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“The way they pick TV shows is, they make one show. That show's called a pilot. Then they show that one show to the people who pick shows, and on the strength of that one show they decide if they want to make more shows. Some get chosen and become television programs. Some don't, become nothing.”
~ “Pulp Fiction”
The art of television is, in many ways, the art of the pilot. Most TV shows begin with the creation of just one episode, and they rely on the strength and promise of that episode to get more episodes made. It’s very difficult to get a TV show off the ground if you can’t at least make one good episode. Which is probably as it should be.
But what makes a good pilot episode? It boils down to two simple factors. It has to introduce the characters and their world in an entertaining way, and it has to prove that there are other great stories to tell with those characters, within that world.
What we are going to look at today are a selection of pilot episodes which accomplished both goals, in different ways. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of every great pilot episode ever, nor is it intended to be a countdown of the very best. They are, simply, several pilot episodes that we can learn from.
Let’s start with a classic!
THE TWILIGHT ZONE - “Where Is Everybody?”
When we think of pilot episodes, we tend to think of serialized television shows, which will continue telling the stories of the characters we meet in the very first installment. But not all television series work that way, and “The Twilight Zone” is a perfect example.
Created by Rod Serling, “The Twilight Zone” is an anthology science-fiction series, consisting of standalone tales of horror, the supernatural and - usually - thoughtful irony. It wasn’t the first anthology television series but it still stands out amongst all the others, because, starting with the pilot episode, it had a consistent vision. We may not be following the same characters, but we are always visiting the same “Twilight Zone.”
The first episode, “Where is Everybody?”, stars Earl Holliman as Mike Ferris, an Air Force Pilot who wakes up in a world without any other people. The streets are empty, the buildings deserted. The story is intimate but the scale is enormous, and the mystery of what is going on, and why, is tantalizing.
In the first of what would become a series of memorable twist endings, we learn that Mike Ferris has been trapped in an isolation tank this whole time, devoid of human contact, in an experiment to see if the human mind can withstand the isolation of solo space travel. The episode’s sentiment - that no, the human mind most definitely cannot - is cynical but pointed, and illustrates (as the series would often do) the failings of mankind when faced with the strange, the horrifying, and even - occasionally - the marvelous.
It’s a theme and a promise that “The Twilight Zone” would explore, with an astoundingly consistent level of quality, for five whole seasons.
TWIN PEAKS - “Pilot”
A pilot is responsible for making a memorable first impression. If that’s the case, then the original pilot for “Twin Peaks” is an unassailable masterpiece. (Then again, it’s probably an unassailable masterpiece anyway.)
A fisherman stumbles across a dead body, and the call goes out: “She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic.” Meanwhile, the whole town of Twin Peaks wonders what has become of Laura Palmer: the prom queen, the beloved girlfriend of two different boys, the doting charity worker, the drug addict. Her short life has touched every single person in this community, and the sudden lack of her - the realization that she is missing, and then that she is dead - gives way to some of the most overwhelming depictions of grief in television history. Laura Palmer is not a plot point. She’s the entire point.
So when the “Twin Peaks” pilot veers, rather unexpectedly, into comic territory it’s a bit of a relief from all the harrowing emotional frailty. The quirky Agent Dale Cooper of the FBI finds this town quaintly charming, and he’s right. But we already know there is evil at the center of it, and that his investigations will take us down dark avenues.
David Lynch never had a conventional cinematic style, but this early attempt to marry TV melodrama and folksy humor with a terrifying exploration of homegrown horror was unlike anything on television. And even though it’s not nearly as weird as the revival, “Twin Peaks: The Return,” it would still be unexpected and novel if it debuted today. The mystery is fascinating, the characters distinctive, the style fascinating. You simply have to watch more.
BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES - “On Leather Wings”
|Warner Bros. Animation|
By the time “Batman: The Animated Series” debuted, audiences had grown accustomed to Tim Burton’s operatic, theatrical take on the Caped Crusader. It was the television series’ job to add texture to Burton’s broad strokes, and although a pilot episode about a man who turns into a bat creature might not seem like the obvious way to do that, it succeeded.
“On Leather Wings” is a relatively simple mystery, in which a bat creature terrorizes pharmaceutical companies in Gotham City. Batman gets framed, and after briefly falling for a (somewhat obvious) red herring, he does battle with the real culprit: Man-Bat. It’s just enough story to fit into a half-hour episode of animated television. An uncomplicated but dramatic and effective storyline.
But watch the details that “Batman: The Animated Series” manages to fit into its pilot episode. Every minor character is fully realized, right down to the lowly night watchman with dreams of being a voice-over artist. Check out the weird sight gag referencing the definitely not-kid-friendly novel “P.S. Your Cat Is Dead.”
We've already met Batman, but “Batman: The Animated Series” gives us his whole world, and its supporting players, including a heavily foreshadowed District Attorney Harvey Dent, whose own tragic story will obviously be told. And yet, we also learn more about Batman in this pilot than we might fully realize. He’s got a sense of humor, it just happens to be dark. He’s got as full a life as Bruce Wayne as he does in a costume. He cares about human beings, not just his all-encompassing vigilante mission.
Add in a whirligig action sequence, the likes of which we had never seen in a Batman adaptation before, complete with flight sequences worthy of comparison to Studio Ghibli, and you’ve got the promise of a television series that could - and eventually did - give us a definitive version of the character, his supporting cast, and his world.
NEWSRADIO - “Pilot”
There aren’t a lot of perfect comedy pilots, but that’s not a sleight against the genre. Again, sitcoms usually get better as time goes by, as the actors get comfortable in their roles and as the writers and directors discover the best way to play each personality off of each other. It’s rare for a pilot to nail that dynamic right off the bat, and kudos to “Newsradio” for accomplishing the feat.
“Newsradio” is rarely discussed in the same venerated tones as its 1990s sitcom contemporaries “Seinfeld,” “Frasier” and “Friends,” but for years it was arguably the best of the bunch. It’s the story of WNYX, a news radio station full of broad personalities like the egomaniacal Bill (Phil Hartman), the Type-A “Type-A” personality Lisa (Maura Tierney), the helpless eccentric Matthew (Andy Dick), their mild-mannered boss Dave (Dave Foley), and the dopey yet all-powerful Mr. James (Stephen Root).
In the pilot, Dave arrives at WNYX, only to discover that his first job is to fire his predecessor. It’s such a socially awkward situation that it takes him all day to do it. Meanwhile everyone else in the office assumes he’s just an underling, revealing their true natures in a way they normally never would on a boss’s first day. It’s a delicious mechanism by which to introduce this fully formed cast of characters, and a charmingly stressful comedic situation to throw into the pilot episode. Ultimately, it gives Dave the opportunity to assert his authority and win over the team, after a whole day of being their befuddled doormat.
“Newsradio” only got better from here, as Catherine (Khandi Alexander) become a more nuanced character, and the originally cast handyman was replaced by a more engaging Joe Rogan. But it was clearly, from the beginning, a winner, and it’s hard to imagine not wanting to make and see more episodes.
LOST - “Pilot: Part 1” and “Pilot: Part 2”
The first few moments of “Lost” may be the most dynamic introduction any television series ever had. A mysterious man wakes up in the jungle, confused. He dusts himself off, then runs towards the sounds of chaos. He emerges onto a beach, where enormous flaming plane wreckage threatens the lives of dozens of survivors from a crash, and he immediately dashes from one dangerous predicament to another, trying to keep everyone alive and safe.
From there, “Lost” somehow manages to get even more compelling. Big personalities reveal themselves amongst the survivors, and the problem-solving immediately begins. Wounds must be tended, radio signals must be sent, and a trek into the jungle to find the front end of the plane is more precarious than could be expected. And then, of course, there’s a mysterious monster…
As “Lost” went on, it gradually became clear that the series was better at asking questions than answering them. But the questions the pilot asks about the characters and their unbelievable new circumstances are undeniably intriguing, and for a season (at least) they were able to hold our attention with a nearly flawless, cinematic zeal. The cast was impeccable, the flashbacks surprising, the mysteries of the island were absolutely baffling.
Future television series would learn from “Lost’s” mistakes, and make certain that they had satisfying pay-offs for every juicy set-up. But they also learned from “Lost’s” successes, and this two-part pilot is one of them. It does everything a pilot needs to do, and permanently raised the bar for serialized genre television.
VERONICA MARS - “Pilot”
It only looked like another teen soap opera. “Veronica Mars” may have taken place in a high school, but when all was said and done it’s quite possibly the finest noir television series we’ve ever had. And it all started in an impressive pilot.
“Veronica Mars” stars Kristen Bell (“The Good Place”) as the title character, a teenaged sleuth who helps out at her father’s detective agency and solves small crimes at her high school. She also investigates, in the first season, two long-running mysteries: Who killed her best friend, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried), and who date raped Veronica Mars?
Those are heavy topics and “Veronica Mars” treats them with the shock and severity they deserve. But Veronica, herself, has developed a caustic sense of humor as a defense mechanism. The show boasts one of the only essential voice-overs in cinematic history, a running commentary that’s informative, but never redundant, and consistently wry. “Quite a reputation I’ve got, huh?” she opines. “You wanna know how I lost my virginity? So do I.”
The pilot episode for “Veronica Mars” introduces Veronica and an impressively developed cast of characters, most of whom seem fully formed in the first installment. It sets up the arch of the show but also demonstrates exactly what an individual installment is going to look like, with humor and drama. Veronica helps her father stake out a philandering husband, which has unexpected ramifications on the Lilly Kane murder mystery (and for her father’s marriage). Meanwhile, a new kid at school has run afoul of a local gang, and it’s up to Veronica to figure out how to steal evidence from a police locker so that gang won’t go to jail, getting the new guy off the hook.
Veronica is not a conventional hero. In her first storyline she commits a felony to help felons, but she’s doing it for the right reasons. That’s a fascinating protagonist for a detective show, and she’s only a junior in high school. It’s hard to watch the first episode of “Veronica Mars” without desperately wanting to see more, and the show consistently delivered.
JOURNEYMAN - “A Love of a Lifetime”
“Journeyman” has one of the best pilot episodes of any failed television series. The show stars Kevin McKidd (“Trainspotting”) as Dan Vasser, a San Francisco journalist who discovers, quite suddenly, that he has the ability to go back through time. The problem is that he has no way of controlling it, and he tends to shunt into the past at the worst possible moments.
In every episode of “Journeyman,” Dan would go back in time, discover there’s some wrong that needs to be righted, and struggle to balance that act of heroism with his family life and day job. Functionally, although he never wears a costume, it’s a superhero story. And like many of the best superhero stories it depicts the positive impact Dan has on others as well as the many personal sacrifices he’s forced to make along the way.
The pilot has a tricky job to do, because even after “Journeyman” completed its first (and only) season, we never learned with any certainty why or how all this time travel is happening. Even Dan’s guide, the woman he loved and who he has long thought dead - who is also a time traveler - doesn’t have most of the answers. He has to learn by doing, and that’s exciting but also, potentially, confusing.
Through a deft series of set-ups and payoffs, Dan’s trip into the past provides parallels to the present-day story, which we were watching before he “journeyed.” The soundtrack shifts to adjust the audience to the change in timeline. No matter which element of the pilot you’re paying the most attention to, you’re going to pick up on the fact that he’s traveled through time.
The pilot for “Journeyman” also makes the bold choice to have Dan reveal to his wife, Kate (Gretchen Egolf), that he’s a time traveler. The question is, how do you convince someone of a story that crazy? His answer clever and visually dynamic, and it pretty much proves his point beyond a shadow of a doubt. It also establishes for future episodes that, although Dan will be interacting with his ex-fiancée, his marriage is extremely important to him, and it’s built on trust. He’s not hiding his “real” life from his wife. He’s sharing it, for better and worse.
And to its credit, “Journeyman” followed through on the pilot’s promise, with one clever episode after another, and intriguing revelations and fine character work. It’s one of the best shows we’ve ever covered on Canceled Too Soon, and it all started in “A Love of a Lifetime.” (To find out more about “Journeyman,” listen to our Canceled Too Soon episode here.)
SHERLOCK - “A Study in Pink”
Sherlock Holmes is, alongside Dracula and Frankenstein, one of the most frequently adapted literary characters in all of film and television. Heck, there are two popular television series starring the character today: “Elementary” and “Sherlock,” and they both have found their niche and have dedicated fans.
“Sherlock” is a strange animal. The series adapts pre-existing stories but adapts them to the modern day, changing (and sometimes outright reversing) plot points. Hardcore fans of the character know what’s going to happen but not necessarily how, and getting away with that takes a vicious sort of cleverness. And it’s all right there in the pilot.
“A Study in Pink,” in an adaptation of the first Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. At the start of both versions, Holmes - a brilliant freelance detective, employed by the police when they’re stumped - is brought into investigate a dead boy. The victim wrote “Rache” before she died. Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch)( explains to the police, in the original version, that “rache” isn’t supposed to read “Rachel, it’s supposed to be the German word for “revenge.” In the new version, he tells the cops that it’s supposed to read “Rachel,” because the odds of her writing “Rache” are astronomical. (Take that, Doyle!)
Meanwhile, Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) recovers from PTSD after the war, and happens to learn that Holmes is looking for a roommate. As they solve the mystery they feel each other out, make pointed observations, and establish a close bond that - even in the pilot - borders on homoeroticism. The pilot for “Sherlock” knows what it’s doing, and knows how to tease Holmes’s arch-nemesis Moriarty for good measure.
“Sherlock” impressively evokes everything that once made Sherlock Holmes great, pokes fun at the bits which were always silly, and makes the character fascinating and relevant in a modern context. It establishes a delightful and sometimes antagonistic central relationship that would drive the action for many episodes to come. And it’s just a corking mystery to boot.
Top Photos: UPN / CBS / ABC