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TV Pilots

Most TV shows are not just made right from word Go. They first shoot what’s called a pilot, and based on that, they get picked up or not. Pilots are often far different from what the show will eventually look like, as they retool certain characters and plotlines. (The best recent example of this was the pilot for C.S.I., which had Brass as a bad guy and Grissom as a fun-loving dude instead of the melancholy he became. For more information on pilots please go over the in Institute page, as I have included a column from two years ago about how TV shows are made.)

I thought I would list the 10 best Pilots. Most of these—almost all, in fact—were shows completely different from anything that had been done before. And some of them were “good” in the genre they came from, totally redefining it. A good Pilot doesn’t always make a good series, but it’s sure a good start.


Honorable Mention: ALF – I only mention this because the Pilot was so different and fresh, and the show went so far downhill so quickly. Clearly this was a TV movie, not a show, but it did make a great first impression.

#10 C.S.I. – Most of you probably didn’t even see it when it first came on, but C.S.I. took procedurals to a whole new level. Also present from Day 1: the graphic visuals of going into the body, following the bullet, knife wound or disease. Going back to watch the Pilot now you can really see the sea change that hit American TV started right here.

#9 FRIENDS – Watching the Pilot now is almost painful with how much the characters have grown, but people forget how landmark this was. A sitcom had yet to focus completely on six different people equally; SEINFELD was the only thing that came close. The model of young sophisticated New Yorkers (make that white New Yorkers) would quickly become a trend bordering on overkill, but remember, FRIENDS got here first.

#8 DAWSON’S CREEK – This was the first show to really “get” their teen market in a long time. Months before the show aired the producers ran commercials in movie previews; common now but unheard of before DC. When the show finally aired it was a teenage melodrama, but much more cleverly and edgy than I think anyone even expected. Heck; I even watched it, (although I said I was just spending time with my sisters).

#7 PRETENDER – To this day I’m surprised the show didn’t do better, and can’t figure if NBC didn’t market it right, or just couldn’t find an audience. The concept was a man so intelligent and highly trained that he can “pretend” to do almost literally anything. Of course, that secret government organization would like him back. The Pilot was fresh, scary, sexy, and full of promise. And for awhile, PRETENDER delivered.

#3 (tie) DARK ANGEL – In the year 2009, America is just another broke ex-superpower, after terrorists have detonated a nuke in the atmosphere and wiped out all the computers, and hence America’s wealth. Into that scenario steps Max, bred by a secret government organization (who else?) to be the ultimate fighting machine. Max escaped when she was 9, and has been on the run ever since. To make ends meet, Max is a cat burglar, since her genetic modifications allow her extra strength speed and agility. Perhaps most important, Max was played by a then unknown Jessica Alba, and she delivered. This show was if for a year, then got off track, but what a Pilot.

#3 (tie) 24 – Nothing had been seen on TV like this for years. Jack Bauer, Federal Agent, has just entered a very bad day, a day in which his wife and daughter will be kidnapped and terrorized, he will try to shoot a presidential candidate to save them, and then end up saving that very same man several times. And the first episode all happened in one hour of real time. Complete with that freaky music as the clock drug on, 24 was a total adrenaline rush. I remember my sister and her friend calling me each commercial freaking out. Such good times (and 24’s still going strong).

#3 (tie) ALIAS – The Pilot was 69 minutes, without commercials (I remember because I was upset it cut into some show on another channel later, a show I can’t even recall). But in those 69 minutes; unbelievable. Sydney finds out that the CIA she’s working for is NOT the CIA when her fiancé is killed for Sydney betraying the secret. Then Sydney decides TO betray the evil group she works for, only to find out the only other person who knows is another double agent, who’s also her father. You’d do yourself well to rent Season One of ALIAS and learn what the fuss is all about.

#3 (tie) LOST – Ditto for LOST. In fact, you might want to do it NOW, before Season 2 starts. I can’t recommend ANYTHING better, and I personally guarantee you’ll become a huge fan. The idea is that a plane crashes in the middle of the South Pacific, and the Pilot deals with those first two days looking for survivors. Except, this is no ordinary island……

#2 THE WONDER YEARS – I recently saw the Pilot again, and it reminded me how fantastic it was. The voice-over, which can seem cheesy in movies, was done perfectly, and helped capture that time frame. Fred Savage was wonderful, and when Winnie’s brother died in “Nam at the end of the episode your heart just broke. It’s hard to believe a Sit-com could be so funny and yet so sad.

And the number one pilot of all time…

#1 E.R. – The granddaddy of great pilots. Before E.R., the most exciting hour on Television was THE PEOPLE’S COURT. E.R. came in and showed us that a television program could be interesting and make us feel for characters, while pinning us to our seat with the adrenaline rush and fast pace. You can still find the Pilot in most video stores, if you want to see what the show was like before all the heaps of Boring in recent years. For about five years E.R. was truly appointment Television, and it started with Episode 1.