20. 24 (2001)
From the first beep of its ever-present real-time clock, we knew 24 would be different. The show aired for the first time just over a month after 9/11, and Jack Bauer’s (Kiefer Sutherland) obsession with getting the bad guy for the sake of national security filled some urgent need in the American psyche. The first episode starts off tame enough–Jack’s daughter gets mad at her parents and sneaks out of the house–but before you know it, Jack’s knocking out potential moles within the Counter Terrorist Unit and an international assassin is parachuting down past the flaming wreckage of a passenger plane. The latter scene is also by far the episode’s best. It’s got everything that makes classic 24 great: a bait-and-switch twist, thrilling high octane action, and a cliffhanger worth waiting on.
19. Pushing Daisies (2008)
If Edward Scissorhands and Amelie had a pop culture love child, it’d be Pushing Daisies. The show was an ultra-sweet rare treat, kind of like one of the pies Ned (Lee Pace) baked with care and attention. It also had its dark bits. As Jim Dale’s narrator might say, the premise was this: as a child, Ned had discovered that he had the power to bring the dead back to life, but if he kept them alive for longer than a minute, someone nearby would die in their place. Ned manages to make some money from this talent, helping a P.I. close cases by questioning murder victims, until one day he hears that one of the recently deceased is his childhood sweetheart. This sounds pretty grim, but thanks to exquisite candy-colored production design and an innocent central love story, it’s actually anything but.
18. The Shield (2002)
When The Shield came screaming onto our cable boxes (literally, thanks to the opening theme) over fifteen years ago, the topics of police corruption, racial profiling, and brutality weren’t nearly as central to America’s cultural conversation as they are now. So when Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) is introduced to us as a sadistic, lying cop with enough complaints against him to warrant a federal case, we’re still somehow surprised by the murder he commits by the episode’s end. We’re also introduced to the Strike Team’s moral counterparts, detectives Wyms (C.C.H. Pounder) and Dutch (Jay Karnes). These two excellent sleuths are often given the most memorably disturbing scenes of the series inside the interrogation room, and the pilot is no exception. Shawn Ryan’s brutal, propulsive series borrowed from the cinema verite style of filmmaking and included minimal blocking, so everything we witness at the Farmington police station feels uncomfortably up close and intimate.
17. Atlanta (2016)
Donald Glover once described his and brother Stephen Glover’s groundbreaking series as “Twin Peaks with rappers.” On paper, it’s hard to guess what that might mean, but in practice, Atlanta makes it happen. The first scene of “The Big Bang” is perhaps the best in media res opening of any series out there. In the very first shot, a man stomps the driver’s side mirror off of rapper Paper Boi’s (Brian Tyree Henry) car, then keeps walking. Like several kinetic moments in the episode, it happens so quickly that you’re almost guaranteed to miss it. Soon the two men–along with Paper Boi’s cousin Earn (Donald Glover) and the man’s date–are exchanging heated words. Guns are pulled, then things slow down for a moment when Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), suddenly present, says he’s having deja vu. He looks around for “the dog with the Texas on him,” and sure enough, there’s an inexplicable stray in the shadows with a Lone Star state-shaped white patch. Cut to an aerial shot, and bang, a gunshot is fired. The pilot goes on to spotlight topics like family, hustling, rap culture, and race, but all its best moments are as purposely alienating and wildly creative as the opening.
16. Sweet/Vicious (2016)
A depressingly under-watched series that could have thrived in the #MeToo era, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s single-season dramedy follows a pair of female vigilantes seeking unorthodox justice for victims of sexual assault on their college campus. The first episode has a lot of irons in the fire but manages to make its various plot elements feel electrifying rather than overwhelming. When uber-chill stoner Ophelia (Taylor Dearden, who should be in everything) runs headfirst into an after-hours beating that ninja-dressed sorority girl Jules (Eliza Bennett) is delivering to a rapist, she becomes obsessed with finding out the vigilante’s identity. Everything escalates quickly from there in an episode that’s paced more like a jaw-dropping finale than a premiere. By the hour’s end, you’ll be more than ready to revive the #SaveSweetVicious campaign.
15. Breaking Bad (2008)
Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) first foray into the New Mexico drug trade has become nothing short of legendary. What comes to mind when you think of this pilot? The obvious answer is the iconic image of newly terminal chemistry teacher Walter brandishing a gun in the desert, wearing only a green button-up shirt and a pair of tighty whities. Maybe that’s the best image since it embodies the show’s mix of darkly absurdist humor, all-in acting, and dead serious high-stakes drama. Still, I’d like to offer a few more. How about Jesse Pinkman’s (Aaron Paul) entrance, which is really more of a comedic exit as he falls off a roof while hiding from the cops? Or Walt kicking the snot out of a high schooler who bullied his son? Perhaps it’s the moment of the cancer diagnosis itself? The first chapter of Vince Gilligan’s story is a smorgasbord of high impact moments that hint at the heights that the constantly improving series would later reach.
14. Les Revenants (2012)
This unnerving French drama is prestige television at its most immaculate: every scene, every shot of the pilot is visually stirring and leaves an imprint of itself seared into your memory once it’s passed. The first scene, which sees a school bus suddenly pitch over the edge of a cliff, is probably the most striking, but the fact that there are more than a few other contenders says something about Fabrice Gobert’s haunting direction. Haunting is the keyword here, as Les Revenants (The Returned) follows the lives of several people who return from the dead years later, appearing to be the same age they were at their time of death. Young Camille, who was on the aforementioned bus, is the focus of the first episode. Her parents are just beginning to move through their grief, her twin sister has gone down a self-destructive path, and she wakes up one evening unaware that she’d ever died. Deeply unsettling but just as deeply poetic, Les Revenants is the rare mystery that feels creative enough to keep viewers stumped and interested for seasons to come.
13. Friday Night Lights (2006)
Confession time: I’ve watched this pilot more times than I can count. Whenever I’m in need of a pick-me-up, all I really need is Coach Taylor’s (Kyle Chandler) assurance that with clear eyes and a full heart, we can’t lose. That current of idealism runs through the series as the Dillon Panthers football team constantly bumps up against challenges both large and small, learning lessons in personal character from their father figure coach along the way. In the pilot, the challenges are about as big as they can get. Coach Taylor has just moved his family to Dillon, a football-crazed town where diehard fans expect either a state championship or a resignation. Fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is basically an old drunk trapped in the body of a high schooler, second-stringer Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) is frozen with anxiety, and by the episode’s end, a star player will have suffered a life-altering injury. By the time Coach Taylor delivers his sob-inducing closing monologue (“Give all of us gathered here tonight the strength to remember that life is so very fragile”), you’ll have realized the best-kept secret on TV: that Friday Night Lights is so, so much more than just a show about football.
12. Grey’s Anatomy (2005)
It’s hard to look back on a pilot for a show that’s aired 316(!) episodes and not notice the massive differences between then and now. Luckily for us, “A Hard Day’s Night” balances the tones of the show–which frequently goes from silly and light to upsettingly dark within the course of an episode–with expertise that’s surprising to see so early on in a series. Thanks to Shonda Rhimes’ now-famous quippy, off-the-cuff dialogue, and a charismatic ensemble cast, the hour holds up. In it, a group of blunt, nervous, and ambitious surgical interns survive their first 48-hour shift, learning the tough way and earning permanent nicknames and reputations in the process. While most medical dramas that came before it focused on the “do no harm” angle of the job, Grey’s honed in on all things embarrassing, cutthroat, and mundane. By the episode’s end, the interns have bonded over their universally exhausting first day, and we’re ready to watch them do it all over again.
11. Six Feet Under (2001)
Surreal, profound, and a little bit grotesque, Six Feet Under’s pilot is a lot like Buffy’s “The Body” but without the monsters. Everyone has a different, often taboo relationship with death and its rituals, and Alan Ball’s much-loved show holds a steady magnifying glass up to each facet of the grieving process. When the patriarch of a family-owned funeral home dies suddenly on Christmas Eve, each member of his family goes into shock in one sense or another. Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) hears the news right after an airport fling and starts to lean on the stranger he just met as he’s forced to spend time with the family he left behind. Closeted David (Michael C. Hall) icily takes control of their father’s funeral arrangements, while teen Claire (Lauren Ambrose) tries to come down from a bad high to process everything. The sterile business of death is lampooned with satirical commercials for funeral home products, and by the time the specter of Jenkin’s character starts popping up, it’s clear that this is a show about the absurdity of life and death and the great myth of closure.