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The 50 Best TV Pilots of the 21st Century

First episodes are notoriously tough to pull off, but all of these shows started strong.
Best TV Pilots List
By  · Published on July 31st, 2018

40. Game of Thrones (2011)

Game Of Thrones

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss didn’t exactly have their work cut out for them when it came to adapting George R.R. Martin’s beloved, sprawling fantasy series. Translating dozens of characters to screen was a herculean task, but “Winter is Coming” managed it better than we could’ve expected. There’s some dense stuff in the middle, but the scenes that bookend the premiere are all-time classics. In the former, White Walkers prey on members of the Night’s Watch who have traveled beyond the Wall, setting up a conflict that would last for eight seasons and prompting every casual viewer to ask, “Wait, is this not set in Medieval Europe?” In the latter, the series delivers the first of many gasp-inducing twists when Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) gets caught mid-coitus with his sister and throws poor Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) out of a tall tower window.

39. Jane the Virgin (2014)

Jane The Virgin

When Jane Gloriana Villanueva came into our lives, it was, to borrow a term from her Catholic upbringing, a bit of a miracle. Hardworking, intelligent, and loyal, Jane (Gina Rodriguez) is down-to-earth in a way that few primetime heroines are. She and her vibrant three-generation Latina family are above all else relatable, grounding their telenovela-inspired circumstances but never forfeiting the show’s wry humor or flair for drama in the process. When celibate Jane is accidentally artificially inseminated and becomes pregnant with a past crush’s child, she must come to terms with her ideas of adulthood, purity, and family. The result is a refreshing hour of television that seamlessly ties together several tired genres–romcom, family drama, soap opera–to create something altogether novel.

38. Hannibal (2013)


Hannibal isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (or maybe cut of meat would be more appropriate here), but Bryan Fuller’s paean to psychological horror at least lets you know what it’s about from the beginning. Eccentric FBI consultant Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is so instantly off-putting that the series’ central question–will his interest in killers drive him to kill?–isn’t so much mentioned aloud as it is easily inferred thanks to Dancy’s quietly disturbing performance. Mads Mikkelsen also makes his classy debut as the titular cannibal, chewing scenery on a literal level. Director David Slade’s highly stylized direction is in full effect here, and the final scenes of the killer dubbed the Minnesota Shrike are shot with unforgettably gory detail. The series returns to these moments again and again as Graham fixates on victim Abigail Hobbs, making this one of the most narratively vital pilots on this list.

37. Glee (2009)


As many beleaguered former Glee fans will tell you, the pilot for Ryan Murphy’s misfit choir club musical is pretty much nothing like many of the hit-or-miss episodes that came later. This is a testament to the first hour’s strengths, which include its offbeat wit, breathtaking brisk pace, and fresh-faced cast. At a Midwestern high school, former glee club member and current Spanish teacher Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) spends most of the premiere hustling kids into joining a new glee club he’s envisioned, called “New Directions.” The pilot is a lot darker than you may remember (former teacher Sandy is fired for sexual harassment of a minor, and Will frames a student with drug possession), but it’s also quippy, energetic, and above all, gleeful: a ray of ultra-bright sunshine wrapped up neatly with a musical number.

36. Veep (2012)


I said earlier that mean doesn’t always equal funny, but boy does Veep do mean and funny like a pro. The pilot takes us through a day in the life of Vice President Selina Meyer, who in the span of a few hours pisses off the plastics industry, accidentally uses an ableist slur during an important speech, and gets mixed up in a forged condolence card fiasco. Veep takes The West Wing‘s idea of politics as an ever-changing set of challenges that must be addressed ASAP and puts this responsibility on the shoulders of a group of incompetent, goofy, and soulless people. It’s a sharp-edged sort of humor, and some aspects of government could’ve come across as a bit too inside baseball for the politically inactive, but Julia Louis-Dreyfuss keeps everything together in a role she was born to play.

35. Jessica Jones (2015)

Jessica Jones

I still can’t believe that Marvel made the version of Jessica Jones that we got in the show’s near-perfect first season. Hardboiled noir featuring a sardonic, PTSD-suffering alcoholic as its lead heroine? With superhero sex scenes and complex feminist overtones?! It’s all there in Melissa Rosenberg’s pilot, which sees Jessica (Krysten Ritter) hooking up with Luke Cage, beating up baddies, and rocking a look that can only be described as angsty East Coast P.I. chic. The end of the episode landed it this spot on the list, as the dark turn taken by Jessica’s first on-screen case–the disappearance of a college student named Hope–proves that the show is willing to visit all sorts of gritty, unexplored places. We barely meet David Tennant’s monstrous mind-controller in this episode, but signs of his abuse are woven into the show’s DNA, and because of it, this pilot packs a punch.

34. Desperate Housewives (2004)

When we meet Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), she’s telling us about her life in the preppy cul-de-sac Wisteria Lane, sharing in a chirpy confessional tone that feels like airy gossip. Then she puts a gun to her head and pulls the trigger. It’s quite the start for a prime-time soap opera, and Mary Alice’s lingering voiceover narration gives everything that follows an air of American Beauty-style intrigue. Four of her housewife neighbors, shaken by her suicide, begin exploring the dissatisfying aspects of their own lives. Desperate Housewives’ immediate charm comes from its willingness to set up seemingly stereotypical characters and immediately complicate them beyond expectations. The four women who raise a toast to Mary Alice may be desperate, but thanks to Marc Cherry’s writing and a dynamic cast, they’re also tough, entertaining, and sympathetic.

33. Mr. Robot (2015)

Mr Robot

Sam Esmail’s techno-thriller pulled off something incredible in its first season, telling a single high stakes story about computer hacking and making it both accessible and exciting. The first episode is jarring due to Elliot’s (Rami Malek) quick-mumbled paranoid ramblings and unreliable point of view; the show gets better later when characters like Darlene (Carly Chaikin) are able to ground his edgy attitude. Still, Malek’s wide-eyed sense of dread is complemented by pilot cinematographer Tim Ives, who delivers shot after beautifully arranged shot of a cold, seedy New York City, and by Mac Quayle’s infectious, frenetic score. The pilot’s story arc is no slouch either: in just over an hour of screen time, Elliot takes down a child pornographer, steals a dog, snorts morphine, saves a massive corporation, meets a shady dude played by Christian Slater, and joins a cyberterrorist organization.

32. Veronica Mars (2004)

Veronica Mars

The first episode of Rob Thomas’ cult favorite has a lot on its mind. By the end of the hour, viewers are left with several questions and no answers. Who killed Lily Kane (Amanda Seyfried)? Who raped Veronica (Kristen Bell)? Where is Veronica’s mom? While most season-long mysteries stick with one case, smooth-talking teen P.I. Veronica wants to figure out everything and even finds time to help out the new kid, Wallace (Percy Daggs III), along the way. Veronica’s sardonic humor, tough-as-nails exterior, and performative aloofness are all reminiscent of great male noir detectives, but instead, she’s a pint-sized 21st-century girl with the weight of the world on her shoulders. The obvious class tensions in her fictional town of Neptune lend the series a uniquely dangerous edge which (along with all those questions) continues to keep viewers on their toes beyond this first episode.

31. Firefly (2002)


Space cowboys. That’s what Joss Whedon’s cult classic boils down to, but the pilot episode–“Serenity,” the intended pilot which actually aired partway through the season thanks to a bad decision by Fox–proves that even that simple idea can be a runaway success (creatively, if not financially) in the right hands. Firefly has gained legions of diehard fans in the years since its single season aired, and it’s easy to see why. Whedon’s penchant for found family stories is on full display in “Serenity,” which sees rebel veterans Mal (Nathan Fillion) and Zoe (Gina Torres) taking a crew of archetypal Western characters–a doctor, a preacher, a gunman, a courtesan, and more–on questionably legal adventures across the galaxy. The clever script is now iconic, and the uneasy balance between Mal’s renegade attitude and his begrudging moral compass is fruitful ground for Whedon’s signature bad-guy-gone-good story arc.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)