristow from shy student to lethal secret agent in just a few minutes, but it's never confusing, and it's sure not forgettable.

The Pajiba 10 -- For Your Consideration: Tom Hiddleston | 5 Shows After Dark 5/11/12

Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Electra Rose

    I know I'm almost alone in this, but I loved evil Lauren and the third season of Alias.

  • Christine Dix

    Deadwood and Dexter....

  • mac

    Veronica Mars. Come on now. In over an hour they introduced what was instantly one of the strongest lead female characters ever on tv, a hot high school girl who was emotionally layered, came off as sympathetic to the audience, and who was actually interesting. By the way you find out in an hour - her best friend died, her mom left her, her was dad publicly humiliated, oh and she was raped and she has no idea why or how any of those things happened but isn't whining or complaining about it, she's just hellbent on getting justice for all of it ... honestly even if you somehow didnt like the pilot, you owed it Rob Thomas to keep watching out of respect for the balls he had to even try to get that pilot on air.

  • TheOriginalMelody

    YES! The first episode of Alias is one of my favorite single episodes of television ever.

  • dizzylucy

    I remember casually starting to watch Lost, thinking it might be interesting, and then being absolutely glued to the TV for 2 hours. Even re-watching it, it's riveting.
    I agree about BSG, Mad Men, and Justified being added, they were all pretty great. I'm not a big sci-fi fan, but I remember BSG being pretty gripping. Now I want to watch it again...

    Arrested Development is one of the few comedies that was strong right out of the gate - while it took me a few episodes to really become an obnoxious superfan of the show, when I look back at that pilot, it's hilarious, and all the characters are right there, fully formed.

  • Nine

    Hello X-Files?
    Where's MASH?

  • KC

    Can you guys do a list where you list shows that had awful pilots or first seasons but now managed to become good or even favourite shows of yours?

  • Clitty Magoo

    Boardwalk Empire's pilot was directed by Martin Scorsese.
    It's sweeping, beautiful, and riveting.

  • no one

    I don't disagree with any of those. But, ... narrowing it down even more, to the best first minutes of the first episode of the first season, I'd say Dexter. I was hooked right after the voice over started as he is cruising through the dark streets of Miami.

  • RebeccaH

    Don't forget My So-Called Life!

  • Ty

    Say what you will about the rest of the show, and personally I think it's pretty great, but the first two episodes of "The Killing" are incredible.

  • I watched "thirtysomething" last summer and was surprised at how consistent the show was right from the first episode. There are two major conflicts introduced (one couple has a few month old baby, another guy has cheated on his wife) that set up overarching storylines for the whole season, all while effortlessly introducing the other characters that will be focused on in later episodes.

    Also, I dig suspenders.

  • Fredo

    My initial thought when seeing the topic was "Battlestar Galactica." I thought the series would have no merit and that episode changed my mind entirely.

    I'd also add Justified's pilot (remember Raylan shooting the gun thug in Miami, Boyd and his bazooka and "God dammit woman, do you only shoot people when they're having supper?!")

  • AudioSuede

    Are we talking the first episode or the miniseries? I feel like that needs to be clarified by everyone who's mentioning BSG.

  • No Deadwood? For shame!

  • (Otherwise, though, a pretty nifty little list.)

  • Nylee

    I just started watching Six Feet Under for the first time, I'm only nine episodes in. I have to agree that the pilot was amazing. I initially just wanted to watch one episode to give it a try. Four hours later I had to force myself to step away from the laptop. It just sucked me in from the word go.

  • Forbiddendonut

    Very solid list.

    Good work.

    Now if I can only get Disqus to start working at "work"...

  • zeke_the_pig

    Fucking tell me about it! Sometimes it works perfectly; sometimes (like now) it only lets me post as replies. Other times it calls in sick completely, making up some bullshit about its hair being in pain or other such Bo-Lax. Overall - good system, but sometimes it's an unpredictable, mercurial motherfucker. Especially at work. Where it's needed the most.

  • I_Sell_Bookls

    No love for The X Files pilot? Or Battlestar Galactica (even with the glowing spine sex)?

  • HelloAlix

    I think the pilot of Damages is probably the single best hour of television ever created.

  • NoPantsMcLane

    The Shield. Watching the main cop character shoot another cop in the face at the end of the pilot sure made my jaw drop.

  • zeke_the_pig

    And his, I bet.

  • Mari

    How is Veronica Mars not on this list?!

  • Brittany

    No Veronica Mars? You're killing me Carlson.

  • space_oddity

    For all those saying Firefly. Although I definitely agree, it's a weird situation given that Fox aired the episodes out of order. So the pilot was not the first broadcast. I don't know if that makes a difference, but it's how I experienced the show (and then re-experienced differently, in proper order, with DVD doo-dads later)

  • AudioSuede

    I thought about that. But then, that would make the Battlestar Galactica argument many people have made even more complicated. I guess since they're both excluded, that must be the reasoning behind it.

  • randomhookup

    Greek subtitles make everything seem more enigmatic.

  • ed newman

    Perhaps this should have been called the best drama pilots of the last 20 years. I refuse to believe that nothing older than Twin Peaks qualifies. No Rockford Files. No The Prisoner. No Twilight Zone. No Murder One. No Hill Street Blues . No LA Law. No Maverick.

    I have no qualms with your choices but I question the title of this post.

  • Mr.West

    My vote is an old one, "The Incredible Hulk." The story took it's time and grounded itself in reality. Bixby sold the pathos of the wistful Dr. Banner and of course there's Lou in his prime as the eponymous creature. Old to be sure but no less effective.

  • dmm

    Second the Veronica Mars pilot - that definitely hooked me.
    I'd also add Freaks and Geeks and Dead Like Me. For short lived series, they did a great job of introducing and setting up the characters and their arcs.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Ok I know we're snarky and all, but I don't think we're so bad as to downvote everyone. So what's the deal? Do we have a downvote troll? Or is this another disqus glitch?

  • emmelemm

    I know, I saw that! I was like, Does every comment start out with an automatic -1 or something? Who's taking the time to downfist every fucking comment?

  • AudioSuede

    "DOWNFIST ABBEY!" - Porn director who's been trying ALL DAY to think of a good porn parody for Downton Abbey.

  • emmelemm

    I wish I could "like" that more than once.

  • Martin

    Hated the LOST pilot- but I realize I'm largely alone.

    Good list otherwise.

    I might have added Studio 60, but that really belongs more on a list of "Shows with the biggest drop off between a brilliant pilot and the rest of the series".

    And was the "Dexter" pilot any good? I can't really recall. Which probably means no.

  • L.O.V.E.

    I haven't seen it in over a decade, but I recall the ER pilot as being very impressive.

  • No matter how I feel about the ending of "Lost," that two-hour pilot will always be a favorite.

    You didn't cry at the end of the pilot of "FNL?" You're made of stronger stuff than I.

    Does "Veronica Mars" count as drama? That was a pretty great pilot.

  • Holy crap, can I say "pilot" a little more? Pilot. Pilot pilot pilot.

  • QueeferSutherland

    Good list. Justified had a fantastic pilot episode, as did BSG (if you count the miniseries). Oh, and how did The Shield not make the cut?

  • Green_Eggs_and_Hamster

    Agree with Queefer, The Shield Pilot was one of the best in memory. It set up everything for the first season, and that ending was phenomenal. It was everything that a Good Pilot should aspire to.

  • Laurie Lolo Oatsvall Hutson

    Firefly? The greatest.

  • branded_redux

    Nicely done, Dan. It's a great point about a pilot needing to strike a balance between hook and setting the table for the forthcoming story. I wonder if any comedies have been able to accomplish the same with their pilots, especially given your mention of P&R and how comedies do take time to find their audience and rhythm.

    The only drama, other than those listed above, that's hooked me was "Justified." That pilot goes a long ways in providing backstory while sandwiched between two very significant (and intentionally unspoiled) scenes for Raylan.

  • I'm looking forward to the comedy discussion. The shows I keep thinking of - "Parks and Rec," "The Office" (US version) - had terrible pilots.

  • DominaNefret

    Does Pushing Daisies not count as a drama? Its pilot is pitch perfect.

  • AudioSuede

    All great, but I'd definitely include Firefly and, the always underrated favorite of mine, Kings. The pilots of each were so wonderfully cinematic, especially Kings. It hardly gets more grand and thrilling than that.

  • Stephen Nein

    No Battlestar Galactica? You give Lost a pass with this, "For all the show’s later missteps, this remains a phenomenal episode.", and you leave BG off?

    Oh, it's Carlson. Should have known.

  • space_oddity

    I don't know if it counts as a pilot, but whenever I loan out my copy of the BSG mini, people always come back for the whole first season.

    But absolutely agree about Lost - it's on the sheer strength of that pilot that I hung on through the end.

  • dewdney

    Yes. It hooks you in and you are lost.

  • AudioSuede

    Every time I tell someone to watch it, I become embarrassed and have to keep making excuses. The acting is terrible! The first actual episode of the series, however, was great, and from there the show became quite good. But watching that miniseries again is a disaster.

  • Guest

    The BSG pilot is indeed EXTRAORDINARY. That opening scene is just...

  • dewdney

    The opening scene hits you and then Starbuck is a girl,and Six is perfect, and the music and the lighting, and Vancouver you make a stunning Caprica and and and...there is just so much to say about that show. :)

  • Alias. Yes. During my sophomore year of college, watching Alias was our roommate bonding activity. It was just so good for those first two seasons. And then after the most intense season ending cliff hanger of all time (I will physically fight any naysayers), it just all went straight to hell. But those first two seasons... that was television gold.

  • pen

    my mom and i were just talking not 10 minutes ago about why lost was such a great pilot...and now here it is, first article on the page! weeeeird?

  • Neil

    No Studio 60? Shame!

  • bbmcrae

    You're hilarious!

  • lowercase_ryan


  • Luke Anthony Matthews

    ALIAS. Hell yes.

  • fracas

    Studio 60 had a great pilot. That opening rant was awesome.

  • I agree with all of these, but I would also add Mad Men to the mix.

  • Sean

    Hill Street Blues. Spend an hour getting to know these two cops...and they get killed at the end. Then brought back when it went to series.

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