The 15 Best TV Pilots of All Time

Keith Carradine and Timothy Olyphant in the pilot episode of Deadwood.
Keith Carradine and Timothy Olyphant in the pilot episode of Deadwood.
HBO

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”

Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal
Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal
NBCUniversal Media, LLC

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.

10 Fast Facts About Jimi Hendrix

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Though he’s widely considered one of the most iconic musicians of the 20th century, Jimi Hendrix passed away as his career was really just getting started. Still, he managed to accomplish a lot in the approximately four years he spent in the spotlight, and leave this world a legend when he died on September 18, 1970, at the age of 27. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the musical legend.

1. Jimi Hendrix didn't become "Jimi" until 1966.

Jimi Hendrix was born in Seattle on November 27, 1942 as John Allen Hendrix. He was initially raised by his mother while his father, James “Al” Hendrix, was in Europe fighting in World War II. When Al returned to the United States in 1945, he collected his son and renamed him James Marshall Hendrix.

In 1966, Chas Chandler—the bassist for The Animals, who would go on to become Jimi’s manager—saw the musician playing at Cafe Wha? in New York City. "This guy didn't seem anything special, then all of a sudden he started playing with his teeth," roadie James "Tappy" Wright, who was there, told the BBC in 2016. "People were saying, 'What the hell?' and Chas thought, 'I could do something with this kid.’”

Though Hendrix was performing as Jimmy James at the time, it was Chandler who suggested he use the name “Jimi.”

2. Muddy Waters turned Jimi Hendrix on to the guitar—and scared the hell out of him.

When asked about the guitarists who inspired him, Hendrix cited Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Elmore James, and B.B. King. But Muddy Waters was the first musician who truly made him aware of the instrument. “The first guitarist I was aware of was Muddy Waters,” Hendrix said. “I heard one of his old records when I was a little boy and it scared me to death because I heard all these sounds.”

3. Jimi Hendrix could not read music.


George Stroud/Express/Getty Images

In 1969, Dick Cavett asked the musician whether he could read music: “No, not at all,” the self-taught musician replied. He learned to play by ear and would often use words or colors to express what he wanted to communicate. “[S]ome feelings make you think of different colors,” he said in an interview with Crawdaddy! magazine. “Jealousy is purple—‘I'm purple with rage’ or purple with anger—and green is envy, and all this.”

4. Jimi Hendrix used his dreams as inspiration for his songwriting.

Hendrix drew inspiration for his music from a lot of places, including his dreams. “I dreamt a lot and I put a lot of my dreams down as songs,” he explained in a 1967 interview with New Musical Express. “I wrote one called ‘First Look’ and another called ‘The Purple Haze,’ which was all about a dream I had that I was walking under the sea.” (In another interview, he said the idea for “Purple Haze” came to him in a dream after reading a sci-fi novel, believed to be Philip José Farmer’s Night of Light.)

5. "Purple Haze" features one of music's most famous mondegreens.

In the same interview with New Musical Express, it's noted that the “Purple Haze” lyric “‘scuse me while I kiss the sky” was in reference to a drowning man Hendrix saw in his dream. Which makes the fact that many fans often mishear the line as “‘Scuse me, while I kiss this guy” even more appropriate. It was such a common mistake that Hendrix himself was known to have some fun with it, often singing the incorrect lyrics on stage—occasionally even accompanied by a mock make-out session. There’s even a Website, KissThisGuy.com, dedicated to collecting user-generated stories of misheard lyrics.

6. Jimi Hendrix played his guitar upside-down.

Ever the showman, Hendrix’s many guitar-playing quirks became part of his legend: In addition to playing with his teeth, behind his back, or without touching the instrument’s strings, he also played his guitar upside-down—though there was a very simple reason for that. He was left-handed. (His father tried to get him to play right-handed, as he considered left-handed playing a sign of the devil.)

7. Jimi Hendrix played backup for a number of big names.

Though Hendrix’s name would eventually eclipse most of those he played with in his early days, he played backup guitar for a number of big names under the name Jimmy James, including Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner, and The Isley Brothers.

In addition to the aforementioned musical legends, Hendrix also helped actress Jayne Mansfield in her musical career. In 1965, he played lead and bass guitar on “Suey,” the B-side to her single “As The Clouds Drift By.”

8. Jimi Hendrix was once kidnapped after a show.

Though the details surrounding Hendrix’s kidnapping are a bit sketchy, in Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix, Charles R. Cross wrote about how the musician was kidnapped following a show at The Salvation, a club in Greenwich Village:

“He left with a stranger to score cocaine, but was instead held hostage at an apartment in Manhattan. The kidnappers demanded that [Hendrix’s manager] Michael Jeffrey turn over Jimi’s contract in exchange for his release. Rather than agree to the ransom demand, Jeffrey hired his own goons to search out the extorters. Mysteriously, Jeffrey’s thugs found Jimi two days later … unharmed.

“It was such a strange incident that Noel Redding suspected that Jeffrey had arranged the kidnapping to discourage Hendrix from seeking other managers; others … argued the kidnapping was authentic.”

9. Jimi Hendrix opened for The Monkees.

Though it’s funny to imagine such a pairing today, Hendrix warming up The Monkees’s crowd of teenybopper fans actually made sense for both acts back in 1967. For the band, having a serious talent like Hendrix open for them would help lend them some credibility among serious music fans and critics. Though Hendrix thought The Monkees’s music was “dishwater,” he wasn’t well known in America and his manager convinced him that partnering with the band would help raise his profile. One thing they didn’t take into account: the young girls who were in the midst of Monkeemania.

The Monkees’s tween fans were confused by Hendrix’s overtly sexual stage antics. On July 16, 1967, after playing just eight of their 29 scheduled tour dates, Hendrix flipped off an audience in Queens, New York, threw down his guitar, and walked off the stage.

10. You can visit Jimi Hendrix's London apartment.

In 2016, the London flat where Hendrix really began his career was restored to what it would have looked like when Jimi lived there from 1968 to 1969 and reopened as a museum. The living room that doubled as his bedroom is decked out in bohemian décor, and a pack of Benson & Hedges cigarettes sits on the bedside table. There’s also space dedicated to his record collection.

Amazingly, the same apartment building—which is located in the city’s Mayfair neighborhood—was also home to George Handel from 1723 until his death in 1759; the rest of the building serves as a museum to the famed composer’s life and work.

John Carpenter’s Original Halloween Is Coming Back to Theaters This Month

Anchor Bay Entertainment
Anchor Bay Entertainment

From September 27 through October 31, the original 1978 Halloween—directed by John Carpenter and produced by Debra Hill—will be returning to theaters, though it will look a little different. Hypebeast reports that the film’s cinematographer, Dean Cundey, helped remaster and restore a copy of the original film, giving this updated version better lighting and effects.

Upon its release on October 25, 1978, Halloween became one of the highest-grossing independent films of all time (it grossed $47 million domestically on a $325,000 budget), and kicked off a decade of copycat slasher films. In 2006, the Library of Congress chose to preserve Halloween in the U.S. National Film Registry. Last year, David Gordon Green directed Halloween, a “sequel” to the original. (Basically, the new Halloween ignored plots from 37 years of Halloween sequels and remakes.)

In 2020 and 2021, two more Halloweens, both starring Jamie Lee Curtis and directed by Green, will hit theaters worldwide. But between the end of September and Halloween, you’ll have a chance to see one of the greatest horror films of all time in theaters. (While watching you can look out for these Halloween goofs.)

Unlike a lot of classic movie re-releases, however, Halloween will not be shown at big chains like AMC. And the dates, times, and ticket costs will vary among venues, which will include select art house theaters, Rooftop Cinema Clubs, and event centers across North America. To find out if Halloween will be screening at a theater near you, go to CineLife’s site and type in your zip code.

[h/t Hypebeast]

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