Pilot episodes are difficult beasts. (Two of my favorite shows of all time, Seinfeld and 30 Rock, had subpar pilots that their creators would be the first to tell you weren’t all that.) You have to establish all your major characters, the premise of the show, and the backstory necessary to make it interesting, all while proving to skeptical viewers that your show will be funny/dramatic/addictive. I’m always in awe when I see a good one; often, because I am lucky enough to have watching television as a component of my job, I will watch a great pilot several times, like a little kid having discovered a new favorite Pixar movie.
Here, my favorites (in no particular order, as I’m not about to compare, say, Lost to The O.C.):
Alias: Creator J.J. Abrams established his signature style here, creating relatable characters with realistic lives rooted in everyday minutiae … who just happen to end up in extraordinary circumstances that stretch credulity. In this case, we met regular grad student Sydney Bristow, who was lured into a secret world of double-agenting and elaborate conspiracies while dealing with roommate issues and a guy friend who had a crush on her. This pilot hooked me so much that I’d suffer through every minute of Rambaldi later.
The Cosby Show: So simple, so brilliant. This pilot showed us that what looked like a regular family sitcom would be extraordinary under the influence of the singular Bill Cosby. The highlight came when son Theo gave an emotional speech pleading for Dad to let him be a “regular person” instead of expecting him to be a doctor and lawyer like his parents, and Cosby shot him down cold: “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. No wonder you get Ds in everything. Now, you are afraid to try because you are afraid your brain is gonna explode and it’s gonna ooze out of your ears. I am telling you, you are going to try, and you are going to do it because I said so. I am your father. I put you in this world, and I’ll take you out.”
Desperate Housewives: Yeah, this show flew off the rails by the end, but it’s pilot was delectable. Like many mystery-driven shows, it promised more than it could ever deliver with the suspicious suicide of Mary Alice Young. But the pilot laid out a fully realized vision for a brand new kind of show, with a hyper-real suburban neighborhood full of twisted, dark secrets, technicolor female characters, and the highest of camp.
Flash Forward: I feel like I was one of the few who fell prey to this pilot’s charms, but man, do I love a good time-travel drama, and this one seemed so intriguing. It was cinematic, well-acted, gorgeous (how could it not be gorgeous with Joseph Fiennes starring?), and built on a promising premise: Everyone in the world blacks out at the same time, and while they’re passed out, they all see what seems to be their future — and it turns out everyone saw the same period of time, and their own pieces of the same future. Too bad it fell apart as it unspooled, forcing the dreamy good guy/bad guy Jack Davenport to instead play doomed director Derek Wills on the equally doomed Smash.
Game of Thrones: This had so much to do, with its sheer epicness. But somehow, with just the pilot episode, we understood all of the main players, the fictional kingdoms, and the creepy sibling sex that led to poor Bran falling off the castle. Nice work with that cliffhanger, guys.
Glee: I can’t believe they’re still making this show, but if you had told me after I watched the pilot that I’d someday loathe this show, I would think you were nuts. Man, was that first episode full of, yes, glee! This started when I was at Entertainment Weekly, and I had an office across from my fellow writer, Tim Stack, who has covered Glee from the beginning at Watergate levels. For a few months, you could hear that climactic performance of “Don’t Stop Believin'” coming from both of our offices several times a week.
Lost: If I were putting these in order, this one would probably be my No. 1. I don’t know how many times I watched those first two hours during the summer of 2004, when I had an advance press screener and no more episodes to quench my curiosity. (“Guys … where are we?”) Since then, I’ve watched it a minimum of four more times, and I’d do it again. The amazing plane wreckage, the realistic crash scenes, the elegant (and somehow un-cliched) character development — if you ever find yourself bitter about the finale, go back to this pilot and remember it was worth the ride.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Well, I mean, I wrote a book about this show, so it was bound to come up. Not all shows that go onto greatness have it down in time for the pilot, but this one did. Here we meet the indelible characters of Mary, Rhoda, Phyllis, Lou, Ted, and Murray, all in quick succession, all fully realized, and with room for a heart-wrenching visit from Mary’s ex. And if a memorable quote is the surefire sign of a good pilot, this one takes the prize: “You’ve got spunk.”
The Mindy Project: This show has gone through some major highs and lows in its first season, but it seems to be settling into a groove now — and interestingly, that groove seems to be right back where it began in its exemplary pilot, focusing on Dr. Mindy Lahiri’s love-life delusions juxtaposed with her professional mastery. Star Mindy Kaling created the show and wrote the pilot, and she gave us her distinctive voice and skewed world view from the start, wrapping them up in a main character who sounds like a 15-year-old Valley Girl, owns her sexuality like Beyonce, dreams of being Meg Ryan in a romantic comedy — and still, somehow, practices medicine in that TV-doctor-brilliant way that makes you wish you could go to her for your next checkup.
Modern Family: What a clever little twist at the end! All these disparate-seeming nuclear families are related! And they were so funny in the process that we didn’t see it coming!
The O.C.: Another one I could watch a million times, just to wallow in the sheer pleasure of it all. This show, at its best, was exactly like its rousing theme song: all about hitting the pleasure centers in your brain, nothing more, and yet … that’s not exactly nothing, is it? The delicious drama, the satisfying class clashes, the gorgeous people and locations, and, of course, “Welcome to The O.C., bitch.” Sometimes a great pop song is all you need.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: Remember how we all thought this was mind-blowingly good, and it would totally outlast 30 Rock? That was funny. But true at the time: The first hour was fast-paced, dramatic, witty, and just the right touch of TV-insidery. Then it just got preachy and bloated and full of itself. It was nice of Aaron Sorkin to just start at that insufferable place with his latest, The Newsroom, wasn’t it?