10
Sep
2011
Random Pop Culture Top 10 List
Top 10 Pilots that We Love
Jordan, Michael & Rachel
Random Pop Culture Top 10 List is a (fairly self-explanatory) biweekly list in which the Review to be named gang take stock of the realm of pop culture, and come up with their Top Ten in a specific category.

Top 10 Pilots That Draw You In:

You know the old saying, you only get one first impression. Yea, well, the same goes for TV. The pilot is an important episode of any TV show: it needs to sell the premise and make us care enough about it to watch the next episodes, once the premier hype settles. A lot of times, however, the pilot episodes are the worst episodes of a show, and we find ourselves liking a series despite the pilot's attempt to juggle too many things at once. But when a pilot is good, like, really good, it makes us forget that it's a pilot, instead introducing a show in a way that makes us feel like we've either been there all along, or at least wish we could have been. A good pilot hooks us into wanting to watch the show, makes us want to keep watching, establishes the characters in a way that makes us care, and displays the premise of the show in a way that isn't gimmicky or interested in its own flash. Sometimes these pilots pan out, sometimes they don't, and sometimes (all too often, as seen by this list), they aren't really given the proper chance. But hey, at least we'll always have the pilot.


10. The Office (UK), "Downsize"



Really good pilots are the ones that start a series in a way that makes the viewer feel the world is well established before we get the chance to enter it, without producing a sense of exclusion or excessive catching up. All of the pilots on this list do so particularly well, including the Office (the original import from the UK, that is). Considering the mockumentary format, the series could have fallen into the trap of making the pilot a series of introductions straight on to the camera, interspersed with exemplary moments around the office. But it didn't. Instead we get proper introductions to these characters based on their completely awkward interactions and their ridiculous eccentricities. Because really, if you think about it, your work self is the self you spend the most time, and most likely effort, being (terrifying thought, isn't it?). This pilot also doesn't attempt to bite off more than it can chew by introducing every member of the full staff in the audience, instead focusing on the core four: boss David Brent (Ricky Gervais), reluctant sales rep Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman), receptionist Dawn Tinsley, and the ever ridiculous Gareth Keenan (Mackenzie Crook). The episode feels just like another day at the office, helping draw us in to the awkward tedium and uneasy monotony that make the show so consistently hilarious.

9. The Sopranos, "The Sopranos"



We swear, The Sopranos didn't only make the list because two of the three authors are from New Jersey (we may or may not have whacked the Californian native....has anyone seen Jordan recently? Didn't think so. Don't let the "law school" excuse fool you, he's clearly swimming with the fishes). Over the course of its six seasons, The Sopranos blossomed into a cultural phenomenon, but really, like any good Italian, you can't forget where you came from. Again, the pilot of the Sopranos introduces us to the complicated world of New Jersey organized crime in a way that isn't overwhelming, mostly by relying on a firm establishment of the relationships between characters to inform the viewer as to whats going on. Because the pilot is staged as capo Tony's (James Gandolfini) first session with therapist Dr. Jennifer Melfi, the viewer becomes privy to the introductory information that we need without it feeling forced. We get murders and intimidation interspersed with brilliant moments of comedic lightness. We get complicated family relationships overlapped in "business" connections, establishing the rules of the game that will play out over the course of the series. Over the course of a single dinner, Carmella (Edie Falco), Tony's wife, goes from hating her husband to praising him, and back again. Their teenage children are properly impertinent and angsty. The pilot is smart enough to start with the relationships that any good Italian knows are central to a real Italian man: those with his mother, his wife, his children, and his cousins. And also, apparently, his ducks.

8. Deadwood, "Deadwood"



Deadwood was originally supposed to be set in ancient Rome, before series creator David Milch was told that HBO already had a series in the works about the very same subject. It doesn't show, because Deadwood produces the best vision of the American west since Sergio Leone took a shot. It does this not with history, though it is exhaustively researched, but with characterizations that hold water no matter what time period they might be placed in. Each character, from the very first episode, are immediately fully formed, from the reticent Seth Bullock to the eternally-irritated Doc Cochran to Al Sweregen's predilection for the word "cock-sucker." Consider Bullock, who even before the opening credits roll must execute a criminal he is obligated to protect as a Federal Marshall, even as he converses with the criminal about his own plans to leave this past behind to sell hardware. In one brief scene, we know everything we need to about this man, his culture, his time. Deadwood's language is often compared to Shakespeare with cursing, but its economy with emotion and storytelling is what makes it truly American, and what makes its pilot such a unique event.

7. Scrubs, "My First Day"



All pilots begin at the beginning, but Scrubs makes that beginning all the more meaningful. "My First Day" charts JD (Zach Braff) as he navigates his very first day as an intern. The episode is dynamic, telling a self-contained story about the hopes and dreams JD has as he starts his career, and about the way Sacred Heart Hospital seems to be conspiring to crush those dreams right out of the gate. The episode establishes the character relationships that will play out over the rest of the series (JD loves Elliott, the Janitor messes with JD for seemingly no reason, Turk and Carla get together, Kelso is established as a soulless bureaucrat and Dr. Cox as the reluctant, misanthropic mentor to JD) and nails the tone perfectly, mixing the absurd fantasy sequences and more quip-based comedy with the inherent tragedy of life as a doctor. Its impossible not to feel for JD as he stands, overwhelmed in the crowded waiting room (as David Gray's "Please Forgive Me" plays on the soundtrack), and if you're not cheering after Dr. Cox's pick me up, you have no soul (we're looking at you, Rachel). Funny, tragic, and ultimately uplifting, "My First Day" is the perfect kind of pilot: it sets you up for the show and its tone, introduces you to the characters and their relationships, and tells you a story that leaves you satisfied. Not bad for a first day.

6. Six Feet Under, "Pilot"



Saying that Six Feet Under is a show about death that begins with a death as a way of telling us it knows where its going right from the start might seem glib, but more than maybe any other show out there, Six Feet Under knew exactly where it was headed from its opening moments. The rare pilot that both functions as a perfect entrance point for a series and improves exponentially upon rewatch once you've seen the whole thing, Six Feet Under knows its characters so well that your viewpoints on their actions are likely to change once you too get to know them. We often talk about the show by saying that you feel like the characters are members of your family, and while that starts here, it isn't the true strength of the pilot. We enter the lives of the Fisher family as it is torn asunder by tragedy, and seeing these characters at their worst can be an uncomfortable feeling, like walking in on a very private moment. Yet the episode firmly establishes the series tone (excepting the off-the-wall faux advertisements, which were fortunately never seen again), mixing black and absurdist comedy with every day tragedy, and teaching us to appreciate life while remaining wary of the constant specter of death. When Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) stands motionless, watching the world pass him by in the episode's closing moments, as "Waiting" by The Devlins plays, the message is clear. Each and every one of us is waiting for the end. Yet, like all great pilots, this episode reminds us that there's something to be said for beginnings too.

5. Twin Peaks, "Northwest Passage"



Twin Peaks' pilot episode, on its surface, should not work. It combines the murder of a teenage girl with slapstick comedy, wistful absurdity and a small town that is as affably likable as it is sinister. Only a legendary director could make such a hodgepodge meld without giving television viewers whiplash. Twin Peaks, of course, was the brainchild of David Lynch, whose brand of psychedelic absurdities and dark subject matter was thought to be too oblique for network television. But the pilot episode was enough to prove to skeptical viewers that daring TV could still be made. The pilot episode, crafted to be a stand-alone film if the show didn't pan out, puts forth a huge cast of characters, each with their own idiosyncrasies, from the devastated, warped parents of the murdered girl to a police deputy who cries more than any man should. But it is the town of Twin Peaks that becomes the real star of the pilot; the sleepy Northwestern town's deep forests and peaceful lakes a misleading backdrop for terrible things, the modern equivalent of those German forests where the Brothers Grimm concocted stories and myths about the fight between good and evil. People eventually flocked to Twin Peaks despite the hurdles the show put in the way - dancing midgets for one - and much of the credit belongs to Lynch and that TV-changing hour and a half.

4. Breaking Bad, "Pilot"



Most pilots are building blocks upon which later developments can be laid. They start off slow, let you get to know the characters and their situations, and then give you an idea where things might be headed. Not Breaking Bad. From its opening scene, which finds our protagonist-turned-antagonist Walter White (the superb Bryan Cranston) pantsless, tearing through the desert in an RV, seemingly being chased by the cops and leaving a tearful suicide video for his family before putting a gun to his head, it was clear this show was something different. The stakes were already life and death, and the main credits hadn't even rolled yet. From there, the pilot takes us through the degrading, humiliating, and tragic life of Walter White, showing his degradation at his second job, his depressingly conventional marriage and his terminal lung cancer diagnosis, giving us all the insight we might need as to why this man has taken such a dark turn so quickly. By the end of the pilot, Walter White hasn't broken bad (at least not as bad as he will break), but he is well on his way, and the stakes which seemed so high just forty minutes earlier suddenly seem low by comparison.

3. Pushing Daisies, "Pie-lette" (Rachel)



We're still bitter over the premature cancellation of Pushing Daisies, primarily because we loved it from its first moments. Pushing Daisies present a premise that is intriguing, new, and magical without being overwhelming. Yes, Ned the Pie Maker (Lee Pace) can bring people back from the dead, but the mythology firmly establishes rules that make it clear something is at stake. The show, from its very start, is just so damn stylish, we don't even mind the voice-over narration that would usually make us hurl. Instead, it contributes to the storybook nature of the show as a whole, paired with the adorable costuming, the stylized setting, and the gumshoe plots. "Pie-lette" manages to start at the beginning, introducing a childhood Ned and Chuck (Anna Friel) without seeming pedantic. And all of the characters, including Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) and Olive Snook (Kristin Chenowith), are firmly established and endearing, for the most part, and stay true to that character over the too-few two seasons of the show's run (same applies for Digby, the adorable dog). From the first strains of the opening music, this show makes us want pie. And cuddling. But not both simultaneously, because that would probably be messy.

2. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, "Pilot"



This wouldn't be a Review to Be Named list of TV favorites without a Sorkin appearance (hey, we kept Firefly off, and that took some restraint). This time around, we've selected perhaps Sorkin's least appreciated show to date: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, because the pilot was perhaps the best episode of the series, and, more so then that, was a fine, fine piece of television, so fine, in fact, that it made us believe that if every episode could muster the same quality as the pilot, this was going to be one of the greatest shows ever (it didn't quite live up to the expectations, but that doesn't tarnish the pilot). I mean, a show that makes D.L Hughley palatable? And that shakes Matthew Perry out of the role of Chandler from Friends? That makes us ask, yet again and so much louder, why Bradley Whitford doesn't work more foten? This episode is Sorkin on his high horse in a way that doesn't chafe, the same idealism of the West Wing, but this time in show business instead of politics. The pilot manages to capture the same hectic pace of the show it's portraying (a show within a show...how meta), and does that very special Sorkin thing of establishing loyalty and connections between characters that is believable to the audience without showing us the nitty gritty of the development. Not only does the pilot make me want to watch the show about the show, it makes me want to watch the show the show is about (yea, untwist that. I dare you.). The Studio 60 pilot lays out all the major players in a way that makes viewers feel like we know them, and creates a universe whose rules and stakes we know and actually care about.

1. Arrested Development, "Pilot"



That Arrested Development is the greatest sitcom of all time is rarely in doubt. Over the course of three seasons and 53 episodes, the show crafted a dense, endlessly self-referential comic landscape and populated it with some of the greatest characters in the history of comedy (if you think we're being hyperbolic, go watch the show again). Yet the show rarely gets enough credit for the fact that it was perfect right out of the gate. Most pilots stumble a little bit, or are hurt by an overabundance of exposition. Not Arrested Development. The show managed to introduce its nine major characters (a large cast for a sitcom) and their complex relationships without ever once making its exposition obvious and threw us into a byzantine web of conflicting agendas and familial dysfunction that puts any classic tragedy to shame without ever missing a step. But perhaps most importantly, it was funny. Too many pilots get so caught up in introducing us to the characters and the premise that they forget to add the jokes, but Arrested Development is hilarious from its first moment. This isn't just the first episode of what would become the funniest show of all time; its the funniest show of all time right from the start. Arrested Development is a masterpiece, and watching its pilot, it is evident that it knew what it was going to be from the very start. This is a pilot that should be taught in schools, such a perfect example of the form that it avoids any missteps on its way to a place in the comedic pantheon.


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