Pilots are a proof of concept. They are meant to convince potential studios or distributors that the series can actually be realized and that it will connect with viewers. Pilots are important for determining whether a show will succeed or fail. These episodes must convey the essence of the show and introduce the key characters, all while keeping the audience interested enough to want to watch more.
This is a difficult feat to pull off. As a result, numerous shows are canceled after the pilot. In addition, because they are usually made with smaller budgets than later episodes, pilots are often not great. They sometimes feature a different tone than the following episodes (like the cheesy action scenes in the first episode of The Americans). However, some shows have delivered iconic pilots, which continue to rank among the most beloved episodes in those series. These are the best pilots ever, according to the users of IMDb.
‘Game of Thrones’ (2011-2019) – IMDb: 8.9/10
The first episode of Game of Thrones is practically the Platonic ideal of a pilot. It does a great job of introducing many characters and storylines and establishing the world. The pilot follows the Stark family on the day that they discover the dire wolf pups and track down a Night’s Watch deserter who fled from the White Walkers. Soon after, King Robert (Mark Addy) and the Lannisters come to Winterfell for a visit.
Despite having to juggle so many narrative threads, the episode quickly provides the audience with a sense of the friendships, rivalries, and allegiances. To top it all off, it ends with the bombshell revelation that Cersei (Lena Headey) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) have a sexual relationship, and then the cliffhanger of Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) falling from the tower. It makes for a stark contrast with the rushed finale, which currently holds a dismal 4.0 on IMDB
‘Twin Peaks’ (1990-1991) – IMDb: 8.9/10
The town of Twin Peaks, Washington is shaken when the body of one of its residents, Laura Palmer, washes up on the riverbank. FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) investigates the case, believing Palmer’s death to be linked to a woman found wandering on a nearby bridge.
The episode is 94 minutes long, more like a feature than a standard episode. It has some elements of a police procedural and a small-town drama, but David Lynch weaves in his own bizarro touches. The Baltimore Sun said it was “about as close as prime-time television gets to art.”
‘Sherlock’ (2010-2017) – IMDb: 8.9/10
The first episode of Sherlock that fans know was actually the second attempt at a pilot. The BBC had initially made a 60-minute version of the same basic story, but it was never broadcast because the showrunners felt the first season would work better as three 90-minute episodes. The episode that aired is called “A Study in Pink.” It’s a loose adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle‘s novel A Study in Scarlet.
There have been many Sherlock adaptations in recent years, with great actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Jonny Lee Miller putting their own spin on the character. However, none can compete with the Steven Moffat version starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The acting is brilliant, and the script includes some of Moffat’s funniest dialogue since Coupling.
‘True Detective’ (2014-2019) – IMDb: 8.9/10
The first season of True Detective towers over every season since, thanks to the intense performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson and the unusually philosophical script by Nic Pizzolatto. The pilot jumps between the past, where the leads solved a grisly ritualistic murder, and the present, where similar killings begin to unfold.
The episode’s central scene involves Cohle turning up drunk at the Hart household. He’s a damaged man, and some of the show’s best moments are the ones where he simply explains his nihilistic worldview. As he tells Hart: “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution.” It ranks among McConaughey’s very best work.
‘The Newsroom’ (2012-2014) – IMDb: 9.0/10
“America is not the greatest country in the world anymore,” says news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) in the pilot of Aaron Sorkin‘s fast-talking vision of the news business. It’s one of the all-time great TV monologues. It also destabilizes McAvoy’s professional life, setting the stage for the drama of the first season.
The Newsroom doesn’t quite reach the heights of The West Wing, but it delivers more than enough witty repartee and behind-the-scenes drama to justify a viewing. The cast is consistently great, especially Emily Mortimer and Dev Patel. Watching it, one can’t help but be struck by how much tamer politics and the news seemed, even just a decade ago.
‘Breaking Bad’ (2008-2013) – IMDb: 9.0/10
Breaking Bad begins with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in an RV wearing nothing but his underpants and a gas mask. He hears distant sirens, so he records a farewell message for his family, and then pulls out a gun. It’s an explosive opening two minutes. The episode then jumps back in time to show how Walt got to this point, revealing his frustration with his marriage and career, his cancer diagnosis, and finally his meeting with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul).
It works like an hour-long short film in its own right. It’s amazing how well showrunner Vince Gilligan establishes the show’s tone with just the first episode. In someone else’s hands, Breaking Bad could have been a CSI wannabe or a rehashing of Weeds. Instead, the show plays out like a Shakespearean character study, without sacrificing a shred of entertainment factor.
‘This Is Us’ (2016-2022) – IMDb: 9.2/10
This family drama chronicles the lives and struggles of a set of triplets. The show jumps between their childhoods and their adult lives in the present. The show started strong, with a very dramatic pilot. Rebecca (Mandy Moore) goes into labor, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) tracks down his biological father, and Kevin (Justin Hartley) has an existential crisis about his career.
The show wrapped up its final season this year and drew positive reviews throughout its run. It’s a fundamentally optimistic and warm-hearted show; a welcome departure from the bleak dramas that have dominated the small screen in recent years. The highlight is Sterling K. Brown as Randall, the adopted son of the family. He’s charismatic and complex in the role, for which he won an Emmy in 2017.
‘Mr. Robot’ (2015-2019) – IMDb: 9.2/10
Bohemian Rhapsody might feature Rami Malek‘s most iconic performance, but his most complex character is without a doubt Elliot Anderson, the unstable vigilante hacker at the center of Mr. Robot. He’s paranoid, socially awkward, deeply cynical, and blisteringly smart. He sets out to wreak havoc on the unethical E-Corp, but this is more the product of his nihilism than a sense of morality. As Elliot tells the audience in the first episode: “The world itself is just one big hoax.”
Showrunner Sam Esmail says he knew Malek was right for the role from his first audition. “Rami came in and just auditioned with this vulnerability and this warmth that instead of me feeling cold and disconnected from the character, it made me want to reach out to him and hug him.”
‘Fargo’ (2014-) – IMDb: 9.3/10
The first episode of Fargo hits the ground running, introducing a host of intriguing characters and delivering a ton of bloodshed. Hitman Malvo (Billy-Bob Thornton) passes through a small Minnesota town, where he meets hapless insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman). Malvo goes on to murder Nygaard’s childhood bully Hess. Shaken by the events, Nygaard gets into an argument with his wife, and killers her. The bodies are discovered, and the police begin investigating.
Inspired by the Coen brothers movie of the same name, this anthology series is one of the quirkiest shows currently on TV. It keeps reinventing itself with each season, bringing in new cast members and locations. The first season remains the best, though, thanks to the charmingly off-kilter performances from Thornton and Freeman. They make for a hilarious duo.
‘Chernobyl’ (2019) – IMDb: 9.4/10
The surprise hit Chernobyl explores the infamous 1986 meltdown at the nuclear plant in Soviet Ukraine, with a focus on the lies and recklessness of those in charge. It made for nail-biting TV and a searing indictment of institutional corruption. If anything, the show is even more relevant now as it depicts an important moment in Russian and Ukrainian history.
What could have been a dry history lesson is instead a gripping thriller, and Jared Harris is the glue that holds it all together. He plays Legasov, the official brought in to clean up the radioactive mess. Legasov is that rare breed of Soviet official in that he has a conscience; something which immediately puts him in danger. It’s Harris’s most magnetic performance, even better than his work on Mad Men.