If you follow television news, you know that the networks are currently in the process of making decisions about what their lineup is going to be looking like in the fall. This includes deciding which shows will be coming back, and more importantly, which new shows they’re willing to take a chance on. When it comes to dealing with the major broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and to a certain extent the CW), many pilots will be ordered but only a few will make it on the air. Of those few that do make it, it will be a miracle if more than one gets picked up for a second season. Because of this antiquated ritual that we call “Pilot Season,” pilot episodes of shows are (1) shot long before episode 2 and the rest of the season, and (2) crammed with information and jazzed up to be as flashy and high concept as possible in order to gain the networks’ attention. Therefore, while pilot episodes function to set the tone of the show, they often end up feeling slightly different than the other episodes when you look at a series as a whole. Don’t believe me? Go watch the first episode of your favorite network show again.
So in honor of all the TV creatives pacing their living rooms waiting for news, here is a list of a few of my favorite pilots that are an exception to that rule, and worthy of being the representative for their series:
The Newsroom 01X01: “We Just Decided To”
I’ve seen the pilot of The Newsroom about 10 times, and the power of the opening scene always completely captivates me. Although there are mixed opinions on the series (it’s a love it or hate it kind of situation), I find it to be the most engaging and socially relevant program currently on television. The speech that Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) gives to an auditorium of college students (as a response to the question “what makes America the greatest country in the world?”) in the first scene of this episode could practically stand alone as a pilot for the series. It throws everything we need to know about Will (and his relationship to the news that he reports) directly at us, and provides the catalyst for how he will change himself and the news organization that he represents over the course of the series. It’s powerful, it’s clear, and it’s Aaron Sorkin at his best.
Cheers 01X01: “Give Me a Ring Sometime”
It may be over 30 years old, but the jokes in the pilot episode of Cheers still hold up today, and make it a stronger comedy than most of the new pilots that will air for the first time this fall. Over time, the show and its characters developed and it became hard to remember a version of Diane who pretentiously told Sam that she’s “not in the habit of talking to bartenders,” but even so, Cheers was always the place where everybody knows your name.
Mad Men 01X01: “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”
As a period piece, Mad Men must build the world of New York City’s advertising industry in the 1960s, and this pilot is so important because it successfully brings us into the world without compromising our ability to relate to the characters. Throughout the episode seemingly insignificant elements force us to remember that although the time period may be different, these characters and their relationships are not exclusive to the 1960s. For example, at one point Don (Jon Hamm) lays on the couch in his office and watches a fly caught in the light. Despite the fact that we may not have a couch in our office next to a bar cart full of booze, we’ve all zoned out watching a fly buzzing around a light. Suddenly our world doesn’t seem so different than Don Draper’s.
New Girl 01X01: “Pilot”
Despite the fact that I’ve recently started to lose interest in New Girl (currently airing its third season), the pilot still stands as one of my all time favorites. It begins with the camera on the face of Jess (Zooey Deschanel), as she describes the typical plot of a horror movie - because, in her mind, her story is kind of like that. The reveal is that her audience is made up of the three guys that will become her future roommates in this quirky, “adorkable” comedy that became an instant hit for Fox. This pilot is particularly successful because of the way that it gives you an in depth understanding of the characters and the reason that they’re friends without too much exposition.
House of Cards 01X01: “Chapter 1”
Technically speaking, the first episode of House of Cards is not a pilot because Netflix doesn’t abide by the antiquated tradition of pilot season, and gives their shows straight to series orders. However, I wanted to include it as part of this list because the first time I watched it I was completely caught off guard by its unique use of direct address. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) becomes our tour guide in the complicated world of DC politics, looking right at us through the screen, and welcoming us to Washington. With the breakdown of the fourth wall, we become a member of the inside crowd, and exist as part of an exclusive elite group for 13 hours a year (preferably binge watched in one sitting).
On a Side Note: I was pleasantly surprised to see that only one of the shows on this list named their first episode “Pilot” which is resorted to all too often in my opinion