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What Is the Best TV Pilot From the Past Five Years?

From ‘The Night Of’ to ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson,’ these are the shows that were the real deal from day one

HBO/Amazon/USA Network/FX/Ringer illustration

On Sunday night, HBO’s Barry announced itself as one of the most outstanding new shows on TV with a premiere episode that was profound, fresh, and remarkably in touch with its characters. It was a masterfully done pilot, deservedly earning a place alongside the best TV premieres in recent years. What else is on that short list? The staff of The Ringer has some thoughts.

The Night Of

Andrew Gruttadaro: The premiere episode of The Night Of is an exercise in dramatic irony. Unless you’ve been living in the soundproof booth Steve Harvey puts Family Feud contestants in while they wait to play Fast Money, by the time you hit play on The Night Of, you have a general idea of what’s going to happen. You know a young, seemingly innocent Muslim man from Queens (Riz Ahmed) is going to find himself at the scene of a murder; you know he’s going to be arrested on suspicion of committing the crime; you know John Turturro will appear as the lawyer who defends him. (The feet stuff—now that was a surprise!) And so the first episode of The Night Of, understanding that you already know its outcome, forces you to wallow in every awful decision and coincidence leading up to it. You wince when Ahmed’s Nasir “Naz” Khan decides to drive into Manhattan to go to a cool party, and fill with dread when he starts driving people around because he can’t figure out how to turn off the “In Service” light on his father’s cab. When the girl—the one you know is going to die at some point—goads Naz into doing drugs with her, you can only futilely yell “NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” at your TV screen. And after her death, when Naz flees the scene and takes the murder weapon with him, the episode becomes utterly excruciating as you wait for the police to find the knife in his jacket pocket.

The first episode of The Night Of isn’t filled with surprises, but that ends up being its greatest strength.

Catastrophe

Hannah Giorgis: Catastrophe, the delightfully crass rom-com written by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, should not work. Its pilot begins with a fairly unremarkable premise—Rob Norris (Delaney), an American man, has a six-night stand with Sharon Morris (Horgan), a woman he meets on a business trip in Britain. But soon, the titular chaos is revealed: Sharon calls a month later to inform a blubbering Rob that she’s pregnant. “So what do you want to do?” he asks. In a moment of caustic wit that comes to characterize the interactions between the two, a despondent Sharon retorts, “I want to build a time machine out of your fucking carcass, go back, and make it un-happen!”

With the necessary technology for her taxidermic ambitions not yet available, Sharon instead decides to keep the baby—and build something of a life with the clueless but endearingly committed Rob. The pilot moves seamlessly from raunch to biting humor to surprising moments of tenderness. Horgan and Delaney explore the minutiae of love, friendship, marriage, and parenting with an invariably sharp, comedic eye; life may be hard, but there’s beauty in its most daunting surprises.

The Last Man on Earth

Ben Lindbergh: The Last Man on Earth’s pilot was unlike any other first episode of post-apocalyptic TV. Its apparent premise was startling: What if the world ended, and the only survivor wasn’t especially smart, telegenic, heroic, or capable? Worse, what if he had nothing to do—no one to talk to except an assemblage of anthropomorphized sports equipment à la Cast Away’s Wilson—and nothing to fight beyond boredom? How would that work as a sitcom?

It wouldn’t, of course: By the end of that episode, Will Forte’s Phil was no longer alone, and five episodes in, we learned that he wasn’t even the last living man. (I was too cynical to be surprised, having already been betrayed by the discovery that there was way more than one ship on The Last Ship.) But the 20 minutes or so during which Last Man was a one-man performance piece made me think about which of Phil’s activities I would try if I had a whole country to myself, with no zombies or roving marauders around: making a massive margarita in a kiddie pool; collecting (and subsequently smashing) famous art and artifacts; getting emotionally attached to a mannequin. More important, the pilot served its purpose as a proof of concept—namely, that Forte was funny enough to carry a comedy all by himself, which remained true even after Fox formed an ensemble around him.

Mr. Robot

Michael Baumann: Considering how weird it is, the most amazing thing about Mr. Robot is how quickly it got off the ground. One problem with sci-fi shows—and I guess Mr. Robot isn’t strictly sci-fi, but you get the idea—is that you need to build a world and set up rules, and doing that takes time. Or at least it should when your show is a super-surrealist first-person drama seen through the eyes of a mentally ill drug addict. Also the show is literally named Mr. Robot, which is one of the most opaque, least inviting titles for a basic cable drama I can remember. There are a lot of pins to set up.

Mr. Robot heated up pretty quickly after the pilot—Episode 2 had the wonderful conference room scene set to Beethoven, Episode 3 had the “Steal My Sunshine” montage—and by the Steel Mountain heist in Episode 5 and the jailbreak in Episode 6, the show was already at its peak. But if the introduction to Elliot and his strange world hadn’t been handled so perfectly, it would’ve been really easy to turn off before any of that happened.

The Americans

Miles Surrey: All pilots need to acclimate the viewer to their world and introduce overarching themes—the best ones make that feel effortless.

Really, The Americans is as much about the complexities of marriage as it is spycraft, which the pilot makes evident. Granted, it’s a pretty unusual union; two covert KGB agents that are next-level undercover, speaking perfect English, with two unknowing children in the mix (and an FBI agent for a neighbor, because it wasn’t stressful enough). What sells The Americans from the onset, however, is Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. Their chemistry is palpable and refreshingly subversive. Elizabeth Jennings is Terminator-esque, a ruthless killer with a steadfast devotion to the Mother Land’s cause. Philip Jennings … pouts, low-key loves America, and considers defecting to their FBI neighbor almost immediately. Can these contrasting ideologies—and really, two humans—withstand the daily toils of marriage, the spy job, and normal, everyday life? That’s for the sixth and final season to unveil, but those threads were brilliantly conveyed from day one.

Insecure

Virali Dave: The Insecure pilot, aptly titled “Insecure As Fuck,” opens with a montage of L.A. imagery and a scene in which Issa talks to a group of middle schoolers about We Got Y’all. Issa tells her students how she is there to help them, and one asks in response, “Why you talk like a white girl?” We know from the start that this is a show that’s going to talk about race (and more) in a way that is funny and emotionally complex. As the rest of the episode unfolds, we see Issa dealing with her depressed, inattentive boyfriend and her friend Molly worrying she’ll never get married. The two best friends grab dinner at Merkato before Issa prioritizes her own love life over Molly’s plight, going so far as to rap in front of a crowd about Molly’s “broken pussy.” Toward the end of the episode, Molly calls Issa out on her shit, saying, “That’s the damn problem, Issa. You don’t stop to think about how the shit you do can actually affect others.” “Insecure As Fuck” focuses as much on Molly and Issa’s unsatisfying love lives and careers as it does on their friendship. We know to expect the same from the episodes to come on Insecure, a show that is unafraid of embracing its flawed characters, paying tribute to its city, focusing on strong female friendships, and dropping plenty of Drake references.

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Kate Knibbs: I was worried when Ryan Murphy’s first episode for his American Crime Story anthology opened with the Rodney King beating. I knew Murphy was good at camp, but I doubted his ability to pull off a serious drama about justice in America, especially because the main reason I was so psyched to watch The People v. O.J. Simpson was the promise of scenery-chewing from John Travolta and David Schwimmer. Yet Murphy’s decision to play it solemn to ground the show worked. In “From the Ashes of Tragedy,” Murphy proved he could walk an extremely fine tonal line, treating social issues seriously but finding room to wink at figures like Travolta’s histrionic Robert Shapiro.

Transparent

Alison Herman: Transparent has something of an unfair advantage in this competition: As an early example of Amazon’s since-diminished pilot program, the first episode of Jill Soloway’s groundbreaking, award-winning exploration of gender and sexuality through the lens of one neurotic Jewish family was actually available to viewers as a stand-alone product for months before the full first season debuted. Consequently, it’s easier to appreciate not just what makes Transparent’s pilot such a compelling entry point into the rest of the series, but what makes it a near-perfect, self-contained venture in itself. (Transparent’s fellow Amazon project The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel also falls into this camp.) The Pfefferman family are a rowdy, messy bunch of helplessly selfish charmers, and in less than 30 minutes, Transparent’s first episode—written and directed by Soloway—introduces them all in the auteur’s now-signature naturalist style. The hazy Los Angeles setting, the chaotic family dinners that make the cast come off like an actual family when some of them aren’t even Jewish, the central narrative of Maura’s transition: it’s all here from the start. The other nine installments of Transparent’s freshman outing would eventually live up to the pilot’s promise, but in the meantime, the debut felt like enough.