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”
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.