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.
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.
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.