You only get one chance to make a first impression. That goes for TV, too, which is why a show’s pilot episode is so important.
These premiere installments have a heavy task to complete: They must establish the premise, characters, tone, look, sound and so much more. And while the majority of series either get a passing grade or, sadly, #fail, select comedies and dramas have exceeded expectations with truly standout first episodes.
Here, TVLine has gathered our picks for the 25 Best TV Pilot Episodes that have stood the test of time, delivering memorable stories, characters and surprises that left an indelible impression. Self-assured in their visions, these pilots felt like fully formed shows from the start and swiftly immersed viewers in their fictional worlds.
Our selections changed the game with unique formats (24), wowed with their scope (Lost) and unique styles (Pushing Daisies), and, simply put, captivated our attention. Another way to make your pilot stand out? Hook ’em with a well-executed twist, as several of the following shows did! It’s no wonder we immediately wanted to watch their second installments after the premieres.
Review TVLine’s alphabetical list of the 25 Best Pilot Episodes below, then hit the comments with your own favorites!
A mole hunt, a missing daughter and the possible assassination of a presidential candidate were but a few of the things on CTU agent Jack Bauer’s mind from midnight to 1 am at the start of what would be the first of many very bad days. The Fox pilot moves a bit slower than you probably remember, but it absolutely reeled us in nonetheless, all while introducing the show’s signature bits like the on-screen clock, the tiled split-screen and so, so many double crosses!
The ABC drama arrived on our screens fully loaded, with one foot placed heavily on the gas. In its XL-sized “Truth Be Told,” we’re immediately thrust into Sydney Bristow’s high-octane world of action and deception. In Episode 1 alone, her boyfriend is murdered and her estranged dad returns to prevent an attempt on her life. Plus, she learns that her employer is actually a terrorist organization and not a black ops division of the CIA like she originally thought. Syd then becomes a double agent for the actual CIA (alongside Pops), where she becomes committed to taking down SD-6 and her evil boss Arvin Sloane. The episode beautifully sets us up for five seasons of action-packed twists and turns, and one tremendous lead performance from Jennifer Garner. Mission: Accomplished.
So much of what made Fox’s quirky family comedy so groundbreakingly great — the deadpan narration, the rapid-fire punchlines, the silly wordplay — is right there in the very first 22 minutes, with the upper-crust Bluth family forced to scramble after patriarch George is arrested for decades of embezzlement. The stellar cast slips effortlessly into their dysfunctional roles, and some of the show’s most enduring in-jokes like Lucille’s winks and George Michael’s forbidden lust for his cousin Maeby are established right away. It also sets a very high bar with a dizzying joke-per-minute pace that few comedies to this day have been able to match.
Arguably too many TV pilots rely on the in medias res approach, which plunges us into a character’s dire circumstances before flashing back to illustrate how they got there. But Breaking Bad‘s use of that tactic was tremendously effective, gifting us with a serene opening shot of khaki pants falling from the sky, then pivoting to Walter White’s frenetic drive through the desert in his RV. We were instantly desperate to know how the stakes could possibly have gotten so high for this mild-mannered man —and even back then, Bryan Cranston skillfully showed us how ruthless his protagonist could be when backed into a corner. Plus, the pilot proved that Aaron Paul was Breaking Bad‘s secret ingredient from the start, injecting even the tensest moments with charisma and humor.
To borrow a phrase frequently used by the late Stephen J. Bartowski, the NBC comedy’s 2007 pilot was aces. From the moment Chuck cracked that he needed to “choose a font” for his five-year plan, we knew we liked the guy. And then all the government’s secrets were uploaded to his brain, and we needed to see where that was going. The action sequences were great — from Bryce Larkin’s initial effort to send Chuck the Intersect, to Sarah’s attempts to evade Casey and his fellow NSA agents via the Nerd Herder (“Whoa! Computer emergency!”) — and the chemistry between stars-in-the-making Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski was out of this world. We were fully on board by the time Sarah confronted Chuck on the beach and asked him to trust her — a moment the series would mirror five years later, in its hotly debated 2012 series finale.
“Oh Mary Alice, what did you do?” That was the question on every American’s mind following our first visit to Wisteria Lane, the setting of ABC’s overnight phenomenon. Anchored by Brenda Strong’s iconic narration, the sharply written first hour of Marc Cherry’s long-running primetime soap introduced us to an entire neighborhood’s worth of colorful characters, established a unique tone and, of course, launched a killer mystery that more than 20 million people would tune in to watch unfold. The image of Felicity Huffman’s Lynette dressed in a full-length funeral dress jumping into a pool to retrieve her unruly children will stick with us forever.
The NBC juggernaut quickly “set the tone” for all medical dramas that followed, with a captivating, two-hour opener that chronicled Carter’s first day at County General. The 1994 premiere was paced unlike anything we’d ever seen, and set real stakes for both its first responders and the patients they treated — which, in a truly shocking twist, included Julianna Margulies’ Nurse Hathaway, who’d attempted suicide. But there were also uplifting moments, like when Greene decided against a career in private practice because his heart was in emergency medicine, or when Benton walked out of the operating room and punched the air after Morgenstern applauded him on a job well done. And there’s something extra special about revisiting the pilot after you’ve seen the 2009 series finale, which sees Carter call on a different Greene — Mark’s daughter, doctor-in-training Rachel — to assist in an all-hands-on-deck emergency.
The WB produced a lot of memorable pilots over its run (including Felicity, which also makes this list), but there’s something truly special about the introduction of creator Greg Berlanti’s multigenerational family drama, about a widowed doctor who moves his two children to a small town in Colorado. The premise could easily veer into saccharine, but instead, the earnest hour is deeply heartfelt and emotionally layered, with just the right amount of edgy anger (courtesy of a no-words-minced father-son fight). And the young cast, particularly Gregory Smith and Emily VanCamp, is top-notch from the start, with the fantastic Treat Williams anchoring the ensemble.
The J.J. Abrams-written, Matt Reeves-directed hour essentially had one job — make us instantly fall in love with Keri Russell’s idealistic, flawed, relatable heroine — and the pair accomplished it flawlessly. The fact that the pilot also succeeded in setting up an epic love triangle, while also introducing us to an engaging supporting cast and layering in one of the most swoonworthy musical scores ever to grace a “teen” drama was the icing on the cake.
FREAKS AND GEEKS
NBC’s cult classic was a tough sell at first: an hour-long high school dramedy set in 1980, starring a cast of unknowns and following a bunch of nerds and weirdos. Luckily, the pilot nails the show’s uniquely bittersweet tone right away, expertly balancing goofy comedy with poignant teen drama. (The opening shot is perfect: an earnest jock and cheerleader conversation that quickly pans away to the slackers smoking pot underneath the bleachers.) The conflicts are well-worn — a mean bully, a first crush — but Paul Feig’s script cleverly flips them on their heads, and the cast’s instant chemistry ensured that we’d stick around for the whole school year. (Which is all we got, sadly.)
Before the Fox dramedy turned into a six-season, uber-success story, it kicked off with a zippy, eminently quotable first episode that immediately drew viewers into the social order at William McKinley High School. The kids are earnest! The music is good! Jane Lynch has never been bitingly better! If you’ve never watched, we defy you to sit through Glee‘s pilot and not fall in love with Rachel, Finn, Mercedes and the rest of the New Directions. (And that cover of “Don’t Stop Believin'” still slaps.)
HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER
Disregarding how you may now feel about the show following its controversial series finale, there’s no deny that the CBS comedy’s pilot was a creative success. From the cast’s believable friend chemistry to Marshall and Lily’s adorableness to Neil Patrick Harris’ instantly memorable performance as Barney, the episode just gelled on every level. Plus, that “gotcha!” twist ending (Robin’s the aunt, not the mother!) was a true surprise and kicked off a tantalizing mystery that would inspire clue-tracking and theories for years to come — for better or for worse.
HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER
From the moment Viola Davis purred, “How to get a-way with mur-der” in the ABC drama’s summer promos while jabbing chalk at a chalkboard, we were intrigued, and the pilot episode gripped us for all 42 minutes of its runtime. The dialogue was fast and clever, particularly in those expository classroom scenes, and Davis expertly established Annalise Keating as a complicated, messy woman who was nonetheless a powerhouse in the courtroom. But the pilot’s greatest strength was how it played with time and character dynamics to set up the shocking reveal that Annalise’s husband had been killed. Murder‘s increasingly twisty mysteries sorta collapsed in on themselves after six seasons, but it’s hard to deny that its first-ever episode remains criminally good.
“Guys, where are we?” By the time the ABC drama’s two-part series premiere comes to its eerie, unsettling end, viewers were just as flummoxed as the lucky (?) survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 as they listened to that repeating radio broadcast. Lost‘s opening hours set the show’s deliciously mysterious tone by refusing to offer up easy answers — Why, exactly, is a polar bear prowling the jungle? — and created one of the first shows that dared its audience to solve the central puzzle in real time. Even if you know what’s coming, years later, it’s still a very fun ride.
THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL
The Prime Video comedy’s debut episode answered the age-old question, and it did so within seconds: What kind of TV show could Amy Sherman-Palladino make if she were given an unlimited budget? Turns out, a pretty spectacular one. The show’s 2017 pilot was both a feast for the eyes (’50s Manhattan never looked so breathtaking and historically detailed) and the ears (Rachel “a star is born” Brosnahan recited AS-P’s rapid-fire dialogue with shocking ease). It also beautifully set up Brosnahan’s titular character as an impeccably attired underdog worth rooting for.
Phil teaching Luke a lesson by shooting him with a BB gun. Jay being mistaken for Gloria’s father, then struggling to rise from his beach chair to correct the guy. Mitchell’s “cream puffs” rant aboard the airplane. “WTF. Why the face?” Baby Lily’s “Circle of Life” moment. In 23 short minutes, we met three distinctly modern families, only learning toward the end that they in fact formed a larger modern family — one we’d be happy to spend another 249 episodes with.
With a cerebral, cinematic visual style that recalls Hitchcock and Kubrick, USA’s cyber thriller came right out of the gate with a pilot that demanded our attention. The narration from jittery hacker Elliot clues us in on a vast corporate conspiracy with a dense web of plot threads, but Rami Malek’s intense lead performance adds a human element to Elliot’s quest for justice. The pilot quickly establishes an intriguing formula — precisely calibrated suspense, provocative political commentary, a pulsating electronic score — and serves as a mission statement for the epic thrill ride to come.
It didn’t take long for us to care about Ben McKenzie’s Ryan Atwood: Within minutes of the Fox drama’s opening scene, in which a reluctant Ryan was pressured into stealing a car, we not only understood who the teen was at his core, but we were also rooting for him after his mom kicked him out. Creator Josh Schwartz then expertly introduced Ryan (and the audience) to a whole other glitzy world in Newport, full of characters who were so distinctly troubled, entertaining and/or lovable (Sandy Cohen really was the best from the very start) that they immediately hooked viewers into this soapy outsider tale.
Much has been said of Parenthood‘s near-perfect finale, but there’s also a strong case to be made for its pilot episode as an all-time great. Immediately, we’re introduced to a close-knit — sometimes too close — family who feel both familiar and relatable. There are funny moments, like Sarah’s (Lauren Graham) clumsy hook-up with an old friend, and Crosby’s argument with his girlfriend over her seeking a sperm donor that is not him. But more than that, the show has a lot of heart, as seen when Adam finally realizes that his son is neurodivergent. The hour is a well-balanced family drama that audiences can return to over and over again no matter how much time has passed.
When the fantastical ABC dramedy aired its “Pie-lette” episode in 2007, there had been nothing like it on TV before then — and there still might not be a show that compares to creator Bryan Fuller’s one-of-a-kind series. The story of a piemaker who can raise the dead with a touch, but then can never again graze his late childhood sweetheart because the second touch will kill her for good, the premiere was a whimsical, hopelessly romantic and candy-colored visual delight. With Fuller’s quirky wit and Barry Sonnenfeld’s direction, plus a fairy tale-esque score from Jim Dooley, the Pushing Daisies pilot looked and sounded like a storybook come to life.
Assuming you can separate Roseanne Barr from Roseanne Conner, the original series’ 1988 pilot holds up unbelievably well, thanks in no small part to the crackling chemistry between Barr and John Goodman. Roseanne and Dan’s heated exchange about just how much (or how little) Dan contributes around the house — “Oh, but honey, you just fixed dinner three years ago!” — is as funny a sitcom scene as they come. Not every character is fully baked — Darlene isn’t nearly sarcastic enough, Jackie’s only defining characteristic is that she attends self-help seminars, and DJ is played by an entirely different child actor! — but the humor is already razor sharp.
The ABC drama had us hooked from the start. Within the first few minutes of the pilot, newcomer Quinn Perkins is thrust into the fold (“I want to be a gladiator”) and iconic fixer Olivia Pope successfully negotiates the return of an infant taken hostage only to be met with a closeted Republican politician covered in his girlfriend’s blood. And if you thought that was a lot, the episode ups the ante with even more twists — like the reveal of an affair with the president —and immediately distinguishes itself as must-see television. No matter how you feel about the show’s later seasons, there’s no denying that Olivia Pope and her pristine white coat came correct in the series opener.
The medical comedy’s debut cemented Bill Lawrence’s uncanny ability to fuse even the most sophomoric humor with heart, while also establishing nearly every core relationship that would carry the series for the duration of its eight-season run* — including, but not limited to, those between J.D. and Turk, J.D. and Elliot, J.D. and The Janitor, and Turk and Carla. Perhaps the best moment, though, was when J.D. realized that Kelso would not be the hero of this story, but the villain, while the real hero would be the curmudgeonly Dr. Cox.
From its opening credit sequence and Angelo Badalamenti’s score to Special Agent Dale Cooper’s very first recording to Diane, it was clear Twin Peaks was going to be special. The pilot episode infused its soapy satire and baffling mystery with Lynchian absurdity from the jump, showing viewers that this wasn’t going to be your typical network procedural. In just 90-minutes and change, we learned all about the town’s murdered homecoming queen Laura Palmer and the strange circumstances surrounding her death, which unraveled with heaps of cinematic panache. As Cooper descended on the town to figure out WTF was going on, we immediately strapped in and braced ourselves for the wildest of rides. But even then, we never could have predicted the enigma factory that lied ahead.
THE WALKING DEAD
Titled “Days Gone By,” AMC’s zombie franchise made a jaw-droppingly cinematic first impression when it arrived on the scene in 2010. The Frank Darabont-written and directed premiere did a masterful job of introducing viewers to the series’ forebodingly apocalyptic setting as well as its main protagonist in Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes. The 67-minute kickoff also succeeded in doing something that had, up until that point, eluded many end of days-themed shows: it scared the living daylights out of us.