As I am sure you’re all aware, the first episode of any show, otherwise known as the “pilot” episode, can make or break a show. The pilot episode is the episode that draws viewers in. It keeps them coming back for more, and if a show doesn’t have a good pilot, then viewers may not continue to watch that show. I like to compare the pilot episode to the first line of a book. It’s the hook of the series. It establishes what the show is about and what you can expect. If a show has a good pilot, then that show might get more than one season, and well, if it doesn’t have a good pilot or even a semi-decent one, then that show may only run one season. Sometimes production companies, like with movies, do a test run with the pilot to see how viewers react to it and to see if they need to change the pilot. Not all do this, however, and some pilots can be well, not good. Which begs the question. . .
What makes a good pilot?
That’s what we are going to discuss.
These are in no particular order. These are all my personal opinions. I am not claiming to be an expert. It’s based on observations of watching, like, a lot of television.
Let’s get started.
First, a good pilot must establish the world the show lives in. This is especially important for shows that are fantasy based and outside of the modern or the usual world. Shows such as Game of Thrones, The Witcher, The Wheel of Time, Merlin, etc. Those shows must establish their lore early on, even if it’s based on a game or a book, because the viewers may not have read or played the original. Those shows have their own world that they’ve created. They’re not set in mostly our world, such as True Blood, Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, The Magicians, Arrow, The Boys, The Umbrella Academy, etc., which have superhero, magic, or supernatural elements. Yes, they have their own lore and rules regarding vampires, magic, superpowers, etc., but they don’t have as much stuff to reveal in one episode as The Wheel of Time and Game of Thrones. Those shows (True Blood, Arrow, The Magicians, etc.) are like, okay, here’s our world, but it also has *insert magic, vampires, superheroes, etc., here*, and you’ll eventually learn about the rules of the magic, vampires, superheroes, etc. as the show progresses.
A good pilot will reveal enough–just enough, mind you–to get you interested, help you to understand what the hell is going on in the show/world, what have you, but–and this is a big one–but it won’t reveal everything. The viewer doesn’t want to know everything. Some things should be left a mystery. We should be discovering it–whatever it is, whether it’s the big bad or the meaning of the prophecy or whatever–as the characters discover that thing. The pilot shouldn’t be bogged down with information. Viewers don’t want to be so overwhelmed that they end up confused. That’s not how a show keeps viewers.
Second, a good pilot will not only establish the main characters but also let the viewer connect to them. It will allow the viewers to get to know them (the main characters, that is) enough. This can be really difficult. especially in shows like The Wheel of Time, Game of Thrones, The Witcher, etc., where there are a lot of main characters. A lot of characters in general. In shows like Supernatural, Arrow, The Vampire Diaries, etc., the characters are more condensed. (I’ve noticed that the magic numbers when it comes to main characters are two and three. Sam and Dean Winchester, Elena Gilbert and the Salvatores, Oliver, Felicity and Diggle.) Thus it’s easier to establish who they are and why the viewer should care about them. If the viewer doesn’t care about the characters, they won’t finish the show. Characters can make or break a show. (Which is why I haven’t finished The Vampire Diaries yet and stalled in season five because I hate Elena, but that’s another blog post.) So if the characters aren’t well written from the get-go, then the viewers aren’t going to care. Of course, writing consistent characters is another blog for another day. That’s a completely different issue.
Third, a good pilot needs to understand pacing. What do I mean by that? I mean that it can’t be slow as molasses, but it also can’t be so fast that you wonder what they will do with the rest of the season. (Such as the first episode of Batwoman season one, where it ruined who Alice was. The pacing was completely off in that show.) It needs to be just right. If the pilot is too slow, it can be difficult to get through. Such as The Walking Dead. That is a sssssllllooooowwwww pilot. It’s difficult to get through. Once you get past it, then you’re golden. But it’s slow. So is Game of Thrones, Charmed, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Does there need to be a sense of urgency? A bit, yes. The pilot is meant to draw in the viewer. Not make the viewer fall asleep. That’s not to say that viewers don’t get past a sluggish pilot and keep watching the show. They do. But also, the pilot can’t be too fast-paced because it can get muddy, and the viewer could miss important information. There needs to be a happy medium.
Okay, we’ve broken it down. A pilot should do these three things. More or less.
- establish the world
- introduce the main characters
- understand the pacing
What shows meet these criteria? Let’s discuss this. (Also, I should warn you that I am going to spoil all of these shows or at least the pilot, so if you haven’t watched any of them, then stop reading, watch them, and then return.)
Our number one spot is for. . . .Drumroll, please. Supernatural!
Supernatural has one of the best pilots I’ve ever seen. Ever. And this is coming from the girl who watches, like, a lot of television. It establishes the backstories of Sam and Dean within the first five or so minutes, reveals that something strange happened with their mother’s death, shows who the boys are themselves, and even gives us a little bit about the big bad of the season: the Yellow-Eyed Demon. Yet, at no point are you bored or do you feel overwhelmed.
Are we coming into the middle of the Winchesters’ story?
A bit, yes. But it works. And honestly, most stories come into the middle of the story.
We know that after their mother’s deaths, their dad John went off the deep end by hunting monsters and dragged Sam and Dean with him. We know that four years ago, Sam said fuck this life, and went to college and hasn’t seen or heard from his father or brother since then. That’s all established within this first episode, but you don’t feel bogged down by information. you are instantly drawn into this story with these brothers and want to know more.
You learn about Sam and Dean too. How Sam never enjoyed hunting monsters like Dean did. How he’s the studious, smart one, always ready to research. There are major issues between Sam and his father, and his father hasn’t even made an appearance yet. Dean is the loyal one, enjoys hunting monsters, and can’t imagine doing anything else. He’s less serious than Sam and a flirt. You also see Sam and Dean’s relationship, that even though there’s some tension, they still care about each other, and they still work well together.
Also, let me tell you, Supernatural also has one of the best first seasons of any show.
Most of the time, the first season is a bit, well, clunky, to say the least. The show is still trying to figure out what it’s about and establish itself. The first seasons of Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer come to mind. Both are great shows, classics, really, but the first seasons are clumsy. (Also, the CGI is ROUGH, man. Super rough.) Maybe that’s not the right word. Clunky is the best word. The writing is off at times, and the characters are awkward. The writers are still testing the waters of the story they’ve built, figuring it out while the actors try to capture this character that can sometimes be larger than life.
With Supernatural‘s first season, there is none of that. It’s a damn good first season. Which I think is a combination of good writing and great acting. Now, don’t get me wrong, in the later seasons, it does get a bit clunky. Especially seasons like eight and nine. It loses itself for a bit, but it gets back to the heart of the show. But season one? It tells you what the show is about, and it’s about these two brothers, the monsters they kill, and the people they save.
Now on to our next one. The second one is. . . .Orphan Black!
Orphan Black is one of those shows where you think you know what’s going on, but, like, you really don’t. At first, you think it’s about Sarah, a con artist/mom who sees a woman who looks exactly like her jump in front of a train. Sarah takes her identity, thinking hey, this could be a fresh start since I’ve done a lot of illegal shit. You think that’s that. . .
But it’s not.
There is so much more that Orphan Black is about. It’s about clones and science and found family, and it’s like, so much. we recently watched it from the beginning this summer, and we forgot how much shit happens goes on in the first season. We thought that it was more spread out with the drama. Yeah, no, it wasn’t. There is so much that is in only one episode, let alone one season of Orphan Black, but it never seems bogged down. Like you’re being weighed down by all the detail and all the exposition and such. It’s a very fast-paced so, yet it works because it shows how high the stakes are for all the characters.
It’s some damn good writing and some phenomenal acting by one Tatiana Maslany. She plays several different characters, and you sometimes forget that it’s one person. She’s that damn good. But really, all of the actors are good in this.
The first episode makes you want to keep watching. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, and when the credits roll, you rush to get to the next episode because you have to know what happens next. That is what a good pilot is supposed to do.
And since we spoke about Tatiana Maslany, let’s go to our next one. . . .She-Hulk!
I’ll admit that the only reason why I even wanted to watch this show was because of Tatiana Maslany. Had any other actress been playing Jennifer Walters, aka She-Hulk, I wouldn’t have cared. She-Hulk was never a Marvel character that I had any interest in. So thank you, Tatiana Maslany, for this gem. I might be Jennifer Walters in spirit.
The first episode is a bit slow, but I will ignore that. Why? Because all superhero origins are slow. Mostly. It tends to happen. Origins stories are slow. It’s a thing. It always happens. Daredevil doesn’t pick up until the third episode. Same with Arrow, The Flash, etc.
But She-Hulk, this show does a good job of drawing the reader in. It starts off like a typical lawyer thing. Jen is practicing her speech, there’s a paralegal who is her BFF, and then, of course, there’s a misogynistic asshole lawyer that I could do without but whatever. Then as she’s about to leave the office, she’s like, “Oh, yeah, I’m a Hulk, and I know that you won’t be able to watch this awesome lawyer-y stuff until I tell you how that happened. So here’s what happened.”
Now breaking the fourth wall could’ve been totally awkward and not worked at all. That happens. But how this breaking of the fourth wall is delivered is, well, perfect. *chef’s kiss* It works. Jen herself is drawing you in. It’s got the right amount of humor, and honestly, at times, it feels as if the show is making fun of itself, making fun of superheroes, or rather the superhero show genre.
Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk, and her cousin, is all, “You have to be a superhero now,” and Jen is like, “Dude, I have a degree. Also, what has being a superhero ever done for you?”
We have women coming together when they see her in the bathroom, shoeless, dirty, and such after the car wreck that turns her into a Hulk. That was a great and beautiful scene.
We have her telling Bruce that, of course, she’s different. She has to control her anger every day because, as a woman, her anger, and her emotions could get her killed. It’s a beautiful speech, delivered spectacularly.
Jen wants to be normal, and you know what I kind of like is that she’s not that woman who gets powers and is like, “Yes, I must be a superhero.”
A lot of people don’t like it because they think that Jen believes that she’s better than Bruce. I don’t think that’s it. I think that Bruce and Jen are two different people who both created differently to becoming Hulks.
She-Hulk establishes the characters and makes you connect to them. It also is the perfect blend of seriousness with humor.
Our next show does the same, and it’s also a hero show. We have. . . .Hawkeye! (She-Hulk and Hawkeye are really tied on this, just FYI.)
Let me just say, I never thought that I would like Hawkeye. The character, but thank you, Jeremy Renner, I do. Just kudos to you, dude.
Also, if anyone were a disaster superhero, it would be Clint Barton. All he wants is to be with his family for Christmas in New York, but his plans are derailed when his past comes back to haunt him. You know, when he went full vigilante as Ronin and just killed, like, a lot of people during the 5 years after the Snap.
We begin with a baby Kate Bishop. It’s the Chitauri attack, and her dad gets killed. She sees Hawkeye shooting arrows and kicking ass, and thus her obsession with Hawkeye begins. We get to the present time, and Kate, on a dare, shoots a bell in a bell tower. . .and thus, destroys the bell tower that’s like a million dollars. Oops, Mom?
Watch it below. It’s great. I love it. She’s a disaster. I think I’m an even amount of Jennifer Walters and Kate Bishop, just saying.
After being scolded by her mother, Eleanor (of whom I am not a fan) it’s Christmas. Yes, this is a Christmas show, get over it.
Barton sees “Rogers: The Musical” with his kids and clearly is suffering from PTSD from losing Natasha Romanoff still. They end up leaving the show because it’s awful (seriously, check it out below, it’s like a trainwreck you can’t stop looking at) and enjoys the NYC sights during Christmas.
Meanwhile, there’s Kate. Kate’s plans are derailed as well when she finds out her mother is getting remarried, oh and there’s a murder! We’ll get to that later. Her mom is getting married to some person that Kate has never met so Kate is highly sus. (Jack is actually not a bad guy, but we don’t find that out until way later.) Then there’s this other guy, kate follows Armand to an underground auction where stuff like a dinosaur skull and the Ronin suit plus sword are being auctioned off. Armand gets it. Jack pouts.
Then there’s an attack by the Tracksuit Mafia.
Yeah, yeah, I know. I know. Awful name. but whatever. There’s an attack. Kate being well Kate puts on the Ronin suit, not knowing that it is THE Ronin suit, and helps get people to safety. She’s a good girl and wants to help.
Barton and Kate are hilarious together. Jeremy Renner and Hailee Steinfeld have great chemistry.
That’s honestly a key reason why these pilot episodes work so well. If a show doesn’t have chemistry between it’s two leads, then it’s gonna bomb. That’s just a fact. This first episode does a great job of establishing that relationship while also letting it grow throughout the series. It lays out the foundation. It shows that Barton wants to retire while Kate, she wants to be a hero.
Honestly, Hawkeye is probably one of my favorites of the Disney Plus Marvel shows. If you haven’t watched it, then you definitely should. It is so damn good.
Finally, we have BBC’s Sherlock.
I mentioned chemistry. That is a key factor in all of these shows that I’ve mentioned, and that includes Sherlock. I was admittedly wary about this show. Sherlock Holmes has been done so many times. I wasn’t sure how Sherlock Holmes would translate to the 21st century.
Let me say, I was so wrong about this show.
Bringing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson to the 21st century worked spectacularly. It brought a nice, fresh take to the story of the detective and the doctor.
But what really got me for this show was the actors. Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as John Watson. Their chemistry is undeniable. At times, I seriously forgot that I was watching two actors. They bounced off each other so well.
The first episode “A Study in Pink,” is a great introduction to Sherlock and John. If you’ve never read any Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, then BBC’s Sherlock is a great introduction. Most people know who Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson are even if they’ve never read a story. Holmes is one of those characters that is iconic.
Cumberbatch brings Sherlock Holmes to the 21st century. He’s brilliant, a bit more than mad. Arrogant. Yet Cumberbatch humanizes the brilliant detective. Then you have Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson. An army doctor. He comes off as soft, easy-going, but he’s really not. They shouldn’t work together, yet they do. That’s why this works. John’s crazy matches Sherlock’s and it works. They solve crimes together. John blogs about it. He’s like, the good angel on Sherlock’s shoulder, more or less.
Check out their first meeting below.
And that’s it on the best pilot shows. Did I miss any? Are there are any shows you think have great pilots? Do you disagree with any of the ones I’ve listed? Let me know in the comments!