The first episode of a TV show is a welcome, a please come in, a sit down and make yourself at home. It’s a new start, a fresh group of people to know. These characters have a lot more to tell you about themselves and you should probably listen because this relationship might last for years.
Sitting down to watch a pilot is an act of hope. We want the show to be good, we want to be drawn in and captivated and left to crave the next episode. All too often this hope goes unrealised—there are far more bad pilots than great ones. This is why we are taught not to judge a show too much on that one first try. Comedies especially are known to take a while to warm up; the pilots of Parks and Recreation and The Office are not bad by sitcom standards but they are nothing compared with those shows at their peaks. The first twenty minutes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia give hints of what the show would become, but the characters are very clearly works in progress. Even on the drama side The Sopranos, in my mind the best TV show ever written, has a pilot that’s good but not nearly as great as the episodes that followed it.
A wonderful pilot, then, is a rare and beautiful thing. I’ve given you here a rundown of my personal favourites—those first episodes that managed not only to keep me hooked, but also to represent what their shows are really about. I can’t include every good one, but these stand out to me as what pilots should be. Get watching!
I could write a lot about the decline of Friends, about the characters becoming one-note cartoons and the plots getting further and further from what made the first few seasons so good. There’s a lot to criticise. The pilot, however, should not be included in those criticisms, because it is an incredibly impressive demonstration of how to open a sitcom and get people interested. We meet our six heroes and within twenty two minutes we feel intimately familiar with them, to the extent that by the time the credits roll it’s hard to believe you’ve only watched one episode. There’s Rachel’s arrival, Ross’s first divorce, Monica getting tricked by Paul the Wine Guy, and of course the quiet beginning of the epic Ross and Rachel romance. Sometimes when I see an episode from Season 10 it’s hard to remember how carefully and enthusiastically written Friends was at the start. This pilot is an excellent reminder.
Freaks and Geeks: “Pilot”
From a show that went too long to one cut down in its prime! Freaks and Geeks got just the one season, but every episode from that run is a classic and the first is among the best. We are introduced to Sam and Lindsay Weir, siblings and students at McKinley High, and the show jumps right into the world around them—we meet their loving but occasionally misguided parents, Sam’s nerdy, comedy-loving friends, Lindsay’s Mathlete past and slightly rebellious future. The episode is forty eight minutes long and not one of them is wasted. I cry every time I watch this pilot and most people I’ve watched it with have too, because by the end you are already so deeply emotionally invested. Any episode of Freaks and Geeks is great, but this one has so much to do and aces all of it.
Mad Men: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”
A day in the life of Manhattan ad man Don Draper, and the first day on the job for his secretary Peggy Olson. The “first day” trope has been used in many, many pilots because it’s such a useful way to introduce characters fairly naturally, and it is highly successful here. We see the whole ad agency from Peggy’s youthful eyes: sleazy Pete, intimidating Joan, genius Don. The acting is typically excellent and the script is quietly packed with details, but it’s what’s left out of the episode that really makes it great. After forty minutes of Don drinking and sleeping with his city woman Midge, we see only in the final scene that he is married with children. His affairs would become much less interesting later on, but in the pilot this is the perfect introduction to Don Draper.
Friday Night Lights: “Pilot”
I watched this episode in a friend’s room, having never seen the show before, and finished the first season a very short time afterwards. I am not American and before I saw FNL my understanding of both American football and Texas was extremely limited, but I could still recognise what an awesome pilot this was. Kyle Chandler plays Eric Taylor, the new coach of the Dillon High football team, and we meet his family and his second family in forty minutes of documentary style brilliance. The end of the episode carries the dramatic weight, but it’s the beautifully crafted exposition that puts this in the great pilots category for me. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose! This episode definitely doesn’t.
Honourable mentions: The Wire, Frasier, The Americans, Party Down.