The 15 Best TV Pilots of All Time

Keith Carradine and Timothy Olyphant in the pilot episode of Deadwood.
Keith Carradine and Timothy Olyphant in the pilot episode of Deadwood.
HBO

Even great TV series don’t always start out that way. Sometimes a show needs several episodes, or even a couple of seasons, to really find its feet. There’s no shame in that, but it also means the shows that do nail their tonal and thematic intentions from the very first episode are rare creatures worthy of celebration. In that spirit, here are 15 of the greatest pilot episodes in television history.

1. The Sopranos // “Pilot” a.k.a. “The Sopranos”

It all starts with a mobster waiting for his psychiatrist appointment. The initial, seemingly mismatched pairing of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) was enough to hook plenty of people when The Sopranos first arrived in 1999, so much so that creator David Chase thought he’d at least get a decent TV movie out of the script even if he couldn’t make it to series. That pairing then grew into the spark that lit one of the most revolutionary pieces of television ever made, every episode of it crackling with violence and humor and psychological depth. The Sopranos is quite possibly the greatest television series ever made, and its first episode still reveals that it was great from the beginning.

2. Twin Peaks // “Pilot” a.k.a. “Northwest Passage”

“She’s dead; wrapped in plastic” remains one of the most iconic lines in television history, in part because it’s one of the strangest ways to phrase a phone call in which you inform someone that you’ve just found a body. So began the central mystery of Twin Peaks, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s strange, satirical TV mystery that merged mystery, soap opera, and pure Lynchian weirdness into something unlike anything else ever seen on television before or since.

3. Deadwood // “Deadwood”

The Western was once an essential piece of scripted television programming, but when creator David Milch decided to bring his own version of Western storytelling to HBO with Deadwood, what we got was far removed from Gunsmoke. To understand that Deadwood was different, all you had to do was hear any character at all speak—and not just because they were cursing up a storm. There was a musicality and depth to Milch’s scripting that became the show’s trademark, and the excitement over the upcoming Deadwood movie, which premieres on HBO on May 31, should tell you all you need to know about the legacy this show has left.

4. Cheers // “Give Me a Ring Sometime”

The mission statement of the titular bar in Cheers is right there in the theme song: It’s a haven, a refuge, and a place of comfort. It’s therefore quite brilliant, all these years later, that the show’s very first episode is the chronicle of how a stranger—namely Diane (Shelley Long)—is initiated into this group of misfits who are always glad you came. Structurally, the pilot works because it allows an audience identification character to be introduced to the show’s cast and home set. Emotionally, it works because it allows Diane, and by extension us, to find friends we want to see again and again.

5. Hannibal // “Apéritif”

Mads Mikkelsen in HannibalNBCUniversal Media, LLC

There were five feature films adapted from Thomas Harris’s four Hannibal Lecter novels by the time creator Bryan Fuller brought his version of Hannibal the Cannibal to the small screen, which of course led many to people to wonder why on Earth we needed yet another version. “Apéritif” quickly and elegantly reveals that Hannibal is unlike any other Harris adaptation we’ve seen. Rich with metaphor and elevated by brilliant performances from Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen as the title character, Hannibal was an underwatched work of TV genius from its very first hour.

6. Lost // “Pilot, Parts 1 and 2”

It’s been nearly a decade since Lost went off the air with a series finale that still prompts debate from fans, but if we must continue to argue that the show didn’t satisfyingly conclude its mystery-laden run, at least we don’t have to argue that it failed to start with a bang. The two-part pilot of Lost, which introduced the show’s trademark use of flashbacks to explore its characters, is a thrilling piece of controlled chaos, introducing mystery after mystery (that polar bear!) and revealing almost immediately that a phenomenon was lying in wait to ensnare us.

7. The West Wing // “Pilot”

In some ways, the first episode of The West Wing is all a witty, engaging build-up to one legendary moment: When President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) finally emerges after riding his bicycle into a tree, just so he can smack down some powerful Christian leaders who’ve been troubling his staff all day. In other ways, even without the president’s appearance to cap it off, The West Wing's pilot is a near-flawless chronicle of the power behind the throne, and of brilliant people just trying to do their best in an imperfect system. Either way you look at it, it’s an unforgettable start.

8. Arrested Development // “Pilot”

So many sitcoms take at least a season, if not more, to fully take shape as what they’re going to be, as many fans of The Office and Parks and Recreation might attest. The concept is there, but the complete picture is not. Arrested Development is not one of those shows. With just a few chaotic minutes onboard a yacht in the middle of an SEC raid, creator Mitch Hurwitz revealed to us one of the most hilariously dysfunctional TV families ever, and the show never looked back.

9. Battlestar Galactica // “Battlestar Galactica”

Technically, Battlestar Galactica didn’t really get a pilot. Instead it got a miniseries chronicling the destruction of the Twelve Colonies via a surprise Cylon attack helped along, in part, by Cylon sleeper agents who look like humans. The revitalization of Battlestar Galactica wasn’t necessarily something fans of the original series were looking forward to, but this new vision of the world was so ambitious, and so immediately emotionally devastating, that the show went on to become one of the most acclaimed TV works of the 2000s.

10. Saturday Night Live // “George Carlin/Billy Preston & Janis Ian”

By its very nature, Saturday Night Live is a show that constantly evolves, and it’s been that way ever since the start of its 40-plus year run. In 1975, creator Lorne Michaels and his Not Ready for Prime Time Players could not have known they were beginning something legendary, but with a comedic superstar as host and a cast of future stars, what was then known as NBC’s Saturday Night came out swinging, and so began the run of one of television’s greatest survivors.

11. 30 Rock // “Pilot”

Like Arrested Development before it, 30 Rock came out of the gate as a show that already knew exactly what it was and what it needed to do to achieve maximum effectiveness. Tina Fey’s pilot, in which Liz Lemon (Fey) learns the show she runs is about to be invaded by an out-of-control star (Tracy Morgan), showcased the trademark joke-a-second delivery style the series would become famous for, and also never managed to sacrifice quality for quantity. It’s a masterclass in how to start a show with a very specific tone.

12. Futurama // “Space Pilot 3000”

Matt Groening created The Simpsons, the most successful animated series of all time. Even in 1999, when Futurama premiered, it was hard to imagine lightning like that would strike twice, but somehow Groening and co-developer David X. Cohen pulled it off. Futurama—the story of a delivery man named Fry (Billy West) who emerges 1000 years into his own future after being cryogenically frozen by accident—debuted as a sharp, audacious, and immediately inventive satire that managed to both call The Simpsons to mind and somehow avoid copying its own satirical instincts. “Space Pilot 3000” was an instant classic.

13. The Wire // “The Target”

Forget the best pilot episodes for a second and just think about the best opening scenes in the history of television, and The Wire might emerge right at the top of the list. One simple conversation between Detective McNulty (Dominic West) and a witness to a murder while cops process the crime scene in front of them managed to encapsulate much of what made the show great: Understated acting, brilliant dialogue, unpretentious realism, and thematic weight hanging from every word. The rest of the pilot somehow only managed to get better from there, and a TV legend was born.

14. How I Met Your Mother // “Pilot”

How I Met Your Mother is, like Lost, a show with an ending that still divides fans, in part because it seemed to overshadow the entire mission statement of the show as laid out in the pilot. Taken on its own as an introduction to a series about friendship and what Ted Mosby’s friends later term “emotional endurance,” though, How I Met Your Mother's pilot is a beautifully assembled piece of television, telling the story of Ted (Josh Radnor) and Robin’s (Cobie Smulders) magical first hours together, and then totally subverting them by the end.

15. Freaks and Geeks // “Pilot”

Few television series ever, let alone sitcoms, have ever managed to pull off a delicate tonal balance in quite the way that Freaks and Geeks did even in its very first episode. The pilot is a meditation on fitting in, bullying, parental pressure, young love, what it means to be “cool,” and the often vast disparities between different kinds of teenagers—and it manages to get each of those things right all at once. It’s the announcement of one of the greatest cult shows ever made, and its 1980s setting proves again and again that its stories remain timeless.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40) 

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- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75) 

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $88 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

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- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $13 (save $14)

HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- Fairywill Electric Toothbrush with Four Brush Heads; $19 (save $9)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

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- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31) 

TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Home Office Shredder; $33 (save $7)

Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30) 

Video games

Sony

- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Minecraft Dungeons Hero Edition for Nintendo Switch; $20 (save $10)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

The Sims 4; $20 (save $20)

God of War for PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

Days Gone for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

- Apple MacBook Air 13 inches with 256 GB; $899 (save $100)

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- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

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Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $379 (save $20)

- Apple iMac 27 inches with 256 GB; $1649 (save $150)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $179 (save $20) 

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

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Canon EOS M50 Mirrorless Camera with EF-M 15-45mm Lens; $549 (save $100)

DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

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25 Excellent Facts About Keanu Reeves

Jason Merritt, Getty Images
Jason Merritt, Getty Images

Keanu Reeves has been a Hollywood fixture since the mid-1980s, shifting from early dramatic turns in films like River’s Edge (1986) to action thrillers like Speed (1994), The Matrix (1999), and John Wick (2014) and an indelible performance as Theodore “Ted” Logan in the Bill & Ted franchise.

For more on the actor, including why he believed he was sent to “movie jail” for a decade, read on.

1. Despite—or perhaps because of—his multicultural background, Keanu Reeves has never become an American citizen.

Sebastian Willnow, AFP/Getty Images

Born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1964, Reeves moved to Sydney, Australia and then New York City and (eventually) Toronto, following his mother Patricia’s wedding to her second husband. Born of Chinese, English, Irish, Native Hawaiian, and Portuguese descent, Reeves maintained a connection to the Canadian city where he spent the most time as a child before obtaining a green card through his American stepfather. To this day, and despite his success in America, Reeves maintains his Canadian citizenship.

2. Hockey kept Keanu Reeves busy as a kid.

In Toronto, Reeves became swept up in the appeal of ice hockey. He played throughout school and even co-coached a hockey club. While there, Reeves had an opportunity to try out for the Windsor Spitfires, a hockey team in the Ontario Hockey League. Reeves turned it down, believing his future was in performing. Later, he would portray a hockey pro alongside Patrick Swayze and Rob Lowe in 1986’s Youngblood.

3. When Keanu Reeves was a kid, Alice Cooper used to hang out at his house.

Reeves’s mother was a costume designer, which likely contributed to his interest in the performing arts. He told Us magazine in 1995 that she made him some elaborate Halloween costumes—Dracula, Batman, Cousin Itt—and often had some of her clients over to the house. Among them: Alice Cooper. “I remember he brought fake vomit and dog poo to terrorize the housekeeper,” Reeves said. “He’d hang out, a regular dude.”

4. One of Keanu Reeves’s earliest roles was in a Coca-Cola commercial.

After getting parts on stage and Canadian television, Reeves landed a part as a cyclist in a Coke commercial in the 1980s. In 2018, The Late Late Show host James Corden asked the actor about the gig; Reeves remembered shooting over a three-day period, during which he drank “so many Coca-Colas.” In full commitment to the role, he also shaved his legs to look more believable as a cyclist.

5. Keanu Reeves almost renamed himself “Chuck Spadina.”

When Reeves came out to Los Angeles in the 1980s, he found that some casting agents were resistant to having him come in for auditions because his first name (which means “cool breeze over the mountains”) was hard to pronounce and seemingly too exotic. In order to combat this hurdle, Reeves began using “K.C. Reeves,” “Chuck Spadina,” and “Page Templeton III” instead. Reeves eventually abandoned the practice because he would go to auditions and tell them his real name anyway.

6. Keanu Reeves has a deep love for motorcycles.

Caroline Bonarde Ucci, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Reeves first learned to ride a motorcycle while shooting a film in Germany, and purchased one for himself the moment he returned to the U.S. His favorite bike is the 1973 Norton Commando. He also bankrolled a custom motorcycle dealership, Arch Motorcycle Company.

7. Keanu Reeves also has an extensive history of motorcycle-related injuries.

If Reeves doesn’t ride his bike as fast (or often) as he used to, it’s because he’s been in a number of serious accidents while riding them. He has lost teeth, broken his ankle, gotten road rash, and ruptured his spleen, amongst other injuries.

8. In addition to his performances in River’s Edge, Dangerous Liaisons, and Parenthood, Keanu Reeves moonlighted in a music video.

In the same year Reeves appeared in Lawrence Kasdan’s I Love You to Death, he also appeared in the music video for Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush,” the lead single from her sophomore album of the same name. Directed by Stefan Wurnitzer, the clip recreates moments from Rebel Without a Cause using locations from the original film, with Reeves playing the James Dean role opposite Abdul as Natalie Wood’s.

9. Keanu Reeves has been willing to defer his salary to get other actors in his movies.

Reeves has worked with an impressive list of actors in his career, including Al Pacino (1997’s The Devil’s Advocate), Gene Hackman (2000’s The Replacements), and Jack Nicholson (2003’s Something’s Gotta Give). In at least the first two instances, Reeves willingly deferred his compensation in order for the productions to free up some of their budget to be able to afford the actors.

"Is that all I have to do?" he recalled asking producers. "Sure! What else do I have to do? ‘Cause I’ll do it!"

10. Keanu Reeves’s commercial success has resulted in him subsidizing more than just a few high-profile casting choices.

Beyond deferring paychecks to work alongside the likes of Pacino and Nicholson, Reeves has earned more than enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life with a net worth reportedly along the lines of $360 million. But he gave away a portion of his salary for The Matrix sequels to provide more money for the visual effects and costume departments. And as a reward for those same stunt teams, Reeves recognized their great work by gifting them with Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

11. Keanu Reeves’s friendship with River Phoenix led to them co-starring in My Own Private Idaho.

Reeves and River Phoenix first became best friends on the set of I Love You to Death. Writer-director Gus Van Sant had written the script for My Own Private Idaho decades earlier, but continually found difficulty obtaining funding for it. However, after sending the script to Reeves, the young actor was so struck by it that he drove more than 1000 miles on his motorcycle to hand-deliver a copy to Phoenix. The two men agreed to star in the film on each other’s behalf, and history was made.

12. Keanu Reeves has been injured or sidelined by illness multiple times during shooting.

Reeves is known to be a trouper when it comes to shooting through pain, disability, and sickness, and his dedication to his colleagues is legendary. Several of his co-stars on The Matrix were injured during the wire work sequences on the film, and Reeves dealt with a spinal injury during filming when two of the discs in his back began to fuse together. He also suffered a neck injury which required fight coordinator Yuen Woo-Ping to create sequences that didn’t involve as much kicking. Later, he fought through an ankle injury before filming even began on The Matrix Reloaded. And during an extended sequence in the first John Wick movie, a scene in which Reeves's character battles several dozen adversaries in a nightclub, he finished his work despite a 103 degree fever.

13. Keanu Reeves says turning down Speed 2 put him in “movie jail” for 10 years.

After the success of 1994’s Speed, where Reeves portrayed a cop trying to save the lives of people trapped on a bus rigged to explode if it dips below 50 miles an hour, the studio was understandably eager for a sequel. At the time he was shown the script, Reeves was shooting the 1996 action film Chain Reaction and was growing wary of roles where he was “running and jumping” for little to no reason. He turned Speed 2 down, a move that he believed led to a decade of “movie jail” where he was offered no other roles by Fox. Ultimately, the sequel was made; Reeves was replaced by Jason Patric, who co-starred with Sandra Bullock in 1997’s Speed 2: Cruise Control. The film was not well-received, and Reeves appears to have no regrets about saying no to it. At the time he turned it down, he recalled telling director Jan de Bont, “You know, boats aren’t that fast.”

14. Keanu Reeves only became a part of Keanu at the last minute.

John Wick and the 2014 action-comedy Keanu were developed independently from one another, and early reporting about the latter film indicated it was a parody of the former. Consequently, Reeves’s management turned down an offer to appear in the second film without notifying their client. But when Reeves saw the initial trailers for Keanu, he reached out to filmmaker Peter Atencio and got involved, leading to the cameo in which he provides the voice of the eponymous kitten.

15. It’s possible that Keanu Reeves accidentally married Winona Ryder.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

While shooting 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Reeves and Winona Ryder—who played Jonathan and Mina Harker, respectively—appear in a scene in which their characters get married. Ryder later pointed out that director Francis Ford Coppola used a real priest in the scene and that both actors said their vows, meaning they might actually be married. Coppola agreed with this theory, although it’s not known whether the priest used their character names or the actors' real names during shooting.

16. Without Keanu Reeves, Weezer might not exist.

Reeves began the music project Dogstar after a chance encounter at a grocery store with drummer/ percussionist Robert Mailhouse in 1991. The band’s success was decidedly muted at best, but Reeves’s celebrity drove fans to the band and they toured successfully for several years in addition to recording several albums. Among the bands that performed with them on tour was Weezer, who played their first ever gig in 1992 as an opener for Dogstar.

17. Keanu Reeves has been booed offstage.

Reeves infamously toured with his band, Dogstar, in the 1990s, which played what he once described as “like, folk music,” or “folk thrash.” When they were invited to play Metalfest in Milwaukee, the band stood out in sharp contrast to the heavier acts on the bill. Reeves recalled that the crowd “threw beer at us and told us to f*** off and yelled, ‘You suck!’ It was beautiful. It made me laugh.”

18. Keanu Reeves was tricked into appearing in The Watcher.

Keanu Reeves in 2008.Mike Flokis, Getty Images

In 2000’s The Watcher, Reeves plays against his typical onscreen affability as a serial killer in a cat-and-mouse game with a detective (James Spader). According to Reeves, he was actually tricked into appearing in the film when a (presumably former) friend forged his signature on the contract. Daunted by the prospect of trying to prove it was a forgery, he decided to go ahead and do the movie. “I couldn’t prove he did and I didn’t want to get sued, so I had no other choice but to do the film,” he said.

19. Keanu Reeves supports several charitable causes.

After his sister was diagnosed with leukemia, Reeves founded a private cancer foundation—not in his own name—to provide research and assist children’s hospitals. He additionally supported Stand Up to Cancer and SickKids Foundations with generous contributions, to facilitate pediatric research.

20. Keanu Reeves has a recurring role on a tv show you've probably never heard of.

It’s not unusual for film actors to take roles in one of the many prestige television series airing on streaming and premium networks. Reeves, however, seems to have taken a low-key approach to television, opting for a small recurring role in Swedish Dicks, a U.S. and Scandinavian co-production about two private detectives from Sweden trying to earn a living in Los Angeles. Reeves’s friend, actor Peter Stormare, is one of the stars. The comedy airs on the Pop TV channel in the U.S.

21. Keanu Reeves has published books of his own poetry.

In 2011, Reeves collaborated with artist Alexandra Grant for Ode to Happiness, a limited-run book featuring a poem written by Reeves and accompanied by Grant’s illustrations for each line. The composition (“I draw a hot sorrow bath”) is self-aware in its overwrought approach that Grant likened to a “grown-up children’s book.” The two have since gone on to work on 2016’s Shadows, a similar poem and art project featuring photos of Reeves, and are now pursuing their own publishing imprint, X Artists’ Books, to showcase titles with a visual aesthetic that are sold via art stores or an online subscription.

22. Keanu Reeves has always actively participated in the physical preparation required for his roles.

Gearing up for Point Break, Reeves spent weeks and weeks learning how to surf, and developed the sport as a hobby. When Reeves was cast in Speed, the actor spent several months gaining muscle for the role. By the time it came to shoot the scene in which his character Jack Traven jumps from a moving car onto the bus, Jan De Bont was convinced that a stunt man would be required, but Reeves has practiced in private and was able to wow the director with his preparation and skill in pulling off the stunt. And just for the scene where Neo emerges from his pod inside The Matrix, Reeves shaved his entire body and lost 15 pounds for what amounted to just a few short minutes of screen time.

23. Keanu Reeves’s passion for—and recognition of—other storytellers’ passion—has led to many of his iconic roles.

Pop TV

As described above multiple times, Keanu took a part or played a role because of an actor ot storyteller’s dedication to a project. Always Be My Maybe was no exception. Casting him in the film was considered a “pipe dream” by director Nahnatchka Khan, but the actor was a longtime fan of comedian and star Ali Wong, so when the opportunity arose, he reworked his schedule to accommodate the film. He even ended up contributing a handful of ideas that expanded his character (at his own expense), like wearing glasses that had no lenses.

24. The John Wick franchise might not exist without The Matrix.

Niko Tavernise, Lionsgate

Reeves signed to star in the film, originally titled Scorn, after Thunder Road Pictures acquired Derek Kolstad’s script. He subsequently reached out to Chad Stahelski and David Leitch to see if they were interested in choreographing or directing the action of the film, after Stahelski performed as Reeves’s stunt double in The Matrix, and he and Leitch later helped choreograph action in the sequels. It was their vision for the film that inspired Reeves to back them not just as stunt coordinators but co-directors for the film.

25. Without John Wick, there might not have been a Bill & Ted Face the Music.

Reeves hadn’t seriously thought about reprising the role of Theodore “Ted” Logan until 2005 when a red carper reporter asked him about returning to the character. It took another five years before Alex Winter had created an idea that everyone felt was substantial or worthy enough to explore for another film. The project spent another several years languishing in development thanks to the commercial prospects of the stars, but the success of John Wick rekindled studio interest in making a third film. That franchise’s success generated heat for all of the films he was attached to, and Bill & Ted 3 picked up steam from there.