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Wednesday, February 6, 2013
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The Top 10 TV Pilots Of The Last 10 Years

By Carson Blackwelder
Television Contributor


Last week’s pilot of NBC’s “Jekyll and Hyde” drama Do No Harm premiered to disastrously low ratings.

Although The Office and the series finale of the beloved 30 Rock would seem like promising lead-ins for any show, audiences apparently unified in switching their TV sets off at 10 p.m.

Do No Harm, starring Steven Pasquale as a bipolar doctor, posted the lowest ratings ever for a broadcast scripted series premiere during the regular season, raking in a 0.9 rating in the key demo. Adding to its list of accomplishments, it was also the least-watched drama in TV history among total viewers, drawing only 3.1 million viewers.

Of course, it had some tough competition, namely CBS’s Elementary and ABC’s Scandal. However, it’s likely the pilot’s performance will bury the series after just one week on the tube.

Do No Harm’s performance got us thinking: What are some of the best pilots in recent memory? Here’s a list of the 10 best pilots of the past decade:

10. ABC’s Desperate Housewives (2004) — “Pilot”

The unforgettable, ensemble cast of Desperate Housewives (Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross and Eva Longoria) reeling after the sudden suicide of its beloved friend, Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong) — who posthumously narrates the entire series.

A vast web of intense secrets and lies unfolding over eight seasons, yet rooting back to this one episode. “Love your neighbor as thyself” becoming tainted with sabotage and gossip, even if the core four came together in the end.

If any series ever showed vast character development and a sense of friendship, it’s Desperate Housewives, and fans will always remember the day they met the ladies of Wisteria Lane.

9. ABC’s Revenge (2011) — “Pilot”

One of the hottest new shows last year, Revenge opened up a very old can of worms in its pilot episode.

Introducing characters through the intense and driven Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp), viewers are welcomed into the world of someone on a mission with only one outcome: sweet, sweet revenge. Emily ventures behind enemy lines and into the Hamptons, placing herself as close to the action as humanly possible — right next door to the Graysons, with the incomparable socialite Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe) at its helm.

Our “hero” is on the quest to seek revenge against the Graysons, who framed her father for a crime he didn’t commit. She’s living under a false name, as she was originally called Amanda Clarke, and has her father’s never-ending funds to back up her dastardly deeds. She befriends a quirky billionaire, Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann), and sets out on the long and masterful plan of making the Grayson’s empire fall down around them.

8. FX’s American Horror Story (2011) — “Pilot”

Taking us into the twisted mind of creators Brad Falchuk and Ryan MurphyAmerican Horror Story’s first season centered around a murder house in Hollywood.

The Harmon family, led by Ben (Dylan McDermott) and Vivien (Connie Britton), believe moving into the home will be a new start, especially since Vivien just went through a stillbirth and Ben had an affair with one of his crazy students. The pilot introduces us to the Harmons as well as their mysterious neighbor, Constance (Jessica Lange) and her son, Tate (Evan Peters).

A monstrous story unravels throughout the season, but the pilot episode is the hinge that attracted viewers who were hungering for a real horror series — and so far, the show has never failed to deliver.

7.  NBC and DirecTV’s Friday Night Lights (2006) — “Pilot”

Piggy-backing off of the critical acclaim of the 2004 film, Friday Night Lights somehow spun off into an even better TV drama, focusing on a Texas high school football team and its trials and tribulations.

The new coach, Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), and his wife, Tami (Britton), lead the football-driven family and serve as an inspiration for the young players. Complete with a cast of fresh faces and handheld cameras, the pilot introduces audiences to the small town of Dillon and a slower pace of life — off the field, of course.

With a dramatic end for star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) and a promising beginning for rookie Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), even those who don’t care for football will find themselves completely obsessed with this down-home show.

6. Fox’s Glee (2009) — “Pilot”

The birth and formation of William McKinley High School’s glee club is the central focus of this pilot, as is the introduction of dynamic vocals with the monumental “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) and a slew of high school-aged wannabe rock stars, led by the fame-hungry Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) and quarterback Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith), band together to sing covers of popular songs, attempting to overcome teenage strife and sexual discovery. The newly formed New Directions also meets its ceaseless adversary, Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), and its long climb to the top commences.

Now in its fourth season, Glee owes its loyal audience and riveting success to its premiere episode and the journey it’s experienced along the way.

5. ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy (2005) — “A Hard Day’s Night”

It’s hard to believe that five young surgeons got their start so long ago.

In a pilot that encapsulated the journey of newbies venturing into unexplored territory, Grey’s Anatomy took viewers into the dark and twisty lives of Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), George O’Malley (T.R. Knight), Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl) and Alex Karev (Justin Chambers).

This rag-tag group of surgical interns at Seattle Grace Hospital embarked on a path of personal and professional growth, tragedy, and, of course, steamy sex from the very beginning, and the drama has never looked back.

And who could forget the pilot also gave audiences their first taste of Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) — or, as he’s more affectionately known, McDreamy? Following his first scene, the doctor drama became one to rival all others.

4. CBS’s How I Met Your Mother (2005) — “Pilot”

Introducing a premise that is truly legendary, How I Met Your Mother opens in the year 2030, with a father (voice by Bob Saget) beginning to tell his children about how he, as the title may suggest, met their mother.

Flash to 2005: Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) meets the woman of his dreams, Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders), and his two best friends, Marshall Eriksen (Jason Segel) and Lily Aldrin (Alyson Hannigan) get engaged.

Ted falls head-over-heels for Robin, but announces to his children that this is the sub-plot of how he met their “Aunt Robin,” giving the show a breath of fresh air and a unique premise.

This is also the moment the world is introduced to the womanizing Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) and his vast collection of tailored suits and enormous little black book.

3. AMC’s Mad Men (2007) — “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”

Introducing audiences to the 1960s world of Manhattan advertising executives and the thrilling life of protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Mad Men came onto the scene in style.

Audiences got a glimpse into the tumultuous life of Draper, contrasting his home, work and private lives as well as introducing beloved characters such as Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks).

Much like the fast-paced world of ’60s big business, this pilot is full of affairs, women attempting to gain ground in the office and a signature style that made its mark on the decade — just like the pilot made its mark on TV history.

2. Fox and Netflix’s Arrested Development (2003) — “Pilot”

If there is a comedy that’s amassed an impressive cult following, it’s Arrested Development.

Introducing viewers to the hilarious Bluth family, Arrested Development begins with the level-headed Michael (Jason Bateman) and son, George-Michael (Michael Cera), swooping in to take over the family business when his father, George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), gets arrested by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

With a gaggle of ridiculous family members, played by Portia de RossiDavid CrossTony HaleWill Arnett, Jessica Walter and (maybe) Alia Shawkat, Michael and the Bluths have provided countless pop culture references that are sure to stick with us for eternity.

1. ABC’s Lost (2004) — “Pilot (Parts 1 and 2)”

What more could anyone ask for in a series premiere than a plane crash that leaves a large portion of its passengers stranded on a deserted island?

After the crash of Oceanic Flight 815, the survivors, led by Dr. Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) and the freckled fugitive Kate Austen (Evangeline Lilly), and antagonized by the southern spitfire James ‘Sawyer’ Ford (Josh Holloway), are left to fend for themselves on a mysterious island that is filled to the brim with secrets.

Lost’s gutsy pilot and subsequent six, epic seasons redefined science-fiction TV and brought about a unique hybrid of Survivor and the beloved mystery genre.

A cast of characters who will be defined by their roles on this series — Jorge GarciaNaveen AndrewsTerry O’QuinnEmilie de Ravin and Dominic Monaghan — tied together a massive ensemble, yet the show fully developed each person and caused the audience to invest in every one, a rare feat for a series.

In addition to flashbacks, flashforwards and much more, this show took its viewers on the ride of their lives, and it all began with a simple little plane crash on a seemingly idyllic beach.

Were any of your favorite pilots omitted from the list? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • kate

    studio 60! yes, the show pretty much fizzled out because aaron sorkin can’t write a sketch and the preaching got heavy handed, but the pilot is AMAZING

  • SRLY?! AHS and Glee? but not Southland? What the hell!

  • K Chaffee

    PUSHING DAISIES. Established a tricky premise, introduced some quirky characters, and told you exactly what the tone of the show would be. Did a spectacular highwire dance on the line between charming and overly twee.

  • tv fan

    breaking bad was the best pilot ever…. the following was better than most of those as well.

  • Urstupid

    After 4, none of those even belong on the list. Breaking Bad? Homeland? Shameless? Boardwalk Empire? Another 10 pilots of shows that are actually GOOD!

  • Josh

    Jack & Bobby (2004) had a great pilot. Hell, its one and only season was BY FAR the best thing the WB ever did. Too bad the “WB audience” didn’t watch it. It should have been on a better network which attracts more intelligent viewers.

  • This guy obviously hasn’t watched too many television pilots in the last 10 years.

    • Ems

      Yes, he missed some good ones, but at least this list is different. It’s refreshing.

  • Some less than great choices, BUT the number 1 choice redeems this list.

  • mst3kfan1994

    Ooh, yes, Homeland definitely should not be omitted from this list. Whatever one’s thoughts afterwards, that first episode was a really great way of setting the characters up in such a very interesting manner. Breaking Bad is one I’m surprised didn’t make the list, and I actually quite enjoy Dexter’s first episode, though I could understand not finding it quite as culturally relevant as the others listed already.

  • I missed nip/tuck on that list – sure the last seasons sucked…but the pilot got me hooked instantly

  • Megan

    Pushing Daisies had a fantastic pilot and The Walking Dead had probably the best pilot in the last few years. It´s concise, emotional and incredibly well-written.

  • From the top of my head you missed 24, Heroes, Breaking Bad, Homeland & Person of Interest.