A pilot episode has a lot to accomplish. It has to introduce a time, a place, characters, and relationships, as well as the tone and style of the show. Every once in a while, a pilot really nails a character introduction. In a moment, an audience meets a character and just knows that character. It might be shocking, it might be funny, but it’s memorable. I am sure there are many, many examples of which I am not even aware, but here are my favorites, in no particular order. If you have other suggestions, I would love to hear them!
1. Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) on Friends
At this point in the pilot, we’ve had a little while to get to know the other 5 members of the Central Perk gang. You don’t need me to review them. Ross is on the couch in the coffee house, lamenting the dissolution of his marriage. He whines, “I just want to be married,” and in walks this disheveled, rain-soaked bride complete with full-length veil. (Chandler counters, “And I just want a million dollars.”) Rachel hasn’t said a word, but her entry makes its own statement. You see a bride out of context like that and you know you’re in for a story.
2. The Devil (Ray Wise) on Reaper
Sam has already seen some strange sh*t on this, his 21st birthday. But as he’s cruising home from work in his parents’ station wagon, the smarmiest looking guy you’ve ever seen appears out of thin air in the back seat. “Is this a car-jacking,” Sam cries. “For this?” comes the response, “If it was an Escalade maybe.” After a few seconds of this fruitless back-and-forth the stranger reveals, “I’m not a carjacker. I’m the Devil.” Sam wrecks the car, and the Devil vanishes as quickly as he appeared. And that’s the kind of crap Sam is going to put up with for the next 2 seasons. This pilot gets better every time I watch it.
3. Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) on Chuck
What is cooler than a ninja? A ninja who turns out to be a super hot chick. In the episode, we have already met Sarah when she comes into the Buy More with a broken cell phone, but her true colors are unveiled when she shows up to steal Chuck’s computer. Each and every character on this show is awesome. But nobody makes an entrance quite like Sarah.
4. Bender Rodriguez (John Di Maggio) on Futurama
I don’t what is the best part of this character introduction; that there is such a thing as a suicide booth, that there is a robot in line to use the suicide booth, or that said robot wants to rip off the suicide booth with a coin on a string. On top of that, the viewer is in the same place as the protagonist, Fry: fresh out of the year 1999, with this whole new world unfolding more and more strangely by the minute. It’s funny, it’s bizarre, and it perfectly captures the tone of the show overall.
5. Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) on Glee
“You think this is hard? Try being waterboarded–that’s hard.” This first line by the sadistic cheerleading coach, the first, in fact, of the pilot, tells us everything we need to know. Although some unexpected complexity to the character was revealed later in the season, that uber-bitch, no-mercy exterior never faltered.