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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

8. “The O.C.”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock (2168813a) Benjamin McKenzie as Ryan, Mischa Barton as Marissa, Adam Brody as Seth and Rachel Bilson as Summer; all seated on couch. The O.C - 2004

California-a-a-a-a-a-a! California-a-a-a-a-a-a! Here we c-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ome! Starting in the dirty streets of Chino before moving to the beautiful seaside of Orange County, Josh Schwartz’s family drama only hinted at the soapy pleasures to come in its inaugural hour, instead choosing to build on authenticity; namely, empathy and interest in an outstanding cast of characters. Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) was introduced as the wrong kid in the wrong time, quickly illustrated his intelligence and kindness, and drew audiences into his seemingly temporary move to the Cohen household. The Cohens were charming (Sandy), clever (Seth), and caring (Kirsten), while the other kids in town were a solid mix of antagonistic (Luke) and corrupt (Marissa). Everyone was a type — a familiar figure in most high schools — but they also broke the mold enough to draw you in; just look at how far Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson) came from Episode 1. When “The O.C.” was at its best, it was about its core characters and how they were changed by their privilege. The pilot laid a perfect base on which to build (and holds up as a heartbreaking short all its own). California, here we come, and we’d like to stay awhile.

7. “Atlanta”

Atlanta Pilot

“Atlanta”

Guy D'Alema/FX

Before Donald Glover’s FX comedy reached the masterful and bizarre heights of episodes like “Teddy Perkins,” it introduced the elements that would become series signatures with the aptly titled “The Big Bang.” Much like its namesake denoting the beginning of the universe, the pilot provides the establishing spark of life for everything to follow: its charming foursome who can’t win for losing, the vibrant and wide-ranging shots of Atlanta and its specific locales, and the wacky-conversational dialogue that is rich with humor and import.

Deceptively simple in structure – the pilot begins with a flashforward that then goes back to trace the events of that day leading up to that point – the episode then introduces that special spark of magical danger that has never left the show. By giving Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) déjà vu to the point where he can predict the future, it questions the inevitability of what happens next (a shooting) and links it with a creepy encounter earlier in the episode. These random but unnerving events may mean everything and nothing. Director Hiro Murai crafts the beautiful but surreal atmosphere that allows for all possibilities – from a black Justin Bieber to an outlandish sibling murder-suicide – in this pitch-black comedy.

6. “24”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1546491a) 24 , Kiefer Sutherland Film and Television

“24”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

“24” was almost too close for comfort when the show debuted in fall 2001. Originally developed and filmed before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, “24” was delayed — and the scene of a plane exploding was edited down — before finally premiering that November. “24” immediately resonated in the wake of 9/11, as viewers found a hero in Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), an agent from the fictional Counter Terrorist Unit who aims to thwart an attempted assassination on presidential candidate David Palmer. Plenty of shows had been developed in the past with an eye toward a real-time format, but creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran cracked it: Every installment over the course of 24 episodes showcased an hour in the life of Jack, as he experienced the toughest day in his life — and it worked. The pilot episode, “12:00 a.m. – 1:00 a.m.” was directed by Stephen Hopkins and set the tone for the show’s nine seasons, such as its unique visual style (including the use of split screens) and the way it stayed true to the real-time format. The “24” pilot also won Surnow and Cochran a Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding drama writing.

5. “Alias”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock (2014101c)Alias: Season 1 - Jennifer Garner'Alias: Season 1' TV Series - 2001

“Alias”

Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock

Beginning with torture and ending in grief, the first hour of “Alias” is non-stop action, double lives, and betrayals. Jennifer Garner as secret agent Sydney Bristow is mesmerizing as the all-American girl with a lethal edge who looks as good in jeans as she does in a day-glo red wig. The show would be nothing without the strength of her performance, and this introduction to Garner (after her rather forgettable roles in “Felicity” and “Time of Your Life”) set her up for stardom more than her big-screen gig in “Daredevil” ever could.

Killer fight scenes, colorful bad guys, high-tech gadgetry, and secret lairs provided all the genre trappings for a good time, but with its first episode “Alias” established the real consequences of the lifestyle, asking viewers to empathize with a woman who seems accessible and yet alien all at once. What makes it work is the big twist in the pilot: she’s being played. Sydney thought that working for SD-6 was just one division of the CIA, but learns that it’s actually an enemy of the CIA. She’s been with the bad guys all along. Becoming a double agent serves at the beginning of this crazy journey. The extra layer of involvement with her father Jack Bristow (played by the excellent Victor Garber) is what gives “Alias” that extra spice. The twists and divided loyalties kept viewers on the edge of uncertainty, but tuning in week to week.

4. “Arrested Development”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by 20th Century Fox Television/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5884241b) Jason Bateman, Will Arnet Arrested Development - 2003 20th Century Fox Television USA Television

“Arrested Development”

20th Century Fox Television/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

“I don’t know what I was expecting.” “I have the worst fucking attorneys.” “…or candy!” To have jokes that eminently quotable at any point in a show’s run is a achievement all its own. The idea that all of those (not to mention Tobias’ “Annie Get Your Gun” audition song) happen within the first 22 minutes of the series is kind of incredible. Every facet of the Bluth family is meticulously laid out. In just a few minutes on the party boat, you know everyone’s major foibles and how they all feed off of each other’s anxieties. It sets up a distinctive joke style, with some gags that would pay off entire seasons down the line. And it serves as the first main TV pilot gig for a pair of filmmaking brothers who went on to make a couple movies you might have heard of.

3. “Breaking Bad

Image of Breaking Bad by artists at Upfest, Europe's largest street art festival held annually in Bedminster, BristolUpfest street art festival, Bristol, UK - 30 Jul 2017The festival officially runs from 29 - 31 July with over 350 artists live painting in 37 locations.

Image of Breaking Bad by artists at Upfest

Simon Chapman/LNP/REX/Shutterstock

It all started with an idea by Vince Gilligan (who wrote and directed the pilot): What if you chronicled the transformation of “Mr. Chips into Scarface”? The “Breaking Bad” pilot covers a lot of ground, setting the stage for even bigger events to come. Bryan Cranston — mostly known at the time for his role as the dad on “Malcolm in the Middle” — is introduced as a bit of a pathetic character, a teacher who has to work a second job at a car wash for money. Walter White is celebrating his 50th birthday, but soon learns he has cancer — and a few years left to live. With little to lose and a desire to help his family, Walt blackmails his former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) into cooking and selling meth. Almost immediately, the two run into trouble with a drug distributor — but cheat death. It’s just the beginning, but viewers knew from there, they’d be in for the ride of Walt’s life.

2. “Homeland

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Teakwood Lane Prods./Cherry Pie Prods./Keshet/Showtime/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5885016f)Damian Lewis, Claire Danes, Mandy PatinkinHomeland - 2011Teakwood Lane Productions/Cherry Pie Productions/Keshet/Fox 21/ShowtimeUSATV PortraitTv Classics

“Homeland” grabs viewers from the very start and never lets go. The pilot, an adaptation of the Israeli series “Prisoners of War,” sets up its simple premise in commendable fashion: A CIA expert gets a tip from a trustworthy source that an American POW had been turned, and when a presumed dead prisoner returns home, she tries to prove he’s the al-Qaeda spy she was warned about. Whether Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) has switched sides isn’t proven in the first episode, but there’s clearly something more to the man than meets the eye. Meanwhile, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) isn’t the most principled source. She often crosses lines to get the job done, and her desperation (mixed with her drinking) doesn’t make her a reliable narrator. The audience is asked to choose who to believe, and with stakes as high as national security, the Michael Cuestas-directed drama makes for quite the addictive debut.

1. “Lost

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Touchstone/ABC/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5886300af)Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, Josh Holloway, Dominic MonaghanLost - 2004-2010Touchstone / ABCUSATelevision

“Lost”

Touchstone/ABC/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

It all started with a germ of an idea by them-ABC Entertainment chairman Lloyd Braun, inspired by the success of reality show “Survivor” and the film “Cast Away.” But after a disappointing series of drafts from original writer Jeffrey Lieber, J.J. Abrams was brought in to reimagine what would become “Lost.” Written with Damon Lindelof, the new “Lost” was big: At more than $10 million, one of the most expensive pilots (up to that point) ever. And it was also exciting: The harrowing depiction of a plane crash, the disorienting scenes of the aftermath on a deserted tropical island, and the mysterious monster that quickly kills the plane’s pilot. Viewers meet all of the show’s key initial players, including Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Sawyer (Josh Holloway), Sayid (Naveen Andrews), Charlie (Dominic Monaghan), Michael (Harold Perrineau), Hurley (Jorge Garcia), Claire (Emile de Ravin), Jin (Daniel Dae Kim), Sun (Yunjn Kim), Boone (Ian Somerhalder), Shannon (Maggie Grace) and Walt (Malcolm David Kelley). Some of the show’s early mysteries (the polar bear!) are also revealed, and a signature device — the “Lost” flashbacks — allow for additional narrative off of the island. Like the eventual series, it was ambitious, huge and sometimes sloppy. “Guys, where are we?” Charlie asks. From that very first episode, viewers couldn’t wait to find out. Abrams won an Emmy for directing the pilot, and the series won the Emmy for outstanding drama series in its first year.

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