×
Back to IndieWire

The Best TV Pilots of the 21st Century, Ranked

From "Lost" and "Homeland" to "Atlanta" and "Desperate Housewives," here's our ranker of the series openers that offered great promise from the very beginning.

“Atlanta,” “Homeland,” “Lost”

Fox/Showtime/ABC/Shutterstock

16. “How I Met Your Mother”

Josh Radnor, Cobie Smulders, Jason Segel, Alyson Hannigan & Neil Patrick Harris'How I Met Your Mother' 100 Episode Celebration, Los Angeles, America - 07 Jan 2010

Josh Radnor, Cobie Smulders, Jason Segel, Alyson Hannigan and Neil Patrick Harris,
‘How I Met Your Mother’

Picture Perfect/REX/Shutterstock

Some fans may still be grappling with how this show finished up, but there’s no denying that the first episode of this CBS show has an undeniable brand of charm. Ted Mosby may have always been a wayward character from the start, but the sense of camaraderie between him and the rest of the group shines through right away. The first glimpse of Barney, the Marshall/Lily relationship, and even the unexpected arrival of Robin all tie in to the best of what would come in later years. With a tiny little twist at the end of the episode, it set in motion one of TV’s best ongoing hooks, delaying The Mother’s identity secret for the most of the run of the show. For anyone who told someone that they loved them way too early in a relationship or had a regular meetup group at a local bar, this first episode was a sign that there was more to relate to than being lonely and lovesick.

15. “The Leftovers”

The Leftovers- Pilot 2013 Justin Theroux- Kevin Margaret Qualley- Jill Amanda Warren- Mayor Lucy Warburton Frank Harts- Officer Dennis Luckey John Sierros- Doug (Fire Chief) Christopher Eccleston- Reverend Matt Jamison

Say what you will about the first season’s brutal tone, but the pilot tells audiences exactly what they’re in for during the first 10 episodes and really, throughout the overall series. Dead dogs, choking children, and the bloody, beaten bodies of silent protesters — these are hardly the most troubling moments of Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s deep-dive into loss, life, and the meaning behind both. But they’re critical warning posts for anyone who dares start their rewarding journey, as well as authentic evocations of the pain we feel when we’re grieving, and the pilot is all about pain. Throw in the carefully constructed world-building (remember the celebrities disappearing on TV or the investigative hearing Kevin listens to while he’s getting dressed?), and suddenly the pilot is everything it needs to be: an accurate assessment of what’s to come and an intriguing set up for what can be done. Would more people have watched if Peter Berg had shot a lighter, less claustrophobic starter? Probably. But this is an honest start for a brutally honest show — and one could argue it needs to be exactly that.

14. “Friday Night Lights”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Bill Records/NBC-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5883716o) Taylor Kitsch, Gaius Charles, Zach Gilford Friday Night Lights - 2006 NBC-TV USA Television

“Friday Night Lights”

Bill Records/NBC-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

If the football game in the pilot of “Friday Night Lights” ended at halftime, it would still be a fascinating mix of on-field action and the drama happening on the sidelines. But the show immediately puts its players and students in an in enormous test of perseverance. When Jason Street doesn’t get up after a dangerous hit, it frames the entire series as something so much more than a game. As doctors cut into Street’s helmets to operate on him, it’s a perfect example of how the show was able to capture the mammoth unexpected challenges that young adulthood brings all of these high school characters. And on top of all that, the first episode introduced us to one of the great partnerships and love stories in all of modern TV: Coach and Mrs. Taylor. It made “Texas Forever” feel like something that would endure beyond a single season.

13. “Glee”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Fox-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5886216j)Glee (2009-)Glee - 2009Fox-TVUSATV Portrait

“Glee”

Fox-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

When “Glee” premiered, Ryan Murphy’s most successful series to date was the plastic-surgery-themed campy horror series “Nick/Tuck” (RIP “Popular”!). At the time, it was a head-scratcher why Fox thought his musical comedy set in a high school was worthy of a green light. And then critics saw the pilot and started believin’.

The episode balances mean-girl snark and classic bullying by uplifting all the slushee-soaked students through song. It’s basically the origin story of a band of melodious misfit superheroes led in practice by the curly-haired Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) but in soul by the ambitious Rachel Berry (Lea Michele). But by bringing on jock Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) and some cheerleaders, “Glee” proved that it was more than just a high school revenge fantasy and truly about inclusivity in all forms. It was inspirational, aspirational, and unabashedly tugged at your heartstrings. And we dare anyone to select a more iconic musical moment than the episode’s big finish, when glee club performs Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’” From the opening “ba-ba-ba” harmonies to Finn singing, “Just a small town girl,” we still get goosebumps… and a little verklempt over the loss of Monteith. There’s a reason why this show took the nation by storm, inspired Gleeks everywhere, and even prompting the President to invite the cast to the White House. It all began here.

12. “The Handmaid’s Tale”

THE HANDMAID'S TALE -- "Offred" - Episode 101 - Offred, one the few fertile women known as Handmaids in the oppressive Republic of Gilead, struggles to survive as a reproductive surrogate for a powerful Commander and his resentful wife. Offred (Elisabeth Moss), shown. (Photo by: Take Five/Hulu)

Few pilots have been as beautifully shot and emotionally heart-rending as the opening salvo of Hulu’s Emmy-winning drama, which made spare elegant work of setting up this terrifying new world of Gilead, the dangers that laid within it, and the trapped women at its center, struggling to survive. While elegantly written by Bruce Miller, and anchored by Elisabeth Moss’s unflinching performance, it’s Reed Morano’s stellar direction that truly sells the tone and aesthetic of the series, creating something unforgettable. “The Handmaid’s Tale” isn’t exactly easy to watch, but the pilot made sure we wouldn’t want to look away.

11. “Dear White People”

"Dear White People"

If a Netflix episode runs long and it’s still good, then you know it’s really, really good. Clocking in at 33 minutes, “Chapter I” isn’t an exceptionally lengthy half-hour entry, but it’s still three minutes over time and 10 or 11 minutes over half-hour shows with commercials — that’s considerable when you’re telling a sharp story filled with lots of information, twists, and time jumps. Add in that the “Dear White People” pilot is incredibly funny and, well, it’s hard to find another series premiere (or even an episode) that runs long and wouldn’t benefit from any cuts. But Justin Simien’s smart first episode sets the tone and the story with confidence to spare, making for an energetic and absorbing lead-in for a show that’s excellent all the way through. Winchester University feels like a real college campus, which is essential for the dramatic and comedic elements to come. It addresses its title quickly, frames even faster, and generally wins over any skeptics with the high entertainment factor alone. If you’re going to run long, you better earn it. And “Dear White People” certainly does.

10. “Grey’s Anatomy”

Patrick Dempsey and Ellen Pompeo, "Grey's Anatomy"

From the very first moments in which we almost catch a glimpse of McDreamy’s one-night-stand butt, the show sets the tone for a far more spirited, naughtier type of medical drama. Set in the surgical interns’ very first shift – a brutal but entertaining 48-hours at Seattle Grace Hospital – the episode establishes what Shondaland is all about it all the best possible ways: super-charismatic and compelling female leads, equal doses of irreverence and self-awareness, an overall glossy production, intriguing medical cases, and plenty of sudsy soap elements.

“Grey’s” was just plain fun from the get-go, but had just enough drama and core to make it addictive. Its snappy and quotable dialogue entered everyday vernacular, from the McDreamy to vajayjay. While the show reached its viewership heights for the post-Super Bowl episode, it had already been must-see TV before TGIT was even a glint in ABC’s eye, thanks to this strong first impression. No 007 here.

9. “The Wire”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by David Lee/Hbo/Blown Deadline/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5883870e) Wendell Pierce, Dominic West, Sonja Sohn, Clarke Peters The Wire - 2002 Hbo/Blown Deadline USA Television Music

It’s not just that “The Wire” is one of the greatest television shows ever made — it’s that right out of the gate, it knew exactly what it was doing and who and what it was about. Opening with McNulty (Dominic West) at a crime scene, asking questions about a dead kid named Snot Boogie, writers David Simon and Ed Burns and director Clark Johnson anchor the show in not just the business of street life, but the human cost. From there, the world of Baltimore, from the terraces to the courthouses to the precinct, grows larger and larger, each new personality adding to the richness of the tapestry. Plus, iconic elements of the show, like McNulty and Bunk (Wendell Pierce) drinking out by the tracks, make an appearance; all of it serving as the perfect introduction to a TV masterpiece.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Television and tagged , , ,


Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox

Newswire