Starting on a Good Note: My Favorite TV Pilots

It’s TV pilot season—the time when we are introduced to the shows that stick with us forever and also the time when we can see which shows won’t make it past midseason.

Let’s be honest; most pilots are not as good as the shows they end up becoming. There’s a lot that writers, directors, and actors have to get across to the audience in a pilot, and oftentimes the story suffers as a result of so much exposition. The actors haven’t had the time to really understand their characters and develop memorable chemistry with their costars. And the look of the show is often less polished than it becomes with later episodes.

However, every season there are at least a couple of pilots that stand out from the pack. Some even transcend the stereotype and become beloved episodes for fans of the show, and an even smaller group can be considered some of the best episodes of television as a whole.

As we get closer to the time when we discover which of this year’s pilots are winners or losers, I’ve been thinking about my personal favorite pilots. Some introduced shows I have always considered must-see TV; some introduced shows I stopped watching somewhere along the way. But they all have a few things in common: They seamlessly blend exposition and entertainment; they introduce the characters in a way that made me care about them right from the start; and they reflect the best of what the show ultimately ended up becoming.

NGN’s Top 10 TV Pilots

10.) Grey’s Anatomy (“A Hard Day’s Night,” 2005): This pilot did a great job of introducing a large cast of characters and making us feel invested in their lives before the first hour was over. Meredith Grey is a deeply flawed but relatable (and intelligent) female protagonist, which is a rare viewpoint through which to tell a successful pilot. The chemistry between Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey burns from the very first scene of the episode, drawing viewers to the relationship between Meredith and Derek even before much is known about them. This pilot also manages to elicit strong emotions after such a short time with these characters. I dare you to watch (or re-watch) the final scene with Meredith and her mother without getting a little choked up.

9.) Friday Night Lights (“Pilot,” 2006): Like Grey’s Anatomy, the pilot of Friday Night Lights does a great job of not only introducing the concept of the show, but making us care about characters we’ve just met. This episode had to get people to tune into a show based on a movie, which itself was based on a book. It did this by being a true original in terms of its presentation. The pilot’s gritty style and the lack of famous faces among the majority of the cast speak to the realism that would become a hallmark of this show. The direction is outstanding, the emotions feel earned, and the groundwork is laid for a much-beloved TV show.

8.) The O.C. (“Pilot,” 2003): “Welcome to The O.C., bitch!” With those words, a pop culture phenomenon was born. This choice may be a bit of a nostalgic one on my part, but even the harshest critics of what this show became cannot deny the magnetic power of this pilot. As a teenage girl going into her sophomore year of high school, this episode drew me in like nothing on TV had ever done before. The direction, music, and casting choices are inspired. The actors all take common archetypes and humanize them, creating something that runs deeper and rings truer than other “teen drama” TV shows. Didn’t every teenager that was watching want to hop on plane to California by the time the pilot was over? And didn’t every nerdy girl want a Seth Cohen? This episode is not only a great pilot; it’s one of the best episodes of The O.C.

7.) Chuck (“Chuck Versus the Intersect,” 2007): In introducing a show about an ordinary nerd whose life is turned upside-down when he unwillingly and unwittingly becomes a spy, casting is key. Viewers had to like Chuck, had to care about him, and had to root for him instantaneously. There was no better choice imaginable than Zachary Levi. He’s one of the most likeable men in television, and that makes the premise of Chuck—which could have seemed ridiculous—something that viewers could buy into. This episode sets up the dichotomy between Chuck’s old and new lives perfectly. Also, the chemistry between Levi and Yvonne Strahovski (as Chuck’s handler, Sarah) is warm, funny, and genuine from the start—just like the show as a whole.

6.) Castle (“Flowers For Your Grave,” 2009): If Zachary Levi is one of the most likeable men in television, then Nathan Fillion is another. While it takes some actors full seasons to become their characters, Fillion’s natural charisma makes Richard Castle come alive from his first scene. All of the elements that make Castle such a unique and entertaining show are there in this episode, including the successful mixture of drama and comedy that is rare for a network procedural and the creative cases that are never what they appear to be. Ultimately, what sets Castle apart as a show is the chemistry between Fillion and his costar Stana Katic, and that is on full display in the pilot. They banter, they flirt, and they unravel each other’s stories with a surprising level of heat between them. Katic gives Detective Kate Beckett a depth that is unexpected, and by the time she walks away from a stunned Castle to the sounds of OneRepublic’s “Stop and Stare,” he’s hooked and so are we.

5.) Once Upon a Time (“Pilot,” 2011): The story told in this pilot is massive, and yet it never overwhelms the audience, thanks to great performances and seamless transitions. In this episode, Emma Swan is a member of the audience in many ways, learning about her son and the town he lives in as we learn about it, too. Jennifer Morrison plays Emma with a mixture of skepticism and warmth that keeps the story from going too over-the-top. Her costars Josh Dallas and Ginnifer Goodwin give Snow White and Prince Charming levels of humanity (and a strong chemistry) that makes even the fairytale scenes feel grounded in their own kind of realism. This pilot could have gone wrong in a lot of different places, but instead, it deftly sets up a compelling plot and gives us characters to root for right away.

4.) Firefly (“Serenity,” 2002): Introduce a diverse cast of well-rounded characters. Set up a new world with intricate details, including the use of a foreign language. Create something the television world has never seen before. Joss Whedon does all of those things and more in his initial Firefly pilot. He makes us care about morally-ambiguous characters; makes us feel transported to another time and place while still keeping that time and place relatable; and he introduces plots that are integral to the entire rest of the series with careful thought. The beauty of this pilot is the way it comprehensively introduces each character in a way that gives them meaning on the show—and to us as viewers. I firmly believe that Firefly would have had a much better fate had FOX decided to air this pilot instead of “The Train Job.”

3.) Glee (“Pilot,” 2009): Say what you want about what this show has become, but there is no denying that the pilot is one of the most creative, groundbreaking things to air on network TV in recent memory. This pilot became a huge moment in American popular culture; TV has not been the same since it aired. Beyond its cultural significance, the pilot episode of Glee represents the show at its best—a darkly comedic story about a ragtag group of underdogs brought together by music. The pure emotion evoked by the music in this episode is stunning; I have never been able to hear “Don’t Stop Believin’” without smiling since the moment I saw this episode. Glee is its own megabrand now, but, for me, it’ll always be this little pilot that could.

2.) Alias (“Truth Be Told,” 2001): This pilot is better than the majority of action movies I’ve seen in theaters. The action scenes, the music, and the direction grab your attention and hold it the entire time, barely letting you breathe. The episode weaves an intricate web of deception, secrets, and betrayals, but it keeps from overwhelming the audience by allowing us to see this web’s effect on one incredibly relatable protagonist. Sydney Bristow is put through the emotional wringer in this episode, and we immediately feel connected to her thanks to Jennifer Garner’s brilliant performance. The emotional stakes are painfully high for Sydney in this episode, and it’s those emotional stakes that make us react so strongly to each plot twist and startling moment of revelation. We immediately care about the fate of this girl with the red wig who mouths off to her torturer, and that was essential to the success of Alias as a series.

1.) LOST (“Pilot,” 2004): Between Alias and LOST, J.J. Abrams is the king of creating epic pilots that feel cinematic in scope and gripping in their emotional resonance. Everything that came to define LOST as a brilliant drama is already firing on all cylinders in the pilot—from the flashbacks to the mysteries to the depth with which we feel for these people who are simply trying to survive. I could ramble on and on about why this pilot is so incredible, but I’ll just let the show speak for itself. This moment—with Jack first coming upon the survivors and the wreckage of the plane—is chaotic, disturbing, and painfully intense. It’s also some of the most incredible television I’ve ever watched.

Which TV pilots make your list of favorites? Do you see any potential classics among this year’s crop?

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6 thoughts on “Starting on a Good Note: My Favorite TV Pilots

  1. Friday Night Lights is definitely one of my all-time favorites. I was instantly drawn into the show after watching it and it was one of the few that made me emotional for characters I had only just met.

    The show didn’t last, but the Awake pilot was one of the best I’ve seen. The cinematography was beautifully done and it created such an interesting set of worlds that I immediately wanted to see what was next.

    The Sherlock pilot was also a phenomenal start to that show, although it’s a bit unfair to compare it to most other shows, since there are only 3 episodes per season.

    Also for unconventional pilots, Battlestar Galactica started as a miniseries that aired to test a potential audience’s reaction to the show, which acts as a (very) extended pilot episode if you are just watching it now. It’s long, so it is able to do a lot, but it sets up so many of the main themes and questions the show brings up over the course of its run and has one of the more powerful moments I’ve ever seen on a TV show. The first episode once the show actually aired was also really good, but the exposition and world-building in the miniseries adds a lot.

    • I didn’t know that about Battlestar Galactica! That’s a really interesting way to begin a series, and I can only imagine the amount of world-building that is possible using that format. I love when pilots get more than their standard episode length to tell their story (Alias, LOST, and Firefly especially come to my mind).

  2. I definitely agree with you on a lot of these pilots – Castle, Glee, Once Upon a Time are some of my favorite pilots. I also remember the Grey’s pilot being pretty good, although I stopped watching after I got through the first season, I suppose because the underlying medical/doctor premise isn’t really my thing. While I haven’t seen all of the rest of Alias I do remember the pilot being wonderful. I haven’t seen Friday Night Lights (on my to-watch list!), Firefly (definitely on my to-watch list), LOST, The O.C., or Chuck (on my to-watch list as well haha), so I can’t comment on their pilots, but knowing how a fair amount of our tv preferences are similar I bet I would love them.

    A pilot I’ve recently seen that I would maybe put up there, or in a ranking just below the “top pilots,” is White Collar. Matt Bomer’s charm and charisma as Neal Caffrey is wonderful, and there is banter between Neal and Peter from the first scene they have together which says that they’ll make a great partnership before you even know they’re going to work together.The pilot also has the fun of seeing the cleverness of Neal in his break-out-of-jail scheme and the creative way he helps catch the bad guy at the end of the episode, but also has a few more emotional moments related to both Neal and Peter’s romantic life. It’s an hour long pilot and I enjoyed every minute of it, and after watching it I bought Season 1 of White Collar which is now sitting on my shelf at home waiting for me to start watching. 😉

    I would also consider putting The West Wing pilot on my list of favorite pilots, it’s wonderfully fast-paced and banter-y, shows the main characters as one of those families that are not related by blood but care for each other just the same, and makes you care about the characters enough that by the end you are desperately hoping for the same outcome in one of the character’s problems that everyone else is. Plus, the entrance of Martin Sheen as President Bartlet is genius, and gives me goosebumps every time I see it.

    • I LOVE The West Wing, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the pilot. I might have to borrow my best friend’s DVDs soon and re-watch Season 1! That show was so wonderful, so I can imagine the pilot was excellent.

      And now I really need to watch White Collar! So many people I know watch it and love it, so I think I’ll be putting that on my to-watch list now. 🙂

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