TV pilots are important for many reasons.
For one, it's got to set the tone for the entire season and convince the viewer to invest their time in the series. There has to be enough there to warrant you sticking around for the series and also give you enough information that you can reasonably follow what's happening for future purposes. It's also got to introduce the characters and introduce the plot, something that can be tricky to do right.
Down through the years, there's been some incredible pilots that suck you in right from the get-go, others that start off with a brilliant first episode before tapering off into something else entirely. More often than not, in fact, going back to the first episode and watching what it became is always an interesting look at how the show, characters and writing evolved over its run.
Here's our pick of the ten best pilot episodes ever made.
10. STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION - "Encounter At Farpoint"
If you're a real Star Trek fan, there's a fascinating documentary - Chaos On The Bridge - that covers the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and shows just how utterly, utterly chaotic it all was at the beginning. The opening episode of The Next Generation had to reintroduce a classic series like Star Trek to an audience that had all but moved on from it. So how do they go about it? They introduce Q, a deity-like figure who controls the entire universe and decides to put humanity on trial. Good job. Very effective. Sure, it might be utterly crazy, but it shows just how far out Star Trek was willing to go - especially on the first episode.
9. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT - "Pilot"
Arrested Development's influence on the likes of 30 Rock and Parks & Recreation cannot be overstated. What made the first episode so interesting was, at the time, that sort of fly-on-the-wall, handheld camerawork was mostly reserved for documentaries and the like. Of course, Arrested Development was so heavily scripted that nobody was even sure what was going on. As well as this, the first episode set up the entire series and the recurring themes and jokes for the rest of the series. George Bluth, Sr. and Michael's difficult relationship, GOB being a terrible magician, Maeby and George Michael's weird cousin thing - it was all there in the very first episode and carried this through to the very end.
8. MR. ROBOT - "eps1.0_hellofriend.mov"
Mr. Robot may have flown under the radar last year, but expect it to be just about everyone before the year is out. The series is a mash-up of Fight Club, The Social Network by way of...well... it's better if you watch the first episode. The show is laid out in all its weirdness and eccentricity in a single episode. Rami Malek as Elliot Anderson, the unassuming cybersecurity analyst who moonlights as a vigilante and eventual anarchist-terrorist, was a revelation but it was Christian Slater who swooped in and stole the show from everyone. Couple that with incredibly slick visuals, a fascinating story that rips along from the very first episode and one of the best soundtracks to a show we've seen in years, Mr. Robot grabbed your attention from the first episode.
7. MIAMI VICE - "Brother's Keeper"
It might be a bit before everyone's time, but Miami Vice had an important first episode because it truly proved that putting attention to the details - whether it's set design, music, an engaing story - paid off. The two-part episode felt like a movie, which was showrunner Anthony Yerkovich's intention. He wanted to move that level of production quality onto the big screen, something unheard of in the '80s. The first episode attracted huge numbers of viewers and won for itself a number of Emmys, including Best Cinematography and Best Writing. The driving sequence set to Phil Collins' In The Air Tonight was an incredible piece of television, unlike anything that had been seen before.
6. THE WEST WING - "Pilot"
The West Wing was one of those shows that had an incredible amount of moving parts to it. There were so many subplots, one-episode characters that you could very easily get lost in it all - especially from the first episode. What the opening episode did quite cleverly, however, was that it introduced each character in a simple enough way, but it was all leading to the eventual reveal of POTUS. It also, interestingly enough, brought POTUS into the popular lexicon as well. Its talky, snappy, dialogue-heavy ways were all introduced in the first episode and, whether you followed it or not, barrelled along at a thundering pace. It was up to you to keep up with it.
5. TWIN PEAKS - "Pilot"
You have to give credit to the TV studio behind Twin Peaks. The idea of giving the director of Blue Velvet and The Elephant Man a chance to direct a TV soap opera was incredibly brave. The first episode and the series, as a whole, worked within the confines of soap operas, but didn't necessarily send it up as some might have expected. Instead, it crowbarred in elements of surrealism and psychological horror to create something truly unique. From the first episode, it was clear that Twin Peaks was unlike anything before or after it. In fact, the story was so fully contained that it was originally planned to release the first episode as a direct-to-video feature in the European market if the series wasn't picked up.
4. THE X-FILES - "Pilot"
One of the reasons why The X-Files worked so well was because of the chemistry between Mulder and Scully. The two are so intrinsically linked that you can't say one without the other. From the very first episode, it's almost as if David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were meant to work together. Mulder's goofy sense of humour plays off against Scully's more sarcastic nature, not to mention the fact that while Mulder is more open to possibilities, Scully is pure logic. From the very episode, that dynamic is captured and made clear whilst also introducing us to the world they inhabit; one with aliens, smoking men and conspiracy theories that somehow a huge amount of evidence but never amount to anything.
3. MAD MEN - "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes"
The opening scene of Mad Men sees Don Draper, sitting alone in a bar and scribbling on a napkin as he tries to come up with a slogan for Lucky Strike cigarettes. He then stops a black waiter who asks him why he smokes his particular brand, before another waiter swoops in and tries to break it up. It's a short little scene, but it represents everything about the show in that short little sequence. That kind of casual racism, the fact that everyone was smoking and didn't seem to care, the glorious production design and just how smart the writing was. It worked brilliantly and showed just how elegant the series would be.
2. HEROES - "Genesis"
Heroes is often cited as the perfect example of a TV show that started incredibly strong and then, eventually, degenerated into something much less. The starting episode, Genesis, was pitch-perfect. It perfectly blended comic-book sensibilities with a realistic approach that wasn't overly burdened by being dark or serious. It also introduced the ensemble and fixated us with a line that carried through the entire season - "Save The Cheerleader, Save The World." Any TV show that can put a line like that in is always a good hook. It'll force you to watch it over and over until it makes sense and that's what Heroes did. Of course, by the end of it all, it didn't end up making any sense. But still, there was such promise in the first episode. What a shame.
1. LOST - "Pilot, Pt. I & II"
There's been few first episodes that fully capture the essence and elements of what a show is all about. Lost did that. It had all that tension, dread, horror and mystery crammed into a single episode that catapulted you through the entire season. The opening sequence, likewise, is probably the best in TV history. The beach, strewn with carnage, survivors and an airplane turbine, and Matthew Fox struggling to make order of it takes you right into the middle of the action. We're seeing it all for the first time, just like him, and trying to make sense of it. As it moves on, we see that there's more to the island - and the people on it - than meets the eye. All this in a single episode in what's surely one of the best TV series ever made.
Something else great has just started - Vodafone TV is now available in Ireland. All the features you'd expect and more with channels you love and Netflix at the touch of a button. All with unlimited broadband for €40 per month!