I’m a huge sucker for TV pilots. There’s a magical quality to any show’s first episode, namely because that first episode is the doorway to endless potential. Pilot episodes have a lot of legwork to do, but when done well, they can end up being the most engrossing episode of an entire series—because whereas other episodes need to culminate, climax, and wrap up loose ends, the pilot episode is unique in its freedom to set up questions and mysteries and characters without restriction.
That said, I rarely watch beyond the pilot episode of most TV series, exactly because they fail to stir up the kind of excitement and intrigue that a pilot episode ought to aim for. Which is why I’m all the more impressed by series that do it successfully. And to be honest, for these reasons, pilot episodes tend to be the most memorable ones for me.
Here are the greatest TV pilot episodes I’ve ever seen, specifically for dramatic series. I may write a separate article on pilots for comedies, given how different they are in what they aim to do.
Without question, without exception, Lost’s pilot episode is the best of all time. It is flawless in direction, acting, pacing, cinematography, music, what have you—from start to finish, it pulls you in and refuses to let go, immediately hooking itself to your mind with relatable characters, a familiar situation gone awry, an exotic and dangerous location, and the presentation of wild mysteries that keep you guessing. The final line of the episode—“Guys, where are we?”—may just be one of the most iconic TV lines in the last fifteen years.
2. Battlestar Galactica
The reimagined Battlestar Galactica actually started with a three-hour miniseries, but if I may admit, I never actually watched said miniseries. I jumped right into the first episode of the first actual TV season, and found that it was easy enough to follow despite not knowing exactly what this or that meant or why this or that was happening. Even so, the pilot episode—titled “33”—is one of the most tense, suspenseful, and effective openers to any TV series, perfectly setting up the premise and showing what this show is going to be all about.
3. Orphan Black
Imagine you’re walking through a subway station only to cross paths with someone who looks exactly like you, except completely unalike—almost like they’re from a different social class altogether. You’re intrigued, so you follow them, and before you know it, they’ve jumped in front of a moving train and committed suicide. That’s basically the opener to Orphan Black, and it only gets wilder from there. It’s one of the best science fiction shows to watch, and the pilot episode is a great introduction to the craziness you can expect from this series.
4. The Walking Dead
I truly feel like the pilot episode of The Walking Dead was the best episode of the show’s entire run—which is fine, actually, because this pilot episode can stand on its own. It’s a satisfying story in and of itself, so you don’t need to watch the rest of the series, or even the rest of the season, to appreciate the storytelling in this first episode. It’s well-directed, well-written, well-acted, and both atmospheric and memorable, on par with some of the better zombie films you may have seen.
5. The Shield
The Shield—the FX gritty drama series about corrupt cops, not the television spin-off of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—is, to this day, the greatest show about dirty cops ever made (except for The Wire, which may or may not belong in the same category). It aired during a time when cop shows were too plentiful and too similar, and broke the mold by featuring an anti-hero protagonist that lived in the moral gray. Not to mention the shocking end in the pilot episode, which made it clear that this was a cop show like no other.
6. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the strongest contender for best original series put out by Amazon Studios (and a great reason to grab an Amazon Prime subscription). The pilot episode doesn’t do anything special, per se, save to showcase the incredible writing, acting, direction, and set design that stays consistently high-quality throughout the entire series. It’s one of the rare shows that starts off strong and gets even better by the end.
7. The Newsroom
The Newsroom may have gotten lost in its idealism and flat characters partway through the series, but the first episode was a powerful one. Opening with one of the most engaging TV monologues in recent history, and riding on some great acting talent, The Newsroom’s pilot successfully promised an excellent and well-produced show, and got you invested in where it might go.
The first season of Fringe is easily the weakest of the series, but what I love about the pilot episode is how it masterfully blends character dynamics with an increasingly strange yet compelling premise. I won’t spoil anything here, but Fringe is like a mixture of The X-Files plus The Twilight Zone, and this first episode perfectly captures that essence. The show became more of a serial story with an overarching plotline in the second season, but always stayed true to the horror-slash-science-fiction ideas promised by the opener.
9. Prison Break
As far as I’m concerned, Prison Break only had one season. The sequel seasons were a mess and totally not worth watching. But it all started off with a huge bang, when Michael Scofield actually breaks into prison and spends the entire season trying to execute his master plan of breaking his wrongfully convicted brother out of prison. Everything is set up so well in the pilot episode, and I’m sad that I can’t watch this again with fresh eyes.
10. Money Heist
Do you think it’s unreasonable that heist films can wrap up in just under 2 hours? Then you’ll love Money Heist, which is on Netflix. This 15-episode limited series takes the idea of a bank heist—against the Royal Mint of Spain, no less—and really runs with it. The entire first episode is just setup that leads to the actual break in, and the rest of the series is about the actual heist in progress. It’s methodical, suspenseful, and one of the most thrilling series I’ve seen on Netflix—and the pilot episode does an excellent job setting up expectations for the ride.
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