Kicking off a series is an extremely tricky thing to get right. Introducing a brand new world, making people fall in love with brand new characters, but still holding enough back to make sure all those brand new viewers come back next week—it’s almost an art form in itself.
But the following shows truly nailed it, managing to strike a perfect balance between all of the above and adding plenty more besides. Bask in their confident, attention-grabbing glow.
Best First Episodes – House of Cards: “Chapter 1”
“Chapter 1” is exactly as cool, confident, and compelling as you’d expect from a TV episode directed by David Fincher: a dog gets hit by a car. Our lead, Kevin Spacey’s congressman Frank Underwood, kneels down next to the dog. “Sssh,” he whispers. “It’s okay.”
Frank turns and speaks to camera. “There are two kinds of pain,” he says. “The sort of pain that makes you strong, and useless pain, the sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.”
Then Frank strangles the dog.
Best First Episodes – True Detective: “The Long Bright Dark”
That’s the only word we could use after seeing this brilliantly scripted, stylishly shot, and perfectly performed first episode. Thanks to a bleak tone, a fascinating mystery, and two career-best performances from Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, this detective show, which could have been predictable, ended up being anything but. Cary Fukunaga and and Nic Pizzolato nailed it at the first (and last together) try.
Best First Episodes – The Walking Dead: “Days Gone Bye”
Hooking us from the opening moments, we track Rick’s awakening from a coma into a world of the undead before setting off on a mission to find his family.
It’s a rare feeling to know you’re watching your new favorite series even before the opening credits roll. The director Darabont shot the episode on 16mm film, making it feel more like a mini movie than a TV show, making it endlessly rewatchable.
Best First Episodes – Lost: “Pilot”
Lost hit the ground running from an explosion.
Astonishingly, in the middle of all of this action, this two-part opener managed to seed a dozen different mysteries, while also introducing us to 15 distinctive and memorable characters.
The pilot is so exciting to watch, even now that we know how it all ended. More or less…
Best First Episodes – The Young Pope: “Episode One”
Sorrentino’s targets are the ones of any bold, always-aiming-up satire: power-hungry, insecure, image-obsessed, egomaniacal, greedy, hedonistic, morally ambiguous. Cardinals in Rome have elected a 47-year-old New Yorker named Lenny Belardo as the new Pope.
But the best scene is the one of the dream: Jude Law crawling out of a pyramid-sized pile of babies is certainly a way to make an entrance. Sorrentino, drawing on religious and Renaissance art, seems to basically be saying to audiences, “Abandon all hope, ye who believe in boring good taste”.
Best First Episodes – How I Met Your Mother: “Pilot”
In its pilot, “How I Met Your Mother” sets out to assert its place as a snappy sitcom with a soul. Though the show is rife with rapid-fire laughs and every bit is called-back again and again, by the end of the first episode we have a keen sense of who the main characters are.
The pilot introduces us to the complex, loving relationships between the four main characters so thoroughly and immediately that after only one half-hour of television, we feel like we have our own personal seat at McLaren’s.
Best First Episodes – Homeland: “Pilot”:
Homeland is contemplative, anchored by a smooth, atmospheric jazz soundtrack.
Protagonist Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a maniac CIA analyst who may or may not be completely in tune with reality and rationality and she’s certain that newly rescued soldier Nick Brody (Damian Lewis) was turned during captivity. The pilot doesn’t give us an answer, even as Carrie breaks several laws and threatens to burn several bridges to prove herself. What it does give us is to leave us with a huge doubt.
Best First Episodes – Breaking Bad: “Pilot”
Walter White, portrayed by a stunning and shocking Bryan Cranston, is a high school chemistry teacher living in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his pregnant wife, Skyler, and their son, Walter Jr., who has cerebral palsy.
Shortly after his 50th birthday, Walter collapses and is raced to the hospital, where he is told that he has developed inoperable lung cancer and has only a few years to live. To relieve his tension, Walter takes up Hank’s offer (his brother in law and DEA Agent) to go on a ride-along as he raids a known meth-lab. As the DEA agents clear out the house, Walter observes his former student Jesse Pinkman, Aaron Paul, sneaking out a back window.
Here he met his future best friend, enemy, ally and rival.
Best First Episodes – Twin Peaks “Pilot”:
An FBI agent arrives in the town of Twin Peaks to investigate the murder of high school student Laura Palmer.
“She’s dead, wrapped in plastic.”
And so begins David Lynch and Mark Frost‘s small-town murder mystery. The pilot brings out the entire town in the wake of the murder. Laura Palmer, high school sweetheart, has been found dead. And yes, wrapped in plastic. FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is the one who is handling the case. What comes next is a strange joy.