20 TV Shows With the Strongest Pilot Episodes We’ve Ever Seen

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It’s common knowledge among TV show buffs that the pilot episode of any new show is just a “warm-up.” That’s why you need to commit to watching at least two or three episodes before you decide if you really love it or not. But there are some TV shows that come out of the gate with a strong pilot episode—and you just know those shows will be binge-worthy. 

We’ve got the 20 TV shows with the strongest first episodes ever. Do you have a favorite? Check out this list and see if it’s here!

1. Chernobyl (2019)

Photo Credit: HBO.

Chernobyl is a 2019 series based on the historical 1986 Chernobyl tragedy and the subsequent cleanup activities. Some viewers say the drama series had such a riveting first episode that it nearly exploded with action and drama. The show’s gripping introduction to the catastrophic events at Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant kept audiences on the edge of their seats.

Some fans even confess to rewatching the series annually, a testament to its lasting impact. While the brilliance of the pilot is undeniable, some viewers say it emotionally scarred them, leaving them unable to watch the intense experience again. Remarkably, the same creative team behind Chernobyl also brought us The Last of Us pilot, proving their knack for crafting compelling and unforgettable beginnings.

2. Six Feet Under (2001)

Photo credit: HBO.

The HBO TV show Six Feet Under kicked off its journey with a pilot episode that left viewers hooked and emotionally invested. It’s a show that resonates so deeply that fans continue to recommend it as a must-watch, solidifying its status as a classic. The pilot’s gripping storytelling and powerful performances have a timeless quality, with fans expressing their ongoing love for the series. Even those who’ve already experienced the emotional rollercoaster are tempted to revisit it, a true testament to the lasting impact of Six Feet Under’s stellar pilot episode.

3. Fargo (2014)

Photo Credit: MGM Television.

Fargo is a 2014 black comedy-crime series with an impressive four seasons and 41 episodes. According to Reddit users, it stormed onto the scene with a pilot episode that didn’t just set the bar—it shattered it. Viewers couldn’t help but be captivated by the intricate storytelling and stellar performances. With both the first and second seasons boasting excellent opening episodes, fans unanimously agree that Fargo’s gripping debut immediately hooked them, establishing it as a standout in the realm of TV greatness.

4. Attack on Titan (2013)

Photo Credit: Wit Studio.

Attack on Titan (AOT) is a Japanese manga series illustrated by Hajime Isayama. The apocalyptic series follows the story of Eren Yeager, along with his friends, as they exterminate man-eating giants in the post-apocalyptic world.

AOT soared onto the anime scene with a pilot episode that left fans on the edge of their seats, craving answers to the avalanche of questions it unleashed. Setting a tone of mystery and intrigue, it immediately hooked viewers, compelling them to unravel the secrets woven into the narrative.

The show’s gripping beginning had such an impact that some viewers even had to take a brief pause due to its intense emotional depth. However, the irresistible pull of the story ultimately drew them back, solidifying Attack on Titan as a favorite for many—and proving that its initial episode was a stellar launch into the epic tale that unfolded.

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5. Lost (2004)

Photo Credit: Touchstone Television.

Lost, released in 2004, is a science fiction drama that chronicles the journey of a band of survivors who find themselves on a remote tropical island in the Pacific after surviving a plane crash on Oceanic Airlines Flight 815.

Just like the first four TV shows on our list, Lost also kicked off its journey with a powerhouse pilot episode that left a lasting impact on viewers. Pioneering the ‘mystery box’ concept, it skillfully blended intricate storytelling with a compelling focus on characters. In its early days, Lost wasn’t just a TV series; it was an immersive experience that held audiences in suspense. Even those who didn’t stick around for the entirety of the show couldn’t deny the sheer riveting force of its opening, making Lost’s pilot a standout in the landscape of television history.

6. Hannibal (2013)

Photo Credit: Living Dead Guy Productions.

Hannibal is a psychological horror-thriller television series that aired from 2013 to 2015, starring Mads Mikkelsen as the titular character, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The series is based on the characters and elements from the classic novels Red Dragon and Hannibal by Thomas Harris.

According to fans on Reddit, the pilot episode masterfully sets the tone for the entire series. The show’s intricate dance between psychological tension and stunning visuals leaves a lasting impression. Seasoned fans and newcomers alike find the first episode to be nothing short of flawless, laying the foundation for one of the most beloved seasons in TV history.

Let’s not also forget the stellar performances of Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy that elevate the series, with Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Hannibal Lecter drawing comparisons to the iconic Anthony Hopkins. Surpassing expectations, Hannibal’s debut episode proves that it’s a culinary delight for thriller fans.

7. The West Wing (1999)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros Television.

The West Wing has remained a testament to the enduring brilliance of its pilot episode, captivating audiences and earning a place among the all-time greats. Fans hail it as a masterpiece, with some declaring it their favorite series of all time. Even after creator Aaron Sorkin’s departure, the show continued to maintain its excellence, showcasing a rare quality that invites multiple rewatches. The richness of the narrative, coupled with compelling characters, makes it a timeless gem in television history.

“26 Emmy awards,” wrote a fan on Reddit. “It’s a comical number when you consider how many legendary TV shows only got one or two awards. I remember when John Spencer, Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff were all nominees for best-supporting actor against each other, and you just had to laugh at how much better it was than other shows.”

8. Westworld (2016)

Photo Credit: HBO Entertainment.

This 2016 American sci-fi show, Westworld, dazzled audiences with a powerful pilot episode that hooked viewers from the start. The intricate narrative and stellar performances, especially in troubleshooting scenes, left a lasting impact. However, some fans expressed disappointment as later seasons struggled to maintain the magic of the initial brilliance. Despite its trajectory, the show’s captivating debut remains a standout in TV history.

9. Ozark (2017)

Photo Credit: MRC Television.

Ozark, a crime drama TV show, debuted on Netflix in 2017. Jason Bateman took on the role of Marty Byrde, a financial advisor who moves his family from the suburbs of Chicago to the Ozarks in Missouri to launder money for a drug cartel.

According to some fans on Reddit, this drama’s pilot episode plunged viewers into a rollercoaster of intensity. What began as a seemingly chill introduction swiftly escalated into a gripping narrative, leaving audiences collectively exclaiming, “Whoa.”

Many fans echo the sentiment that, while the show itself is solid, the pilot episode stands as the pinnacle of television brilliance. Ozark’s pilot managed to set the tone for the series, skillfully blending suspense and drama for an unforgettable TV experience.

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10. Derry Girls (2018)

Photo Credit: Hat Trick Productions.

This show is known for its witty and irreverent humor, as well as its poignant exploration of the impact of political conflict on everyday life in Northern Ireland. Derry Girls stormed onto the scene with a pilot episode that effortlessly achieved the sitcom trifecta: setting the stage, introducing characters, and delivering genuine laughs.

Unlike many first episodes that grapple with table-setting and lack humor, Derry Girls hit the ground running. Fans resonate with the show’s immediate charm, relishing the rare delight of discovering a series that doesn’t need time to “get better”—it’s fantastic right from the very first episode.

Fans also praise Derry Girls for its diverse and relatable characters, as well as its portrayal of female friendship and adolescent angst.

11. Sherlock (2010)

Photo Credit: BBC.

This 2010 version of Sherlock Holmes , starring Benedict Cumberbatch, has captivated audiences from the get-go with a pilot episode that raised the bar for television brilliance. As the series unfolded, it navigated intricate plots and clever narratives, earning a reputation for its cinematic quality. However, opinions diverged on later seasons, with some finding that Sherlock’s attempts at brilliance resulted in episodes that were challenging to watch. Yet, for many, the pilot remains a testament to Sherlock’s initial promise—a captivating and masterful introduction that set the stage for a unique TV experience.

12. The Americans (2013)

Photo Credit: DreamWorks Television.

The Americans has been praised for its complex characters, compelling storytelling, and meticulous attention to detail in its portrayal of historical events and espionage tactics. The show has won several awards, including Emmys for its lead actors and for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series.

From the very start, The Americans masterfully introduced a complex web of espionage and personal drama, leaving audiences hungry for more. As fans reflect on the series, many praise not only the compelling pilot but also commend the show’s ability to maintain its high stakes and emotional intensity throughout its run, making it a standout in the TV landscape.

13. Battlestar Galactica (2004)

Photo Credit; Universal Television Studios.

Battlestar Galactica is a 2004 sci-fi series that blasted onto screens with a pilot episode that left fans’ jaws dropped and hearts racing. The opening scene alone was a masterclass in gripping storytelling, instantly hooking viewers with its intensity and intrigue.

As fans reminisce about the series, it’s not just the stellar pilot they applaud but the entire journey, including a standout finale and everything in between. Battlestar Galactica’s ability to maintain its pulse-pounding momentum from start to finish cements its status as a sci-fi classic.

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14. Designated Survivor (2016)

Photo Credit: ABC Studios.

Designated Survivor burst onto the scene with a pilot episode that was a rollercoaster of suspense and political drama. Kiefer Sutherland’s gripping performance as the accidental president navigating chaos was an instant hook for viewers. The first episode skillfully set the stage for a series filled with unexpected twists and turns, leaving audiences on the edge of their seats. The strength of that opening chapter served as a testament to the show’s ability to deliver gripping storytelling from the very beginning.

15. The Good Place (2016)

Photo Credit: Universal Television.

This 2016 American sitcom kicked off with a pilot episode that left audiences pleasantly bewildered and utterly engaged. Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop waking up in the afterlife, only to discover she’s seemingly made it to “The Good Place,” was a brilliantly original premise. The comedic genius of Ted Danson as Michael added an extra layer of charm to the unfolding chaos.

Among other things, the clever writing, unexpected twists, and the promise of moral philosophy discussions made The Good Place’s pilot an irresistible introduction. The first episode’s unique blend of humor and existential questions set the stage for what became a fan-favorite journey through the afterlife.

“This is especially striking because sitcoms are notorious for having ‘meh’ pilots at best, even the ones that become classics,” one fan wrote on Reddit. “Sitcoms always seem to take time to get the characters together and for the writing to align with their characters’ energy. But The Good Place was straight hysterical right out of the gate!”

16. The Walking Dead (2010)

Photo Credit: AMC Studios.

Opening with Rick Grimes awakening in a deserted hospital to a world overrun by zombies, the first episode of The Walking Dead masterfully set its post-apocalyptic tone. The suspenseful and eerie atmosphere, combined with the iconic ‘tank scene,’ gripped viewers from the start. The pilot’s ability to evoke genuine fear and anticipation resonated strongly with audiences.

While some fans later felt the series lost its initial allure, the pilot episode remains a benchmark for the show’s early success. Its impact extended beyond the screen, influencing how audiences perceive and remember the entire series. The Walking Dead’s debut episode solidified its place as a landmark in the zombie genre and television history.

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17. Dexter (2006)

Photo Credit: The Colleton Company.

Dexter’s pilot episode is hailed for its gripping start, introducing the complex life of Dexter Morgan, a blood spatter analyst with a chilling secret. The series explores Dexter’s personal struggle with his dark impulses and his attempts to balance his ‘normal’ life as a brother, friend, and father with his secret life as a killer. With a riveting narrative, the first episode skillfully sets the stage for Dexter’s morally intricate journey. This pilot’s compelling introduction marks it as a standout entry in the acclaimed series.

Over the course of the series, Dexter becomes involved in a number of complex and dangerous situations, including his interactions with other serial killers, the police department’s investigations into his activities, and his attempts to maintain his cover while pursuing his targets.

18. Jericho (2006)

Photo Credit: Paramount Network Television.

Jericho is a post-apocalyptic drama television series that aired from 2006 to 2008. The show is set in the small town of Jericho, Kansas, after a nuclear attack on several major U.S. cities. As the survivors struggle to rebuild their lives and society in the wake of the disaster, they face various challenges, including food and water shortages, disease outbreaks, and conflicts with neighboring towns and militias.

One person said on Reddit, “That first episode was dynamite. Hands-down. But unfortunately, when they were forced to bring it back for season two, with a much reduced budget (just to pacify the fans), it showed. Was not the same quality show as season one.”

19. Mr. Robot (2015)

Photo Credit: Esmail Corp.

Mr. Robot hits the ground running with a pilot episode that’s a wild ride for the senses. From the perspective of an unreliable narrator, the show weaves a complex tapestry of mystery and intrigue. The first 10 minutes alone draw viewers into its techno-thriller charm. As the series progresses, it skillfully navigates the line between a gripping storyline and exploring the unpredictable narrator trope, making Mr. Robot a standout in the realm of TV pilots.

A fan on Reddit said, “That first episode legit dropped my jaw. It’s one of the all-time greats.”

20. Fringe (2008)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros Television.

Fringe is a science-fiction television series that aired from 2008 to 2013. The show follows a team of FBI agents and scientists investigating mysterious and unexplained phenomena, including parallel universes, advanced technology, and supernatural events.

This series blasts onto the scene with a pilot that’s nothing short of mind-bending brilliance. The show’s blend of science fiction, mystery, and just a dash of the inexplicable captured the hearts of viewers. Despite its undeniable quality, it often flies under the radar, a hidden gem waiting to be discovered.

The intricate storyline and well-developed characters keep fans on the edge of their seats. In the vast landscape of TV shows, Fringe proves that sometimes the best gems are the ones you have to seek out.

Source: Reddit.

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