Cliffhanger or Closure? Top 5 of Each

Pilots, when well executed, make the viewer want to come back for more. However I’ve noticed that pilots fall along a continuum in terms of how they leave you feeling at the end. Some just get the action going, and then abruptly end. They leave you chomping at the bit for episode 2 because you just have to know what happens next. Some shows, say 24, couldn’t work any other way. (That show is such an obvious example it’s not worth listing below.)

Other pilots are more self-contained. Sure, they introduce characters and situations and, ideally, make you want to keep watching. Yet, they wrap up neatly and can be enjoyed again and again like mini-movies.

Still others lie someplace in between. Here are five of the best at either end of the spectrum. It’s by no means an exhaustive list; as I’ve said before I don’t claim to have seen every pilot, or even every great pilot out there! (BTW, spoiler alert.)

What else should be on the list? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

Best Pilots that Leave You Hanging

Veronica Mars – So. Much. Stuff. Happening in this pilot. We just get a taste of the Lily murder, which will keep us guessing even after it’s solved.

Heroes – Again, this pilot just scratches the surface of everything that is set to happen. Absolutely no questions are answered.

Jericho – The ending of this pilot scared the bejeezus out of me. You see the map of the U.S. with all these pushpins marking places that were nuked and ask, “Just how bad is this disaster?”

The Walking Dead – Did the sight of Rick in that tank and the sound of the voice over the intercom not make you just want to hit the fast-forward button to the following Sunday?

How I Met Your Mother – This leaves you hanging not for a week, but for… well, it’s been five freaking years. How did you meet their mother for f’s sake?

Best Pilots that Can Stand Alone

The Simpsons – It’s a Christmas special. Need I say more?

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – This was so good, it is inexplicable why the series went so far downhill. It was a prodigal son (or sons) story that wrapped up beautifully.

Friends – It’s a happy ending to a story about a woman who walked out on her wedding. It offers possibility—will Ross get Rachel?—but it’s a happy ending.

Glee – This necessarily had to be good all by itself because it aired way before the season actually started. And it wildly succeeded.

Dead Like Me – This pilot delves deeper than it needs to, explaining the whole back story of the character plus the rules of the show’s world all in one go. But even with all the change she’s just faced, George gets a sense of closure by going to see her mom.

Why Pilots?

I love television. There, I said it. I used to be one of those television snobs who simply didn’t have time for such a small-minded diversion. Actually, in college, in the early 90s, I really didn’t have time for television, what with 21 credit hours and up to four jobs at a time. After college, watching television just wasn’t part of my routine, so it took a while for me to catch on.

Now it seems there is too much to watch. Of course, there is more to watch, with cable venturing into drama and comedy series, and the internet making shows from around the world accessible. It has been suggested that television writing has improved in the past several years, in part due to a broader supply of programming. Writing has become more sophisticated, and plots more involved.

So where to begin soaking up all that programming? With the pilots.

The pilot is almost a genre in itself. (I am using “pilot” to mean first episode, not necessarily the episode used to sell the show. I realize that, within the industry, there is a difference.) The very embodiment of ambition, a pilot attempts to encapsulate all the glory promised by a series into one 23- or 44-minute episode that says, “This is going to be a great show! Please give us a chance.”

As a former English major, I love to dissect a written work. So that is what I intend to do with pilots. This is not a review site, per se; I will not give anything stars, thumbs, or tomatoes. I will voice opinions, but the aim is essentially to muse on the very nature of pilots—what makes a good start to a series, or a bad one, and what makes a good start to what turns out to be a flop, and vice-versa. So please enjoy Anatomy of a Pilot.