Sometimes, it takes a few episodes for viewers to realize how fantastic a TV series is. But some shows blow it out of the water during the pilot, hooking fans from the beginning. From Yellowjackets (2021-) to Lost (2004-2010), these captivating TV shows have incredible pilot episodes.
1. Orphan Black (2013-2017)
Full of dark twists and shocking turns, Orphan Black is a drama series about a mother with a troubled past who accidentally witnesses the death of a female cop who looks exactly like her. In the pilot, we watch the woman take the other’s identity. But her hopes of starting over are squashed when she realizes that the police officer had a tougher life than she could ever have imagined.
2. Lost (2004-2010)
Lost begins with a bang when forty-eight people survive a plane crash on a remote island. This episode was one of the most expensive television episodes to film of all time at around $14 million. Lost is a mysterious series that makes viewers question what caused the plane crash and who exactly its survivors are.
3. Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
This mystery series is about an FBI agent who visits a small town in Washington to investigate a young woman’s murder. The pilot draws the viewer’s interest as the agent travels around the town and interacts with its inhabitants. Anyone could be a suspect in this gritty crime drama.
4. The Walking Dead (2010-2022)
One of the reasons The Walking Dead is known as one of the best zombie TV shows is because its pilot sells the series from the get-go. When a police officer wakes up from a coma, he quickly learns he’s in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. The empty streets and dilapidated buildings set the scene for the terror to come, and we get a taste of it in the pilot.
5. Derry Girls (2018-2022)
This hilarious coming-of-age series doesn’t shy away from provocative jokes in its premiere episode, which hooked fans immediately. It’s about a group of teenage girls in Northern Ireland who attend school, worry about boys, and always seem to get into trouble. Each girl has a unique and humorous personality that makes the show stand out and encourages fans to return for more.
6. Yellowjackets (2021-)
Yellowjackets is an incredible thriller mystery series, and its pilot leaves viewers with their mouths hanging agape with shock and wonder. When a girls soccer team at a New Jersey high school boarded a plane for Nationals, they never imagined their plane would crash in the Canadian wilderness, leaving them stranded for over a year. The show depicts the girls’ time spent in the forest and the survivors twenty-five years after the crash as they attempt to cope with what happened out there.
7. Arrested Development (2003-2019)
The first episode of Arrested Development does a fantastic job of establishing character dynamics and setting the scene for the blunt hilarity and ridiculous jokes viewers can expect when they watch the series. It’s about a messed up wealthy family who finally gets what’s coming to them. The rich patriarch is imprisoned for embezzlement, forcing his one responsible son to attempt to wrangle the family and take control of the business.
8. The Americans (2013-2018)
The Americans pilot drops viewers right into its world through compelling storytelling. It may seem like the Jennings are your typical American husband and wife, but that’s not true. They’re Cold War KGB Russian spies in disguise. But their goal to kidnap a Russian defector and bring him back to Russia doesn’t go as smoothly as they’d hoped.
9. Friday Night Lights (2006-2011)
Known among critics as one of the best TV series ever, Friday Night Lights begins by reeling in the viewer through complex, emotional storytelling. It’s about the high school football team in a rural Texas town who want nothing more than to win the state football championship. The series follows the team’s coach as he guides students, deals with issues in his personal life, and engages in small-town Texas life.
10. House (2004-2012)
The first episode of this hospital drama series introduces the curmudgeonly genius Dr. House as he takes on one of his typical cases. When a woman arrives at the hospital, no other doctor can figure out what’s happening. But Dr. House’s intellect and investigative skills, along with the help of his dedicated staff, allow him to get to the bottom of it. We also learn that House is an irritable man who pushes away everyone in his life with dark humor, fierce insults, and derogatory comments.
11. Russian Doll (2019-)
When a woman attends her best friend’s birthday party, she dies in a terrible accident at the end of the night. But instead of going to heaven, getting reincarnated, or simply becoming one with the great abyss, the woman wakes up at the party again. She is forced to relive the night repeatedly, dying at the end every time. Can she escape her endless nightmare? And is she the only one stuck in this tiresome loop?
12. The Umbrella Academy (2019-)
The first episode of the fantasy sci-fi series The Umbrella Academy introduces the audience to the Hargreeves siblings. Each was adopted by a sinister billionaire who used the children’s superpowers for fame and glory despite its negative impacts on the kids. Now adults, the children reunite at their father’s funeral before learning that the world will soon end, and they’re the only ones who can stop it.
13. Supernatural (2005-2020)
The mysterious drama series Supernatural follows two brothers who walk in their father’s footsteps to become monster hunters. The first episode chronicles their decision to pursue their father’s career in his wake after learning of his mysterious disappearance. The monsters are exciting and the brothers’ personalities and relationships make this series a must-watch.
14. I May Destroy You (2020)
I May Destroy You is a British miniseries about a young writer who loves to let loose at bars and nightclubs. That is until a strange man assaults her and changes her life’s path forever. The series’ pilot shows the woman before and after the event and encourages viewers to keep watching to find out if its bright protagonist will find peace and seek recovery.
15. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017-2023)
This period comedy-drama series starts strong with its pilot episode. A woman living on the Upper West Side in New York City helps her husband pursue his dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. But when she learns that her husband is having an affair and wants to leave her, the perfect life she created falls apart. Heartbroken, the woman goes to a comedy club. She gets up on stage to rant about her life falling apart and discovers she has a passion and a talent for stand-up.
16. This Is Us (2016-2022)
What may seem like your typical family drama series begins with a twist-filled pilot in this romantic and compelling show. The episode follows four seemingly unconnected people who share birthdays and other life details. At the end of the episode, we learn that some of the plot occurs today and some in the 1980s. What do these connections mean?
17. My Mad Fat Diary (2013-2015)
As one of the most relatable teen drama series, My Mad Fat Diary starts by showing teens who struggle with their body image and mental health that they’re not alone. The series is about a girl who just left the psych ward and desperately wants to feel normal again. As she makes new friends, she struggles to open up and connect despite her vibrant personality.
18. Revenge (2011-2015)
Not everything is as lovely as the beaches in the Hamptons in this series. Years after her family was wrongfully disgraced and chased out of town, a young woman returns to the Hamptons to seek revenge on those who wronged her. The pilot does a fantastic job of keeping the suspense heightened and revealing answers at the exact right moment to keep viewers wanting more.
19. Pretty Little Liars (2010-2017)
This mysterious teen drama series follows four estranged friends who come back together when a sinister and secretive online presence threatens to reveal dastardly secrets about their past. The girls initially stopped speaking after the death of the fifth friend who held their group together. As the mysterious person keeps targeting the girls, people at their high school begin to wonder whether they are responsible for their friend’s death.
20. Alice in Borderland (2020-)
Alice in Borderland is a twisted mystery horror series that begins with suspense and intrigue. When three best friends head to the bathroom near Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya Crossing, they could never have predicted that the streets would be completely empty when they head back outside. As they search for a sign of life, they realize they’re stuck in a deadly game with no end in sight.
21. The Boys (2019-)
In a world of billionaire celebrity superheroes, some people realize that those fighting for corporate interests may not be the good guys. The pilot of The Boys explores a group of superhero fighters as they recognize the importance of their upcoming mission and band together to fight for good. At the same time, they crack ridiculous jokes and engage in incredible action sequences.
22. Westworld (2016-2022)
Westworld has one of the best first seasons on TV, but unfortunately, the quality of the story declines over the next few seasons. But the first season, especially the pilot, of Westworld is still worth a watch. It’s about a lifelike simulation of the Wild West where the mega-wealthy gather to engage in their darkest, most twisted fantasies on the theme park’s humanoid AI that roams the park. There are no rules: they can torture and kill the AI. But are the AI just simple machines, or are they sentient beings who deserve more than this terrible, never-ending existence?
23. Once Upon a Time (2011-2018)
The first episode of Once Upon a Time allows viewers to dive into a modern version of a familiar fantasy world that encapsulates their favorite fairy tale characters. The series begins when the Evil Queen magically transports a hoard of classic fairy tale characters and traps them in the real world. Can a modern woman with secret connections to the fantasy world bring all of the fairy tale characters back home?
24. Dexter (2006-2013)
This crime drama about a serial killer who also works for the police department is unique because it gets into the mind of its titular vigilante killer, which starts strong in the first episode. As we learn more about Dexter’s life of crime, he also investigates a series of murders linked to a serial killer. Dexter understands this killer’s motive more than his coworkers could ever know.
Maya (she/they) is a queer entertainment and culture journalist. They cover interviews, reviews, roundups, news, and more. She loves horror, history, and creativity. They hope their writing both entertains readers and inspires them to think critically. Her favorite pastimes include needle felting, gaming, and drawing.