Sunday, 3 October 2010

My Top Ten TV Pilots of All Time

On a pleasant run the other day, I started thinking about which TV pilots I would put in my top ten of all time list in case anybody ever asked (I know, nobody ever would ask, but in my fantasy scenarios, people always want to talk about TV, running, and Renaissance court drama with me. We have great conversations in my head. I promise I'm not crazy). Two points of clarification going into this: 1) Obviously, the choices on this list are late-nineties/2000s-centric, but that's more a reflection on my age than the actual quality of TV shows produced before that. I'm sure the pilot to MASH was just as brilliant as everyone says, but I never watched that show. 2) Just because a show turned into one of my favorites, doesn't mean its pilot episode was brilliant. Gilmore Girls springs to mind: the series is one of my 5 favs of all time, but the first season was largely spent trying to get to the lightning-fast pace of later seasons. The pilot is not one of my favs.

Got it? Great. Here they are:

Honorable Mention: 30 Rock, ER, Life Unexpected, Modern Family, Once & Again, Party of Five, Southland, and V.

10. Glee: I know it's a young show, but its pilot is one of the most fun in recent memory. Pilots can often get so bogged down in trying to introduce the characters and their situations, that they can forget to tell the story effectively. This pilot immediately brought us into its world with hilarious quick cuts and a voice-over that provided just enough info. By the end of the episode, you can't help but to care about New Directions. Plus, it introduced those of us that aren't Broadway geeks to the vocal power of Lea Michele singing "On My Own", for which I will forever be grateful. Pop culture has yet to show how extensive the ripple effects of this show will be, but the closing number to the episode, "Don't Stop Believin'", set a lot in motion.

9. Millennium: I admit that I was late coming to this show. A friend introduced me to it on DVD when I was old enough to really appreciate it. I had been an off and on X-Files fan, so the Chris Carter element initially drew me in. What the episode does especially well is to establish the good vs evil fight that the series would explore in its best episodes. Throughout the series, Frank Black (Lance Henricksen) constantly found himself standing on the side of good, but venturing into the evil to ward it off, and this episode took us there from minute one. This episode proved to be the perfect precursor to the depths Millennium would take us.

8. The West Wing: I think this is an example of a show that got better as its first season progressed, but its pilot was still amazing! It was written by my favorite screenwriter Aaron Sorkin in top form, giving us the intelligence and wit for which the series would come to be known. My favorite thing about Sorkin is that he's a good, old-fashioned idealist, and from the very beginning, The West Wing showed us that it was about the ideals that American government aspires to. In Sorkin's West Wing, President Bartlett is just a man, yes, but he's a presence, a truly great man in the flesh. Hey, I'm a Republican but this still sucked me in!

7. Felicity: I've probably watched this pilot about a dozen times, and each time I get something new out of it. I always find the characters to be so honest and beautifully constructed. The last time I watched this series (about two years ago), I was struck by all of the terrible decisions Felicity (the ever brilliant Keri Russell) made throughout, but as we were going through them with her the first time, they seemed like the decisions she would make. That she followed Ben (Scott Speedman) to New York City because he wrote something nice in her yearbook makes her sound crazy, but it turns out transferring to New York wasn't about Ben at all. It was always about her. In this pilot, you can't help but to care about Felicity as she naively follows her heart without restraint. She's awkward, but well-meaning. When she tells Ben, "You made me fall in love with you!", you can't help cringing, but you care that her feelings are hurt by his totally normal response. You're watching her at the cusp of beginning to become an adult, and its mesmerizing.

6. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: Aaron Sorkin's idealism again took center stage in this genius two-part pilot. When the Lorne Michaels-type figure on an SNL-type show impulsively uses the live show to air his grievances about network TV in a Network (the movie, that is)-style rant, we're really hearing a Sorkinized soapbox about the problems with TV. Using this incident as a catalyst, Sorkin is able to construct a brilliant, idealized version of a TV network responding to the rant. Say what you will about the show not working as it went on, but I maintain that this pilot is near perfect.

5. Alias: The compelling opening sequence to JJ Abrams' sophomore series juxtaposes our heroine Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) in some kind of Chinese torture chamber with her finishing a test for grad school in Los Angeles. Welcome to Sydney's world! The flashback of Sydney's short-lived engagement to nice-guy civilian Danny Hecht immediately showed us the human side of this girl with fiery red hair that we deduce we'll understand all about later on. As Sydney's world unravels, we see the emotional difficulties she's going to face as she makes the decision to take down SD-6, and she's immediately compelling for it. JJ Abrams said that the idea for Alias came out of a writers' meeting during Felicity, where he half-jokingly suggested that they write an episode explaining that Felicity had actually been a spy the whole time. In many ways, this explains why Sydney was such a convincing character: she was written as a human being (i.e., Felicity) before she was a spy.

4. Friday Night Lights: How could I not include this pilot? Its emotional highs and lows usually take a season to accomplish. When we first meet Jason Street (Scott Porter), we are immediately left with the sense that something bad is going to happen to this golden boy. When it does, although we saw it coming, it's still heartbreaking. I don't know about you, but I loved every minute of watching Matt's (Zach Gilford's) conflicted emotions as he is awkwardly thrust into the team's de facto leadership role. This show is not about football as much as it's about the people who care about football, and the pilot was our first, hypnotizing glimpse into their world.

3. LOST: That opening sequence, right?! We see an eyeball coming into focus, then a jungle. Next we see a man in a suit waking up in the jungle, a yellow Labrador, and soon enough the screams coming from the beach as the man finds his way out of the jungle. This opening sequence, including the mayhem on the beach, is enough to make this pilot one of the best ever, but it's only improved upon by the seasons that followed it. The image of a man in a suit, lying in a jungle is a good microcosm for the whole series, as well as a precursor for Jack's (Matthew Fox's) journey [FOR THE LOVE OF TIVO, I CRY SPOILER ALERT!!!]: in the finale, he would find himself lying in the same place, only not as an outsider (signified by the suit) this time, but as a person who had found his home. Forgive my placing CS Lewis out of context here, but there's no other way: as Jack's eye opens in the pilot, he starts riding the bus to the High Places, and when it closes in the finale, he's finally able to move beyond his supposed desire to return to the Gray Town and into the Light. It's a beautiful journey that begins within the first :15 of the pilot.

2. Little House on the Prairie: "Little H on the P", as it is affectionately known in my house, began as a two-hour TV movie/pilot that aired on NBC in the spring of 1974 before the new fall season began. After watching it, it's not hard to see why the network was keen to pick it up as a series. Dramatizing the Ingalls' move from The Little House in the Big Woods (of Wisconsin) to the apparently dangerous flat lands of Kansas to, finally, the house in Plumb Creek, the movie pilot focuses in on the family at the center of the series and the hardships they endured. During one scene, Charles (Michael Landon, otherwise known as TV's greatest dad) has to leave the family alone in their depressing little homemade cabin in Kansas (it didn't even have a door, for crying out loud!) while he goes hunting, leaving Caroline (Karen Grassle) alone with the sound of distant but too close for comfort Native American war drums. As she sits up at night with a ready shot-gun, we get a glimpse of the real fear this family must have faced in the barely settled Midwest. The series (book and TV) tells the stories through Laura's (Melissa Gilbert's) eyes. It's not gritty realism because it's filtered through a child's lens. This particular episode shows both sides of the situation: Laura remembers the drums and her mother sitting up at night afraid for her family, but in the same breath, she remembers the Christmas where they each received a shiny new penny and candy from Mr Edwards. This pilot perfectly set up the perspective of the series: whenever it was dark, it was also coupled with a child's hope that everything would be okay.

1. My So-Called Life: I actually wrote a paper in college about this pilot. I've chosen it as my favorite of all time because I think it is one of the very few perfect episodes of TV that I've ever seen. At the beginning of the episode, Angela Chase (played with brilliant teenage conviction by Claire Danes) tells us in voice-over narration, "So I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff. Just for fun. Just 'cause it seemed like if I didn't I would die or something. Things were getting to me. Just how people are. How they always expect you to be a certain way, even your best friend." The dialogue is perfect in its imperfections, here: Angela's imperfect high school English is the kind of dialogue a teenager trying really hard to not seem like she's trying too hard would use. Phrases with "like" and "or something" flow tripping off the tongue as she attempts to explain to us her world in her own terms. She almost always uses first and last names to describe people in her high school, as if saying both of their names makes her know them better. "Rayanne Graff" (A.J. Langer) is Angela's grungy hero, and she loves that Rayanne likes her. She's "hanging out" with Rayanne because Rayanne is Angela's idea of cool, but in choosing to hang out with Rayanne at the beginning of her sophomore year in high school, she has passive aggressively abandons her old best friend Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa). Angela doesn't see it this way, though. She's chasing after approval just as desperately as poor Sharon is. The pilot is told from Angela's skewed, self-involved perspective, but what could be more true about being a teenager than that? The thing that I love about this episode is that in spite of the mistakes Angela is making and the ways she tries to mask how she really feels, we can see how vulnerable she is, and we love her for it. She's me and everyone else at that age.

So there you have it. In case you're concerned about the state of my PhD dissertation, this post was written at small procrastination intervals throughout the week. Do you have any favorite or memorable pilot episodes? Feel free to comment below!


  1. Agree with about five of them, but mostly Friday Night Lights.

  2. What are your favorites? I was taking into consideration a pilot's ability to tell the story well, its consistency with the rest of the series, how effectively it introduces characters, and, mostly, personal preferences.

  3. I miss watching TV shows with you and listening to your commentaries on them! Great blog :)

  4. Me, too! The Prairie will always remind me of hours of TV fun with K-Fritz!

  5. you need to watch the twin peaks pilot!