Top Ten: First Episodes
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First episodes are important. They need to make an impression, they need to set up a story, they need to introduce characters and they need to be entertaining enough to make people want to watch more...all this and they can only last 30-60 minutes.
It's a tall order. Some shows fail hugely, but others are utterly fantastic. It was hard to narrow it down, but here's our list of our top ten favourite first episodes. (And our top ten favourite last episodes is right here)
10. Twin Peaks
Rebecca Brodeur: Twenty-one years ago, a strange yet compelling show took to the airwaves and created an impact even its creators couldn’t have expected. The mystery surrounding the death of Laura Palmer in the small town of Twin Peaks captivated its audience but also gave us story arcs, character studies, and bizarre plot twists and turns. And the show became a spiritual parent to series such as Northern Exposure, The X Files, and even Lost as unsolved mysteries and quirky plots proved they could be successful if handled skilfully enough. The pilot episode of Twin Peaks establishes the mood of the show, from the wailing bereavement of Laura’s mother to the introduction of coffee-loving FBI Agent Dale Cooper. Not a moment is wasted in setting up what was to become a damn fine TV show.
Amy Jones: The first episode of ER was head-spinning. Fast paced, multiple story lines, rapidly moving cameras and thumping music throughout, ER contained twice the amount of edits as a standard hour of television at that time with palpable effect. Compared to anything else at that time, ER was like a shot of adrenaline washed down with a triple expresso, and it was completely addictive.
We struggled to keep up with the scenes as they zoomed past, but even the scenes themselves were deliriously fast paced. Incomprehensible dialogue was fired out by some incredible actors — the original cast of Edwards, Clooney, Stringfield, Wyle, Margulies and La Salle is the best that has ever been assembled on any TV show. And, of course, the plot of that first episode — the sudden and shocking admittance to the ER of that cheery nurse from the start of the show because of an overdose. ER was like a punch to the face, but it was a punch that got us hooked. Incredible first episode. Just incredible.
8. Studio 60
Nick Bryan: Whereas we all love The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s next venture into weekly television was a more divisive beast. Studio 60 had the same pitter-pattering dialogue, likable characters and blind optimism, but somehow never gelled as seamlessly, and ended up being cancelled in a single year.
Despite the eventual failure of the series, though, I hold that the pilot episode of Studio 60 was one of the finest conventional TV debuts ever written, introducing a huge range of characters and their situation, yet never seeming clunky or boring. The fact that all the actors were great probably helped. And so, even if later episodes went off the rails into self-indulgence, I think Studio 60 deserves recognition for this one shining, glorious moment. To be honest, if the pilot hadn’t been so brilliant, maybe future episodes wouldn’t have struggled so much to live up to it.
7. Doctor Who - An Unearthly Child
Colin Polonowski: Imagine a time, nearly half a century ago, when Timelords, the TARDIS, Daleks and The Doctor never existed. TV was in its infancy and there were only two black and white channels (the third, BBC2, launched in 1964). All of that changed on 23rd November 1963 when the first episode of a unique British television series created by Sydney Newman was broadcast to an unsuspecting public. Featuring a doddery old scientist and his 'granddaughter', who would have thought on that day they were watching a cultural phenomenon that would influence viewers five decades later?
No-one can deny the effect Doctor Who had on television. Every week it would encourage whole families to gather around their visual box of tricks and experience adventure, fun and scares in ways no other show then, or now, could hope to replicate. 'An Unearthly Child' was the perfect introductory episode - it brought the main characters to life - The Doctor (played by William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and her two teachers Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian (William Russell). It also introduced the iconographic TARDIS, a time machine cleverely disguised as a police box and set up events to take the story through the serial that saw our four travellers return to the Stone Age. The gravitas Hartnell brought to the lead role (that would subsequently be recast a further ten times in the main series alone) kept the series firmly grounded and it became as educational as it was exciting. ‘An Unearthly Child’ set Doctor Who on a course that would see it become one of the biggest and most recognised shows in the world influencing television around the globe and seeing it referenced in series as diverse as The Simpsons and Star Trek.
6. Life on Mars
Rebecca Brodeur: The first episode of highly-rated Life on Mars starts in 2006, with DCI Sam Tyler investigating a suspected serial killer. When his girlfriend, Maya, is abducted in the course of the investigation he drives off in a hurry to locate and save her. On the way, he’s involved in an accident and wakes up in 1973. Unsure of what’s happening to him, he heads to his workplace, only to find he’s now a Detective Inspector, working under the outspoken and definitely-not-politically-correct DCI Gene Hunt. The clash of 1973 and 2006 cultures forms the basis of this police procedural show, where the protagonist is often unsure of what to believe and how to explain his situation. With iconic performances from the whole cast, especially John Simm as Sam Tyler and Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt, this first episode had a lot of exposition to get through and managed to establish the show’s mood to perfection.
Luciano Howard: Well, this was a surprise. Confused at the timing of such a show just a few months after Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. had given the world their take on Sherlock Holmes, the BBC decided to have their own go. Bad timing, surely? Obviously the commissioning was approved by someone unaware of the wider world's entertainment news? Absolutely not. A smashing updated re-envisioning of the famous sleuth which could not have been any more entertainingly cunning. Like a fox, it was.
Wonderful turns by the principal cast but none more so than the especially excellent Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes himself. A simple, yet wholesomely effective switch of period to the modern day was all that was needed to reinvigorate the world and set it apart from any alternative play on the literary hero. Only three episodes have been aired to date and the world is waiting with baited breath for more of the entertainingly humorous Sherlock in partnership with the terminally afflicted Dr Watson. Possibly a curate's egg of a TV show - and season two will yield more evidence, but for now it's one of the best recent examples of the highest quality British drama.
Nick Bryan: US political drama The West Wing is a show so beloved by TV writers that praising it seems redundant. Created by Aaron Sorkin, who appears on this list more than once, it somehow made US politics, a bone-dry desert of a topic, seem emotive, vital and even funny.
The first episode, in particular, is one of the all-time great pilots. It doesn’t mess around with introductions, just chucks us into the thick of it. (That’s a whole other excellent political TV series, by the way.) Not to say it isn’t written accessibly, it’s carefully structured to give every character their moment, but by dispensing with How The Gang Got Together, we get straight into the quick-talking camaraderie, which is what Sorkin’s good at. It’s so garbled that the odds of grasping everything on first viewing are small, but that’s no bad thing. The only thing better than seeing it for the first time is going back and watching it again once you know who the hell everyone is.
3. Doctor Who - Rose
Amy Jones: I know, I know, Doctor Who is already on this list. But the two first episodes, of the original series and of the reboot, are both significant and brilliant enough that they deserve their own mentions.
I must confess, I’d never been interested in Doctor Who before the 2005 reboot. And even then I was incredibly sceptical about it. As far as stroppy, 15 year old me was concerned it was a crappy old show starring some stupid teenie bop star desperately trying to cling on to her career.
I think it says something about the first episode that after watching it I cleared out my Saturday nights for the next twelve weeks. I had no idea who the Doctor was or what he did but after a plastic boyfriend destroying a pizzeria, St David’s centre being destroyed by shop mannequins and the cold murder of one of the characters, I knew that I wanted to know more. The episode was exciting, unafraid to take risks and incredibly grown-up, even though it was geared towards kids. An astounding introduction to a completely brilliant series.
Luciano Howard: The following takes place between midnight and 1: 00 AM, on the day of the California Presidential Primary. Events occur in real time. Wow. For quite a while I'd thought to myself, why not a real-time show or film? Then A Time To Kill happened. That was why. But come 2001 arguably the finest debut hour-long ever was shown on TV - 24. An immensely exciting premise and introductions to the man who would be King - David Palmer - and the immeasurably hard Jack Bauer. Around this time all (nearly) lead male characters were called Jack (see Alias and Lost) but this one had everything. Ex-special forces (point of entry nowadays - see Hawaii Five-O), head of CTU, family man and immense bad-ass. Time with this man over the years brought us so much: going dark, within the hour, dammit, moles, Chloe. There just isn't time to detail everything. This first taste of what was to come over 8 glorious seasons was perfect, The set-up, the intros, the wow factor. It made the world sit up and take notice. Eventually we were forced to, after eight days. 00:00:03...00:00:02...00:00:01...00:00:00.
Colin Polonowski: Before it got lost in its own mythology, Lost was a remarkably simple show about a group of plane crash survivors on an island somewhere in the pacific. The island, whilst apparently uninhabited, was home to a then unseen monster which could knock down trees and kill within a matter of seconds. From the start, the makers introduced us to the flashback mechanic so we were able to not only follow the journey of these characters following their ordeal, but also the events that lead up to their fateful boarding of Oceanic flight 815. Despite what it became, Lost, in its pilot episode was just a brilliant slice of adventure TV. The science fiction and fantasy was kept firmly behind the scenes; something of a masterstroke that enabled the series to build up a fan base which would usually steer clear and while Damon Lindelhof and Carlton Cuse did dabble with some remarkably hard science fiction concepts later on, the far more primal survival aspect of the show was what first grabbed the attention of the world's eyes. The cast were eminently likeable; although would-be lead Jack (Matthew Fox) may have been just a little on the wrong side of bland to be completely engaging and it was the friendships that you can see sparking up in the pilot that really drove the series forward over the first season. The series was almost theatrical in its presentation; it would have served equally well as the starter of a film franchise with similar ambitions as a television show. It's therefore something of a regret that Lost didn't stick more closely to its original core and instead became overly convoluted over subsequent years.
Is there something you think we've missed? Something that made the list but shouldn't have? Let us know in the comments.