Television shows are often unfairly judged on their first and last episodes. While in truth, the most accurate barometer for a series’ greatness lies in its ability to sustain quality storytelling all through the middle. Nevertheless, the beginning and the end are the bits that leave the strongest lasting impressions. Satisfying series finales are key to a program’s enduring legacy, leaving its fanbase (who’ve invested obscene amounts of time) with a sense of catharsis or closure. But even more vital is that all important “pilot” episode – because you don’t even get to cultivate a fanbase without a strong introduction.
First episodes are easily the most challenging to produce. The cast and crew have yet to find their footing so pilots are usually awkward, expository, and occasionally even feature different actors than later episodes. If you really think about it, most (though not all) of the greatest TV shows in history never really hit their stride until well into its first (sometimes second) season. Pilots have to immediately establish the stylistic tone for the rest of the series, present compelling characters, teach its audience about the world these characters inhabit, and only hint at story arcs (without giving away too much) that will hopefully hook you.
Muddled first episodes are so common that they’re almost easy to forgive (the American version of The Office, Parks and Recreation, every Star Trek show, etc), provided the series continually improves (editor’s note: I personally give a show 3-5 episodes before making a judgement call on whether to abandon ship). Therefore, genuinely great first episodes are so rare that they have to be praised. Of course, many shows do fizzle out despite a hot start. Nevertheless, considering the number of moving parts, nailing a perfect pilot is an impressive feat. Which is why we’ve decided to spotlight the 21 best TV pilots of the 21st century so far.
(Before you hit send on that comment, we already know what you’re going to say: “Where’s The Sopranos pilot, you morons!?” We acknowledge that it’s undoubtedly the most influential show of the 21st century – but its pilot aired in 1999 so it doesn’t count.)
Honorable mentions: Black Mirror, Desperate Housewives, The Boondocks, Grey’s Anatomy, The Handmaid’s Tale, Firefly, Orphan Black, Atlanta, Legion, Arrested Development, Heroes, Scrubs, Orange Is The New Black, Homeland, Prison Break
21. Pushing Daisies
The show was an ultra-sweet rare treat, baked with care and attention. But it has it’s bitterly dark bits. The premise was this: as a child, Ned had discovered that he had the power to bring the dead back to life, but if he kept them alive for longer than a minute, someone nearby would die in their place. Ned manages to make some money from this talent, helping a P.I. close cases by questioning murder victims, until one day he hears that one of the recently deceased is his childhood sweetheart. This sounds pretty grim, but thanks to exquisite candy-colored production design and an innocent central love story, it’s actually anything but.
20. The Knick
The deeply fascinating yet short-lived series directed by Steven Soderbergh begins with an extended sequence during which a pregnant patient dies gruesomely on the operating table. Then a presumed main character kills himself. And that’s just the first few minutes. Set near the turn of the 20th century at a New York hospital, the bracing medical drama makes the ugly and out-of-date healthcare practices of the 1900s look darkly gorgeous thanks to Soderbergh’s eye for visuals.
The pilot for Ryan Murphy’s misfit choir club musical is probably the best episode from its many hit-or-miss seasons. This is a testament to the first hour’s strengths, which include its offbeat wit, breathtaking brisk pace, and fresh-faced cast. Quippy, energetic, and above all, gleeful: this was a ray of ultra-bright sunshine wrapped up neatly with an iconic musical number.
18. Attack on Titan
While Attack on Titan has certainly been inconsistent, there’s no debating that when its first episode aired, it shook the foundations of what shonen could be. For context, it helps to remember that the most popular shonen entries at the time were mostly isekai series. And then suddenly, giant naked humans were tearing down walls and eating people. We were introduced to dynamic aerial action set pieces, a faded color palette, a nihilistic outlook on humanity, and a world in endless war. Way to make an entrance.
17. The O.C.
“Welcome to the O.C., bitch.” Starting in the dirty streets of Chino before moving to the beautiful seaside of Orange County, Josh Schwartz’s family drama only hinted at the soapy pleasures to come in its inaugural hour, instead choosing to build on authenticity and and an outstanding cast. Everyone was a type – a familiar figure in most high schools – but they also broke the mold enough to draw you in. When The O.C. was at its best, it was about its core characters and how they were changed by their privilege. The pilot laid a perfect base on which to build while holding up as a heartbreaking short all its own. California, here we come
16. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Not the Amy Sherman-Palladino pilot you were expecting, huh? (With all due respect to Gilmore Girls, but its first episode wasn’t necessarily its best.) The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s first hour was a hilarious crackerjack from start to finish by constructing (and then deconstructing) the seemingly perfect life of a spunky Jewish housewife in the 1950s who becomes a stand-up comedian. When Midge finally takes the stage after a series of personal upheavals – her gut-bustingly hilarious improv set is one for the ages.
The first hour of Alias is a thrilling barrage of double lives, twists, divided loyaties and betrayals. Jennifer Garner as secret agent Sydney Bristow is mesmerizing as the all-American college girl with a secret identity. Killer fight scenes, colorful villains, high-tech gadgetry, and secret lairs provided all the genre trappings for a good time, all while establishing relatable consequences for our heroine’s lifestyle. What really makes it work is the big twist in the pilo (spoiler alert): Sydney only thinks she’s working for the CIA, but she’s unwittingly a spy for the bad guys!
Phoebe Waller-Bridge seemed to come out of nowhere to stun us with Fleabag. As creator, writer, and lead actor, her voice is present in every scene of the show, and it’s a voice unlike any we’ve heard before. Fleabag is raunchy, messy, emotionally raw, and unapologetic from its opening sequence – a screamingly funny meditation on the lead character’s recent anal sex experience – to its final one, during which she reveals that her best friend recently committed suicide. This was just the first perfect episode in a perfect series.
24 immediately resonated in the wake of 9/11, as viewers found a wish fulfillment hero in Jack Bauer, an unstoppable agent from the fictional Counter Terrorist Unit. Plenty of shows have tried a real-time format, but creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran cracked it – every installment over the course of 24 episodes showcased an hour in the life of Jack. While the concept became strained later on, it worked brilliantly here. “12:00 a.m. – 1:00 a.m.” was directed by Stephen Hopkins and set the tone by featuring everything that made 24 great: a bait-and-switch twist, thrilling high octane action, and a cliffhanger worth waiting on.
12. Mr. Robot
Sam Esmail’s techno-thriller pulled off something incredible in its first season, telling a single high stakes story about computer hacking and making it both accessible and exciting. The first episode does an excellent job of immersing us into Elliot’s quick-mumbled paranoid ramblings and unreliable point of view, thanks to Rami Malek’s performance, Tim Ives’ cinematography of a cold and seedy New York City, and Mac Quayle’s infectiously frenetic score.
11. Veronica Mars
The first episode of Rob Thomas’ cult favorite has a lot to set up. By the end of the hour, viewers are left with several questions and no answers. Who killed Lily Kane? Who raped Veronica? Where is Veronica’s mom? This hard-boiled detective noir set inside the pint sized body of Kristen’s Bell’s sardonic teen sleuth hooks you with Veronica’s quippy charm and its many mysteries almost instantly.
10. The Americans
The pilot of The Americans is astonishing. It introduces us to the lives of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings – deep cover Soviet agents posing as a happy American family during the Reagan era. They have two kids, a travel agency, and in the pilot, a body melting in acid in their garage. This episode does a lot in very little time by unpacking the series’ emotional dynamics, attention to spycraft details and sense of stakes in a variety of thrilling ways.
9. The Walking Dead
Over the years, The Walking Dead has certainly become a repetitive shell of its former self. It didn’t start out that way though. Frank Darabont’s pilot was a masterpiece that offered some incredible tension, grisly horror and concisely set up the world. Opening up with Rick’s conflicted moment of shooting a little girl at some unspecified time introduces the key theme of human decency being chipped away over time.
One of the best first outings in the age of prestige dramas. “Fire In The Hole” was a faithful adaptation of the eponymous Elmore Leonard novella which sees trigger happy US Marshal Raylan Givens, after killing a mob enforcer in Miami, return to his home of Harlan where he comes face-to-face with his old pal Boyd Crowder, a drug-dealing white supremacist leader. The show captures Leonard’s cool crime thriller voice from the start, beautifully setting up the world of the series, but it’s an episode perhaps most notable for its antagonist. Famously, Walton Goggins was meant to only be a guest star as Boyd is killed in the book and pilot. But the show’s creators realized what they had in the firecracker charisma of Goggins.
7. Mad Men
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” the first episode of Matthew Weiner’s prestigious ‘60s-set drama, is so subtle and fantastic that you could watch it three times in a row and discover something new each time. In the opening scene, ad man Don Draper contemplates a new strategy for selling cigarettes, which have just been proven dangerous by the Surgeon General. In a later scene, he tells a woman, “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” This was a stylish masterpiece that immerses us into the seductive toxicity of boomer capitalism.
6. The Shield
Directed by Clark Johnson and written by creator Shawn Ryan, The Shield‘s pilot immediately established itself as a different kind of cop show. The Shield was brutal, in-your-face TV, one that was willing to take off the slick detective sunglasses and look at the dirtiness underneath, centered on a corrupt task force in Farmington, California. This pilot introduced us to Vic Mackey, a cop perfectly willing to rip the drugs off a dealer, arrest him, then turn around and sell the drugs to his biggest competitor. A cowboy with a badge and license to kill, this episode firmly places its titular character in the gray area between law and criminal, painting around him a backdrop of complex, interesting characters who struggle to embrace their own darkness.
5. Friday Night Lights
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. If the football game in the pilot of Friday Night Lights ended at halftime, it would still be a fascinating mix of on-field action and the drama happening on the sidelines. But the show immediately puts its players and students in an enormous test of perseverance. When Jason Street doesn’t get up after a dangerous hit, it frames the entire series as something so much more than a game. As doctors cut into Street’s helmets to operate on him, it’s a perfect example of how the show was able to capture the mammoth unexpected challenges that young adulthood brings all of these high school characters.
4. Breaking Bad
It all started with an idea by Vince Gilligan (who wrote and directed the pilot): What if you chronicled the transformation of “Mr. Chips into Scarface”? The Breaking Bad pilot covers a lot of ground, setting the stage for even bigger events to come. Bryan Cranston – mostly known at the time as the dad on Malcolm in the Middle – is introduced as a bit of a pathetic character, a teacher who has to work a second job at a car wash for money. After he learns he has cancer, Walt blackmails his former student into cooking and selling meth to leave his family financially secure. Almost immediately, we’re thrown into an enthralling ride that succinctly hooks you into the emotional stakes of the future Heisenberg.
3. Battlestar Galactica
Although Ronald D. Moore’s acclaimed remake of the 1970s Battlestar Galactica technically began with a miniseries, “33” was its first stab at episodic television. In the episode, the Cylons are somehow tracking the fleet even after they jump to faster-than-light speed. Every 33 minutes, like clockwork, the Cylons show up and attack, and the fleet has to jump again. It’s a great way of exemplifying how exhausting it can be fighting beings that don’t have to sleep or eat or take breaks. The relentlessness of it pushes our characters on the Battlestar Galactica to the physical (and moral) breaking point. Battlestar Galactica would be a political show and a military show, a philosophical treatise on the question of God and a pulpy genre show with space fights – and it all began here.
2. This Is Us
Nobody expected a network family drama to deliver one of the most emotional plot twists in TV pilot history! This Is Us tracks four seemingly random individuals on the day they turn 36 years old. But as the episode digs deeper into their stories, we learn that the characters are literally related in unexpected ways. This all leads up to a stunning payoff when we learn that Milo Ventimiglia’s character actually is the father of the other characters! Through barren set design and basic clothing, This Is Us was able to hide its dual timeline format in plain sight, building up to one of the most beautifully executed reveals we’ve ever seen.
It all started with a germ of an idea by them-ABC Entertainment chairman Lloyd Braun, inspired by the success of reality show Survivor and the film Cast Away. But after a disappointing series of drafts from original writer Jeffrey Lieber, J.J. Abrams was brought in to reimagine what would become Lost. Written with Damon Lindelof, the new Lost was massive – to the tune of over $10 million USD, one of the most expensive pilots (up to that point) ever. And it was also exciting: the harrowing depiction of a plane crash, the disorienting scenes of the aftermath on a deserted tropical island, and the mysterious monster that quickly kills the plane’s pilot. Viewers meet all of the show’s key initial players, are introduced to the early mysteries (the polar bear!), and got acquainted with the show’s signature flashback format.