While the summer movie season may be winding down, September brings with it the return of the fall TV season. Over the next month or so, the major networks will start rolling out their new and returning series. With television on the mind, let’s use this week’s Roundtable to talk about some of our favorite TV series pilot episodes. Which shows really hooked you right from the start?
M. Enois Duarte
Sadly, since I don’t watch much television, my selection is fairly limited. However, I do have a favorite pilot episode — one which has left a lasting, memorable impression. This will probably be an obvious choice to some, but my pick is the very first episode of ‘Lost‘. After years of hearing about the show or eavesdropping on the conversations of my coworkers, I finally decided to give it a go when the first season was released on Blu-ray. That opening scene with a close-up of the eyeball, which pulls back and slowly pans the surroundings to reveal a huge plane crash, is simply stunning. From that instant, the series created a thick air of mystery and suspense, maintaining it all the way through until the closing credits. I love that first episode, and sometimes wish I could go back to reliving it, completely ignorant of the aftermath. A great show and an even greater pilot.
‘Pushing Daisies‘ all the way. It’s a shame that the show is gone now, because its two seasons were some of the most inventive, energetic and well-written television episodes we’ve had the past decade. When I first laid eyes on the pilot episode, it occurred to me that this is what you’d get if you threw Tim Burton and Dr. Suess into a blender. ‘Pushing Daisies’ was such fun, and from the outset of the first episode, you were able to get your bearings on this off-kilter world. Ned the Pie Maker can bring dead people back to life with a touch, but another touch will kill them once again. He teams up with private eye Emerson Cod to solve murders. Ned touches the victims to ask who killed them, and then he and Cod collect the reward money. Ned ends up brining his childhood sweetheart back from the grave, but can’t touch her again for fear she’ll wind up dead.
It’s a pity that no one watched this show and it was inevitably canceled, but the two seasons it was on are infinitely rewatchable. Not to mention that Anna Friel and Kristin Chenoweth combined for the best cleavage on network TV for two solid seasons.
I don’t know if it was always this way, but I swear that the “make or break” window for TV shows gets shorter by the year. ‘Freaks and Geeks‘ is a series that was perfect from the debut episode and grew better with each installment, yet got the axe before it had even had a full season. From the very first episode, creator Paul Feig’s show, produced by Judd Apatow (who says it’s the best thing he’s ever done, and I agree) found the perfect balance between heartfelt drama, side-splitting if painful comedy, and enough rose-tinted nostalgia to make this look back at high school circa 1980 ring true.
The show has a little something for everyone, no matter when you went to high school. If you were a “freak,” you’ll likely nod knowingly at some of the more uncomfortable moments experienced by Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), Daniel (James Franco), Ken (Seth Rogen), Nick (Jason Segel) and Kim (Busy Philipps). If you were a “geek,” which I’m guessing many of us at HDD were, I promise you, you will cringe at some of the shockingly uncool moments featuring Sam Weir (John Francis Daley), Neal (Samm Levine) and Bill (Martin Starr). The show arrived fully formed in its first episode. Check it out. You’ll see what I mean. You know these people. You can weep for what might have been, but because the characters are so real, you can just as easily imagine exactly how these kids turned out in the end. ‘Freaks and Geeks’ may never get a Blu-ray release (though we can hope; Shout! Factory is pretty great that way), but don’t let that stop you. Get the DVDs. This is one of the best television shows ever broadcast.
Now, you would think that the series pilot for ‘Game of Thrones‘ would be a no-brainer for this list. But, for me, this is a remarkable moment in my television-watching career. I’ve known Zyber since the dark ages of DVD when we wrote reviews for a standard-def digest of sorts. I’m telling you this because he can confirm how much I hate TV. DESPISE TV. I’ve only really liked one other show, but typically the only thing I might watch would be a baseball game or the occasional stand-up comedy routine. Oh sure, I’d give every stupid show Zyber loved a shot, but man they were all terrible. The only other show I have EVER cleared plans for was ‘The West Wing’. My wife and I watched that show until it totally blew around end of Season 4, beginning of Season 5.
Now comes ‘Game of Thrones’, based on some crappy nerdy book I’ve never read, starring pretty much no one I know, and it’s about knights and swords and kings and intrigue. Yeah, sounds real frickin’ enticing. Boy, was I surprised. The pilot episode is like four pilots rolled into one. More happens in that 60 minutes than happens in most movies. Each and every actor is amazing, from young children to the very old. And the writing? Perfect. Even the opening credits are a sight to behold! I have watched each and every episode several times. I have a spreadsheet indicating which episodes my friends are caught up to, as I have launched on my mission to ensure that everyone I know watches this show. Yes, I am a ‘Game of Thrones’ nut, and it’s because of that incredible first episode.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
As I thumbed through racks of DVD and Blu-ray season sets for this Roundtable, it dawned on me that pretty much all of my favorite series got off to a rocky start. There are a few exceptions, sure. Chances are that someone else in this Roundtable has already pointed those out. One standout that I’m hopefully the first to mention is ‘Batman: The Animated Series‘. Its first episode, ‘On Leather Wings’, bowled me over in a way that no other animated series had before or since. The “dark deco” art style, which draws deeply from ’40s film noir with many of the backgrounds painted on black paper, is breathtakingly gorgeous and immediately sets the show apart from the cheap, cornball superhero cartoons I’d grown up with. The ominous tone, stylized visuals, sharp writing, strikingly fluid animation, and gritty fight sequences made it feel more adult as well. All of that was very daring at the time for a cartoon in a network TV kids’ block, and ‘On Leather Wings’ showcases everything that defines the best episodes of the series.
A bunch of wildly uneven episodes quickly followed, but despite those occasional hiccups, ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ by far remains my favorite incarnation of the Caped Crusader outside of the comics, up to and including Christopher Nolan’s two blockbusters. Even nearly twenty full years after the pilot first aired, it’s still Kevin Conroy’s voice I hear whenever I read an issue of ‘Batman’ or ‘Detective Comics’.
I’ve written previously of my love for ‘Twin Peaks‘ and my desire to see it released on Blu-ray. It really can’t be emphasized enough just how brilliant the show’s pilot episode was. Series creator David Lynch had no experience in television, and approached the first episode as if it were a feature film all to itself. (In fact, it was released in Europe with a tacked-on ending and marketed as a standalone movie.) Lynch set about translating all the themes of his (decidedly R-rated) masterpiece ‘Blue Velvet’ to television, with a supernatural twist that made it quite unique. The episode has lush, cinematic production values, plenty of Lynch’s weird touches and surreal humor, and takes its time to unravel a complex story with richly developed characters. There had never been anything like it on television up to that point. And for all the imitators that would follow in its wake, there has still never been anything quite like it on television since.
The pilot episode set the template and the roadmap for the rest of the series, and remains its best episode. Honestly, I’ve never seen anything else on television that has ever delivered as much raw, searing and honest emotion as the scene where Laura Palmer’s mother learns that her daughter has died.
Now it’s your turn to tell us in the Comments which TV shows grabbed your attention right off the bat.
We’ll be taking Monday off for the Labor Day holiday. Have a great long weekend, everyone!