As I mentioned last week I have been ill quite a bit recently, and I’m also coming back from a broken foot. These issues led to my absence from the blog as well as essentially everything else in my life that wasn’t specifically school related. Seriously, I didn’t even read a book because it felt like it would be too much effort. What I did manage to accomplish, however, was an excessive amount of wallowing on the couch with the dog and watching television for hours on end. Some programs I watched were pure inanity (daytime television is the worst). However, other programs were very entertaining and I would have never thought to give them a shot had I not been so sick.
Spending so much time watching TV got me thinking about pilot episodes. What, exactly, constitutes a great pilot? Some great programs have a decent premiere episode that keeps one interested enough to return for more, but stop short of calling it a fantastic episode. Others can be corny and dry, and feel more like an info dump in an effort to gear the viewer up for the next episodes. A truly fantastic pilot provides back story without feeling like an essay, and introduces the viewer to characters that feel like well-rounded individuals, not one-note or incomplete concepts. It makes you want to know more about the story and accompany the characters on their journey.
With these considerations in mind, I have compiled a list of my top ten favorite TV pilots. These are in no particular order, as they cross many different decades and genres.
- Cheers – Give Me a Ring Sometime
The first episode of Cheers delivers all of the things I look for in pilot episodes. It establishes believable characters that are immediately lovable, and illustrates the tension between Sam and Diane. The show is about a neighborhood bar in Boston and its colorful patrons and what I love about this pilot is that while it makes no pretense that it is anything else, by the end of the episode you wish you could be friends with every one of these characters. Except maybe not Diane; I never really liked her.
- Scrubs – My First Day
This episode follows John Dorian, his best friend Chris Turk, and Elliot Reid on their first week as interns at Sacred Heart Hospital. He encounters a surly janitor who hilariously torments him throughout the series, and his reluctant mentor Dr. Cox. The episode is funny, poignant, and thought provoking. John C McGinley as Dr. Cox reminds me of a slightly angrier version of my father: a truly compassionate man, committed to helping others, but balks at showing emotions and has a knack for aggressively wide stances and calling people names.
- Battlestar Galactica
After a 40-year armistice in a war between humans and the Cylons (human-created robots), the Cylons launch a surprise nuclear attack intended to exterminate the human race. Virtually all of the population of the Twelve Colonies is wiped out. Most of the Colonial military is either rendered ineffective or destroyed due to malware in the military computer network that renders it vulnerable to cyber attack. The original Battlestar Galactica aired in the late 1970’s, and this reboot by SyFy does its predecessor proud. The pilot for the reboot was originally introduced as a miniseries that aired before the actual television series. If you’re looking for a series that is sexy, action packed, and fast paced, look no further.
- The Walking Dead – Days Gone Bye
The pilot for The Walking Dead is one of those first episodes of a television show that was so mind blowing at the time that I remember exactly where I was and who I was with when I first watched it. It begins with injured police officer Rick Grimes, how he came to find himself waking up in the midst of the apocalypse, and his quest to reconnect with his family. The episode was written and directed by series creator, Frank Darabont. Andrew Lincoln, John Bernthal, and Lennie James gave amazing performances; many critics likened the show to Lost in its intensity and stellar writing and directing.
- Lost – Pilot (Parts 1 & 2)
The pilot of this show is actually broken up into two episodes, but wastes absolutely no time before plunging you into the ensuing chaos experienced by the plane crash survivors. It begins with a perpetually winded Matthew Fox staggering from a forest in confusion. Pristine sands and crystal blue waters are offset by screams of terror and the black, smoldering wreckage of their downed airplane. Fox’s character, Jack, kicks into damage control and races around the patching up the injured and those in shock. Plans are forming, characters are getting to know each other, and eventually things seem as though they are looking up – until a monstrous roar surges through the forest at night.
- Archer – Mole Hunt
Sterling Archer is a spy for ISIS, an organization run by his mother. He is a crass womanizer, who is somehow suave enough to remain endearing. Voiced by H. Jon Benjamin, Archer makes up the story of a mole that is embedded in the organization to avoid answering questions regarding his expense account. Raunchy, hilarious, and piercingly witty, Archer kept me laughing out loud on numerous occasions.
- Sons of Anarchy
When a rival club (Mayans) cleans out and then obliterates their illegal arms warehouse, SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original) executes their own sense of justice by retrieving their guns. Meanwhile, family issues take center stage with a medical emergency involving Jax Teller’s newborn son. For the main characters being majorly on the wrong side of the law, they are surprisingly human. By the time Jax Teller beats the hell out of the drug dealer who sold crank to his pregnant ex-wife, I was 100% behind this family.
- The West Wing
In the premiere of this series, the White House staff is being called into work in the wee hours of the morning because the President, Josiah Bartlet, has crashed his bicycle into a tree, much to the staff’s chagrin. The staff must run damage control on this and a gaffe by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman who, after provocation by Christian activist Mary Marsh on a televised debate, angrily quips “Lady, the God you pray to is too busy being indicted for tax fraud.”
- Firefly – Serenity
Malcolm Reynolds is a veteran and the captain of Serenity. He and his crew are in the business of smuggling goods, but they need to pick up some passengers for extra money. However, Mal and his crew get more than they bargain for, as not all the passengers are what they seem. Set five hundred years in the future, Firefly is a science fiction adventure with a western twist. It kills me to this day that this show was a one season wonder.
- Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
When an Executive Producer of a popular comedy program has a meltdown on air after the FCC won’t let him air what could be considered a controversial segment, the network president hires Matt Albie and Danny Tripp to save the show. Another gem from Aaron Sorkin, the pilot delivers fast-paced and brilliant dialogue. The characters are smart, and it feels like you’re actually getting a glimpse behind the scenes of a show like Saturday Night Live. The first ten minutes of this pilot are, by far, my favorite of any pilot I have ever seen.
As I said, the pilots listed are in no particular order. It is merely a list of episodes I felt were a cut above others of their kind. Let me know what you think! What does your list look like?