Five by Friday: Top Five TV Pilots

Welcome to Five by Friday!

It’s the beginning of fall, which can only mean one thing: NEW TELEVISION SHOWS.

(Were you expecting us to say pumpkin spice everything? Candy corn? Trees losing their leaves? Boots and scarves? Too-early Christmas decorations? OKAY FINE, WE GUESS IT CAN MEAN SEVERAL THINGS.)

In honor of all the new shows debuting this season (and there are some great ones), today we’re looking back on some of our favorite TV pilots of all time. Not all of these turned into our favorite shows, although many did, but each of these did exactly what a pilot is supposed to do: sucked us into the show and made us anxious to keep watching.

Note: Due to Netflix’s policy of releasing all episodes of a season at once, we have made the collective decision not to include any Netflix shows on this list, as we feel that their pilots do not have to do the same job as network or cable pilots, and thus have a very different feel to them. 

Five by Friday

Join us in the comments or on your own blog–we’ve even provided a graphic for you, which you can either save to your own space or link from tinypic using the following HTML code: <a href=””><img src=””><*/a> Just remove the asterisks, and you’re all set!


For me, a great TV pilot almost works like a mini-movie. It makes full use of its limited time to introduce me to the characters, throw them into conflict, and get me to care about what happens to them. It has to be really efficient, because the show hasn’t built any trust yet. It needs to prove to me that the writers can handle the concept they’ve bitten off while setting up a compelling greater arc for the season. It’s a high bar, and one few shows hit. So when I was putting this list together, I focused on the ones I’ve gone back to rewatch over and over, the ones that really nailed that first episode, where I went in not knowing what to expect and came out thinking, “I’m all in.”

In an attempt to highlight as many great pilots as possible, I’m not doubling any of Sarah’s or Teija’s picks (h/t to Chuck, Firefly, The Walking Dead, and Veronica Mars), but let it be known that the Battlestar Galactica miniseries/pilot is one of my favorite show introductions of all time.

5. “A Study in Pink,” Sherlock


This pilot had an even more daunting task than most, since each season of Sherlock is only three episodes, which meant that not only did “A Study in Pink” have to introduce us to the world, characters, and feel of the show, but it also had to carry the weight of a full third of the season. Fortunately, Sherlock is one of those shows that didn’t waste any time trying to figure out what it was or the kind of story it wanted to tell. From the very first episode, the writing was crisp, the characters were fully-formed, and the story was smart and confident. While the case-of-the-week and its subsequent resolution felt fairly straightforward, the real heavy lifting in this episode was establishing the complex relationship between Sherlock and Watson and how they work together to solve cases, while convincing viewers to come back for more, and it executed on all fronts admirably.

4. “Genesis,” Heroes


Oh, Heroes. You had such potential. And really, the show delivered on said potential — it then just had the gall to keep going. But regardless of how bad the later seasons were, that first season is still a thing of beauty, and it all started with the fantastic “Genesis” (actually, to be fair, it started with the brilliant “Save the cheerleader, save the world” marketing campaign that was everywhere in the weeks preceding the first episode). This pilot had to not only introduce us to a dauntingly large cast of characters, hint at their powers, and make us care about each and every one, but also sow the seeds of the season-long conflict with Sylar. That is a lot to fit into one episode, but somehow Heroes pulled it off, and the season that followed remains one of the best single seasons of television I have ever watched.

3. “Pilot,” Friday Night Lights


I fought against the pull of Friday Night Lights for a long time before finally breaking down and watching it. I don’t like football and I’ve never been particularly fond of Texas, and those two things seemed to make up the entirety of this show. But eventually, after numerous people told me it was one of the best shows they’d ever seen, I gave in, and let me just say, all it took was the pilot and I was all in. While this one is among the quieter pilots on this list, there was something utterly mesmerizing about watching these small-town characters interact, about the town of Dillon, and about watching Coach Taylor do his best to make his team shine. By the time we got to the final game, with its shocker of a twist, I was on the edge of my seat. This show remains one of my favorite and most-rewatched shows of all time, thanks to the characters, the honesty in the storytelling, and the heart, all of which were fully present from the very first episode.

2. “Pilot,” LOST


In hindsight, it took LOST‘s entire first season for the audience to really understand what we were getting into — a sprawling cast of diverse characters, creepy mythology, unexplained connections, and oodles of flashbacks — but the pilot served to introduce us to the island and the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 through the eyes of a single character: Jack Shephard, the former spinal surgeon and ostensibly the hero of the show. By sticking with Jack, we’re able to figure out what’s happening alongside him, as he attempts to pull people from the wreckage and tend to the wounded, introduces himself to the other survivors, and ultimately steps up to become their leader. It made the show intriguing without being overwhelming, and set up the format the rest of the show would follow, with each episode focusing on only one or two characters. It also hinted at the strangeness of the island, alluding to some of the long-running mysteries (the smoke monster, the polar bears) that would come up again and again throughout its run. This is one of those pilots that I love to go back and rewatch because there’s so much happening that I missed the first time around because I was focused on Jack. But after watching the full series and getting to know all the characters, it’s really fun to return to the first episode and peel back all its hidden layers.

1. “Truth Be Told,” Alias


It’s honestly shocking how many of the iconic moments from Alias are from the pilot: Sydney’s dental-centric interrogation, the red hair, the bathtub scene, “This is not about cutting off an arm of the monster; it’s about killing the monster.” This episode introduces Sydney, sets up her normal life with her friends and her fiance and her school, sets up her spy life with SD-6, shows her being capable in both environments… and then turns everything on its head. In the course of a single episode, Sydney gets engaged, goes to work, loses everything, goes rogue, and forms an alliance with the CIA, and it works so well. Not only does this episode manage to pull off one of the twistiest plots I can recall in any pilot, ever, not only sticking the landing but downright nailing it to the floor, but it got me to care deeply about Sydney and the people she cares about in a remarkably short period of time. With other shows, you’d risk viewer apathy in going for the shocking death early on, but I defy anyone to watch that bathtub scene without feeling absolutely gutted. In short, “Truth Be Told” is one of the most effective, well-executed, and rewatchable pilots I have ever seen.


I am of the same opinion as Lauren, that a TV pilot has to work like a mini-movie. It has to be efficient in introducing characters, conflict, and worldbuilding, but at the same time it needs not give the viewer everything at once. It needs to leave some mystery, some element that makes me say, “Yes I will be back next week because I need to know what happens to these characters/this story/this world.” A solid pilot is one that I will rewatch over and over, as it reminds me of the reasons I feel in love with the show and its characters. So here are my top five pilots of all time.

Additionally, in an effort to not overlap with the other lists, I’ve had to leave a few all-time favorites off this list, but don’t worry Alias, FNL, and Battlestar Galactica, you’re never left off in the list of my heart.

5. “We Just Decided To,” The Newsroom


I had high hopes for The Newsroom, given how utterly obsessed I am with The West Wing, and this pilot did not disappoint. This pilot does everything right, from introducing us to the characters, showing the tension between them, setting up the conflict, and displaying the heart of the show. But it’s the speech that Will McAvoy gives during a presentation at a NY college that really sealed it for me. And if you haven’t seen it, you can watch the opening scene here. I promise you’ll want to watch the rest of the episode immediately.

4. “Chuck Versus the Intersect,” Chuck


Chuck’s high-concept premise meant that the show had a lot to deliver on in a single episode, and deliver it did. The show starts off by establishing Chuck as a bit of a loser, a college dropout who works at his local electronics store. But by the episode’s end, he’s managed to download a supercomputer into his brain via email, encountered NSA agent John Casey and CIA agent Sarah Walker, and unwittingly become government property. Oh, and now his life is in constant danger. This is a show that could easily get bogged down in the same old spy vs. spy song and dance, but the pilot sets an excellent tone that marries comedy and drama in the best way.

3. “Pilot,” Veronica Mars


The first season of Veronica Mars is, hands down, one of the most perfect seasons of television to ever exist. Through a clever combination of voiceover, character interactions, and snappy dialogue we learn that within the last year Veronica’s boyfriend dumped her, her best friend was murdered, her father blamed the wrong man and lost his job, and her mother left them. Oh, and she was also raped at a party while unconscious and is determined to find out who did it. Whew, that’s a lot to cram into a single hour of television, but Rob Thomas weaves this story masterfully and leaves you rooting for Veronica, desperate to uncover the mysteries, and find out who’s to blame.

2. “Northwest Passage,” Twin Peaks


With the incredible opening line, “She’s dead, wrapped in plastic,” Twin Peaks started with a bang and didn’t let up for the entire episode. This is the kind of pilot (and show) that shouldn’t have worked on network TV, but it did. From that very first moment, you were hooked and needed to know the answer to the absolutely compelling mystery of “Who killed Laura Palmer?” The pilot episode set the bar high for this bizarre, off-kilter murder-mystery TV show and fortunately, the show delivered on that promise.

1. “Pilot,” The West Wing


I have lost track of just how many times I have re-watched The West Wing‘s pilot, but it is just that damn good. The pilot quickly establishes the (vast) cast of quirky characters, their roles in the White House, and even introduces us to the “walk and talk,” which is something that has become synonymous with the show. And for a show about the White House, it sure takes its time introducing us to the president, but when he makes his entrance, you damn well FEEL it.


A pilot has a hell of a job–not only does it have to introduce the viewer to your show’s premise and its characters, but it also has to do the heavy lifting of getting a show its chance to go before a viewing audience in the first place. At first I was concerned that going last of the three of us would leave me in the lurch (I’m also very fond of the pilots for Alias, Heroes, The West Wing, and Twin Peaks), but once I started thinking about it, it turns out there have been a lot of exceptional pilots over the years.

Now as we all know, a solid pilot doesn’t necessarily mean the show will stand the test of time, but when a pilot grabs you and doesn’t let go, you know it’s done its job. Here are my top five. Also, I want to give an honorable mention nod to The Black Donnellys, whose pilot would have made this list if the early leaked version’s musical choice for its riveting last 10 minutes had been retained for the actual aired pilot (both songs are great, but the overall tone was changed dramatically by the change).

5) “Pilot,” Gilmore Girls


This episode introduces so many things that are long-running features of the show later on: the Gilmores’ love of coffee, the quick and intelligent patter that the show is known for, and the veritable barrage of pop culture references that keep you constantly wondering why it is that the characters are never shown winning a trivia night at the local pub (complete with a team name that is a literary reference and probably also a pun). The pilot establishes the relationships between the Gilmore women, introduces Friday night dinners, and drops you headfirst into Stars Hollow, ensuring you never want to leave. It’s a solid pilot to an overall solid show.

4) “Days Gone Bye,” The Walking Dead


This pilot wasted no time in introducing both the brutal setting of the show but also the brutal nature of the world we were entering, as the first zombie encounter of the entire show is a teddy-bear carrying, braces-wearing little girl. This episode kicks off a series that has been up and down over the course of its run, but there is no denying that the pilot–and the following first season–was a complete knockout.

3) “Dexter,” Dexter


The pilot for Dexter had the herculean task of convincing its viewers that an entire show from the point of view of a serial killer with a “code” was something worth watching. Introducing Dexter Morgan, his foul-mouthed sister Deb, the police department for which they both worked, the code Dexter kills by, and starting the story of the Ice Truck Killer… well, this pilot had a lot to cover. Not only did they succeed, but they also kickstarted one of the most riveting seasons of television I have ever seen (and I had read the book!). This pilot and the season that followed were phenomenal.

2) “Serenity,” Firefly


Firefly’s pilot manages, in a very short amount of time, to introduce you not only to the characters and the world they live in, but also to their relationships and motivations, which is not something that many pilots always manage to squeeze in with grace while they’re laying out the groundwork. Firefly’s pilot also has the unique honor of having aired last of all aired episodes, because the network made some very poor decisions in the way they handled the show overall (“The Train Job” was aired first), though as any fan will tell you, the order chosen by the networks is nonsensical and terrible and you should ignore it. Considering the cult nature of this show, I would wager the vast majority of its fans found it after the initial airing anyway and watched the episodes in the proper order. Ignore the network’s stupid plan: “Serenity” is this show’s pilot, and it does a bang-up job of introducing everything and everyone. You fall in love before the episode’s even over.

1) Battlestar Galactica miniseries


Battlestar Galactica has a bit of a weird situation, in that it got an establishing miniseries before it got a full season run. So it has two “pilots,” in a way. However, the miniseries is what establishes characters, introduces the premise, and truly sets the series off on the right foot. It also did all the work of a pilot, establishing that this universe and its characters would garner a viewership and be worth fleshing out in a full series order. Considering that this feels at times like a blockbuster movie, it pulls no punches–destroying whole planets, establishing and then upheaving political and military systems, and getting you to care about characters deeply enough in a short amount of time that the cylon identity reveal at the end feels like a gut punch. This thing is a powerhouse.

Leave a Reply