Powered by i.TV
October 25, 2014

Best TV Pilots: Series Premieres That Made Our Jaws Drop

by Gary Susman, posted Nov 6th 2009 5:30PM
VThis week's 'V' debut episode on ABC has some dazzling moments, including a few that may shock and surprise even viewers with vivid memories of the original 1983 miniseries. But does it belong on the list of all-time great TV series premiere episodes? Compare and contrast with the list below, featuring 10 of our favorite TV pilot episodes of all time.



10. 'The O.C.'
"Welcome to the O.C., bitch," says snobby jock Luke (Chris Carmack) to poor newcomer Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie). "This is how it's done in Orange County." For that exchange alone, this episode belongs in the pilot Hall of Fame.VThis week's 'V' debut episode on ABC has some dazzling moments, including a few that may shock and surprise even viewers with vivid memories of the original 1983 miniseries.

But does it belong on the list of all-time great TV series premiere episodes? Compare and contrast with the list below, featuring 10 of our favorite TV pilot episodes of all time.


10. 'The O.C.'
"Welcome to the O.C., bitch," says snobby jock Luke (Chris Carmack) to poor newcomer Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie). "This is how it's done in Orange County." For that exchange alone, this episode belongs in the pilot Hall of Fame. The episode also quickly and effectively introduces the strands that will dominate the series: the unlikely friendship between Ryan and rich nerd Seth (Adam Brody), healthy dollops of teen romance, the notion that the parents are just as clueless about love and money as kids and lots of lovingly photographed close-ups of lifestyle envy. Sing along, everyone: "Cali-forniaaaaa ..."

249. '24'
How much action can a show pack into a single hour? Quite a lot, as '24's pilot proved. Besides introducing us to the sleep-deprived Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and the show's clever real-time gimmick, the episode also treated us to an assassination threat, corruption, blackmail, betrayal, family drama, a tranquilizer-dart shooting and (still a very raw shock even now) the terrorist bombing of a commercial airliner. Seven seasons later, the pace hasn't let up, and we still wonder when Jack finds time to go to the bathroom.

Glee8. 'Glee'
Besides introducing the William McKinley choir of lovable misfits, and the hilarious rivalry between the earnest choral director Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) and the cutthroat cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), this episode wins points for that rousing performance of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," launching a music craze and an Internet phenomenon whose ripples will likely be felt for some time.

The Cosby Show7. 'The Cosby Show'
The pilot that saved the sitcom (and NBC) was built on some classic punchlines taken from Bill Cosby's stand-up comedy routine ("I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.") and a clever set piece about personal finance told using Monopoly money. There was also the novelty (in 1984) of seeing on TV a well-to-do African-American family with two parents and well-adjusted kids. Seen today, it's hard to remember how remarkable this once was; now, the pilot simply looks like a very traditional, conventional family sitcom episode with solidly crafted jokes.

Mary Tyler Moore Show6. 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show'
On her first day of work at Minneapolis' WJM-TV, Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) meets her new boss, Lou Grant (Edward Asner), who exclaims "You've got spunk!' Mary thinks this is a compliment until Mr. Grant adds, "I hate spunk!" That was the dynamic, in a nutshell, of the next seven seasons of the show that all but invented the workplace comedy and taught us that your co-workers are a kind of family, too -- whether you get along with them or not.

ABC5. 'Desperate Housewives'
Not too many shows debut with their narrator committing suicide. But 'Housewives' starts pushing the envelope from the beginning. The first episode sees not only Mary Alice's (Brenda Strong) mysterious death but also Gaby's (Eva Longoria Parker) affair with her underage gardener and Susan's (Teri Hatcher) accidental torching of Edie's (Nicollette Sheridan) house. Through Mary Alice's sardonic narration, it also sets the tone of murderous whimsy that will mark the series ever after.

Dallas4. 'Dallas'
Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) drives home to the Southfork ranch with his new bride, Pamela (Victoria Principal) -- scion of the Ewings' fiercest enemies, the Barnes clan. None to happy with the elopement are Bobby's Machiavellian brother J.R. (Larry Hagman) and their father, aging tycoon Jock (Jim Davis), who has been trying to decide how to divide the Ewing oil and ranching empire between his squabbling sons. In a few quick strokes, the 'Dallas' pilot introduces one of TV's all-time great villains in J.R. and sets up the grand Shakespearean tensions (think 'Romeo and Juliet' meets 'King Lear') that will define the show for 13 seasons of boozing, backstabbing, and bed-hopping.

ER3. 'ER'
Had viewers ever seen a medical drama this intensely paced? You felt like you were on the gurney yourself, smashing through the hospital doors, thanks to the show's signature tracking shots. Who can take that kind of constant stress? No wonder the pilot episode saw Dr. Greene (Anthony Edwards) pondering a cushier private practice and Nurse Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) trying to kill herself (show lore has it that she was supposed to die, but fans so warmed to Margulies that the writers let her survive -- and become a series regular for years to come.) Oh, and if all that weren't enough, the pilot made an instant star of a little-known actor named George Clooney.

The Sopranos2. 'The Sopranos'
It's hard to remember now, after all the drama, all the blood, all the shouting, all the whacking, how funny this pilot was. Before 'Analyze This' played the same premise for slapstick yuks, here was a laugh-while-wincing tale of a manic-depressive mobster who saw a shrink, loved his wife and kids (even if he cheated on the wife and was baffled by the kids), couldn't help but destroy what he meant to preserve (in this episode, he burns down his friend Artie's restaurant in order to save it from becoming the site of a Mob hit), had a mother even scarier than he was and wept over ducks in his swimming pool. In short order, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) proved himself to be a typical American dad (with an atypical job), and 'The Sopranos' established itself right away as a portrait of an anxiety-ridden, Y2K America where everything was, as Tony put it in his first therapy session, "trending downward."

Lost1. 'Lost'
This much-copied pilot (exhibit A; 'FlashForward') displayed lavish visual flair (those expensive special effects, that vivid plane crash and aftermath, those lush Hawaiian locations), but all in the service of character and story. The episode introduced us to more than a dozen major characters (and, via their flashbacks, to the show's storytelling strategy), and it left us with all kinds of intriguing questions about, not just what was going to happen to these survivors, but what kind of show we were watching in the first place. Best. Pilot. Ever.



Sound off: What do you think was the best TV pilot of all time?

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum

Follow Us

From Our Partners