The new television season is upon us and we’re looking forward to some of the hyped new shows. But let the viewer beware—a pilot can make or break a TV series. I usually know within minutes if I’ve fallen in love or if I’m wasting my time. Which seems a little unfair: some of my favorite shows have terrible pilots, while some hooked me from the very start.
So, based on extensive research (i.e., years and years of being a TV junkie), here are two of the best pilots ever—and two of the worst.
This pilot will go down in history as my favorite. Actually, so will the entire first season. Veronica Mars was pretty much perfect from start to finish and the pilot was just the beginning of the awesome. From the moment it panned to Veronica sitting outside a sleazy hotel clutching a camera, I knew something special was happening. It was a teen show, but it was also noir, dreamily shot, and quickly established a quirky, but heartfelt tone. Within that first hour, we knew about Lily’s death, Veronica’s assault, her fall from popularity, her family struggles, and her relationships with Wallace, Duncan, her father, and even Logan Echolls, the obligatory psychotic jackass. This is a pilot done right: clever, funny, with a clear point of view and enough mystery to keep you coming back for more. I fell hard from the very first shot and I’ve never looked back.
Holy crap, this show. From the first few scenes (involving a kidnapped baby and an abandoned warehouse), I knew we were dealing with something totally new, totally exciting and totally unpredictable. Kerry Washington shines as Olivia Pope and the pilot—where she solves a murder and deals with the president’s alleged affair—perfectly sets up the fast-paced, passionate tone that Scandal has become known for. The slow-reveals are deftly handled, especially the big one: the president is having an affair… and he and Olivia just might be in love. I couldn’t stop watching, and, four years later, I still can’t.
Let me be clear: I love Arrow. Like, with all of my heart. I have shrines to Oliver Queen and I would seriously consider punching anyone who doesn’t love “Olicity.” But it just didn’t have a good pilot. The first season in general was a little rough, as the show was clearly finding its footing and realizing what worked and what didn’t. One thing that didn’t? Laurel and Oliver, which was shoved down our throats from the start. Combine that forced chemistry with a strangely wooden Stephen Amell, no Felicity Smoake, and the worst voice-over in the history of voice-overs, and you’re left with a pretty underwhelming first episode. Luckily, it was filled with action and clearly set up the flashback structure we’ve all come to tolerate, er, I mean love. Arrow went on to become an amazing superhero tale of love and redemption, but, based on its first episode, I’m not even quite sure why I stuck around.
Another great show with a terrible start. Over the years, we came to genuinely care for Leslie Knope and her ragtag team of Parks & Rec employees. Which is why the pilot is so surprisingly boring. Two of the top billed characters—Ann and Mark—are easily the worst, and both end up getting written off the show in later seasons. None of the characters we love—Ron, Tom, April, Donna, Jerry—have quite settled into their personalities yet. Even Leslie comes off as grating instead of passionate. Thank heavens the show improved, becoming one of the best sitcoms in recent years. But based on it’s pilot alone? I would have probably passed.
Writing the Pilot by William Rabkin (moon & sun & whiskey, Inc.; 2011)
Writing pilots is an art and a science, and finding just the right balance between story and tone can be incredibly tricky. If you think you can do better than Arrow, or Parks & Rec, then pick up Rabkin’s guide on how to create the perfect pilot. He gives readers tips on how to develop compelling characters who can grow throughout the years and how to conceive of a show well past the first few episodes. This is a must-read for any aspiring TV writer—or anyone who wants to learn more about the behind-the-scenes world of television pilots.