Starting Off on the Right Foot
For the past several years, I have thoroughly enjoyed the kick-off of the fall television season. Sure, I’m always excited to welcome my old favorites back from their summer vacation, but it is also highly entertaining to watch as many of the new tv show pilots as I’d like to. Generally speaking, I go into a new season wanting to pick up no more than two new shows, so my pilot watching is highly critical (but also fun!). Every once in awhile, a pilot comes along that completely captivates me, that perfectly captures the spirit of the show, or that in some other way “has me at hello.” Since we still have a couple month’s wait until the next batch of pilots hits us, I thought I would reminisce about the best pilot episodes of television shows I have ever seen. All of the shows listed below are shows I ended up watching, but they are not necessarily the best shows I’ve ever watched. (For that list, click here.)
Listed below are my top ten all-time favorite pilot episodes. Although it is difficult to rank them in a specific order, I have tried to do so, starting with the best pilot I’ve ever watched, which was for what is now also my favorite show of all time: Lost. I’ve also included a bit of information about what made these episodes so affecting and memorable.
- Lost (“Pilot Parts 1 and 2”) – From the opening shot of Jack in the jungle, to Charlie’s eerie question of “Guys, where are we?” this two-part pilot had me completely fascinated. It felt more like I was watching a theatrical movie than a tv show, thanks to the excellent production values, filming on location, and superb storytelling. For me, and many others who became instant Lost fanatics, this opening chapter perfectly balanced drama, action, mystery, and suspense – a balance that for the most part, the show has continued to achieve during its three season run.
- Alias (“Truth Be Told”) – J.J. Abrams certainly knows how to make a good pilot. In this case, it only took him one hour to make us care about Sydney Bristow and her friends, Will and Francie. I immediately loved the contrast between Sydney’s idyllic personal life and her top secret SD-6/CIA double-agent life. The music played a big role in setting these contrasting moods as well. (I was introduced to many great songs during the first two seasons of Alias). Whether Sydney was grieving over the sudden loss of her fiance Danny or battling against the sadistic Chinese agent, I was emotionally invested in the show by the end of this hour.
- Boomtown (“Pilot”) – It is extremely rare for any television episode to bring me to tears, so I was very surprised when a brand new pilot had me crying by the closing credits. This was simply a fantastic show that was cancelled far too soon. Like Alias, this pilot drew me in and made me care about the characters, especially the detective team of Joel (Donnie Wahlberg) and “Fearless” (Mykelti Williamson). And even more rare, the characters that made me cry were those connected to the accused criminal. These are usually forgettable characters, but Boomtown had the special ability to draw in viewers unlike any other crime show. Too bad not very many viewers took the opportunity to get to know this show before it was gone.
- Friday Night Lights (“Pilot”) – I must admit that I was skeptical in the weeks leading up to this show’s premiere. Would I really like a show about football? Well, I watched it since the critics (particularly Matt Roush) were raving about it, and I am certainly glad that I did. It was clear immediately that this show was about much more than high school sports. That was part of it, but it was more about family, growing up, being lonely, being an outcast, and dealing with the unexpected. I loved every moment of it, and yes, this episode made me cry.
- Twin Peaks (“Pilot”) – Who killed Laura Palmer? That’s the question we wanted answered after this opening chapter of the strangest soap opera ever. We had to wait a season and a half to find out, but this episode gave us a taste of the colorful, quirky characters we would get to know better each week: Agent Cooper, who constantly speaks into his tape recorder with messages to Diane; Lucy, the well-meaning but ditsy sheriff’s secretary; Norma, who serves the best pie and coffee in town at her diner; Audrey, who causes her wealthy, hotel-owning father a lot of stress; etc. Then there were the stranger inhabitants, including Killer Bob, the Log Lady, and the Giant. Like I said, this was the most bizarre show I ever watched, and I loved it!
- Smallville (“Pilot”) – This show may have worn out its welcome a few years ago, but when it first began, it was magical. The opening episode did a terrific job of creating a new world for Superman. Tom Welling was perfect as Clark, Michael Rosenbaum was deliciously devious as Lex, and even Kristin Kreuk seemed well-cast as the unattainable Lana. Certain images from this episode still come to mind, including Clark being tied up like a scarecrow and Lana riding a horse through a graveyard. Sounds weird if you didn’t see it, but it worked great as “comic book come to television” at the time.
- Roswell (“Pilot”) – When this show entered the WB landscape, there were already a couple of shows about teenagers, and there was at least one show about aliens (The X-Files), but as far as I knew, there had never been a show about teenaged aliens trying to blend in and live normal lives on Earth. I was intrigued, and the pilot kept me interested. From little “alien” touches like Max, Isabel, and Michael’s taste for Tabasco sauce, to the defining moment of Max revealing his true origin to Liz (he kept pointing higher into the sky until she realized he meant he was from another planet – not from Canada), I loved the characters and the actors who portrayed them. The show didn’t remain as magical for its entire run, but it remained different from other shows, and for that I valued it.
- Once and Again (“Boy Meets Girl”) – This is one of the most realistic shows I have ever watched, in terms of family drama (the other is Friday Night Lights), and the realism began with the opening scene. And the writers (and actors) made us care about all the characters – not just the “good” guys and girls. We saw everyone’s flaws, but that just made them more human, more relatable. Billy Campbell and Sela Ward were perfect as Rick and Lily, and all of the child and teenage actors were equally impressive.
- Party of Five (“Pilot”) – Before Matthew Fox found Lost, before Neve Campbell Scream-ed, and before Scott Wolf moved to Everwood, we were introduced to them in 1994 as Charlie, Julia, and Bailey Salinger. This pilot episode was a tear-jerker, and made us care about this family of orphans who were trying to make ends meet. I especially have fond memories of them gathering in a booth at the family restaurant to share meals. The first season kept up the emotional momentum of the pilot, but after that I lost interest (probably about the time that the family had finished the tv version of the grieving process and had moved on with their lives.)
- Everwood (“Pilot”) – Everwood may have lacked the realism of Once and Again (although in some ways it, too, accurately portrayed the varying forms of American family life), but it made up for it with heart. Sounds cheesy, and the show was sometimes, but it definitely was heartwarming. This first episode includes the classic moment when Ephram (Gregory Smith) first gazes upon Amy (Emily VanCamp) and the less utopian moment of Ephram and Andy having an all-out father-son shouting match. Both of these dynamics, young love and familial strife, were important to the show and are among the reasons that I loved it.
What are your favorite pilots? Maybe I will have more to add after this fall’s fresh batch, but it will be hard to break into this top ten. Post your thoughts below.
- My Top Ten All-Time Favorite TV Shows
- The Best of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- From Sesame Street to 30 Rock: A TV Viewing Timeline