10. Better Call Saul (2015)
After the massive success of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s series prequel had plenty to prove from the jump. The result, pilot episode “Uno,” is not just a pleasant surprise but a work of art. We get a taste of Breaking Bad with a flash-forward cold open and two cameos from alumni of the previous show, but for the most part, Saul’s pilot is a satisfying self-contained story. Bob Odenkirk is aces as a guy (here going by the name Jimmy McGill) who’s smart enough to know what’s right, wrong, and easy, but not smart enough to talk himself out of doing the easy thing. He’s funny in the way lowlife lawyers and grifters often are, but mostly–and surprisingly, given his over-the-top persona in Breaking Bad–he’s just a guy with bad luck trying to take care of his brother and make a name for himself. Two thirds of the pilot are very good, but the final act, during which Jimmy uncovers a bad con two teens are pulling–with disastrous consequences–is just plain excellent.
9. The Good Place (2016)
Most half-hour comedies outgrow their pilots almost immediately, and the work of Mike Schur (Parks and Rec, The Office, and even Brooklyn 99) is no exception. The Good Place, however, seemed to spring fully formed from his brain like some kind of NBC primetime Athena. The pilot takes a very high concept premise and boils it down to something digestible; heaven is actually a series of cutesy small neighborhoods that only a small fraction of selfless people get into. The good place, as it’s called, has all sorts of perks including personalized dream houses, perfectly matched soulmates, and endless frozen yogurt. Yet we learn that all is not well in paradise when rude and selfish Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) realizes she’s been sent there by accident. The series keeps viewers on their toes episode to episode, and the pilot provides a solid foundation that’s revisited, with a wry twist, in season two.
8. The Walking Dead (2010)
When “Days Gone Bye” aired on Halloween eight years ago, it changed the landscape of cable television, proving that there’s plenty of room for popular, high-budget stories outside of the big five networks and premium channels like HBO. Directed and written by Frank Darabont and filmed on 16mm, the episode follows policeman Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who awakens from a coma in an abandoned hospital only to discover that the world ended while he was asleep. Darabont’s spare writing and gritty yet super cinematic eye makes “Days Gone Bye” feel like a zombie story elevated to highbrow art. Rick searches a hollowed-out Atlanta for his family, instead encountering an undead little girl, a father-son duo of survivors, and an ownerless horse. It’s a bold choice for the series to place the focus of the episode on Rick while barely introducing members of the ensemble cast, but it pays off. “Days Gone Bye” is a lonely, frightening, beautiful piece of television.
7. Fargo (2014)
“What if you’re right and they’re wrong?” a chipper, fish-emblazoned poster hanging in a Minnesota house asks at several points in Noah Hawley’s reimagining of the Coen brothers’ film. Right and wrong are muddied yet integral concepts in “The Crocodile’s Dilemma,” the near-perfect first episode of the anthology series. First there’s Lester (Martin Freeman), who is meek and bullied when he meets sociopath Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton at his best and most genuinely frightening) in a hospital waiting room. From the first scene to the last, we see that Lorne is an amoral out-of-towner, but his evil is catching and Lester doesn’t realize it until it’s too late. Elsewhere, Molly Solverson (breakout Allison Tolman) investigates a small-town murder, and kind single dad Gus (Colin Hanks) has his own run-in with Malvo. The plotting is intricate and surprising, but it’s the unbeatable cast that really makes this pilot soar.
6. Gilmore Girls (2000)
Excessive amounts of coffee + hyperspeed pop culture references + a quirky New England town + a mom who’s cooler than yours = an endearing start to a series that would come to feel like the perfect comfort food for so many fans. Gilmore Girls is at once a sweet fantasy-like family show and an emotionally realistic, sometimes heartbreaking coming-of-age story (for both teenager Rory and her young mom Lorelai). The pilot sees practical yet goofy Lorelai (Lauren Graham) working at a local inn while book smart, overachieving Rory (Alexis Bledel) gets accepted into an exclusive prep school and meets an intriguing boy. Although the pilot’s most memorable bits are its introduction of the various eccentric townspeople who populate Star’s Hollow, it also features some of the show’s best down-to-earth drama involving themes that would resonate throughout the series: money, pride, achievement, and shame.
5. Mad Men (2007)
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” the first episode of Matthew Weiner’s prestigious ‘60s-set drama, is so subtle and fantastic that you could watch it three times in a row and discover something new each time. In the opening scene, ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) contemplates a new strategy for selling cigarettes, which have just been proven dangerous by the Surgeon General. In a later scene, he tells a woman, “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons,” and it’s clear that he views his capitalist cynicism as a form of enlightenment. In the end, he goes home to his wife and children, and the crisp framing of his pose as he stands over the kids’ beds would be touching if it didn’t look so much like an advertisement. Elsewhere, naive secretary Peggy Olson’s (Elisabeth Moss) first day lays plain the appalling, constant sexism pre-second wave women endured (and sometimes leaned into) to survive in the workplace. Each scene feels perfectly in place, each moment lined up to lead into the next, like a magnificent well-oiled machine parceling out the first bits of what would eventually become a sprawling small screen masterpiece.
4. Homeland (2011)
Of the few hundred pilots I considered while putting together this article, Homeland was the only one that nearly swayed me into pausing the project so I could binge-watch the rest of the season. Wonderfully paranoid and exciting from start to finish, the opening episode is an example of what a pilot can be at its best. The series begins with CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) rushing into an Iraqi prison to make contact with an informant moments before he’s due to be executed. The prisoner tells her that a captive U.S. soldier has been turned by al-Qaeda. So it makes sense for Carrie to be suspicious of the miraculous recovery of longtime prisoner of war Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), right? Or maybe wrong, since apparently Carrie’s popping pills for some unnamed “mood disorder,” and her coworker Saul (Mandy Patinkin) thinks she’s losing her grip on reality. Brody’s allegiance is suspect, but his status as a war hero who’s just returned to his family makes him untouchable. For his part, Lewis plays a shell-shocked, potentially treasonous man with quiet nuance, while Danes turns the dial to eleven for her wild-eyed role. The pilot maintains tension the entire time, and will likely leave you letting out a breath you didn’t know you were holding.
3. Orphan Black (2013)
Petty criminal Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) is about to skip town when she witnesses a woman who could be her twin step in front of a moving train. Jarred by the suicide of her doppelganger, but spotting a lucrative opportunity, Sarah decides to assume the woman’s identity and fake her own death. This is complicated somewhat by her young daughter, who she promises herself she’ll see again once everything calms down. The episode has all the fast-paced trappings of a great conspiracy movie, plus a dark, droll sense of humor thanks to Sarah’s seedy past and her relationship with flamboyant adopted brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris). Sarah soon learns more about Beth and meets yet another look-alike, and by the time you reach the bloody cliffhanger, you’re guaranteed to be invested. Though she only embodies three roles (compared to many more in later episodes), Maslany’s on-screen finesse and powerhouse acting chops are already apparent.
2. Alias (2001)
A fully realized spy movie played out across a single episode of television, JJ Abrams’ post-Felicity series starts off almost impossibly strong. Grad student turned secret spy Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) juggles tests, secret missions, and a new engagement to a well-meaning guy who doesn’t know about her badass job. When tragedy not-so-coincidentally strikes, Sydney finds herself unable to trust the people who trained her, and uncertain of everything she thought was true. This all sounds melodramatic, but as played by Garner and written and directed by Abrams, it strikes the right balance of action and realistic emotion. It’s risky to create a story’s mythology and then break it down immediately, but Abrams pulls it off by juxtaposing personal, relatable moments with breakneck, painstakingly coordinated action scenes that establish Sydney as a heroine for the ages. The final twist–one of many throughout the premiere–sets up a compelling storyline that all but guarantees you’ll keep watching.
1. Lost (2004)
When Oceanic Flight 815 crashed somewhere between Australia and LA, a whopping 18.6 million viewers tuned in. What they saw was incredible. Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) wakes up in the jungle, then stumbles onto the beach into a scene of large-scale chaos. Much of J.J. Abrams’ pilot involves the direct aftermath of the plane crash, including surgeon Jack performing triage on survivors and the group working together to set up camp. Meanwhile, prejudices and paranoia set in quickly, and we learn via flashback that a few of the passengers are harboring important secrets. As if a massive plane crash isn’t enough, we soon learn that the island also features a stray polar bear, a creepy French SOS radio signal that’s been on a loop for sixteen years, and some unseen monster that likes to tear apart plane pilots. Ambitious, mysterious, philosophical, and innovative in about a dozen ways (among them a massive cast of characters and a price tag of over ten million dollars), Lost established itself as a can’t-miss show not after a few episodes, or even by the end of the pilot, but with its very first scene.