Weekend Roundtable: Best TV Pilot Episodes

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.

Aaron Peck

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.

Mike Attebery

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.

Wayne Rowe

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’.

Josh Zyber

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!


  1. Nate B

    For me, Prison Break grabbed my attention from episode 1. I like to forget that Season 3 and beyond ever happened.

    Sopranos got me from day 1, as did The Shield. They both took their medium (being on cable) and pushed the limits of what we’d seen in a TV show before.

  2. HuskerGuy

    While the full show didn’t end up so well, I recall enjoying the hell out of Flash Forward’s pilot. So much potential.

    • For me, it wasn’t necessarily the pilot, 4-hour miniseries that hooked me on Galactica (it sometimes got verrrry slowwwww), but the “5th” episode (1st “normal” episode), called “33”. I defy anyone not to get hooked on BSG after watching that tense, straining, gut-wrenching, drama-filled episode.

  3. Mike

    Friday Night Lights

    The Shield

    Both ended their pilots with surprising and ballsy (for different reasons) turns.

    • What was it about ‘Rome’s pilot that hooked you. I loved the series, but wasn’t actually hooked until about episode 3. The first episode didn’t ever really grab me.

      • Jane Morgan

        The unashamed uncensoredness. Tits, cock, and blood. Crafted to a hard edge. The pilot said, “This is Rome. If you don’t like it, fuck off.”

        Think about pre-‘Rome’ historical television. It was all history channel dramatized bullshit. Soft white men doing filmed stage plays.

        Compare it to post-‘Rome’ imitators. ‘Spartacus,’ ‘Camelot.’ They played with all the same elements. But they forgot the class.

        Maybe ‘Rome’ didn’t hook you at episode one, because you had other distractions. Maybe you don’t value NC-17 content as highly as I do.

        When you spend all day with three young children, and it comes to private entertainment time, there’s nothing quite like an orgy and a good beheading to bring about catharsis.

  4. Alex

    Some of the best pilot episodes I’ve seen have been for British shows. I think it has to do with the drastically shorter season/series lengths demanding even more upfront quality, since there likely won’t be any chance for the show to “find its footing.” I remember the pilot episode for “Hustle” was so sharp, quick-witted, and charming that I immediately dumped the entire series on my Netflix queue.

  5. besch64

    There are shows that I like better than Lost, specifically Six Feet Under and Twin Peaks.

    But no show ever has, nor probably ever will, premiere with a more powerful bang than Lost. The Lost pilot is one of the greatest achievements in 20/21st century entertainment. Truly truly truly a work of genius.

  6. Stewart

    Though being a big fan of Twin Peaks and Six Feet Under, for me there’s no question, it’s the pilot episode of The Shield.

  7. I think that the awesomeness of ‘Lost’s pilot is directly tied to the outrageous amount of money ABC ponied up for the pilot alone ($10 – $14 million). It’s really telling what you can do with that big of a budget. Imagine if they tried to CG the plane wreckage or used camera trickery to make it appear bigger than it was. I don’t think we’d think it was that awesome. Being able to buy a whole plane and ship it to a beach in Hawaii, now that’s what made it spectacular.

  8. Prydie

    Whilst The Shield pilot was a definite attention grabber I have to give my vote to Spaced for its riotously funny introduction of characters Tim, Daisy, Mike, Marsha, Twist & Brian.

  9. Josh wins the gold star, not only was TWIN PEAKS the best TV pilot ever, but it changed the way drama was filmed for TV…I remember critics watching/reviewing that and saying “this is a TV SHOW?”…people thought they were misinformed and previewing a theatical film.

    I would also like to throw in The X-Files pilot for consideration.

    • Agreed, I didn’t see the show when it aired (would have been a tad young to fully appreciate it anyway) but one day bought the whole first season on vhs, thinking it would keep me busy for a while. Started watching at 9-9:30 at night and COULD NOT STOP until I finished the whole damn season that night… I had to work the next morning. Despite being tired, my biggest gripe the next day was that, at the time, season 2 was not available… Bitchery.

      • Unfortunately Season 2 got completely lost, I never even bothered finishing it, Season 1 was fantastic and I flew through those, Season 2 started and it turned to crap IMO and obviously that was the case because it got canned right after that 😉

  10. This could spawn an excellent “mid-week topic”:

    What is your “demo episode” to show for a friend who’s never seen your favorite tv series?

    I submit:

    “Ice” for The X-Files
    The first paintball episode for Community
    “33” for Battlestar Galactica
    The Thanksgiving episode of Cheers (featuring the food fight at the end)
    The Sam Kinison episode of Married With Children
    “Jaynestown” for Firefly
    “Miri” for Star Trek

    • Buffy was the first thing I thought of, as it’s my favorite show ever, but to be honest it wasn’t really the first episode that hooked me. My then roommate insisted I watch the show, I was hesitant because of the movie. We plowed through the better part of a season each night (so I guess it could be said I was hooked) but the pilot alone probably wouldn’t have changed my opinion if I hadn’t kept watching. I’d say I was officially hooked by the beginning of season 2.

      • i didnt get into buffy until the end of season 3 then the dvds came out and what i love about it was how small the plot is. they didnt throw the kitchen sink in there and it grew into this great wonderful show. i was going to go with lost as i loved that first season but the show lost me shortly after season two started.

  11. Doctor Who (The new series)

    Doctor Who (The Original)

    Battlestar Galactica (both the new and the old)

    Star Trek DS9

    Star Trek Voyager

    Star Trek Enterprise

    Red Dwarf

    Big Love


    Quantum Leap

    Stargate Atlantis

    Full House

    Step by Step

    Lost In Space

    Eden of The East

    Neon Genesis Evangelion

    Oh! My Goddess

    Ah! My Goddess

      • Yes – Star Trek The Next Generation had a HORRIBLE pilot. Actually, like the entire first season and a half were just absolutely awful. The show was practically a joke until they killed Tasha off, then it got really good.

        Also didn’t care for the pilot to Torchwood, although I think that is more because I have an extreamely hard time with the Cardiff accent, and I didn’t know what was going on half of the show.

        And Stargate Universe…. well let’s not even go into the travesty that that show was!

    • Brian H

      I was going to submit Star Trek Voyager… as a joke. Of course I don’t like any of the characters in the pilot, and that did not change of the course of the show. Caretaker plus maquis plus Janeway, Paris, Torres, T’veex (rest of cast)…

  12. Ur_Wack

    I can’t believe that nobody on the roundtable mentioned Dexter!! The narration by Michael C Hall in the pilot completely set the tone for the rest of the series and had me hooked

    • Jane Morgan

      For shame, Mr. Peck.

      You didn’t even propose the show your son was named after.

      From this weekend forward, at The Bonus View, your boyo is going to be nicknamed Daisy.

    • CK

      I’d definitely go with Dexter; I remember when the end credits started, I felt like I hadn’t blinked for the entire episode.
      Arrested Development, Monty Python, and Mr. Show would be in the running; I could also go with The Walking Dead , but I was already hooked from the comic, so it’s hard to say if I liked it on its own merits or not.

  13. Scott H

    My friends recommended Dead Like Me, so when the first disc came, I watched and was instantly hook by Ellen Muths narration and the dry witty writing and the acting from the rest of the cast. Often very touching and very funny, it was too bad that it was cancelled after just two seasons. It was really hard not to watch each disc all the way through in one sitting.

    • CK

      I wasn’t hooked on Dead Like Me at first, but I would agree that I was instantly charmed by Ellen Muth. Mandy Patinkin was great, as well; I’ve always liked him, but he’s never been better than he was in that show.

  14. Jane Morgan

    Back in 1996, there was a show called ‘Profit.’

    The pilot made me feel things I had never felt before. Naughty things.

    So of course Fox cancelled it, after four episodes.

    But they couldn’t take away the memory. Of a naked man, in a cardboard box, who had ambition beyond measure.

    Jim Profit will live forever, in my pocket. To tickle me, when the moment is inappropriate. And I will smirk his smirk.

      • Bryan

        Oh how I loved Profit. I don’t know if I could ever see it surviving multiple seasons, but I would have loved to have seen more than the abbreviated story we got. At least the DVD had a couple of additional episodes (that I think were only aired on some obscure cable channel years after the initial run).

  15. that1guypictures

    I would have to say that Dexter, Mad Men and Lost all had me hooked from the very first episode. I also found the pilot for Community highly engaging, even though it had it’s faults. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I absolutely hated the pilot (and still don’t like it much) for 30 Rock, but love the vast majority of the show.

  16. Scott H

    Futurama is one of my favorites as far as cartoon pilots are concerned. Just love the concept and all the characters, especially Bender. Also the writing is sharp and funny and even touching at times.

  17. Bryan

    For me, no question – Alias.

    Just everything about that pilot episode was perfect. The pacing, the plot, the music. Of any of the (quite large) collection of TV DVDs I have, this is the one I’ve gone back and watched the most. The amazing thing is that it works fantastic as a pilot and also could be a stand-alone movie (albeit with a bit of an open ending). I figure this show is old enough to not require spoiler tags of any kind, but just in case someone hasn’t seen it, the “big reveal” with Sydney and her Dad is handled so well. Just a great show all around.