More than anything else, the very successful pilots discussed in this article all had a certain wonderful magic at their very core – which is to say, in the writing.
by Steve Greene, Ann Danahue, LaToya Ferguson, Libby Hill, Ben Travers, Leo Garcia
Each of these 20 series expertly built worlds of their own, breaking the rules to make them feel all the more relevant to ours.
The only rule about TV pilots is that you have to make your audience care.
The last 10 years of opening episodes have proved that there is certainly a template for making that happen. Have an audience surrogate character introduce the world and have the viewers see a new set of circumstances through their eyes. Have a central character deliver a not-so-disguised monologue laying out the broad themes of the series. Have the action cut out for one perfectly calibrated needle drop to show how the series connects in a specific cultural time and place.
Or do none of those at all.
In our ongoing quest to put the past decade in perspective, we collected 20 of the best pilots that either used those conventions to their advantage or gleefully tossed them into an incinerator. These shows span cable, streaming, and broadcast. Some shows aired only a dozen episodes, while others went on to become massive institutions that transcended TV itself. All of them managed to start off with a story worth remembering.
The title of the pilot says it all: After 15 years in a doomsday cult, Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) is free to experience the fetid, rat-tinged miasma of New York City. (In hindsight, what really drives home the point in the pilot that New York is a savage concrete jungle isn’t the real estate jokes, but a terrible, gross cameo from Matt Lauer.) The pilot has quickfire jokes aplenty – this is a Tina Fey and Robert Carlock joint, after all – but what resonates in the pilot is the steely certainty behind Kimmy’s perpetual sun. It’s “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in a blender, and you want to see more. —Ann Donahue….