Friday Night Seitz

10 greatest TV pilots ever

Part 1, drama category: An anxious gangster, angst-ridden teen, epic puzzle, and other near-perfect first episodes

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    10. “Homicide: Life on the Street” (NBC, 1993)

    This innovative series was the brainchild of screenwriter Paul Attanasio (“Quiz Show”), executive producer Barry Levinson (“Diner”) and then-Baltimore Sun crime reporter turned writer-producer David Simon, who adapted his own nonfiction book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.” Saying that the first episode followed the homicide cops’ investigation into a possible murder-for-insurance-money scam is like saying “The Iceman Cometh” is a play about a bunch of drunks in a bar. As is the case with so many great pilots, it’s not what happens that matters; it’s the look, the feel, the acting, the worldview. “Homicide” intriguingly split the difference between down-and-dirty, daily newspaper-style details (the cops smoke constantly, make unbearably grim jokes and never fire their guns) and highly stylized writing and performance that owed more to 1950s kitchen sink theater than to almost anything being made for TV in the early ’90s.

    The pilot’s director, Levinson, worked with the show’s director of photography, Jean de Segonzac, to develop a loose, free-flowing visual style that built on the documentary-style affectations of “Hill Street Blues.” NBC executives found the whole package rather off-putting, and subsequently pressured the producers to tone down the hand-held camerawork, the chain smoking and the squad room philosophizing, and crank up the “jeopardy” (which meant showing the cops drawing and firing their weapons, busting down doors — all the stuff Levinson and company specifically wanted to avoid).

    “Homicide” purists complain that while the series remained watchable and produced many classic episodes, its necessary compromises with NBC management ensured that it never quite lived up to the rawness, vitality and intelligence of its first few episodes — the pilot especially. And they might be right. If “Homicide” had appeared 10 years later, it probably would have aired on HBO, and it might have been even grander, tougher and more eloquent. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much what did happen: Simon went on to make the superb limited-run series “The Corner” for HBO (concentrating on Baltimore neighborhood residents rather than cops, and likewise based on his reporting). And his first ongoing series for HBO, “The Wire,” played like “Homicide” 2.0. The pilot for that one wasn’t too shabby, either.

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    9. “24″ (Fox, 2001)

    “24″ creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran bear the responsibility, or perhaps the blame, for the hyper-accelerated pace of so many modern TV dramas. The show blended Tom Clancy-style techno-thriller plotting, politically charged subject matter and R-rated action into a turgid and compulsively watchable stew, and every episode — indeed, every moment — thickened the plot. This pilot episode directed by Stephen Hopkins (“Blown Away,” “Judgment Night”) fulfilled the minimal requirements of a good pilot within its first 10 minutes, establishing the protagonist (Kiefer Sutherland’s proficient killer and beleaguered husband and father, Jack Bauer), the situation, the stakes and the style.

    But there was a merciless elegance to the pilot that went beyond efficiency. It looked and moved like nothing we’d ever seen on commercial television; in fact it was more aesthetically adventurous than all but a handful of big-budget Hollywood action movies being made at the time. From the retro split screens that showed complex, parallel action without cross-cutting to the aggressive hand-held photography (which reflected contemporaneous developments in Hollywood action movies, especially the “Bourne” films), “24″ strutted across the small screen with intimidating confidence. And the pilot’s explosive cliffhanger ending — a bait-and-switch that neutralized a person you thought was a threat, only to reveal a second, vastly more frightening conspirator you never would have suspected — boils the show’s wild deviousness down to a single, deliriously over-the-top set piece.

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    8. “Lost” (ABC, 2004)

    After the 9/11-fueled success of Fox’s “24″ in 2001 — a series that many industry observers thought would fail because it told a single, ongoing story with no stand-alone episodes — the broadcast networks knocked themselves out trying to come up with a successful variation on the formula. ABC finally hit pay dirt with “Lost,” which mixed soap opera contrivance, “Star Trek”-style leadership debates and rugged physical action, and the serial mysteries of the legendary British series “The Prisoner.” But the show was more than the sum of its influences: It was sui generis, and the two-part pilot — directed by series creator J.J. Abrams — announced this with considerable swagger, and a classical sense of how to build and release tension. In fact, rewatching the opening episodes, one can’t help being struck by how much more precise and controlled it was than the series’ norm.

    Abrams, whose subsequent feature films favor the multiple-camera, just-get-the-damn-shot style that has dominated TV and movies for the last decade, directs in an Alfred Hitchcock/Steven Spielberg mode, giving the viewer tantalizing fragments of information that take their sweet time forming a big picture. Consider the opening moments: a shot of an eye (belonging to Matthew Fox’s character, Jack) followed by a Terrence Malick-style shot from Jack’s point of view looking up at the bamboo trees forming a canopy over his head, following by a protracted sequence that shows Jack finding a tiny bottle of liquor in his pocket, then wandering out of the forest and onto the beach. The wrecked plane that deposited Jack and his fellow Losties on the island is revealed in a majestic tracking shot, one survivor and burning fragment at a time. This opening, like the rest of the pilot, shows you what you’re in for when you commit to watching “Lost” — long periods of disorientation followed by a revelation that answers some, but by no means all, of your questions.

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    7. “Miami Vice” (NBC, 1984)

    Although other series had tried to look like movies — mostly by pouring on production values — “Miami Vice” was the first series that truly felt cinematic: more enamored with rhythm and atmosphere than exposition. Created by Anthony Yerkovich, executive produced by Michael Mann, and directed by Thomas Carter, this pilot built upon the modern noir sensibility that Mann perfected in his debut feature, 1981′s “Thief.” The most striking thing about the series was its willingness to linger — on a moment, on a wordless reaction, on an arresting piece of architecture.

    The plot was standard buddy cop nonsense, with New York detective Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) partnering up with stubbly Miami vice cop Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) on a mission to bring down the drug dealer responsible for killing Tubbs’ brother and Crockett’s former partner (a pre-”L.A. Law” Jimmy Smits). The real draws were the atmosphere, fashion, music and then-unprecedented details of the drug trade. The violence was shocking, the sex frank, and although the world-weary tone wouldn’t have surprised anyone raised on a diet of 1970s American movie thrillers and French New Wave films, it was such an unfamiliar sight on 1980s network television that it seemed to have arrived from some other dimension. Twenty-six years on, the finale — Crockett and Tubbs riding toward their final confrontation with the bad guy while Phil Collins sings “In the Air Tonight” — still carries a charge. It was a swing-for-the-fences stylistic flourish, and its sheer aesthetic chutzpah pointed the way toward dramatic TV’s future.

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    6. “The Sopranos” (HBO, 1999)

    Written and directed by series creator David Chase (who only stepped behind the camera one other time, for the series’ 2007 finale), this pilot had an impact comparable to that of “Twin Peaks” in 1990 — and it’s worth considering the two in relation to each other. Chase is an admirer of “Peaks” creator David Lynch, and the influence shows — not just in the fascination with psychology and dream imagery (Tony is obsessed with a dream about loss involving the disappearance of his beloved ducks) but in its juxtaposition of mundane suburban puttering and shocking violence. And there’s another linking factor as well: Like “Twin Peaks,” “The Sopranos” was a community-based series, one in which events sent shock waves through the lives of people not directly connected to them.

    There were a few touches that in retrospect feel misjudged — notably a doo-wop score in a flashback to Tony chasing and beating a man who owes him money, a soundtrack choice that unfortunately made “The Sopranos” seem more derivative of “Goodfellas” than it ultimately turned out to be. All in all, though, this hour satisfied all the requirements of a good pilot (introduce the series’ major characters, setting, thematic concerns and tone without seeming too much like an exposition dump) while managing to transcend the form, and work as a self-contained expressive work of art.

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    5. “Star Trek” (NBC, 1966): “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”

    And here’s where readers might justifiably call foul. Hear me out, though. It’s true that TV networks often show episodes in a sequence that doesn’t reflect their original production date, and it’s true that “Star Trek” debuted Sept. 6, 1966, on NBC with an episode that was actually sixth in the production lineup: an engrossing but rather thin suspense piece titled “The Man Trap.” The actual pilot episode of “Star Trek,” “The Cage” — which showed Jeffrey Hunter as Pike, the original captain of the USS Enterprise, being kidnapped and psychologically tortured by creatures that treated him as a zoo animal — was extraordinarily rich by network TV standards, a stand-alone story that did for “adult” sci-fi what Sam Peckinpah’s “The Westerner” (No. 4 on this list) did for its genre. And that was the problem, apparently: NBC didn’t like “The Cage,” and ordered it replaced with a new pilot, “Where No Man has Gone Before.”

    The latter sent the Enterprise in search of another vessel, the Reliant, that had disappeared in a “space storm” that afflicted its two surviving crew members with psychic powers and gave one of them a God complex (a recurring theme in Roddenberry’s series). The new pilot introduced Captain Kirk and set up the emotion vs. logic dynamics that would fuel three seasons of the show and six spinoff movies. It was as hard-edged and gripping as “The Cage,” but a lot more likable, thanks in large part to star William Shatner’s buoyant hamminess and his wry interplay with Leonard Nimoy’s Spock. “The Cage,” meanwhile, was cannibalized for a two-part courtroom thriller episode “The Menagerie,” arguably the most narratively complex tale the original series ever attempted. “The Cage” was finally broadcast in its original form in 1988. Whether you consider the first or second pilot to be the official pilot, “Star Trek” still represents a rare example of a new series coming out of nowhere with a vision that hadn’t been seen before, and sticking the landing twice.

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    4. “The Westerner” (NBC, 1959)

    American viewers had never seen anything like “The Westerner,” and after it was gone, it would be a long time before they saw its ilk again. Created by Sam Peckinpah, the series took the then-new tradition of the “adult western” — exemplified by the likes of “Gunsmoke” and “The Rifleman,” which Peckinpah created under the original title “The Sharpshooter” — to a new level of sensitivity and maturity, without stinting on the frontier brutality that genre fans expected. The pilot, which aired as part of the anthology series “Zane Grey Theater,” was a 30-minute mini-movie that sent hero Dave Blassingame (Brian Keith) on a mission to “rescue” a former flame — a woman known as “Jeff.” Problem is, she doesn’t really want to be saved. She’s a frontier barmaid who’s a virtual slave to a bullying saloon owner and one-time bare-knuckles brawler from England, and although she recognizes the awfulness of her existence, it’s the only life she knows.

    From the pilot’s opening moments — which establish the saloon’s grubby regulars (including future Peckinpah MVP Warren Oates as a drunk) and shows Dave arriving in town and being greeted by a wild-eyed, probably deranged woman trying to sell him a Bible — Peckinpah makes it clear that he isn’t interested in cartoon western heroics. The hero wins the battle but loses the war. (Jeff can’t bring herself to leave her captor, who says he’ll fall apart without her — a typical abusive male strategy.) “Why should I worry about you?” Dave tells Jeff tenderly as he prepares to leave town, untying a ribbon from her hair. Peckinpah leaves us with a bittersweet message written on the saloon wall: “Tonight a soul is lost / He wonders the wide earth / But he finds only emptiness.”

    The series was canceled after 13 episodes due to low ratings and made little impression on the general public (although the plot of one installment was reworked as the Charlton Heston western “Will Penny”). The complete series was reissued on DVD a few years ago, but in a limited run. To see it now you have to rent it or purchase a used copy from a private seller, or order Starz Westerns on cable and hope it shows up again. “The Westerner” is well worth the effort, though. The pilot, which was co-written and directed by Peckinpah, is a thing of beauty — arguably one of the few flawless things he ever made, along with “Ride the High Country” and “The Wild Bunch.”

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    3. “Hill Street Blues” (NBC, 1981)

    When did viewers know they were in the presence of greatness? If they didn’t know from the cold-opening “roll call” sequence — a regular feature of “Hill Street” that nonetheless plunged newcomers right into the deep end of this pool — they figured it out when the opening credits began, and images of the series’ unnamed, decaying metropolis (actually a mix of Los Angeles backlots and snowy Chicago B-roll footage) kicked in, backed not by the-world-is-coming-to-an-end thriller music, but by Mike Post’s relaxed, even reassuring score. The juxtaposition of gloom and cheer in those opening moments defined the show’s then-unique “life goes on” tone, and the rest of the pilot — which included an out-of-nowhere shooting, and the establishment of some of the prickliest, most indefatigably human TV characters ever seen on network TV — established “Hill Street” as a new breed of cop show, less a procedural than a panoramic ensemble piece that used police work to explore the dynamics of a community.

    Creator Steven Bochco and his extraordinary collaborators (whose ranks included future “NYPD Blue” producer and “Deadwood” creator David Milch) created a panorama of urban malaise that never seemed like an editorial or a lament; it was more like an early Joseph Waumbaugh novel crossed with a documentary (a genre referenced by the series’ then-innovative, sinuous, hand-held tracking shots that followed one character and then picked up another).

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    2. “My So-Called Life” (ABC, 1994)

    “What’s amazing is when you can feel your life going somewhere. Like, your life just figured out how to get good. Like, that second.” That’s Angela Chase, the heroine of ABC’s “My So-Called Life,” talking in voice-over about her oh-so-typical middle-class teenage problems, rendered by writer-producers Winnie Holzman, Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick with such humor and sensitivity that they felt at once unique and universal. And that was the special genius of this pilot, and the sadly abbreviated series that followed it. “My So-Called Life” faithfully reproduced that commingling of wonder, anxiety and bitterness that defines the teenage years, so accurately that teens could say, “Yes, thank God, finally, someone got it right” — and grown-ups, to their astonishment, could say the same.

    It’s wonderful and awful being a teenager. It’s old news to the world but it’s all new to you. You have to go through all this crap — hormones, sexual anxiety, psychological separation from one’s parents, fear for one’s future — knowing full well that you’re not the first person that has ever gone through it, but wishing like hell you could just deal with it on its own terms, in your own way, without adults inadvertently diminishing the gravity of your emotions by reminding you in so many words that you’re not special, that everybody goes through this, and that someday it’ll be over and you’ll be nostalgic for your lost innocence, blah blah blah, just shut up, please! (Door slam.)

    Every element clicked into place: the lovingly detailed characterizations (including Angela’s parents, who were treated with just as much warmth and intelligence as their daughter); the performances, pitch-perfect from the leads on down; Holzman’s novella-like script (complete with Salinger-esque unreliable narration); Scott Winant’s dreamy visuals (including sliding, carousel-style transitions between scenes, a visual device that would be shamelessly imitated by many a subsequent series). And let’s not forget W.G. “Snuffy” Walden’s sprightly score and the astute deployment of pop tunes (including R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts”) that would have seemed too on-the-nose if the show wasn’t so disarmingly sincere. It’s perfect.

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    1. “Twin Peaks” (ABC, 1990)

    More than 20 years have passed since the debut of David Lynch’s drama, and so many subsequent shows have built on its innovations that it’s hard to explain to people who weren’t around (or paying attention) just how important it was. Simply put, if you cared at all about TV as a medium, or movies, or popular art in general, it was a seismic event. (It even got a full-length review in the New Yorker — in the film section.) The show itself never quite caught on with viewers, for all the reasons for which we now praise and parse it. It limped along for one-and-a-half seasons before getting canceled. (The viewership was larger than that of most “hit” network series on the air today; popular culture isn’t as popular as it used to be.)

    But the pilot episode was a bona fide hit and a subject of intense next-day discussion, because for once, the clich