The Best Pilot Episodes

I think a good pilot episode can make or break a show. If the first episode isn’t good, there’s no reason for people to keep watching. It needs to set up the overall premise of the show, introduce the characters, and give us a feel for what to expect in future episodes. And it’s much easier said than done. There are hundreds of shows that barely get through the first few episodes on air before it gets canceled. So a good pilot is extremely important to keep a show on the air. Here are some of my favorites.


Kristina (played by Monica Potter), Julia (played by Erika Christensen), Sarah (played by Lauren Graham) and Camille (played by Bonnie Bedelia) sitting at the table with food in front of them with some of them drinking wine as Kristina massages Camille's foot

Parenthood is one of those shows that make you emotional every time you watch it. And the pilot episode is no different. It introduces us to the entire Braverman clan, and there are a lot of them. But because this is a show about a family, it also tells us why it’s starting now. Sarah’s out of money so she drives her kids back home to her parents’ house. And that’s what sets us up for the rest of the show. The show overall goes in waves. There’s the hectic family dynamic when they’re all together. But then, there are the quieter moments, the ones that open the watergates. And that’s truly why the show works. And the pilot episode is good enough to get you through the rest of the show.

Gilmore Girls

Lorelai (played by Lauren Graham) talking to Rory (played by Alexis Bledel) as she reads a book

Most Gilmore Girls episodes have very little plot. And it’s part of what makes the writing so brilliant. But this is a pilot episode so there has to be something other than the fast talking to hook people. So it sets up the rest of the show when Lorelai asks her parents for money. Which is the last thing she wants to do. But Amy Sherman-Palladino said it best when she said “I knew from the dinner scene in the pilot, we had the show”.


Sherlock (played by Benedict Cumberbatch)

Sherlock is a popular show for a reason. And just to be clear, I’m not talking about the unaired pilot (because truth be told, I haven’t seen it). The actual first episode of the show does a brilliant job establishing the overall tone of the show and introducing us to Sherlock Holmes. And the plot of a serial killer playing games with his victims is incredibly intriguing. When Sherlock comes face-to-face with him, it’s an intense scene. And one that really makes this pilot episode.


Nikita (played by Maggie Q) sitting in front of a desk with an open laptop , a lamp, and makeup kit bag on it

I’ve recently rewatched the Nikita pilot and it still holds up. It’s one of the first CW shows to follow that format of introducing the main character and their backstory at the beginning of every episode. And it lays out the plot and characters’ intentions very clearly. They introduce us to Nikita, Alex, Michael, Percy, Amanda, and even Birkhoff. And what their relationships are. But the best part of this pilot is definitely Michael and Nikita’s interactions. Their relationship is what really draws us further into the show.

Private Practice

Pete (played by Tim Daly) high-fiving Addison (played by Kate Walsh), who's wearing magenta scrubs

The more I think about it, the more I realize that it must’ve been hard to follow up Grey’s Anatomy. Granted, they had Addison, a fan-favorite character, but it was still a daunting task. This wouldn’t be a show with ground-breaking surgeries, it was pitched as a much smaller medical practice. But I love the Private Practice pilot. And they immediately address the fact that a hospital like Seattle Grace is vastly different than working in a medical practice. But Addison still manages to do some kind of macgyver surgery (as she calls it) in the first episode. And I think that’s pretty cool.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Midge (played by Rachel Brosnahan) wearing a wedding dress making a speech at her own wedding with her guests sitting at tables around her

The pilot episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is really just all backstory. But it helps to set up what the show’s really about. Midge’s marriage falls apart and she (and her later manager, Susie) is left to figure out what to do next. And she just so happens to be a great stand-up comedian. The only problem is that female comics aren’t really a thing yet. The show as a whole is expertly written, which isn’t a surprise because it’s run by Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino. AKA the writers from Gilmore Girls.

Designated Survivor

Tom Kirkman (played by Kiefer Sutherland) swearing in as the new president of the United States while Alex (played by Natascha McElhone) and Mike (played by LaMonica Garrett) watch on in the pilot episode of "Designated Survivor"

Just the image of the bombed Capitol building sticks with you for the entire pilot episode of Designated Survivor. As well as the rest of the season. So to show that as the end of the first scene in the pilot is genius. Then comes the urgency of everything that happens next, which runs throughout the first episode. It really puts you in Kirkman’s shoes as he’s thrust into this new role. Even though there’s so much loss, you really don’t have much time to process it. Instead, you’re following Kirkman as he swears in as the new president and dealing with the aftermath. And then, Agent Wells says that this might just be the beginning. That this bomb, as horrendous as it was, could be minuscule for what’s to come. And that just intrigues us all even more.


Oliver Queen (played by Stephen Amell) shooting an arrow on the island in the pilot episode of "Arrow"

Arrow is really what started it all in the modern age of superhero shows. Specifically, superhero shows on the CW. Because of the show’s success, it’s inspired an onslaught of others. All of which follow the same format in terms of how the show starts. So it’s no surprise that Arrow‘s pilot episode is where it all starts. Plus, it really sets up how the rest of the story will unfold. Oliver just came back from five years of being stranded on an island. And now he has to deal with the family and friends he left behind. All of which thought he died. And then, add his father’s mission on top of that and you’ve got a great hook.

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