Last week, after watching the first episode of HBO’s Lovecraft Country, I learnt to respect a show’s pilot or opening segment even more. If that falls flat, it is very likely that only a few people will choose to trudge through more episodes. But for many that do work, they all exude an immersive, magnetic, and captivating quality. It bemuses me how frequently pilots are overlooked, especially when compared to series finales. Oftentimes, it is the introductory episode that lays the foundations for a show. And as the pulpy Lovecraft Country reminded me of the thrill that comes with beginning a new series, I chose to revisit some of the best opening episodes I have seen till date.
On the narrative front, a pilot is not entirely different from the first episode. But as content booms on streaming and OTT platforms, the concept of a pilot is gradually being dismantled. And for that reason, I will not differentiate between the two formats. Here’s a list of great pilots and first episodes in television history — those that force your hand into watching the next episode and those that hold up even after a thousand rewatches.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017 – Present)
The first episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has the propulsive force of a sports car. We learn about Midge’s past and present in a swift one hour — her education, orthodox family, floundering marriage, and housework. Some of it is salaciously entertaining and some of it looks like a Parisian tabloid on steroids. Midge’s New York life is flushed with pink, pastel-coloured opulence — but even amidst all this, her traditionally feminine character is supplemented with great levels of independence and autonomy. This is precisely where the episode shines — it packs in many layers of nuance within a tight runtime. But the episode’s (even show’s, I believe) defining moment is in its final ten minutes — where Midge, after plying herself with wine, goes on a rant about her cheating husband on-stage. It is rough but amusing.
Mr. Robot (2015 – 2019)
In one of his books, Mark Fisher, a critic and philosopher, says, “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Mr. Robot embodies this idea throughout the series and its first episode is a perfect prologue and introduction to it. Rami Malek’s character Elliot buckles under the pressure of society as well as capitalism — squalls of loneliness cause him to cry alone in a corner of his dingy apartment. And this solemnness, later, is offset by some revitalising scenes where he’s fending off socialist hackers in a race against time scenario. Creator Sam Esmail, through this single episode, offers a seething critique of corporate hegemony, merging the personal and political.
The West Wing (1999 – 2006) and The Newsroom (2012 – 2014)
I remember reading an article on Forbes, unrelated to this, use the phrase, “Talks like a VHS tape on fast-forward.” I cannot find a line more apt than this to describe Aaron Sorkin’s style, the writer and creator of both the shows. And I decided to club the two because they are essentially made of the same grain — both have silver-tongued intellectuals debating politics in America. The opening stretch of The Newsroom, where the lead goes on a tirade about the country’s acrid politics, is one of the finest moments in television I have ever seen. It laces fact with opinion, cynicism with optimism, and criticism with patriotism. What follows is a bewitching look at a highly fictional and quixotic newsroom.
The West Wing, too, starts somewhat similarly; not in terms of the material but its verve. All the senior White House staffers are rushed to the office at 5 a.m. because the POTUS fell off a bicycle. It almost seemed as if Sorkin grafted the sitcom model onto a drama — though, it is funny enough to swoop you in immediately. But once it gets more serious and actually immerses itself into the inner workings of the White House, the episode then becomes catnip to all political drama fans.
Mad Men (2007 – 2015)
Mad Men’s pilot is misogynistic, anti-Semitic, overly masculine, and debauched. All of this, however, is legitimately placed for the time it portrayed — mid-1900s New York. These characteristics aren’t decorative, they give us a first-hand look at what we should expect from the series. It sets everything up, especially Don Draper’s pseudo-moral persona. And even with all this in front of us, there’s a dialectic, old-school charm about these ‘assholes.’ They defend tobacco’s cancer-causing effect with some masochistic purpose in the pilot. As a result, we get a compelling look at American advertising and the manner in which it is able to sell a bunch of baloney to its masses.
I watched this pilot almost five years ago, back when I was too young for a show this gory and sexual. And I still remember that very moment towards the end when Bran is pushed down the wall. I gasped in horror. “The things I do for love” is still etched in my mind. I really cannot think of anything more ‘binge-worthy’ than this. It elicits the hoggish need to know what happens next. The entire pilot builds this deciding characteristic of Game of Thrones up. The opening White Walker sequence is still chilling; seeing the Stark ensemble together is heartbreaking; and hearing “Winter is coming” feels strangely dated. Despite the series’ not-so-evergreen finale, the pilot continues to remain so.
TVF Pitchers (2015)
I really scoured for an Indian series here and the one that fit the bill best was TVF Pitchers. One of India’s initial looks at the horrors of a corporate world, the first episode of TVF Pitchers really shows us how companies can be life-sucking weevils (especially during those ephemeral smoking room scenes with Jeetu where every employee was systemically frustrated). But what really clinches the deal for this series is its ‘Tu Beer Hai’ spiel by Abhishek Banerjee’s character — the darling scene of Indian streaming. It is creative and plain fun.
Suits (2011 – 2019)
Before Suits, Boston Legal was my go-to courtroom drama. But the former brought an intoxicating sense of sexiness to this genre, something that even James Spader and his deep, resonant voice couldn’t achieve. The pilot gives us a seductive look at their elite law firm — apart from spewing litigative jargon around, these lawyers also wear thousand dollar suits and apply Bed Head products. But mainly, I was dazzled by Harvey’s and Mike’s first interaction — where the latter flaunts his memory and legal aptitude while carrying a suitcase full of pot. It is a fast-paced, no-frills introduction to the legal fantasyland.
Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013)
There are no heroes or villains in Breaking Bad yet. You can sympathise with Walt and even Jesse’s naïveté. I always get dewy-eyed when I watch the show’s pilot (weirdly, even more so when I see Walt in his underwear commandeering an RV in a desert). To me, the pilot was more effective during my rewatches than the first time. You know that they are about to enter an unstoppable storm, that their initially endearing personalities will be besieged by self-absorbed darkness. You want to remain under the illusion of their niceness and innocence. It is this meta, reflective quality of the pilot that, for me, makes it memorable.
The Boys (2019 – Present)
Along with Fleabag, Prime Video’s boffo hit of 2019, The Boys (and its electrifying first episode) was the perfect palate cleanser of the year after the Marvel mania. I was swooped into its world within five minutes — when Hughie’s girlfriend is literally torn to shreds by a hero who is like a Flash on acid. It is a superhero camp, none of them are the goody-two-shoes, self-sacrificing heroes. They are depraved and venal. And with its audacious humour — “You look like a porn version of The Matrix” — the opening episode braced us for a witty and raging ride.
Here are some special mentions that also deserve a list of their own — Twin Peaks (1990 – 1991), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2013 – Present), Westworld (2016 – Present), Lost (2004 – 2010), Dexter (2006 – 2013), Master of None (2015 – 2017), Six Feet Under (2001 – 2005), Kota Factory (2019).