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The pilot is arguably the most important episode of a TV show. Its quality almost single-handedly determines whether or not you will continue to watch the show. So, which TV pilots nailed it, and which ones missed the mark? Read on to see my listing!



Direct Hit: The Umbrella Academy

Numbers 1-7 are introduced with photos of them and their names


When the show started with a violin rendition of “The Phantom of the Opera” set to an introduction of almost all our characters, I knew I was going to love it. It can be hard to introduce so many characters, especially in one long sequence where none of them interact, but this show pulls it off. Five’s return is a hilarious and amazing twist, and Ben’s reveal at the end is intriguing and makes it impossible not to watch more. Every character already feels fully fleshed out, and the episode is the perfect balance of jaunty, dysfunctional, and dramatic.


Miss: Parks and Recreation


There’s only a handful of funny moments in Season 1, and only one in the pilot (when Leslie falls in the pit). There is far too much focus on Mark, and watching Andy and Ann together just isn’t fun. The best parts of Parks are the characters and their relationships, and neither of those elements feels quite strong enough here. Leslie (Amy Poehler) really carries this episode (and, honestly, the season), but that’s not enough in an ensemble show.


Direct Hit: Lost


You know I couldn’t make this list without including the Lost pilot. It has the strongest opening of all time, really pulling you in immediately and portraying how horrifying and chaotic things are while introducing our vast ensemble cast of characters. A great intro to Lost‘s mysteries and tone, it also firmly establishes the island environment so that it feels like you’re there with the characters.


You know I couldn’t make this list without including the Lost pilot. It has the strongest opening of all time, really pulling you in immediately and portraying how horrifying and chaotic things are while introducing our vast ensemble cast of characters. A great intro to Lost‘s mysteries and tone, it also firmly establishes the island environment so that it feels like you’re there with the characters.


Miss: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy asks, "Why can't you people just leave me alone?" Giles replies, "Because you are the Slayer"

The WB

Look, Buffy is one of my favorite shows, but we all know that Season 1 has its issues. The two-part pilot in particular feels weakest. Although the show does a good job of believably transitioning from the film and introducing a new Buffy and setting, the opening of the Hellmouth feels far too sudden for a pilot and leaves the viewer just sort of overwhelmed without a clear idea of stakes. The dialogue doesn’t quite feel like Buffy, and Xander and Willow’s introduction to the world of vampires feels rushed and unnatural. Let’s not forget that Xander’s best friend turns into a vampire he literally has to kill, and it’s NEVER MENTIONED AGAIN (in a show where they’re always making references to stuff from past seasons). The strongest part of these episodes? Cordelia, who gives us the iconic line, “What’s your childhood trauma?”


Direct Hit: Breaking Bad


We all know that this is one of the best pilots of all time. If you never watch another episode of Breaking Bad, you should watch this one, which is pretty much the highest praise I can give for a pilot. Not only does it perfectly introduce the characters and stakes, but it’s also funny and entertaining on its own. It also makes the plot — a high school chemistry teacher cooking drugs with a former student — actually believable and dramatic by establishing the depressing realities of Walt’s life. The format of the episode — starting at the end, then returning to the beginning — can be gimmicky in other shows but works perfectly here.


Miss: Schitt’s Creek


Schitt’s Creek is one of those shows that get better as they go, so I would argue that this leaves the pilot at the bottom of the list. The only moment I really found funny was the moment GIF’d above; while the plot is well established, it feels as if there’s too strong a reliance on Roland (so he becomes more frustrating than funny), and it lacks the heart of later seasons. Still a solid episode of television, but compared with other Schitt’s Creek episodes and other pilots? Eh.


Direct Hit: Once Upon a Time


Once Upon a Time‘s first season is a near-perfect season of television (honestly, I’d recommend watching just the first season). The premise of fairy-tale characters being trapped in the real world is simple but kind of genius, and it’s quickly set up before we step into a perfect blend of nostalgic fairy tales juxtaposed with real-life issues. Henry is adorable, Emma is relatable and sympathetic, and both Regina and Mr. Gold are perfectly believable as both fairy-tale supervillains and more subtle yet still nefarious antagonists in real life. The costumes and scenery are beautiful, and the characterizations are impeccable.


Miss: Avatar: The Last Airbender


I always tell people to watch until at least Episode 5 before they decide if they want to continue with Avatar. The first few episodes, and the pilot in particular, do set up the plot of the series, but they lack the humor and stand-alone strength of later episodes. Avatar‘s plotting is near-perfect, both in terms of the series and each of the episodes, which feature strong stand-alone plots but also advance the series. The pilot doesn’t feel up to par and relies more on the introduction of the characters than the plot, and none of the characters feel quite themselves yet.


Direct Hit: The Good Place


See, I don’t hate ALL comedy pilots! The Good Place is a perfectly crafted show, and the pilot is no exception. It sets up a trend of reversing expectations when, five minutes in, Eleanor reveals that she’s in the Good Place by accident, and nothing Michael just said about her is true. From then on, there’s perfect tension and a hilarious introduction to our main characters and their flaws (with the exception of Michael and Jinyu/Jason, though those aren’t revealed, for good reason).


Miss: New Girl


First off, WINSTON IS NOT EVEN IN THIS EPISODE. Coach is there, which, cool, but he doesn’t feel fully fleshed out (I LOVE him in Season 4, when he returns, though!). New Girl is one of my favorite shows of all time, but to me, this episode isn’t representative of the show. This is a show where it feels as if the characters evolve into their hilarious selves after a few episodes (some, like Winston, take longer than others), so this pilot feels very much like a work in progress.


Direct Hit: This Is Us


This Is Us obviously took the world (in particular, broadcast networks) by storm in the middle of a shift away from more-classic broadcast dramas with 22-episode seasons. I think this is less a lesson in trends than one in quality: This Is Us is good, and its pilot was especially so. The plot is somewhat simple for each character (though it benefits greatly from its perfectly cast stars and their believable chemistry), but what really elevates this pilot above others is the final reveal that Randall, Kate, and Kevin are the children of Jack and Rebecca, whose timeline is revealed to be decades prior when Jack is offered a cigarette in the hospital. It’s these kind of twists mixed with heart that the show does so well.


Miss: Black Mirror


It’s not necessarily a bad hour of TV. It’s well crafted and horrifying (although personally too gross for my taste). But if someone were to recommend Black Mirror to you and you were to watch this first episode, you would absolutely not walk away with a good picture of what the show is like. It lacks the futuristic-technology aspect of the other episodes, and its disgust factor overshadows any ominous warnings about our future that the show usually leaves you with.


Direct Hit: Dead to Me


What’s so great about the Dead to Me pilot is that Judy and Jen already feel 100% perfectly fleshed out, which is integral on a show that relies on putting together these two VERY different people. The start of their friendship is comical, yet still makes you root for them, and the final twist of the episode provides a layer of tension that carries the show for the entire season.


Miss: The Office


If you’ve read some of my past articles, you might know that I’m not the biggest The Office/Michael fan, but I can still admit that its an iconic 2000s comedy. Still, the pilot doesn’t hold up well for me. One way that the American series differs from the British version is that the American one is slightly less mean and has a bit more heart — but this episode lacks that, while somehow also lacking the level of cringe that Michael usually has (see the episode directly after, “Diversity Day”). Overall, a lot of the characters fall flat.


Direct Hit: Euphoria


The pilot is a solid episode that serves as a great introduction to our characters and their dynamic, in a way that feels accurate to Gen Z (see my next entry for a show that did NOT feel true to its audience). Zendaya is absolutely amazing in this episode and blew me away in the first few moments alone. But where this episode really shines is its visuals, which are gorgeous, trippy, and groundbreaking.


Miss: The Secret Life of the American Teenager

ABC Family

Look, the whole show is bad, so maybe it’s unfair to call this a bad pilot, since it’s pretty representative of the show. I suppose it does set up the plots pretty well, but it hasn’t aged well. Ben’s behavior comes off as creepy, and the constant sex statistics and mentions just make this feel like an after-school PSA more than something that could carry an entire show. It does not feel at all authentic to a real teen audience.


And Finally, Direct Hit: Stranger Things


The Stranger Things pilot feels like such a love note to ’80s music and films while still being its own thing. We care about Will and his friends right away, and the sequence that leads to Will’s disappearance is absolutely terrifying. The storylines and characters connect to each other so well, effectively bringing together a fairly large cast of very different people. The end, in which the kids meet Eleven, feels like both the most natural thing in the world and a surprising twist — and makes it practically impossible not to keep watching.

Did I miss some of your favorite and least favorite pilots? Let me know in the comments below!

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