It is pilot season, which means networks are deciding which scripts they want to see made into pilot episodes and then, ultimately, which of those pilots will get made into full series. While we wait to see which shows will get picked up this year, I started thinking about my favorite pilots. Not all of these shows made it past their first season, some of them did and eventually lost me, but they all had great first episodes. For fun, I put them in chronological order, and there are definitely spoilers.
1. Cheers – Give Me A Ring Sometime
While waiting for her fiancé Sumner to get his grandmother’s ring from his ex-wife so they can go to Barbados and get married, Diane Chambers is introduced to all the interesting employees and regular patrons at this Boston bar. After Sumner returns an hour later only to leave again, Diane calls the airline to change their flight and discovers that he has left her and gone to Barbados with his ex-wife. Owner Sam Malone feels bad for Diane and offers her a job. This is still one of my favorite series of all time, and it all started with this episode. Sometimes you really just wanna go where everyone knows your name.
2. My So-Called Life – Pilot
So, she started hanging out with Rayanne Graff, because it seemed fun and because, it seemed like if she didn’t, she would die. That may sound overly dramatic, but that is exactly what Angela says in voice over at the beginning of this series. Angela is a typical high school student in the suburbs. She starts hanging out with new friends that her parents do not really approve of and she lies about where she’s going. She thinks about having sex with the boy she has a crush on, and she daydreams about him in class. From this very first episode, this show just felt like it was about my life and it still speaks to me today. The characters talked to each other like real teenagers. They did not have philosophical conversations about issues happening in the world, they talked about the things that teenagers talk about: things that directly affect their lives at that particular moment.
3. Sports Night – Pilot
This show takes place at a fictional sports show called Sports Night, with anchors Dan Rydell and Casey McCall. It is executive produced by Dana Whitaker, with the help of associate producers Natalie Hurley and Jeremy Goodwin, and their staff. They all work under managing editor Isaac Jaffe for the Continental Sports Channel (CSN). Still getting over his recent divorce and becoming disillusioned by the state of sports, Casey contemplates leaving the show. After an argument with Dan and a historic run by a South African distance runner, Casey ultimately decides to stay. In this episode, we also see how much Dana and Isaac butt heads with the network, but also how loyal they are their staff. Awful laugh track aside, this pilot is still one of my favorite episodes of television ever.
4. Alias – Truth Be Told
Sydney Bristow is a typical grad student. She has two best friends, Will and Francie, and she just got engaged to her doctor boyfriend, Danny. Oh, and she also works for a covert branch of the CIA called SD-6. After Sydney decides to her fiancé her secret, the agency kills him and tries to kill her as well for breaking their number one rule of secrecy. She then learns from her estranged father that SD-6 is actually not the CIA, but an enemy organization, so she goes to the actual CIA to become a double agent. Even though I was not a huge fan of this show as a whole, it started off strong and the pilot drew me in with its kick ass lead character and its secret agent storyline.
5. The Black Donnellys – Pilot
The episode starts in prison with the police questioning Joey Ice Cream about the location of some dead bodies. He starts telling the story of the Donnelly brothers, four young, working-class, Irish Americans living in New York City, and how they get involved with organized crime in the city. Jimmy, Tommy, Kevin and Sean were always together and always looked out for each other, even when one of them (usually Jimmy) did something really stupid… like steal an Italian. In order to cover Kevin’s gambling debt, he and Jimmy decide to kidnap the bookie Louie Downtown, and things do not exactly go as planned. The Italians put Sean in the hospital, so Jimmy kills Louie, and then Tommy has to take out the head of the Irish mob and the head of the Italian mob in order to keep them from killing Jimmy. I am still sad that this show was eventually canceled, but I highly recommend checking it out on Netflix if you have not seen it.
6. Justified – Fire in the Hole
Federal Marshall Raylan Givens is reassigned from Miami to his childhood home of Eastern Kentucky. The episode sets up the character of Givens perfectly as an old-school Marshall living in modern times where, even in Kentucky, his cowboy-look is out-of-place and his quick-draw is not always warranted. He is not where he wants to be and he now has to deal with all the things that made him leave Harlan County in the first place. The first episode comes directly from Elmore Leonard’s short story of the same name, with the biggest change being that Boyd Crowder lives at the end of the episode. The rest of the first season waivers a little bit while the writers found their sweet spot, but this episode was perfect.
7. Orphan Black – Natural Selection
After several months away, Sarah Manning gets off a train and is standing on the platform when she sees another woman who looks exactly like her. She watches as the woman jumps in front of an oncoming train and takes her own life. Sarah steals this woman’s purse and plans to clean out her bank account before leaving town with her own daughter and foster brother. However, she soon discovers that there is much more to this woman, Beth Childs, and their identical appearance than she first thought. It starts out as a straight forward story of stolen identity and quickly draws you into the world of human cloning. There is intrigue and sex and humor, and it will make you want to watch episode two immediately.
8. Jane the Virgin – Chapter One
When Jane Gloriana Villanueva was ten years old, her grandmother taught her that she should save herself until marriage. Thirteen and a half years later, Jane is doing just that. She lives in Miami, has been dating a cop named Michael for two years, and is finishing college while working part-time at the Marbella Hotel, which is owned by the Solano family. Rafael Solano just happens to be someone Jane had a crush on years before. At her annual gynecologist appointment, her doctor is distracted and accidentally inseminates Jane with Rafael’s sperm. She must decide whether or not to keep the baby. The premise did not initially interest me, it actually sounded a little ridiculous, but I am so glad that I watched this first episode because I was immediately hooked and, a season and a half later, am still completely obsessed.