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The Best First Episodes in Television
A lot rides on the pilot, or first, episode of a TV series. For starters, it may mean the difference between a show being picked up by a network or trashed for eternity. And then if the show makes it to the air, it serves as viewers’ entry into the world of the series—and determines whether they’ll keep watching.
In the days when broadcast television ruled, pilots were routinely made in the spring (known as “pilot season”), then screened by executives to determine their fall schedules, which they’d announce just before the summer break. That meant many pilots were made, but shelved, often never to be seen again. Now, in the streaming era, shows are released year-round, so pilots can happen at any time, and often are skipped altogether in favor of full-season orders. Streaming series often finish entire seasons before their air date, rather than the old-school way of working week-to-week. Still, their very first episode is perhaps more critical than ever, given viewers’ fickle tastes and nearly endless options.
Getting a first episode right is something of a miracle. Many exceptional, Peabody-winning shows were duds upon arrival, but grew into excellence over time; think Seinfeld and Parks and Recreation. The characters often haven’t settled into their true selves yet, or the casting chemistry is a little off, or the writers haven’t found the winning formula they’ll later discover. But here are some Peabody-recognized series that nailed it from the very start:
Creator Michael Schur presented a grand creative question with The Good Place: Could a sitcom show us what it means to be a good person? Yes, it turned out, especially with this killer premise. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a woman who made no particular effort to be decent, finds herself accidentally sent to “the good place” upon her death. The pilot expertly sets up this fantastical world and its characters, including Michael (Ted Danson), the neighborhood’s “architect”; Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a Senegalese ethics professor; Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a name-dropping English philanthropist/influencer; and Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), a silent monk who isn’t what he seems. It’s a paradise full of homes supposedly customized to their inhabitants’ souls and automatically assigned soulmate companions … until gigantic symbols of Eleanor’s lies attack the entire neighborhood in the final scenes, suggesting that she won’t likely remain undetected. The series would take many shocking twists over its four seasons, but the first outing gave us the perfect taste of what was to come.
Where to Watch: Netflix
When ER premiered in 1994, it was unlike anything we’d ever seen on television. Even though there had been doctor dramas before, this one aimed everything it had at re-creating the frantic feeling of an actual emergency room. It came with a serious pedigree, produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Michael Crichton, and it delivered. The two-hour pilot uses that kinetic, documentary-style camera work that would become much more prevalent on television in the years to come, in this case to depict the chaos of 24 hours in a Chicago ER. Despite the barrage of patients, the pilot clearly and memorably introduces important characters, like the grounded Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards), the lothario pediatrician Dr. Doug Ross (George Clooney), the nervous med student John Carter (Noah Wylie), the cocky Dr. Peter Benton (Eriq LaSalle), and troubled nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Marguilies). The show would ultimately run for 15 seasons, built on this solid foundation.
Where to Watch: Hulu
The concept came on strong, right from the title—virginal Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez) gets pregnant when she’s accidentally artificially inseminated during a routine gynecology appointment. And the sperm sample, it turns out, is that of the dreamy Rafael Solano (Justin Baldoni), who runs the hotel where she works. So the challenge wasn’t making it interesting, but making it believable. Rodriguez grounds the insanity in a career-making performance, and creator Jennie Snyder Urmaninfuses the telenovela concept with warmth while surrounding Jane with lovable characters, from her strict abuela (Ivonne Coll) to her vain-but-sweet long, lost father, telenovela star Rogelio (Jaime Camil).
Where to Watch: Netflix
Lost was among a crop of shows that changed network television in the 2000s, elevating production values and embracing more complex, serialized storytelling designed to not just entertain, but obsess, viewers. The endlessly rewatchable pilot episode encapsulates this perfectly, believably dramatizing a plane crash on an island and introducing several intriguing characters, including doctor Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox), criminal Kate Austen (Evangeline Lilly), and down-and-out rockstar Charlie Pace (Dominic Monaghan). The two-part episode contains the exact right amount of suspense, balancing character flashbacks to before the crash with island intrigue: Was that a monster that emerged from the forest and grabbed the airplane pilot? Why is there a broadcast signal that’s been playing on a loop for 16 years saying, “It killed them all”? What’s with the polar bear? In short, as Charlie says in part 2’s indelible final line: “Guys, where are we?”
Where to Watch: Hulu
Yes, this show also made our list of great finales; both its first and last episodes are true standouts. This episode looks like simply great storytelling from the vantage point of 2023, but it was groundbreaking in 1970, and thus tested terribly with a preview audience: Why was Moore’s character so pathetically single at the old age of 30? Why was the character of Rhoda (Valerie Harper), Mary’s eventual best friend, so aggressive as she vied for the same sweet Minneapolis apartment Mary was applying for? Why was Mary’s new boss, Lou (Ed Asner) so mean? Luckily, the show’s creators, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, charged forward with virtually the same script despite the bad preview, and the pilot plays beautifully by any reasonable standard. Rhoda’s edginess makes her more interesting, and Lou’s gruffness results in one of the greatest sitcom scenes, and lines, in history. After he questions Mary about her marital status and her religion as well as her typing speed, Mary objects, prompting him to roar, “You’ve got spunk. I hate spunk!” By the end, Mary is established as the quintessential independent career woman, and a classic is born.
Where to Watch: Hulu
It’s not an easy assignment to reinvent a classic literary figure who’s already been revisited a number of times—without upsetting his still-vibrant fanbase. But that’s what writer-producers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss do, and quite skillfully, in Sherlock‘s first episode, “A Study in Pink.” The script cleverly translates Sherlock into a modern, well-dressed, imperious savant (played by Benedict Cumberbatch with crucial charm), and his sidekick John Watson (Martin Freeman) into an Afghanistan war vet and forensics expert. It also pays homage to the first in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about the famous detective, “A Study in Scarlet,” while switching up just enough of the clues and story to make it brand new—and keep viewers watching.
Where to Watch: Amazon
Lost-style storytelling in an otherwise straightforward family drama? Sure, why not? The only way to talk about this is to spoil it, so scroll away now if you haven’t watched and want to maintain the surprise. This Is Us establishes itself as a totally different kind of show with its first-episode twist, aided by some very clever costuming and set design: It seems to be about four different people with the same birthday, when, in fact, one of those four is revealed to be the father of the other three, appearing, it turns out, in a flashback sequence to the day of the the other three’s birth. (They’re twins and an adopted third sibling.) It was a clever, buzzy way to set up what would become one of the last big network TV sensations.
Where to Watch: Hulu
Watchmen takes its comic-book inspiration and adds to its alternate history, setting it in the present day but including flashbacks to “real” events, most prominently the opening, which centers on a young Black boy during the 1921 Tulsa riots. The first episode of HBO’s one-season series juggles this with a complicated modern-day story in which a white supremacist group called the Seventh Kavalry is revolting against local police, who wear masks to conceal their identities. The plot hinges on detective Angela Abar (Regina King) investigating the murder of her boss, Judd Crawford (Don Johnson). Oh, also, squid sometimes fall from the sky like rain and Robert Redford has been president for decades. It’s quite a feat to make all of this not only comprehensible, but also compelling. This initial episode exceeded those expectations, kicking off an addictive season.
Where to Watch: Max