I’m a huge sucker for TV pilot episodes.
There’s a magical quality to the first episode of any TV show, mainly because that first episode is the doorway to endless potential and possibilities.
A pilot episode has a lot of legwork to do—setting up characters, establishing the world, getting the audience invested in the plot, and standing out from other TV shows—but when done well, it can end up being the most interesting episode of the series.
Pilot episodes are special because they’re uniquely free to set up all kinds of questions and mysteries without needing to resolve them. Pilot episodes don’t have loose threads to tie up; they can simply throw you in the deep end, and that’s exhilarating.
But there’s a skill to doing a proper pilot episode, and it can be one of the hardest tasks to pull off. That’s why I’ve seen so many pilot episodes but very few follow-up episodes.
Here are some of the greatest pilot episodes throughout TV series history. They’re all impressive in their own ways, but they all accomplish the same thing: make you want to watch the next one!
15. Into the Night
Into the Night is a Belgian post-apocalyptic mini-series. Well, technically it’s post-apocalyptic… but the series takes place right as a cosmic event wipes out most of Earth.
It may not have the best characters or acting you’ve seen on TV, but the premise is intriguing—especially if you love science fiction—and the pilot episode is directed in a way that keeps you hooked all the way through.
Santa Clarita Diet is one of the most unique TV sitcoms you’ll ever watch. It’s a double parody of two genres: the zombie horror genre and the home-life sitcom genre.
Sheila and Joel are two real estate agents in the middle-class suburbs of Santa Clarita, but Sheila wakes up one day to discover that she craves human flesh and can’t eat anything else.
The pilot episode sets everything up so well, and establishes the light-hearted tone that shapes the entire series to come.
Remember Heroes? The cultural hit that turned TV on its head in the middle 2000s? The ensemble-cast superhero TV series that appealed to a mainstream audience with subject matter that was strictly reserved for “nerds and geeks” until then?
Well, the series would fumble its second season and tumble into the dumpster with its remaining seasons, but the first season of Heroes is one of the most solid seasons of speculative TV.
And we can thank the the pilot episode of Heroes for that, because it deftly introduces a large cast of characters and pulls us into each of their stories, all while hooking us with mystery after mystery and question after question.
12. Money Heist
Don’t you hate how most heist movies wrap up in just under 2 hours? Seems pretty unreasonable, doesn’t it? So much can go wrong during a heist, and a movie just can’t capture it all.
Which is why Money Heist is so awesome. This 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. It’s methodical, suspenseful, thrilling, and the pilot episode does an excellent job setting up expectations for the ride.
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The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the strongest contender for best original series put out by Amazon Studios.
The pilot episode of the series doesn’t do anything special per se, except to showcase the incredible writing, acting, direction, and set design that stays consistently high-quality throughout the entire series.
It’s an oddly uplifting series despite the heavy themes and subject matter, and it certainly feels like a one-of-a-kind show. It’s even rarer because it starts off strong and gets even better over time.
10. The Shield
When I say The Shield, I’m talking about the gritty drama series on the FX network that was about corrupt cops, NOT the television spin-off of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
To this day, The Shield is the greatest TV series about dirty cops ever made (only surpassed by 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 sterilized and too optimistic. The Shield broke the mold by featuring an anti-hero protagonist that oozed moral gray.
Not to mention the shocking end in the pilot episode, which really made it clear that this was a cop show like no other.
Michael Schur brought us much joy with his various TV sitcoms—including The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine—but he perfected his craft with The Good Place.
You can sense the classic Schur elements in this series, but it feels far removed from his other three sitcom hits. Instead, The Good Place feels tighter, more refined, and solid from the first scene.
The premise is great and ripe with potential, and the writers wringe every ounce of awesomeness out of it over the course of four seasons. But it all starts with the excellent pilot episode!
The first season of Fringe is the weakest of the series, but what I love about the pilot episode is how masterfully it 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 with its twists and shocks.
The show became more serial over its run starting with the second season, but it always stayed true to the horror-slash-science-fiction trappings promised by the opener.
7. The Newsroom
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The Newsroom may have gotten lost in its idealism and buried under flat characters along the way, but the pilot episode of the series was a powerful one.
Opening with one of the most engaging TV monologues in recent history, and carried by great acting talent, The Newsroom’s first scene successfully promised a well-produced show, and got you invested in where it might go from there.
Smartly-written TV sitcoms are hard to come by, but Arrested Development is one of the most notable examples, and we can thank this show for proving how funny a comedy TV show can be without any laugh tracks to back it up.
Arrested Development is witty, absurd, clever, irreverent, and downright hilarious—as long as you’re paying attention. The jokes are dense and layered, and there’s a lot to unpack in each scene.
The pilot episode of Arrested Development is the perfect introduction to the Bluthe family, establishing each character’s personality and quirks in just a few lines.
Netflix rebooted the series with seasons 4 and 5, but they feel like a different show. We recommend watching the first three seasons and leaving it at that.
5. Prison Break
For me, Prison Break only had one good season, and that was the very first. The follow-up seasons were a mess that retroactively ruined what the show had accomplished.
But if you only watch the first season, it’s fantastic. The pilot episode starts with a bang as Michael Scofield actually breaks INTO prison, then spends the rest of the season executing his master plan: to break his wrongfully convicted brother out.
Everything is set up so well in the pilot episode, and I’m sad that I can’t watch this again with fresh eyes.
The pilot episode of The Walking Dead was the best episode of the show’s entire run—which is sad given how much potential was wasted, but also fine because the episode can stand on its own.
It’s a satisfying story with its own beginning, middle, and end, so you don’t need to watch the rest of the series (or even the rest of the season) to appreciate the story in this first episode.
It’s well-directed, well-written, well-acted, tense and suspenseful, with a memorable mood and atmosphere. It’s on par with some of the best zombie movies you may have seen.
3. Orphan Black
Imagine you’re walking through a subway station only to cross paths with someone who looks exactly like you, and yet they’re completely not-like you in every way—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 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 sci-fi TV shows to watch, and the pilot episode is a great intro to the craziness of this series.
The reimagined Battlestar Galactica TV series actually debuted with a three-hour miniseries, but I didn’t know that when I first watched it. I’d jumped right in with the pilot episode.
Even though I was confused in some parts, I found that it was easy enough to follow along despite having skipped the preceding miniseries. And more importantly, the pilot episode—titled “33”—remains as one of my favorite episodes of TV ever.
This pilot episode is one of the most tense, suspenseful, and effective openers to any TV series. It perfectly sets up the premise and shows what this show is going to be all about.
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Without question, Lost has the best TV pilot episode of all time.
It’s flawless in direction, casting, acting, pacing, cinematography, musical scoring… everything! From start to finish, it pulls you in and refuses to let go.
This pilot episode has slick introductions to some of the best characters on TV, a familiar situation that turns into a life-threatening disaster, an exotic and dangerous location, and a handful of wild mysteries that keep you on edge.
The episode’s final line may just be one of the most iconic TV lines ever uttered. “Guys, where are we?”