TV pilots are a funny thing. While the intention is obviously to give the audience a taste of what a series can and will be, there are a lot of pilots that miss the mark. And even if the pilot’s solid, that doesn’t necessarily mean the show will be a success. Pretty much what we’re getting at is that TV pilots are a crapshoot. There are some diamonds in the rough, though, and TB Talks TV has come up with our list of some of the best TV pilots of all time.
While there are many differing opinions about “Lost” as a whole, it’s generally agreed upon that the two-part pilot of the show is one of the all-time best pilots for any series. It had something for everyone – a disastrous plane crash, relationships fraught with problems, and a glimpse at a bigger (possibly supernatural) mystery lurking just out of sight. You’re dropped into the drama right off the bat and it never lets up until the final “bong.” As a set-up for the series and as a stand alone episode, this two-part pilot makes up for any missteps the show may have taken later…let’s just agree to not talk about those.
Catch up on “Lost” on Hulu Plus or Google Play.
If the aim of a pilot is to let viewers know exactly what kind of show they’re going to be watching for the next few seasons, “The West Wing” must have one of the most successful pilots of all time. Written by Aaron Sorkin, who wrote most of the series’ first four seasons, and directed by Tommy Schlamme, who would helm most of the major episodes, the pilot boasted many of the series’ hallmarks: the now infamous walk-and-talk; long, witty policy tracts; romantic misfires; and a bona fide Josh Lyman screw-up. What really elevates it, though, is the way that it handled the establishing character moments that every pilot has to deal with one way or another. Toby’s rant about cell phones on airplanes, C.J.’s failed attempts to flirt at the gym, and Josh’s nap in his office tell us everything we need to know about those characters (for now). Meanwhile, the episode carefully keeps the President off-screen until the very end, so it can spring him on us with perhaps the greatest first line ever delivered by a TV character: “I am the Lord your God; thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
Watch “The West Wing” on Netflix or Google Play.
If you’re like us, the only thing you knew going into “Sherlock” was that there were long episodes but short seasons and it had Benedict Cumberbatch. That’s enough to win anyone over, right? Well, luckily for us, the famous consulting detective went even further, earning our admiration and adoration through smart, snarky remarks and a propensity for always being right. When your protagonist is introduced with a scene where he beats a corpse with a riding crop and describes himself as a high-functioning sociopath, you know you’re in for a good time. Apart from an amazing cast of characters, the show is fast-paced, has some of the best cinematography you’re likely to find on a TV show, and features a masterfully tricky case – the serial suicides. Don’t even get us started on the dialogue – “I’m in shock. Look, I’ve got a blanket.” In a series of wonderfully fun and seriously mischievous episodes, the pilot for “Sherlock” is one you don’t want to miss.
You can catch “Sherlock” on Netflix or Google Play.
The title of the first episode, “Pie-lette” is enough to tell you what kind of show you’re getting into. This cute-sy, quirky, pie-obsessed show puts its unique premise out front from the get-go. A lonely pie maker can bring people back from the dead with a single touch. But if he doesn’t touch them again within a minute, someone else nearby will die. After a second touch, the poor soul is dead forever. It’s weird, right? Well, Bryan Fuller’s short lived series pushed the envelope and played into its camp perfectly, letting you know they’re in on the joke, too.
Catch “Pushing Daisies” on Google Play.
Did AMC’s bonafide hit “The Walking Dead” start the current zombie craze? No, but damn if it didn’t bring a massive amount of attention to it. The pilot, written and directed by series creator Frank Darabont, kicks off with a little girl with something a little more serious than a flesh wound being shot by Rick Grimes, our not always heroic lead. The moment is fast and quiet and alarmingly visceral and it immediately lets the audience know just what kind of a show this is going to be. Grimes waking up post-coma to a world utterly changed is iconic, and though it’s a familiar motif, it was perfectly executed. “The Walking Dead” may have had its missteps along the way over the last four seasons, but the pilot episode , which was the most watched premiere in the network’s history, was not one of those.
Watch “The Walking Dead” on AMCtv, iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, Google Play, or Xbox.
Is it possible for a series finale to retroactively ruin a great pilot? Well, if ever one could, it would be HIMYM’s. The thing about the HIMYM pilot is that it’s good enough on its own: funny, inventive, and surprising. But because of the round-about hyper-continuity of the show’s storytelling, the pilot gets better the further you get into the series, as elements of it are referenced again and again, and become more and more important in hindsight. The downside of this is that, if you’re one of the many viewers who hated the show’s series finale, you may end up also hating a great pilot–because the two are, as they should be, deeply connected.
Watch “How I Met Your Mother” on Netflix or Google Play.
Much like the rest of the amazing show that followed, the pilot of “Breaking Bad” demands your attention from the get-go and never lets up. How can you not be hooked on a show that right off the bat slams into the middle of a situation that has Bryan Cranston in nothing but his tighty whities and a gas mask with Aaron Paul passed out riding shotgun in an old school RV? You’re slammed into what looks like the final scene of the series where Cranston’s Walter White records a touching farewell message to his family, grabs a gun and steps into the middle of the road, knowing the jig is up. Fortunately, the pilot gives you just a taste of what your in for with White and Pinkman’s crazy and dangerous foray into the world of illegal drugs. It’s a wild ride and you enjoy every minute of it (even though you know you’re rooting for the bad guys).
Watch “Breaking Bad” on Netflix.
We’ve already waxed poetic about the brilliance of “The Wire,” but the pilot itself can’t be overlooked. We get it – “The Wire” isn’t the kind of show you can just casually watch in the background while doing your taxes. It takes a serious attention commitment to keep pace with the cascade of complicated characters, intertwined plots, and season-long story arcs. The pilot, titled “The Target,” gets the whole clockwork moving by showing Detective McNulty (Dominic West) beginning his fateful investigation of Avon Barksdale’s drug ring. In a single episode we’re given the ongoing themes of the the fruitlessness of the “war on drugs,” the helplessness of poverty and the cyclical nature of it, and the inefficiency (ok, the corruption) of the justice system. “The Target” isn’t the most exciting pilot on this list, but it is exceptionally well-written and directed and it does the job of laying down the vital groundwork of the whole of “The Wire.”
Watch “The Wire” on Amazon or HBO Go.
Kyle Killen’s 2012 NBC series, starring Jason Isaacs as a detective who, after a devastating car crash, finds that whenever he falls asleep in the world where his wife is dead, he awakes in a world where his son is dead–and vice versa–lasted only 13 episodes. Despite fantastic acting and directing, and a devoted (if small) fanbase, the show just couldn’t sustain its premise long-term. And yet that very premise makes the pilot breath-taking. Because it was only the beginning of a story, the first episode of the series felt no need to provide answers, focusing instead on establishing the rules of the world and the emotions of the characters involved. It’s a meditation on grief and loss and sanity. Had it been any longer–a movie, perhaps–we probably would have gotten twists and turns and plots of the kind that arose later in the series. But isolated from those plot developments, in the absence of any kind of explanation for the scenario in which the main character finds himself, the pilot of “Awake” takes on the feeling of a magical realism short story. It’s gorgeous and gripping, and satisfying even without the answers the rest of the series would try to provide, and it’s the best argument on this list that television pilots can be an art form in and of themselves.
Watch “Awake” on Google Play.