Pilots tend to fit into one or more of a handful of categories. I don’t know if writers consciously choose among these when they set out to write pilots, or if it just happens organically. So this is a list of my own creation, which I will add to over the next several days. Let me know if you can think of others to add.
1. First Day on the Job/First Day of School
This is a super easy way for a writer to introduce a bunch of characters, since the protagonist is meeting them for the first time, too. Usually there will be a mentor character that tells the protagonist things that we, the audience, need to know about the setting and characters. The mentor will say a lot of stuff like “Look out for Bob, he’ll steal your lunch.” If done well it won’t sound contrived.
Examples: Scrubs, Beverly Hills 90210, Neighbors from Hell, Community, Privileged, Ugly Betty, Sit Down Shut Up, WKRP in Cincinnati
2. New Kid in Town
This can work in tandem with #1, a close relative. The character(s) might just be arriving in town and meeting the neighbors, sans jobs or school. It is especially handy for spin-offs; we already know the character but need to learn about a new location.
Examples: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, The Cleveland Show, Haven, Make it or Break It, The Riches, Joey
3. Happy Birthday, Dear Protagonist
This could actually be any significant date: the protagonist’s birthday, the anniversary of a life-changing event, or the day someone moves into a new life stage, like getting married or divorced.
Examples: Reaper, Chuck, The Brady Bunch
4. Prodigal Son/Daughter or You Can’t Go Home Again
In this one, a protagonist who has been away returns. Usually that person has changed in some significant way, or else the place that person is from has changed.
Examples: Bones*, Jericho, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Free Ride
*Bones doesn’t really fit any category I can identify. That’s why I love it. Read this post to see what I mean.
5. R.I.P. Main Character
This is most fun when the person who has died will go on being a character on the show. Otherwise it becomes a how-to-cope-with-loss story.
Examples: Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, Brothers and Sisters
5. Howdy, Neighbor
The protagonist(s) get a new neighbor, for better or worse. This could also be a new roommate or officemate.
Examples: Big Bang Theory, Three’s Company
6. The First Day of the Rest of Your Life
This one is my favorite. It gives a reason for the show to exist; that the protagonist is starting a new journey, but in a totally natural way. The pilot isn’t forced into a birthday or first day of work, it grows out of the nature of a character. (Often, episode 2 is the First Day on the Job). This can happen in two ways; either the protagonist makes a conscious decision to change his/her ways, or the universe decides for him/her. Maybe the person almost dies and decides to lead a better life. Or maybe wax figurines start talking to her. This often works along with the Significant Day, but is even better when it doesn’t. A popular spin on this recently has been people having kids appear in their lives that they didn’t know they had.
Examples: My Name is Earl, Futurama, Sex and the City, Wonderfalls, Heroes, How I Met Your Mother, Friends, Chuck, Being Erica, The Riches, Glee, Life Unexpected, John Doe, Dollhouse