Friday List: The best 15 television pilots

If you’re a regular reader of TV Surveillance, you know I love a good list. Or a mediocre list. Or even a horrible list. The point is I have a lust for lists. This fall, I’d like to provide you folks with more lists than ever and hopefully that will result in a weekly or bi-weekly feature I’m going to christen the Friday List. Creative, right? Anyway, some of these lists will be very serious, others will be less so, but my hope is that they are all fun and also catalysts for some discussion either here on Twitter

Welcome back! I guess doing a second Friday list makes this officially a recurring feature, so I am glad that I didn’t really lie to any of you last week. With the fall television season right around the corner, we are about to be bombarded with dozens of pilot episodes hoping to charm their ways into our lives. Chances are most of them are going to be terrible. But every once and a while, a new series comes out of the gates with new ideas and angles. Those are the kinds of pilots I wanted to talk about today. Below you will find a list of the best 15 pilots I have ever seen, along with a number that couldn’t quite make cut that I already had to extend five spots because I have no will. Just like last week, remember that I haven’t seen everything and I have certain interests and taste as far as television goes. Let’s do it.

Just outside the top 15: The Office (UK), Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Alias, Justified, The X-Files, The Walking Dead and Veronica Mars

15. Lone Star: This will probably be the most controversial pick, but I just adore this pilot and there was no way I was leaving it off the list. The emotional notes are all so well executed and although it would have screwed things up long term, this episode takes some risks that I admire.

14. Deadwood: We always talk about the importance of setting a tone with an opening scene and without question the first few minutes of “Deadwood” accomplish that goal emphatically. David Milch’s writing, especially the nasty dialogue, is in tip-top shape here.

13. The Mary Tyler Moore Show: I’ve talked a lot about the failure of sitcom pilots, but one of the most-respected comedies of all-time doesn’t have any trouble establishing characters and providing quality laughs in its opening episode. I haven’t seen a lot of MTM, but I’ve watched the pilot multiple times and it never feels dated or stale.

12. The Shield: As someone who vaguely remembers Michael Chiklis from when his parents watched The Commish, I was sufficiently shocked to see him running around like a scary bad-ass in the first effort of FX’s greatest dramatic triumph. Gritty, raw, brash and just generally awesome.

11. The West Wing: Keeping Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett off-screen until deep into The West Wing’s pilot is one of the more genius, but simple moves I’ve seen in a pilot and that approach allows Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme to quickly develop the world and the pace through their now-patented walk-and-talks.

10. Arrested Development: There are countless other Arrested Development episodes I prefer – the series benefits from the constant piling on of self-reflexivity and in-jokes – but there’s little doubt that this episode had a substantial impact on television comedy. It’s complicated but relatively straightforward at the same time and does a fine job of introducing all the characters without losing focus of Michael at the same time.

9. Pushing Daisies: If I ever want to just watch one random episode of a series I own on DVD, chances are it’s going to be the Pushing Daisies pilot. This thing is visually stunning, sharply written and charmingly performed. Chances are that by the time you read this, I’ve watched it again.

8. 24: The formula, style, pacing and intensity grew stale by the time the series ended, but we cannot forget how wild 24 seemed when it debuted in 2001. The concept could have been a terrible disaster, yet this initial episode is still one of the series’ strongest. Still holds up, too.

7. Cheers: Hopefully you know that I watched the first season of Cheers this summer and hopefully you remember that I was shocked to find that its pilot is just fantastic. Never have I watched a comedy where the actors and writers knew exactly who the characters were from the first episode, let alone the first few minutes.

6. The Sopranos: I have seen one episode of The Sopranos. It was pretty awesome. More seriously, this episode has to be high on the list despite my inexperience with the whole series because of its impact on the medium. The Sopranos pilot changed television forever – and for the better.

5. Freaks and Geeks: This episode is up there with the Pushing Daisies pilot in terms of random episodes I enjoy watching on any day. Freaks’ first effort impressively introduces a number of compelling characters, many of whom who would be clichés in lesser hands and nails the awkward tone perfectly, all the while dealing with the challenges that come with a period piece. It also feels like a complete short story by the end.

4. Friday Night Lights: FNL had a number of amazing episodes in its run, but I wouldn’t fight anyone who pointed to the pilot as the best. The acting is obviously wonderful, but Peter Berg’s direction is the real star here. He ushered in the raw, naturalistic tone and pace while still providing dramatic moments that surely helped get the series picked up in the first place. If you’re not crying by the end, I don’t get you.

3. Hill Street Blues: The Sopranos reshaped television for the 21st century, but Hill Street Blues’ pilot blew the doors open just the same nearly two decades earlier. Without “Hill Street Station,” who knows what would have happened to television’s treatment (or lack thereof) of prolonged character development and narrative serialization. This pilot is revolutionary but also just damn entertaining.

2. Twin Peaks: I wouldn’t necessarily call the David Lynch-directed pilot of Twin Peaks “revolutionary,” if only because absolutely no one could or can replicate the eerie atmosphere, tonal clashes, mystery and melodramatic underpinnings that make this extra-long episode so glorious. I haven’t seen all of Lynch’s work, but this singular episode is still my favorite of it all.

1. Lost: No offense to the aforementioned and admittedly-awesome opening to Deadwood – or any other of these pilots – but the first minutes of Lost changed the way I looked at television. Jack’s journey through the jungle and onto the wreckage- and survivor-covered beach is simultaneously visually breathtaking and surprisingly violent. From the polar bear to the rumbling in the trees to “Guys, where are we?” no pilot episode pulled me to the edge of my seat faster and kept me there longer.

There you have it! Thoughts? Share them below or on Twitter.


5 responses to “Friday List: The best 15 television pilots”

  1. You should watch more MTM. The last few seasons, in particular, are pretty great.


  2. Great choices. A few favourites of mine you didn’t include: Futurama, Frasier, ER, Six Feet Under, Gilmore Girls


  3. I’d definitely put the Buffy the Vampire Slayer pilot on that list. Set everything up so well, all of the characters are clear within the opening minutes.

    Dawson’s Creek pilot. Yep, I said it.

    The Incredible Hulk TV pilot movie from the late 1970’s was better than any big-screen adaptation of The Hulk that has come since.

    The pilot of Lois & Clark has a sentimental attachment to me in that I can watch it any time, but I can’t say it’s the “best.” The pilot episode of the long-running Dallas is noteworthy for what came later – and is a great curiosity piece to see how it all began – but I’m not sure I’d put it on a “best” list, either.

    I haven’t seen it in years, and it’ll probably never be on DVD, but I remember really loving the pilot for the CBS Fugitive remake in 2000 or so, with Tim Daly. Can’t say how it would age now, but I found it really interesting. The only reason I fell off of that show is because I figured, being CBS, it would be re-run a million times. Oops.

    The O.C. had a pilot I liked a lot at the time, right up there with the Veronica Mars pilot, but I haven’t seen either of them in years.

    Can’t say I agree with you on the Pushing Daisies pilot, though. I felt it was incredibly pretentious, way too “precious,” and made me feel like my brain was falling out of my ear. Guess it really was just not my thing. It just made me feel dumb, and I don’t really care for the response I get when I say I wasn’t into it – like “you’re not smart enough to get it,” or something like that. I should be entitled to my opinion.


  4. […] The Best 15 Television Pilots (TV Surveillance, September 2011) […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: