The Best TV Pilots Ever? (And by Pilots, I Don't Mean The Dude Who Flew AIRWOLF)

TV Guide came out with a list of the “top 10 pilots ever,” leading a bunch of critics to name their own favourites: Maureen Ryan, Jill Golick, Alan Sepinwall among others. Most commentators have already noted that the TV Guide list is severely compromised by its inclusion of 30 Rock, which is a classic example of a show that got better after a shaky pilot.

Of course, that just points up the fact that it’s difficult to say what makes a great pilot. Is it a pilot that sets up a great show? If it is, then a lot of pilots that aren’t so good on their own can qualify. (Which explains the inclusion of 30 Rock; the pilot isn’t very good on its own, but when you look back on it after enjoying what it led to, you can enjoy it because it plants the seeds for all the cool stuff that was to come.) Is it a great self-contained experience, regardless of whether it leads to a good series or even a series at all? Then the greatest pilot of all time may well be something none of us have ever seen. And the definition of a pilot can be iffy: if a show is ordered direct-to-series and doesn’t do a full pilot episode before it starts production, then is the first episode a “pilot” or isn’t it?

Well, that said, here’s my attempt at a top 10, in alphabetical order because ranking them would just be too much brain-work for my feeble head. Since it’s me, this is a bit historically-oriented, but the TV Guide list had way too many shows from the last 10 years, so it balances out.

Batman (1966): “Hey Diddle Riddle/Smack In the Middle,” written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., directed by Robert Butler. One thing a pilot can do, and should do, is define what makes the show different: what’s the special approach, the reason for doing the show in the first place? No pilot ever did that better than Batman, and no pilot ever made a bigger impression in its first airing. The deadpan humour, the comic-book look, the tilted angles and the famous “POW!” “BAM!” stuff announced that this was a world with its own rules, its own look, a world and an approach we had never seen before on TV.

Bewitched (1964): “I, Darrin, Take This Witch Samantha,” written by Sol Saks, directed by William Asher. There has rarely been a comedy pilot that gets so much story and character development into less than 24 minutes of screen time. Structurally, it’s quite brilliant: the teaser takes care of all the backstory in under a minute; the first act is a self-contained little story that sets up the whole premise of the show and the three characters who will drive it, with the funny/sexy tone that the story needs; and the second act shows us the premise in action, demonstrating what happens when fantasy elements meet the suburban sitcom world.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997): “Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest,” written by Joss Whedon, directed by Charles Martin Smith and John T. Kretchmer. The two-part pilot — assuming it counts as a pilot and not Whedon’s pilot presentation with a different Willow — doesn’t always get a lot of credit for accomplishing a very difficult job. Being based upon a movie which was reasonably well-known (thanks to home video) and, despite what Whedonites will tell you, was a pretty good movie, it had to do the following: establish itself as different from the movie while simultaneously not pissing off anybody who liked the movie while setting up a lot of complicated rules and telling a self-contained story and setting up story material for the rest of the season. It all works, from the opening twist on horror-movie conventions, to the killing of a character who’s been set up as a potential regular, to one of the great punchlines: “The earth is doomed.” By the time part 1 of the pilot was over, not only was the WB legitimized as a network (for a bit anyway) but nobody had any doubt that this was different from the movie and that this would be a very unusual hybrid of horror, comedy and teen angst.

The Cosby Show (1984): Written by Ed. Weinberger, Michael Leeson and Bill Cosby, directed by Jay Sandrich. Yes, because some scenes were shot earlier than others, the pilot has different sets from the final show, and the Huxtables have only four kids instead of five. Doesn’t matter. No single scene in a pilot ever worked better than the famous scene with Cliff teaching Theo about the “real world” and responding to his plea for acceptance and tolerance: “That’s the dumbest thing I have ever heard!”

Freaks and Geeks (1999), directed by Jake Kasdan, written by Paul Feig. If only because the opening — teasing us into thinking this might be another 90210-type show, then panning down to show us the real, imperfect teens who lived under the surface of other teen shows — is one of the best, simplest and funniest presentations of a show’s premise.

Get Smart (1965), written by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, directed by Howard Morris

Hill Street Blues (1981), written by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, directed by Robert Butler. I don’t think it’s possible to get away from this one. For creating a world and a new and different style in one episode — with the formula in place (one day in the life of the station, starting with the “let’s be careful out there” scene) and holding together a huge array of characters, relationships and tonal shifts — this pilot changed television, and changed what a one-hour pilot was supposed to do; instead of providing a “typical” adventure or setting up the premise, it presented all the characters and bits of story material and told us to hang on and wait for this stuff to be dealt with.

Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970), written by James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, directed by Jay Sandrich. Here’s where we get into questions about what makes a pilot, since while this episode was written as a pilot, the show was ordered direct-to-series and this was the first episode in the initial order. Still, counting it as a pilot because it was written that way, it is an example of the opposite tendency from 30 Rock — a pilot that’s so good that the series initially has trouble living up to it. This first episode has so many classic scenes (“I hate spunk”), and focuses so tightly on what would be the most important themes on the show (the relationship between Mary and Lou; Mary’s quest to Make It After All) that many of the episodes from the first couple of seasons, which frequently got away from the themes and style of the pilot, were almost disappointing. But that’s the advantage of having a great, solid pilot to start with: the writers can go back to it and understand what the show needs to be, or what it needs to become. It’s doubtful that this show would have been as good as it was if it hadn’t had the pilot as a sort of reference point.

The Sopranos (1999), written and directed by David Chase. On most lists, if only because this holds some kind of record for the most ways in which a pilot could have gone wrong. Whatever happens in a pilot, we (if it gets on the air) or the executives (if they decide not to pick it up) will assume that we’re going to be seeing it through the whole series. The premise of The Sopranos meant that the pilot could have come off as too silly, too stereotypical, or focusing on characters so repellent that we’d have no reason to want to see them again. It sidestepped all the mistakes that would have killed the whole series stone dead with one episode.

Veronica Mars (2004), written by Rob Thomas. If Buffy had to tell us why it was different from the movie, Veronica Mars had to tell us why it wasn’t just another in a long line of sassy-teen-heroine shows that followed Buffy. The great achievement of the pilot is the tone of it, the moody, melancholy tone (though not without humour) of the show and the prematurely world-weary tone of Veronica’s dialogue and narration. We know from watching this pilot that there’s something ominous and disturbing about this world, above and beyond the mechanics of the plot; there’s more here than this one story can tell us. And yet it doesn’t go overboard with the angstiness; it also shows us why it’s fun to be as smart and brilliant as Veronica Mars.

WKRP in Cincinnati (1978), written by Hugh Wilson, directed by Jay Sandrich. A case of a pilot that was so favourably reviewed that it nearly killed the series; early episodes couldn’t quite live up to the hype that surrounded the pilot and Howard Hesseman’s instant star-making performance.

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