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The 50 Best TV Pilots of the 21st Century

First episodes are notoriously tough to pull off, but all of these shows started strong.
Best TV Pilots List
By  · Published on July 31st, 2018

30. Arrested Development (2003)

Arrested Development

Everything that made Arrested Development a comedic gem is right there in the pilot. The zany series, which follows the riches-to-rags exploits of the Bluth family of developers, is overflowing with in-jokes, wordplay, and outrageous characters. In this first half-hour, we get the inception of George Michael’s (Michael Cera) crush on his cousin Maeby (Alia Shawkat), Buster’s (Tony Hale) ocean-based anxiety, Tobias’ (David Cross) acting bug and continual run-ins with the LGBT community, and about a dozen other moments that will be featured in later episode callbacks. Standout lines include, “Look what the homosexuals have done to me!” and, “What have we always said was the most important thing? “Breakfast!” “Family.”

29. Heroes (2006)


Before it collapsed into an overwrought mess, Heroes was a phenomenon, a modern feat of serialized storytelling. In “Genesis,” regular people all around the world are discovering their superpowers on the day of a solar eclipse. Some of these powers are joyful, like comic book geek Hiro’s (Masi Oka) ability to bend space and time, or cheerleader Claire’s (Hayden Panetierre) invulnerability. Some powers are dangerous, like cam girl Niki’s (Ali Larter) violent alter ego or heroin addict Isaac’s (Santiago Cabrera) haunting future sight. All of these discoveries, though, are shot through with a sense of importance and the promise of large-scale adventure as described by the narrator, who memorably expounds on fate and metaphysics. Heroes was able to immediately set itself apart from other superhero stories thanks to a global perspective and comic book-style format, and its pilot still holds up today for those same reasons.

28. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017)

Marvelous Mrs Maisel

This year’s Emmy darling deserves the hype. Amy Sherman-Palladino’s latest follows a spunky Jewish housewife in the 1950s as she finds herself performing stand-up comedy in New York City. The pilot does an excellent job constructing and then deconstructing Midge’s (Rachel  Brosnahan) perfect cookie-cutter life, which includes taking her own measurements every day and managing her husband’s amateur comedy hobby. Midge is authentic to a fault, able to bare her soul at the drop of a hat, which makes her a natural when a series of upheavals in her personal life finally leads her to the stage. Sherman-Palladino directs the pilot with clear affection for her lead character and actress, and every moment shines.

27. Battlestar Galactica (2003)

Battlestar Galactica

This continuation of the franchise which began in 1978 has a leg up on the competition thanks to a pilot episode that was actually a three-hour miniseries. Battlestar Galactica’s opening hours are on all levels a feature-length space epic, laying more than enough apocalyptic groundwork for the series that followed. The pilot starts off with a bang when Number Six (Tricia Helfer), a member of the long-absent robotic Cylon race, waltzes into an armistice meeting and declares war on humankind. What follows is a sweeping portrait of wartime told via the perspectives of several key characters, including a newly sworn-in president (Mary McDonnell, whose character was 43rd in the line of succession before doomsday happened) and an old-school commander (Edward James Olmos). The miniseries hits many of the same exhilarating and emotional beats that recent Star Wars films covered, and that’s a good thing.

26. Sherlock (2010)

Study In Pink

The dude’s insufferable. This is something we should have known about Sherlock Holmes already, but until Steven Moffat’s modern take on the Arthur Conan Doyle series, the detective’s insufferability always played second fiddle to his genius. Not this time: Benedict Cumberbatch goes all in as the sleuth, and makes him a sort of intimidating know-it-all who is dangerously obsessed with solving every puzzle. In a remarkable bit of casting, Martin Freeman is the Watson to his Sherlock, and the two have palpable working chemistry that makes the ambitious premise soar. “A Study in Pink” isn’t anywhere near the best Sherlock adaptation, but the winding, detailed mystery at its center proves that the unorthodox genius’s stories can be translated to a modern audience without losing any of their complexity.

25. Fleabag (2016)

Fleabag best tv pilots

For American audiences, Phoebe Waller-Bridge seemed to come out of nowhere to stun us with Fleabag. As creator, writer, and lead actor, her voice is present in every scene of the show, and it’s a voice unlike any we’ve heard before. Fleabag is raunchy, emotionally raw, and unapologetic from its opening sequence–a screamingly funny meditation on the lead character’s recent anal sex experience–to its final one, during which she reveals that her best friend recently committed suicide. Fleabag is often praised for its outrageousness, but I think that’s a misunderstanding. The show works because it’s titular character isn’t actually larger-than-life at all, but instead often uncomfortably relatable.

24. Queen Sugar (2016)

Queen Sugar best tv pilots

Few moments in life feel more melancholy than being called home to care for an ailing relative, a moment Queen Sugar captures beautifully. Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of the book of the same name begins with the sudden hospitalization of the Bordelon family’s patriarch, a development that forces three adult siblings to return home to rural Louisiana to decide the fate of their family’s sugarcane farm. The pilot sets up a few important storylines, including single dad Ralph Angel’s (Kofi Siriboe) financial troubles and the sexual assault scandal that rocks wealthy basketball wife Charley’s (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) life. The pilot’s authentic family dynamics are already well-developed but it’s that lovely, gloomy southern mood that stands out most of all.

23. The Knick (2014)

The Knick best tv pilots

No first scene of a series has felt more like a warning than the one that opens this pilot. ‘Leave while you can,’ it seems to be saying. ‘This is not for the faint of heart.’ The deeply fascinating yet short-lived series directed by Steven Soderbergh begins with an extended sequence during which a pregnant patient dies gruesomely on the operating table. Then a presumed main character kills himself. And that’s just the first few minutes. Set near the turn of the 20th century at a New York hospital, the bracing medical drama makes the ugly and out-of-date healthcare practices of the 1900s look darkly gorgeous thanks to Soderbergh’s eye for visuals. Clive Owen and Andre Holland lead an excellent cast.

22. The Americans (2013)

Americans best tv pilots

The pilot of The Americans is one of the show’s best episodes; it sets up problems that will develop over the next six seasons and introduces us to the rarely-seen lives of deeply undercover foreign agents. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) are Soviet spies posing as a happy American family during the Reagan era. They have two kids, a travel agency, and in the pilot, a body melting in acid in their garage. It’s the American dream! This episode unpacks a lot of mythology, including scenes of the couple’s first meetings (their marriage was arranged by the KGB) and introductions to two pivotal characters who are involved with the FBI. It also boldly manages to add in a rape-revenge plot that feels neither exploitative nor rushed.

21. Justified (2010)

Justified best tv pilots

If you want to fashion your masculine identity on an American cool guy, skip the old Westerns and watch the ever-underrated Elmore Leonard-inspired series Justified instead. Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is a character built for hero-worshipping, an elevated, modern-day cowboy type complete with smooth one-liners and an itchy trigger finger. At the series’ start, he’s living in Florida, but after shooting one too many criminals (“It was justified,” he says) he’s transferred back to his home county of Harlan, Kentucky, a place with bad memories that he’s eager to leave behind. Raylan’s easy swagger and quick wit helps him best most of the racist and ignorant small-time criminals he encounters, but when he runs into his ex-wife, a recent widow with a crush on him, and his old friend Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins, whose character became a neo-Nazi in the interim) leaving Harlan gets tricky.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)