Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Best TV Pilots

Now that the summer TV doldrums are upon us and there is almost nothing to watch (with the exception of Torchwood: Miracle Day, which premieres this weekend, and True Blood, which I only watch because there is nothing else on), I've started looking forward to fall pilot season. There are many shows that I'm excited about, and I'm hoping that their pilots live up to my expectations. Of course, a good pilot doesn't necessarily lead to a great show; shoe of my favorite shows, like Community and The Vampire Diaries had less than impressive pilot episodes that they managed to improve upon, while some shows with great pilots didn't manage to live up to their potential. The following pilot episodes, however, are outstanding examples of a very tricky art form, whether or not the series that followed were ultimately successful.

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Arrested Development

The pilot of Arrested Development is no more exceptional than any other episode of the show. Like the finale, it is simply a perfect encapsulation of the Bluth family, their problems and the rapid-fire humor that makes the show so eminently re-watchable. From George-Michael kissing Maebe to Tobias deciding to be an actor to GOB attempted to hide his father in a magic trick (or "illusion"), the pilot episode introduced each character and their many, many issues with pointed comedy and a few moments of genuine emotion. But mostly comedy.

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Twin Peaks

There are a lot of things I don't like about David Lynch. His Eraserhead is the only movie I have ever walked out of, and I don't like the purposeful confusion that permeates so many of his projects. However, if there is one thing the man can do, it is create a mood. The feature-length pilot for Twin Peaks is an eerie, ominous piece of filmmaking that creates a sense of dread even before the body of homecoming queen Laura Palmer is found, wrapped in plastic on the beach. Lynch is a master at showing the darkness that permeates even the most seemingly innocent locales, and his Twin Peaks is no different. The show may have run off the rails shortly thereafter (backwards-talking midgets! demonic possession!), but for the duration of the two-hour pilot the mood is one of unsettling, quiet dread that gets under your skin and won't let go.

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Glee is another show that began to decline in quality very early, and fell more precipitously than Twin Peaks ever did. For those of us who are still watching, it is becoming increasingly hard to remember how clever, heartfelt, and just plain fun the pilot episode was. The first hour of Glee had likeable characters who actually behaved consistently - probably because it was just one episode, but still - fun musical numbers that were marginally related to the plot, and just enough cutting humor to balance the show's tendency towards treacle. It was an almost perfect episode of television, capped off by a joyful rendition of "Don't Stop Believin'" that had fans humming along all summer.

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I, along with many other people, have my problems with the way that Lost ended, but I don't think anyone could quibble with the way it started. The big-budget, effects-laden pilot episode was thrilling, compelling, and confusing, qualities it shared with all the best episodes of the series. The introduction of mysteries like the Monster combined with shocking moments (like a person getting sucked into a still-spinning plane engine) to create an unforgettable hour of television. The pilot also marked the last time in the entire series when Jack Shepherd was actually likeable, rather than just annoyingly angsty. Now, if only J.J. Abrams hadn't had his original plan quashed by the network, and had killed off Jack at the end of the pilot.

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 The Walking Dead

After drinking in the Lost pilot, I was convinced that I would never again see a pilot that was as viscerally arresting, or one that could possbly hook me as quickly. Then I saw the two-hour premier of The Walking Dead. I watched the episode on a 13-inch laptop screen in my room with all the lights on and my boyfriend sitting next to me, and I almost cried from fear. The pilot played less like an episode of a show than like a full-length zombie movie - which, at two hours, is what it was - and I would definitely rank it very high on my list of all-time best zombie films. The pilot combined absolute terror with an elegaic quality in a way that managed to mourn the near-extinction of humanity while still keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat. The first season of the show may not have lived up to the potential in the pilot, but that doesn't change the fact that the pilot was gory, disgusting, frightening and heartbreaking all at the same time. It doesn't get any better than that.

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