Pilot Episodes – What, Why, and the Best of Them

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By Iron Man

Pilot episodes are the TV series’ foundation, introducing premise, characters, and world within an hour, pivotal in industry history.

Pilot episodes are the critical foundation upon which the success of many television series rests. These initial episodes are tasked with introducing the show’s premise, characters, and world while captivating the audience within a limited time frame, typically an hour. The term “pilot” carries historical and metaphorical significance, and pilot season is a pivotal period in the television industry. Let’s explore the significance of pilot episodes, their diverse types, and some of the most memorable ones in television history.

Why Pilot?

Pilot Episodes - What, Why, and the Best of Them

The first episode of a TV series is referred to as a pilot for various reasons. One interpretation likens it to a pilot taking off, signifying the series’ inaugural flight into the entertainment landscape. Another rationale is metaphorical: the pilot episode navigates the course for the entire series, much like an oar guiding a boat. The word “pilot” also has Greek roots in “pēdon,” meaning an oar that steers a boat, mirroring the role of a pilot episode in steering the series’ direction.

There are several types of pilot episodes, including:

  1. Standard Pilot (Premise Pilot):
    • This type introduces the show’s characters and establishes the series’ world, offering viewers a glimpse into what lies ahead.
  2. Backdoor Pilot:
    • These episodes are integrated into an ongoing series and lay the foundation for a spin-off, often featuring guest stars who may lead the new show.

Memorable Pilot Episodes

While pilot episodes are not always the pinnacle of a series, several stand out as remarkable introductions to their respective shows:

Northwest Passage (Twin Peaks)

This ’90s classic’s pilot episode established one of television’s greatest mysteries—Who killed Laura Palmer? It laid the groundwork for the cult phenomenon that followed.

Pilot (The West Wing) 

The pilot of this political drama introduced viewers to the staff at the White House and showcased the signature “walk and talk” shot, setting the tone for the series.

Pilot (Breaking Bad)

This iconic pilot episode marked the beginning of Walter White’s transformation from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher to a drug dealer, winning Bryan Cranston an Emmy.

eps1.0_hellofriend.mov (Mr. Robot) 

The pilot introduced Rami Malek’s hacker character and the enigmatic “fsociety.” Its universal acclaim set the stage for a successful series and Malek’s rise to stardom.

Pilot (Part 1 & 2) (Lost)

The most expensive pilot ever made at the time, it introduced viewers to the survivors of a plane crash marooned on an island. It garnered critical acclaim, won awards, and set the stage for one of the most acclaimed series of all time.