The Anatomy of a Great TV Pilot

We take a look at some of our favorite TV pilots, from 'Breaking Bad' to 'Pushing Daisies.'

Breaking Bad Pilot Screenshot

We take a look at some of our favorite TV pilots, from ‘Breaking Bad’ to ‘Pushing Daisies.’

Pilots have a tough job to do. They must be exposition and hook at the same time, laying out the mechanics of the story world while still piquing our interest and making us fall in love with the characters. Pilots have to give us our vegetables (introduction of characters, premise, setting) in a way that makes it feel like dessert — and they have to do that in 24 to 42 minutes. It’s certainly not an easy task, but we picked a sampling of pilot episodes that do all this with aplomb and give us insight into what makes a truly great pilot.

Lost

Lost

ABC/Buena Vista Television

The pilot of Lost is one of the most ambitious that network television has ever seen (and one of the most expensive, costing between $10 and $14 million). Split into two parts, the 83-minute pilot episode begins urgently: Jack Shephard’s (Matthew Fox) hazel eye flies open, his pupil dilating rapidly, the jungle reflected in his iris. We follow Jack as he rushes through the fiery wreckage of a commercial airplane, tending to the wounded with ferocity. He’s brave and strong and a doctor — the perfect hero.

At first, the premise seems fairly cut and dry — survivors of a plane crash get stranded on a tropical island — and most of the pilot is spent working out the logistics of adapting to post-crash life and thoroughly introducing us to the island’s new inhabitants. The masterful interweaving of flashbacks reveal backstory in a compelling way, bond us with characters, and add authenticity to an unimaginable experience.

But the pilot soon plants lots of mysteries, foretelling a heavy supernatural element — a smoke monster, rumblings in the jungle, a looping transmission. It gives us compelling characters to keep us there and creates enough mystery to bring us back. Despite its massive scale (and an unfortunately permanent detour towards mythos-heavy plot), the pilot of Lost presents a series driven by great characters. Jack, Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Sawyer (Josh Holloway), and Locke (Terry O’Quinn) are narrative forces as powerful as the plane crash.

Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad Pilot Screenshot

AMC/Sony Pictures Television

The majestic rock formations of the American Southwest. A pair of pants gracefully soaring through a deep blue sky. And a speeding trailer frantically piloted by a man wearing only a gas mask and tighty whities. That’s one hell of an introduction to Breaking Bad

With its classic in medias res opening, the pilot of Breaking Bad flings us headfirst into contained chaos, taking familiar elements (khakis, an RV, a camcorder), ripping them from their suburban setting, and distorting them. We meet Walter White (Bryan Cranston) half-naked, distressed, in over his head. By the end of the episode, he is unrecognizable.

The pilot of Breaking Bad is marked by a fascinating visual style and masterful performances; these rope us in and keep us there. But even more, it delivers to us a complete arc — Walt goes from a high school teacher on the verge of death to a meth maker on the verge of extralegal affluence (a transformation that affects him personally as much as it does professionally). The exposition — we see him work, we see his family, we see him get diagnosed — isn’t just painless, it’s riveting. Once Walt and his polar opposite Jesse (Aaron Paul) collide, the pilot becomes nothing short of explosive. The episode is an excellent and immediate character study of Walt, acquainting us intimately with the man we’d see rise and fall over the course of the series.

Desperate Housewives

Desperate Housewives Pilot Screenshot

ABC/Buena Vista Television

The pilot of Desperate Housewives is as close to perfect as a pilot gets. It paints an idyllic suburb adorned with white picket fences and unnaturally green lawns. Guided by the gentle voiceover of housewife Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), it situates us in an eerily familiar American neighborhood. But after only a minute and a half, Mary Alice’s narration of her daily chores suddenly becomes a narration of her suicide, as she fatally shoots herself. Her posthumous voiceover takes on a deeper significance, as she observes her own wake, watches over her grieving friends, and hints at the secrets that caused her death.

What the pilot does most brilliantly is introduce the principle characters: Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher), Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria), Bree Van de Kamp (Marcia Cross), and Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman). We meet each woman through the food they bring to Mary Alice’s wake. Each dish is a gateway into the lives and backstories of four wildly different women: fried chicken, paella, muffin baskets, mac & cheese. Within nine minutes, we are intimately acquainted with each character’s pasts, domestic situations, and motivations — exposition so deft, you don’t even realize it’s exposition.

The pilot of Desperate Housewives introduces a show that is melodramatic but self-aware, anchored by an interesting and grounded group of women. It’s stylistically impressive too, from excruciatingly clever match cuts to the agile use of flashbacks. Throw in its cheeky sense of humor, incisive exploration of female discontentment, and mastery of tonal shifts and this pilot solidifies itself as one of the greats.

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks Laura Palmer

CBS Television

“She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic.” I knew that iconic line before I had even watched the pilot of Twin Peaks. These five words set the entire series in motion with the discovery of the body of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), pale and angelic, draped in a plastic bag like a veiled Renaissance Madonna. A whopping 35 minutes later, we finally meet Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) as he narrates a note to Diane into his tape recorder. He’s fresh-faced with bright, earnest eyes. The pilot immediately frames Cooper as a force for lawful good; nearly a decade before antiheroes would dominate the small screen, Dale Cooper was a pure and simple hero.

Twin Peaks hit network television like an asteroid, and its pilot makes it clear why. Like the best first episodes, the pilot submerges us completely in the small town of Twin Peaks, anchored by diners and enclosed by vast expanses of woods. The warm, Pacific Northwest feel is tinged with an ominous sense of lurking danger. The pilot gives us a classic soap opera set up: archetypal characters with tangled backstories, a mystery that affects everyone in the community, and secrets by the bucketful.

But David Lynch’s penchant for horror — which permeates the pilot — made Twin Peaks more than a serialized melodrama. After a particularly frightening dream sequence (which includes that shot of the staircase), Mrs. Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) lets out a blood-curdling scream. The episode ends as the shriek echoes: Twin Peaks told us from the start what we were getting into.

Heroes

Heroes Hayden Panettiere

NBC Universal Television

Before the Arrowverse flooded television with familiar superheroes, Heroes brought a more original spin on heroism to NBC. The set-up is simple: when a group of perfect strangers discovers they have superhuman powers, they have to work together to prevent disaster. Or, in more familiar terms, “save the cheerleader, save the world.” The premise leaves a lot of room for error. But dammit if that pilot wasn’t earnest. From the get-go, we fell for the sincere, floppy-haired Peter (Milo Ventimiglia); the adorable, manic Hiro (Masi Oka); and the picture-perfect but conflicted Claire (Hayden Panettiere).

The pilot didn’t just introduce and characterize a large ensemble cast, but it teased and set up the interconnections and challenges to come. The majority of the pilot (titled “Genesis”) is spent in discovery: strangers discover their powers, a genetics professor discovers an entire class of superhumans, we discover threads that tie together the season (the eclipse, the explosion, the theme of evolution). Most impressive is how effortlessly the pilot balances all of these discoveries, weaving in and out of storylines (each vastly different in tone) with ease.

The pilot of Heroes sets up the perfect mini-series: a complete season-long journey with an exposition, climax, and denouement more suited to film than episodic television. The show, unfortunately, continued past its season one finale and became a shadow of its former self, especially as a chunk of its writers’ room left to create…

Pushing Daisies

Pushingdaisies

Warner Bros. Television

From the first frame, Pushing Daisies had an incredibly unique look and style when it premiered in 2007. Its vibrant colors, storybook-style narration, and whimsical tone made for a fantastical setting that necessitated extensive getting used to. Pushing Daisies is also governed by fairly involved rules: Ned (Lee Pace) has the power to bring the dead back to life with a touch. If he keeps them alive for more than a minute, another person will die in their place; if he touches them again, they’ll die again (permanently). He helps solve crimes by asking the dead who killed them (in under a minute, of course). His dog and childhood crush Chuck (Anna Friel) are among the revived that he can never touch again. Also, he works at a pie shop. Kind of a lot, right? We get all this mythos, backstory, and the case-of-the-week set up in the first ten minutes of the 42-minute pilot.

The pilot of Pushing Daisies (cleverly titled “Pie-lette”) introduces a show that is impressively ahead of its time, so distinct in its quick pacing and quirky point of view that it could never survive on a network like ABC. It prioritizes aesthetic as much as it does character, plot, and dialogue — something that is still fairly uncommon on network TV.

As a pilot, it is immediately immersive. We’re thrown into a world where rapid-fire dialogue, exaggerated characters, and magic are commonplace. Most of all, we fall in love with Ned and Chuck. Beneath its high concept and loud aesthetic, the pilot of Pushing Daisies pulls us into a love story that rivals the best of will-they-won’t-theys by making the stakes (literally) life or death.

The Good Place

The Good Place Pilot

NBC/Universal Television

Most comedies are growers, not showers. Most of the shows we know now as seminal sitcoms — The OfficeParks and RecIt’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — took time to grow into themselves (it typically happens around mid-season two). But The Good Place was rock solid from the start. With a clear sense of self, a fully fleshed out world, and a sharply defined set of characters, The Good Place knew exactly what it was from the get-go, and it hit the ground running.

The pilot opens with a shot of Eleanor’s (Kristen Bell) eyes flitting open that echoes Lost (another great mystery box show), followed by instantly iconic signage: “Welcome! Everything is fine.” This confident storytelling style — dominated by centered shots, pops of color, and comedic gusto — continues throughout the entirety of the pilot.

Eleanor is a classic fish out of water, which makes for organic exposition. As Michael (the masterful Ted Danson) gives her (and us) a tour of The Good Place, the world is fully formed, from its pastel color palette to its pun-filled signage. He also introduces us to the cast of characters — a hilariously incompatible crew — that will accompany Eleanor during her stay. Comedy pilots bear the extra burden of making exposition not only compelling but also funny. For a show as high-concept as The Good Place, this seems especially difficult, but an air-tight script nimbly lays out the rules of the world while picking up ample laughs along the way. Few other comedies have been so fully formed right out the gate; without having to take the time to find itself, The Good Place has proven to be one of the sharpest, most economical shows on the air.

Writer, college student, television connoisseur.