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10 greatest TV pilots of all time, ranked

Milly Alcock as as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in "House of the Dragon."
HBO / HBO

In this Golden Age of Television, audiences have been treated to some truly incredible shows. From heartfelt dramas to thought-provoking sci-fi to hilarious sitcoms, TV has enchanted countless viewers and rivaled cinema in terms of artistry and acclaim.

Such great shows had to win over audiences on day one to get where they are now, and these 10 series nailed it with their pilot episodes.

10. Space Pilot 3000 – Futurama (1999-present)

Fry and Bender in a suicide booth in "Futurama."
Fox / Fox

Co-created by The Simpsons mastermind Matt Groening, the animated series Futurama begins with Fry getting frozen on a pizza run, then waking up 1,000 years later in the year 3000. As Fry encounters the one-eyed Leela and the robot Bender, audiences are introduced to a hilarious trio who, despite their differences, learn to escape the fate assigned to them.

It may not feature Amy, Hermes, or Zoidberg, nor does it convey the high comedic energy displayed in later episodes, but the pilot introduces a weird and wonderful world just waiting to be explored by fans. And the storylines secretly set up by this pilot only make it more rewatchable.

9. The Heirs of the Dragon – House of the Dragon (2022-present)

Rhaenyra looks on in "House of the Dragon."
HBO / HBO

After feeling let down by the final season of Game of Thrones, many fans questioned if the franchise could return to its former glory. Thankfully, House of the Dragon was the revamp it sorely needed. The pilot follows King Viserys who, after failing to have a son who can inherit the crown, names his daughter Rhaenyra as his new heir, setting the stage for another epic war for the Iron Throne and the future of Westeros.

This episode surpasses the original show’s pilot not only in production values, but also in narrative, as it focuses on the Targaryens as their world changes in King’s Landing. It may be gratuitous at times, but the episode effectively sets up the show’s themes of sexism, toxic masculinity, and the division of social classes. It also presents a terrific new dynasty to follow, with its main members — Rhaenyra, Daemon, Viserys, and Alicent — going on to be some of the franchise’s best characters.

8. Pilot – Arrested Development (2003-2019)

The cast of "Arrested Development."
Fox / Fox

This cult classic series begins with George Sr. getting arrested for embezzlement and his son, Michael, reluctantly staying in California to keep their dysfunctional family together.

In a master class of ensemble comedy, Arrested Development introduces the Bluth family and each member’s quirks, which the story utilizes to create some surprising and hilarious twists. Also, every actor eats up every scene they’re in to create an outrageously awful family that audiences can’t help but watch.

7. The Sopranos – The Sopranos (1999-2007)

James Gandolfini in the first episode of "The Sopranos."
HBO / HBO

It’s no surprise that one of the most acclaimed TV shows of all time, HBO’s seminal The Sopranos, started out so well. This pilot shows Tony attending his first therapy session with Dr. Melfi, and introduces audiences to his hectic life as a father, husband, and ruthless mobster.

As Tony struggles to open up, viewers gaze into Tony’s troubled psyche as he juggles dealing with his panic attacks and taking care of his family, specifically his abusive mother. But despite his coldhearted actions, the show succeeds in depicting the complex humanity in Tony, with much of the credit going to the late, great James Gandolfini.

6. Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers – Stranger Things (2016-present)

Eleven in "Stranger Things."
Netflix / Netflix

This sci-fi juggernaut wastes no time in sinking it hooks into its now-enormous audience bybeginning with poor adolescent Will getting snatched by the Demogorgon after the monster escapes from a mysterious laboratory.

Taking elements from films like Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Poltergeist, Stranger Things effectively forges a unique, nostalgic narrative in its first episode, which succeeds in balancing different stories about the kids, teens, and adults in Hawkins as they search for Will.

5. When You’re Lost in the Darkness – The Last of Us (2023-present)

John Hannah as epidemiologist Newman in "The Last of Us."
HBO / HBO

Though this video game adaptation begins with a regular 1960s talk show, the scene in question terrifies audiences to their core by explaining how the Cordyceps plague could result from global warming and making it sound like it could happen in real life. Fast-forward to outbreak day, when the show presents a collapse of society in a horrifying sequence taken straight from the game.

The Last of Us does a fantastic job building up its characters and the apocalyptic world they inhabit. The episode stays true to the source material, but it also builds upon Joel and Sarah’s lives before the latter’s death, making the tragedy all the more heartbreaking. All in all, the show paints an enthralling picture of its world before and after its destruction, thanks particularly to the visuals and the performances of its cast.

4. Pilot (Part 1 & 2) – Lost (2004-2010)

The survivors in the forest in "Lost."
ABC / ABC

J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, and Damon Lindelof changed television forever with this pop culture phenomenon. In its two-part pilot, Jack and the rest of the Oceanic Flight 815 -passengers crash on an island where everything and everyone, including them, isn’t what they seem. This episode locks down the audience with its exciting first scene.

But when a savage monster and a polar bear show up in the jungle, viewers know they are in for one of the wildest mysteries ever and that they have to know the truth. And thanks to the show’s compelling ensemble cast, audiences were also left wanting to see who they were and who would make it off the island alive.

3. Pilot – Breaking Bad (2008-2013)

Bryan Cranston in his underpants in "Breaking Bad."
AMC / AMC

Beginning with Bryan Cranston driving through the desert in his undies, this episode is a thrilling and irresistible introduction to the chaotic life of Walter White and the greater Breaking Bad world.

Depicting Cranston’s character in the midst of his financial struggles, cancer diagnosis, and an overall midlife crisis, this episode effectively sets up Walter’s downward spiral from an ordinary chemistry teacher to a ruthless meth kingpin, showing how a seemingly good man can break bad.

2. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes – Mad Men (2007-2015)

A man lights a woman's cigarette in Mad Men's pilot.
AMC

Mad Men‘s pilot successfully introduces audiences to the glamorous, fast-paced world of 1960s advertising. As Don Draper tries to sell cigarettes to those more aware of the health risks, viewers get a compelling first glance into the charismatic ad wizard’s mind as he sugarcoats reality and profits off people’s self-destructive tendencies.

At the same time, this episode captures the many cultural vices of its time, including racism, antisemitism, and sexism, proving the show is not just some glossy nostalgia piece. And with many enthralling performances from its cast, Mad Men established itself as one of television’s most irresistible products upon its debut.

1. It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice – Watchmen (2019)

A man in a Rorschach mask in HBO's "Watchmen."
HBO / HBO

Many people didn’t think Damon Lindelof’s “sequel” to Alan Moore’s groundbreaking comic Watchmen could do the source material justice. Fortunately, those doubts were shattered almost immediately, as the pilot hooks the audience with its shocking depiction of the Tulsa Race Massacre (a real-world event that hadn’t been well-known before its premiere).

Flashing forward to the war between the masked Tulsa police force and the Seventh Kavalry, this episode successfully places itself in the world of Watchmen while presenting something fresh and exciting for audiences. As this miniseries touches upon relevant issues involving race, such as white supremacy, police brutality, and reparations, it pulls viewers in with a thrilling and layered story that sets a new standard for the superhero genre and television as a whole.

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Anthony Orlando
Anthony Orlando is a writer/director from Oradell, NJ. He spent four years at Lafayette College, graduating CUM LAUDE with a…
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