First episodes are notoriously tough to pull off, but all of these shows started strong.
I have a friend who hates pilot episodes. It’s understandable, as the first episode of a series is often awkward, overly expository, sensationalized, and occasionally features a different cast than later episodes. Naturally, a piece of art gets better when more time is spent on it, so thanks to the speed with which new series are pumped out, plenty of pilots during our era of entertainment saturation have felt like messy rough drafts. A series doesn’t need a good pilot to become a good show, but there are still plenty of excellent pilots out there that deserve praise for exceeding expectations.
In my attempt to give TV pilots a better name, I did what any normal person would do: I watched a few hundred of them and made a list of 50 exceptional ones, ordered by a complex ranking system. Some notes: for organization’s sake and for my own sanity, I didn’t include miniseries that ran for a single season, children’s television, reality or variety shows, or anything that was created before the year 2000. The list is composed of adult narrative series from the 21st century. And before you press send on that comment, The Sopranos was in the ‘90s and therefore ineligible.
It would’ve been impossible to slap together a ranked list like this without a foundational criteria, so I identified six elements of a good pilot which I then used to evaluate each show that I watched (shoutout, as always, to Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall’s TV: The Book for inspiring me to consistently up my list-making game).
1. Does the pilot have a point of entry? Is it open enough for audiences to stick with it and respond positively?
2. Does the pilot have a sense of artistry–outstanding technical elements, writing or acting which sets it apart from other shows?
3. Does the pilot feel complete, and already contain the DNA of the show that it would later become?
4. Does the pilot feel fresh, or is it something I’ve seen dozens of times before?
5. Is the pilot relevant to the rest of the series, or does it feel random and detached?
6. Does the pilot still hold up today? Shows from the past two years can only score a two out of four on the final category since there hasn’t been time to view them with any decent sense of retrospect.
Below, check out the 50 greatest TV pilots of the 21st century.
50. Supernatural (2005)
The first episode of this ghost-hunting slice of Americana has everything viewers could ask for, plus a couple of things none of us could have predicted. Among its treasures are a few genuine scares (a rarity in the show overall, which is more funny-sad than it is frightening), Mulder-and-Scully-gone-con-artist antics, enduring central mythology, and a couple of stardom-worthy heartthrobs in the form of frontmen Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki. After over a dozen seasons of the Winchester brothers’ antics, the pilot’s thrillingly rebellious attitude is as classic as Dean’s ’67 Chevy Impala. Note: if you can, watch this one on DVD or Blu-ray, since the Netflix version replaces much of the first season’s classic rock soundtrack with knock-off tracks for rights reasons.
49. The Leftovers (2014)
Oppressively bleak, purposely mystifying, and (no joke) bookended by scenes of men shooting dogs, the first episode of Damon Lindelof’s opus is nothing if not bold in its intentions. The story of Kevin Garvey and the other survivors of the “Sudden Departure”–a rapture-like event that saw 2% of the world’s population disappear in an instant–would go on to make one of the greatest underseen TV series of the decade, but in its first hour the show leaves us to wade through its characters’ muddled grief. Picking up three years after the Departure and dwelling on the already-intriguing lives of the left-behind, the pilot takes us inside a silent cult, a potential prophet’s compound, a sex-fueled teen party, and an uncomfortable in memoriam parade.
48. How I Met Your Mother (2005)
The sitcom that at its highest points felt like a more clever and less linear revamp of Friends hasn’t aged gracefully, but its first outing holds up surprisingly well thirteen years later. In under thirty minutes, it handily establishes the hallmarks of its core group–Lily and Marshall are adorable and goofy, while Ted is overly-romantic and Barney is an aggressively flirty bachelor. Robin’s quirks would come later: in this episode she’s introduced as the girl across the bar who Ted falls for at first sight and later woos by stealing a blue French horn. Funny and sweet, with hints of the bizarre humor that dominated later seasons, the HIMYM pilot will forever be remembered for the framing device–future Ted telling his kids the long-winded story of how he hooked up with their mom–which would become the show’s blessing and curse.
47. Barry (2018)
If we’ve learned anything from some of the standout cult shows of this century so far (see also: Six Feet Under, Pushing Daisies, The Good Place), it’s that funny and dark can and probably should coexist. Still, it’s a tricky tonal cocktail to pull off, and few series have been able to capture it right off the bat as well as Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s Barry. “Make Your Mark” sees endearing Midwestern hitman Barry discover his true passion, acting, just as a high-stakes job for some Chechen mobsters starts going south. There are two standout scenes here, and each strikes a darkly satisfying chord. First, Barry (Hader) improvs a from-the-heart monologue about his life as an assassin, wowing an oblivious drama teacher (Henry Winkler). Later, he handily disposes of several threats with some quick gunmanship, then nonchalantly takes a seat at a diner, where he confesses to the waitress that he’s an actor.
46. Babylon Berlin (2017)
There’s only room for one high-budget, 1920s-set show on this list and, sorry Marty, Boardwalk Empire ain’t it. This German period drama, reportedly the most expensive show in the country’s history, is visually rich and narratively compelling in its first hour. The Netflix description of the series says that “a Soviet freight train’s hijacking leads a haunted cop and a poor typist to uncover a political conspiracy,” and it’s as jam-packed from the jump as that sentence would lead you to believe. Brimming with shiny, noir-adjacent intrigue, Babylon Berlin‘s pilot isn’t afraid to delve into the darkest, scummiest corners of pre-WWII Germany, and looks great doing it.
45. Legion (2017)
Legion feels a lot like a big magic trick in that it’s sometimes exhilarating and sometimes exhausting, but the show’s first stunt was arguably its best. Much like Aubrey Plaza’s balls-to-the-wall character Lenny Busker, the show appeared as a Trojan horse. For the first three-quarters of its pilot, Legion was a Marvel adaptation disguised as a dizzying, formally impressive ode to Kubrick and Malick, and showrunner Noah Hawley did a stellar job hooking the anti-superhero crowd before revealing its ties to X-Men. The pilot has lots to love, from a body-switching plot to an action-heavy climax scene, but its opening sequence–a mesmerizing montage of the schizophrenic life of David Haller (Dan Stephens) set to The Who’s “Happy Jack”–takes the cake.
44. The Boondocks (2005)
“Jesus was black, Ronald Reagan was the devil, and the government is lying about 9/11.” Thus begins the radical, brilliant satirical cartoon created by Aaron McGruder. Huey Freeman (Regina King) breaks this news to a bunch of rich folks at a garden party, which results in a hilariously over-the-top riot of the white upper class. This sequence turns out to be a dream, but the ill-fated garden party quickly becomes real when Huey and his brother Riley (also King) get dragged along to a prestigious get-together for which their grandad has a rare invite. Plenty of animated pilots are only mildly funny, but nearly every joke in this one hits just as well now as it did over a decade ago, including but not limited to grandad’s Civil Rights era flashback and his assertion that the new, “refined” white man loves cheese.
43. One Day at a Time (2017)
Too many sitcoms feature families who barely seem to like one another. To be fair, it’s tough to pull off genuinely good-natured family dynamics in the multi-cam format without crossing into saccharine territory. One Day At A Time does that, though, and so much more in its endearing first half hour. Most of the plot is simple; feminist daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez) doesn’t want to have a quinceanera, and son Alex (Marcel Ruiz) wants to buy a bunch of expensive shoes to look cool at school. The episode’s writers could’ve grazed the surface of these two storylines and still made a competent pilot, but instead, they nimbly linked the two plots together via mom Penelope’s (Justina Machado) depression and insecurity as a single parent breadwinner. A conversation about the cultural stigma surrounding antidepressants feels lovingly real, and the show proves in scene after scene that it can juggle jokes and serious stuff better than any traditional sitcom in recent memory.
42. The Wire (2002)
The Wire‘s episodes work in tandem to create a bigger picture, and each season feels like a section of a magnificent tapestry of urban America. Naturally, then, the show works better when viewed as a whole, but “The Target” as an individual part is still pretty impressive. The episode introduces most of the series’ major players, shows Detective McNulty (Dominic West) setting his sights on drug kings Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) and Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), and ends with a series of scenes which clue us into the familial and work relationships that later become central elements of the series. Nothing works as well as the cold open, though, a miniature reflection of the poetry, irony, unlikely camaraderie, and cynicism that loom large over all of David Simon’s works. When a guy named Snotboogie is gunned down, McNulty learns that he tried to steal from his friends’ craps game week after week. “If Snotboogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?” McNulty asks the witness as the two sit feet away from the body. The answer? “Got to. It’s America, man.”
41. Fringe (2008)
The X Files‘ heir apparent transformed more than once over the course of its five seasons, but I’ll always remember the thrill of its big-idea-filled first episode, which was written by sci-fi dream team J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman. The 81-minute premiere reportedly cost ten million dollars, and the budget shows in the elegant, sleek production design and harrowing practical effects. When FBI special agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is tasked with investigating a bio-terror attack that essentially melted the faces off dozens of plane passengers, she discovers the clues to a larger conspiracy involving the fringes of known science. Along the way, she also recruits bad boy genius Peter (Joshua Jackson, who would eventually become the series’ heart) and his institutionalized mad scientist dad Walter (John Noble). The dynamics are a rough sketch of what they later become, but there’s promise in every scene.