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The 11 best TV pilots of the 21st century

Gabbi Shaw   

The 11 best TV pilots of the 21st century
"Glee."Fox
  • Before streaming, a TV show's first episode was an important way to gauge viewer interest.
  • A great pilot ensured a show would be picked up for the rest of the season.

In today's age of streaming, ratings are largely secret, and all it takes to watch the next episode of a show is the press of a button.

But before this, we had week-to-week television.

The best way to ensure a show would be picked up for the rest of a season was to have an excellent pilot episode that attracted many eyeballs and, in turn, ad revenue.

These 11 pilots that aired in the last 24 years established series-long arcs, beloved characters, and filmmaking worthy of the big screen.

"A Hard Day's Night" — "Grey's Anatomy"

"A Hard Day
"Grey's Anatomy."      ABC

The first episode of "Grey's Anatomy" aired on March 27, 2005, and introduced 16.25 million viewers to a cast of characters so compelling that the show is still on 19 years and 20 seasons later.

"A Hard Day's Night" starts with surgical intern Meredith Grey, a young, slightly chaotic woman who is juggling moving back to Seattle, starting a new job, finding out her dreamy one-night stand, Derek, is now her boss, and her mother's secret Alzheimer's diagnosis.

We're also introduced to the four other original interns (Cristina Yang, Izzie Stevens, Alex Karev, and George O'Malley), their intense boss, Dr. Bailey, and the intimidating chiefs Dr. Weber and Dr. Burke.

It's a wonder that this fit into 45 minutes of TV, but the episode was so tightly written with immediately compelling characters that audiences have been tuning in ever since, even though almost all of the original cast is gone.

"Pilot" — "Breaking Bad"

"Pilot" — "Breaking Bad"
"Breaking Bad."      AMC

The image of Walter White standing in a green dress shirt and tighty-whities while brandishing a gun beside a beat-up RV in the middle of the New Mexico desert is one that any viewer of "Pilot" will never forget, not even 16 years after its premiere on January 20, 2008.

"Breaking Bad" is widely considered one of the best TV shows ever, but it wouldn't have gotten anywhere without establishing the show's darkly comedic tone and introducing inimitable characters like White, a chemistry teacher who decides to start cooking meth to pay for his chemo, his delinquent former student Jesse whom he enlists to help him, his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank, and White's slightly clueless (for now) wife, Skyler.

"Breaking Bad" went on to air for five more seasons (62 episodes in all), and by the end had become a huge success for AMC in both awards and ratings. And it all started with Walt's slacks flying in the wind.

"Winter Is Coming" — "Game of Thrones"

"Winter Is Coming" — "Game of Thrones"
"Game of Thrones."      HBO

Try to think back before the finale of "Game of Thrones" had soured your opinion of the entire show — go all the way back to April 17, 2011, when you turned on HBO to check out its new fantasy series.

If you were like most people, you were immediately hooked by the immersive world of Westeros and its compelling characters like Ned Stark, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen.

"Winter Is Coming" also established a sense of dread that hung over the rest of the show — while these highborn lords and ladies fought over a throne, the real threat resided in the north with mysterious creatures who could reanimate the dead.

"Game of Thrones" finished in 2019 after eight seasons and 73 episodes, with many fans left unhappy by its ending. But if you ever need to remember the magic of Westeros, revisit the pilot.

"Pilot" — "Arrested Development"

"Pilot" — "Arrested Development"
"Arrested Development."      Fox

Dramatic pilots can have up to an hour to set up the premise of the show, but sitcoms have a tougher challenge — these shows usually have at most 28 minutes to hook enough people into tuning in next week.

The "Arrested Development" pilot aired on November 2, 2003, and had enough jokes to fill an entire season of a lesser sitcom.

Over the course of the episode, we meet the dysfunctional Bluth family: patriarch George Sr. and his wife, Lucille; their kids Michael, Gob, Buster, and Lindsay; Michael's son, George Michael; and Lindsay's husband Tobias and daughter Maeby.

The pilot sets up George Sr.'s criminal activity, the love of wordplay and puns from the writers, and the general absurdity of the world of the Bluths.

"Arrested Development" was never a huge ratings success, but it became such a cult classic that it was brought back in 2013 (seven years after it ended) and then again in 2018.

"Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" — "Mad Men"

"Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" — "Mad Men"
"Mad Men."      AMC

"Mad Men" premiered on July 19, 2007, and took viewers back to 1960 and the peak of the New York City advertising scene.

But while we thought the show was just about a typical ad man — the cigarette-smoking, bourbon-drinking, womanizing Don Draper, and his fascinating coworkers — the last scene of the episode told us we didn't know this man at all.

After watching Don spend the episode trying to woo a new client (both romantically and professionally), we learn he actually has a wife and two kids. This is a man who knows how to compartmentalize — something we'd learn over and over again across "Mad Men's" 92 episodes.

"Pilot" — "Glee"

"Pilot" — "Glee"
"Glee."      Fox

Fox knew they had something special when the "Glee" pilot was finished, which is why it aired on May 19, 2009, a full four months before the rest of the show aired that September.

The network wanted to create some buzz for the show, and it worked. "Glee's" pilot is wonderful: The musical performances were touching, the comedy was biting and hilarious, and the characters were immediately lovable.

In typical creator Ryan Murphy fashion, "Glee" went off the rails almost immediately. But the power of the final scene of the pilot, with the glee club performing "Don't Stop Believin'" together, cannot be denied.

"Premiere" — "The OC"

"Premiere" — "The OC"
"The OC."      Fox

When "Premiere" aired on Fox on August 5, 2003, it was almost unbelievable how much happened in just one episode.

Viewers were introduced to the glamorous lives of Orange County's elite through the eyes of an outsider: Ryan Atwood, a juvenile delinquent with a heart of gold. After his public defender, Sandy Cohen, takes him in, Ryan decides to leave his criminal past behind and join the preppy residents of Newport Beach.

Ryan is introduced to his surrogate brother, Seth Cohen (an all-time TV character), Seth's longtime crush, Summer, and his mysterious neighbor, Marissa.

Oh, and he gets punched in the face by Marissa's boyfriend, Luke, while being welcomed to the OC.

Unlike in other teen soaps, the adults on this show had drama, too. Sandy, his wife Kirsten, and Marissa's parents all had compelling arcs of their own.

The show crammed so much plot into each episode that it wasn't surprising when "The OC" ended after just four seasons.

"Pilot" — "This Is Us"

"Pilot" — "This Is Us"
"This Is Us."      NBC

Viewers were shocked at the end of the "This Is Us'" pilot episode on September 20, 2016, when it was revealed the seemingly disjointed storylines of four people with the same birthday were actually all related — and that the plot line centering on Jack, a kindhearted dad-to-be, was actually taking place 36 years in the past.

The other three adults — Kate, Kevin, and Randall — were his kids (a set of twins and their adopted brother), who also shared Jack's birthday.

From the start, viewers were invested. Even to this day, the hospital speech that Dr. K shares with Jack is tear-inducing.

"This Is Us" ended in 2022 after 105 more episodes and gallons of tears.

"Truth Be Told" – "Alias"

"Truth Be Told" – "Alias"
"Alias."      ABC

On September 30, 2001, a shocking 15 million people tuned in to see a new spy show starring Jennifer Garner, an unknown at the time.

"Alias" introduced us to Sydney Bristow (Garner), a college student turned spy who learns that the secret organization she had been recruited into was actually villainous.

Then she learned her dad, Jack, was working for the bad guys — but wait! Actually, he was a double agent working for the CIA and expected Sydney to do the same.

"Alias" might have lost the plot as the show continued, but the pilot (and, really, the first two seasons) remains excellent television.

"Pilot" — "Friday Night Lights"

"Pilot" — "Friday Night Lights"
"Friday Night Lights."      NBC

The pilot of "Friday Night Lights" is a cinematic achievement — which makes sense, since it had already been a movie in 2004.

When the pilot aired two years later, on October 3, 2006, it was like nothing on TV, with its documentary-style shaky cam, the realistic dialogue, and the decidedly un-glamorous lifestyles of the residents of Dillon, Texas.

But it became clear this show was about more than football when star quarterback Jason Street got carried off the field, never to return (on his feet) again. This show was about trauma, the pressure that these football players faced, the racial tension between Dillon residents, and much more.

"FNL" was never a ratings hit, but the fan base was loyal enough that the show lasted another 75 episodes.

"Pilot Parts 1 and 2" — "Lost"

"Pilot Parts 1 and 2" — "Lost"
"Lost."      ABC

When the two-part pilot of "Lost" aired on September 22 and 29, 2004, it already had a significant achievement to its name: It was the most expensive pilot of all time (up to that point).

It cost somewhere between a whopping $10 to $14 million to shoot the harrowing plane crash of Oceanic 815. Why? Because ABC actually purchased a decommissioned jet, shipped it to Hawaii, and then artfully beat it up.

But the "Lost" pilot is iconic beyond its numbers. We met a truly staggering cast of characters from across the world, who spoke different languages, which was somewhat unheard of on broadcast TV at the time. We were invested in them almost immediately.

If you weren't hooked by the multiple mysteries (Why was Kate arrested? What is the roaring coming from the jungle?), you were by the end of the two-part pilot, when Charlie asks, "Guys … where are we?"


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