The best TV pilot episodes

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In celebration of the start of a new university year, our writers take a look at the opening TV show episodes that really promised great things for the future.

Pretty Little Liars

Pretty Little Liars has a pretty obsessed cult following, and it is not hard to see why. Four teenage girls who have splintered after their best friend Alison went missing a year ago, are brought back together by a mysterious tormentor, who threatens to reveal their secrets. The pilot of Pretty Little Liars hooks you from the start with this plot, and the mystery that is Alison DeLaurentis. The central cast are all interesting, the potential secrets are intriguing, and the writers do a great job from the start of making Rosewood and its secrets a compelling place to stay.

Words by Rebecca James. 

The X-Files

Some television shows take a season or two to find their footing, but The X-Files managed to lay its groundwork within its pilot episode. Debuting September 10th, 1993, the first episode brought all the unique quirks and recurring themes that would cement the series as a cultural touchstone for the 90s. Not only do we get our first introduction to FBI Agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), but they also get their first introductions to each other. Assigned to a project outside the mainstream Bureau, Dana Scully is sent down to the basement to debunk the work of a wayward UFO-obsessed agent, Fox ‘Spooky’ Mulder. Together, Mulder and Scully begin their journey of investigating the so called ‘X-Files’; cases that remain unresolved due to the more-often-than-not inclusion of paranormal phenomena.

Words by Sophie McEvoy.

Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire’s pilot comes from the powerhouse team of legendary director Martin Scorsese and Sopranos writer Terrence Winter. Set in Atlantic City on the eve of prohibition, the pilot depicts the birth of the modern American gangster, through the sale of illegal alcohol. Like Mad Men before it, Boardwalk Empire meticulously recreates its setting, and with great performances from the ensemble cast- including Steve Buscemi and Kelly Macdonald- the pilot sets up the show tremendously, making this a must watch for fans of period dramas or the gangster genre.
Words by Conor Kavanagh.
The West Wing

The pilot opens with a pre-credits introduction to key White House staffers, every second stuffed with dialogue, not one word of it explaining who they are or what they do. The President Of The United States has fallen off his bicycle, and the media sensation this could cause is the least of the staff’s problems. Over the course of 40 minutes, we bounce back and forth between the characters as they struggle with the consequences of their actions. And in the last five minutes, President Bartlett finally walks into the room, played by the brilliant Martin Sheen. A tone is set: fun, fast, and firmly rooted in character drama, and all in some brilliantly written dialogue. A pilot that doesn’t ever play like a pilot.

Words by George Seabrook.

Archer

Rip Riley (Patrick Warburton) is the best pilot in Archer, though this is in part due to a distinct lack of pilots in the show. Featuring in the episodes ‘Heart of Archness’ pt.1-3 (episodes 1, 2, and 3 in the third season), Riley is an ex-ISIS agent who, after retiring, became an adventurer. He flies a seaplane named Loosey Goosey, which he at one point has to crash land after Archer accidentally destroys both of its engines. The fact that Riley manages such a difficult landing is what really secures his place as the show’s best pilot.

Okay, joke over.

Many comedies fail to hit the ground running, often needing a few episodes for the cast to gel together or for the writers to really nail the humour. That’s certainly not the case with the Archer pilot. Before the title-sequence even starts to roll, it is abundantly clear what kind of show Archer will be: irreverent, outrageous, hilarious. The rest of the episode goes on to set up several of the show’s numerous running jokes, firmly establish all the main characters, and deliver spot-on comedy every other line.

Words by Matt Clarson. 

Mad Men 
This series is devoted to bringing you into the world of the characters, the 1960s high-flying New York business section, where sexism, racism and homophobia are abound underneath heavy clouds of cigarette smoke. The pilot does this brilliantly (and hilariously) by dropping you in at the deep end. This episode perfectly establishes not only the period, but the characters, their arcs, and the central themes, such as the perception and realities of ourselves. All of which are showcased in the introduction of the now famous protagonist, Don Draper. The rest is history. Literally.
Words by Jack Gracie. 

Modern Family

Modern Family first aired in September 2009. The pilot focuses on three sets of people who are all equally adorable, mad, flamboyant and quick-witted and who make up the large American family. What really shines in the pilot episode is the chemistry between the cast. It is so believable that they are a home-grown family who all love each other due to the fantastic acting – particularly from Eric Stonestreet and Sofia Vegara – and the wonderful writing from Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd. It is no surprise the episode won an Emmy award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series and later spun into six seasons of the hit TV show.

Also, a pilot episode that hilariously parodies The Lion King’s ‘Circle of Life’ is bound to be a winner, right?!

Words by Georgia Simpson. 

Parks and Recreation

Comedies have far less time in a pilot to capture your attention – 20 minutes is nothing in TV land – but Parks and Recreation does this perfectly through its diverse and wonderful cast of characters. From the moment you are introduced to the Pawnee Parks department the characters grab you – Amy Poehler’s creations are as unique as they are funny. Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson is pure comedy gold, and it is great to see pre-Guardians Chris Pratt in all his comedic glory. The pilot balances introducing the premise and the characters perfectly, leaving you wanting more.

Words by Rebecca James.

The Shield

Despite running for seven long, increasingly dark and unsettling seasons, everything about The Shield – from its overall themes and tone, right down to its eventual finale – comes right the way back to the pilot. The epic tale of corrupt LAPD detective Vic Mackey begins with a single gunshot, marking the murder of a fellow officer and the start of a seven year odyssey towards the total collapse of human decency. There are plenty of shows that require a couple of episodes to let you adjust to its characters and set-up the overarching story in question. Yet The Shield is very much the opposite, nailing its intentions right from the off and leaving behind a pilot that is very much the perfect example of the show in its entirety: brave, twisted and utterly compelling.

Words by Ben Robins. 

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A film student stuck in a 90s timewarp of FBI agents, UFOs, conspiracy theories, alternative rock and grunge.

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