The 23 best TV pilots of all time, according to critics

Posted by
Tom Victor

Have you ever been recommended a TV show, only for a friend to warn you, “It doesn’t really get good until Season 2”?

It doesn’t always have to be this way.

Sure, some of the best episodes of all time are finales, showing a great understanding of characters you’ve learned to love or hate over many years and tying up all loose ends perfectly.

However, these shows needed to have some charm to make it anywhere near a long-awaited finale in the first place, and that’s where pilots come in to the picture.


Arrested Development took a bit of time to hit its peak

We’ve scrawled through the IMDb archives to find the 22 highest-rated opening episodes of TV shows.

We might be playing a little fast-and-loose with the definition of ‘pilot’, but part of that comes down to the changing face of television with certain shows released all-at-once on streaming services in a way which is unrecognisable to network TV of the past.

To qualify, an episode must be the first of a series to air as part of that series: that means one-off pilots, often with different casts and frequently unaired until a later date, are being left off. So that means ‘Season 1, Episode 1’ rather than ‘Season 1, Episode 0’.

What’s left is a blend of great shows which were great throughout, and those which started fantastically but couldn’t keep it going.

Equally, shows which picked up later on, like Arrested Development (with a score of 8.3), The Wire (8.0) and Friday Night Lights (7.8) don’t quite make the cut. Here’s what kept them off the list.

  1. 23.

    'The Sopranos'


    Episode Name: ‘Pilot’

    IMDb Rating: 8.7

    Critics Say: ”The Sopranos’ challenge is to convince its audience that, when the truck hijackings are over and the kneecaps are bandaged, this is just another family with the same kinds of problems to which we can all relate. Without that element of self-recognition, The Sopranos would be little more than The Godfather meets DiResta. Executive producer-creator-writer-director David Chase rises to the challenge though, with incredibly absorbing scripts and the help of a remarkable cast.” – Barry Garron, The Hollywood Reporter

  2. 22.

    'House of Cards' (US)


    Episode Name: ’Chapter 1’

    IMDb Rating: 8.7

    Critics Say: “What the 2013 version of House of Cards lacks in novelty, it more than compensates for in subtlety. No need in Underwood’s world for recurring symbolic images of rats hustling around the dustbins. We now expect nothing less from our politicians”’ – John Crace, The Guardian

  3. 21.



    Episode Name: ‘Pilot’

    IMDb Rating: 8.7

    Critics Say: “Calling House a miracle would be going too far, but it has some miraculous qualities, one of them being the subtlest and most artful kind of sentimentality imaginable.” – Tom Shales, The Washington Post

  4. 20.


    Episode Name: ‘Space Pilot 3000’

    IMDb Rating: 8.7

    Critics Say: “Part of the genius of Futurama is the show’s ability to simultaneously grasp the seemingly disparate concepts of fantasy and inevitability.” – Zack Handlen, The A.V. Club

  1. 19.

    'Freaks and Geeks'


    Episode Name: ‘Pilot’

    IMDb Rating: 8.7

    Critics Say: “I’ve been watching a lot of pilots lately, and what strikes me is how so many of them feel like rough sketches, at best, for what might be coming, where nearly everything in the Freaks and Geeks pilot comes fully-formed.” – Alan Sepinwall, What’s Alan Watching?

  2. 18.

    'Desperate Housewives'


    Episode Name: ‘Pilot’

    IMDb Rating: 8.7

    Critics Say: “Refreshingly original, bracingly adult and thoroughly delightful, Desperate Housewives is like the answer to a TV prayer you didn’t know you’d made. You just know life was much duller before it arrived.” – Robert Bianco, USA Today

  3. 17.

    'American Crime Story'

    Episode Name: ‘From the Ashes of Tragedy’

    IMDb Rating: 8.7

    Critics Say: “The People v. O.J. Simpson is about more than just O.J.’s story; it’s about how issues such as race and celebrity made the case be about more than just murder, and that’s a situation that still feels culturally relevant more than two decades later.’ – Terri Schwartz, IGN

  4. 16.

    'The West Wing'


    Episode Name: ‘Pilot’

    IMDb Rating: 8.8

    Critics Say: ”[The] West Wing is an original from the outset, blending artful dialogue and sharp performances with Schlamme’s sure directorial hand to construct an hour of sublime soapiness.” – Ray Richmond, Variety

  5. 15.

    'Six Feet Under'


    Episode Name: ‘Pilot’

    IMDb Rating: 8.8

    Critics Say: “If The Sopranos is an explosive show, brimming with layers of deception and betrayal, Six Feet Under is an implosive one, built upon a foundation of repression.” – Steven Oxman, Variety

  6. 14.

    'Pushing Daisies'


    Episode Name: ‘Pie-lette’

    IMDb Rating: 8.8

    Critics Say: “Based on this one hour, it seems totally reasonable to say that Pushing Daisies is going to be a great, popular show—provided it maintains the quality and originality without drowning in its own whimsy.” – Genevieve Koski, The A.V. Club

  1. 13.


    The best ever TV pilots, according to IMDb 3

    Episode Name: ‘Dexter’

    IMDb Rating: 8.8

    Critics Say: “Every once and a while a show will come along that will be so creepy and so intriguing that you feel compelled to watch. Dexter is one of those shows.” – Dan Iverson, IGN

  2. 12.

    'Twin Peaks' (Original)

    The best ever TV pilots, according to IMDb 2

    Episode Name: ‘Pilot’

    IMDb Rating: 8.9

    Critics Say: “It’s television at its best — climax, building, and climaxing again, ever drawing the viewer into its intrigue.” – Richard Hack, The Hollywood Reporter

  3. 11.



    Episode Name: ‘Descenso’

    IMDb Rating: 8.9

    Critics Say: “Unlike many of its fellow prestige dramas, Narcos’ blood and gore consistently drive the story, instead of succumbing to cable TV’s all-too-frequent gratuity.” – Kyle Mullin, Paste Magazine

  4. 10.

    'Breaking Bad'

    Episode Name: ‘Pilot’

    IMDb Rating: 8.9

    Critics Say: “The series has a slight vein of black humor, but it is very, very dark: Thelma & Louise as seen by Dostoyevsky.” – Alessandra Stanley, The New York Times

  5. 9.

    'The Wonder Years'

    The best ever TV pilots, according to IMDb 1

    Episode Name: ‘Pilot’

    IMDb Rating: 9.0

    Critics Say: “Though The Wonder Years was made to represent a specific period in history, it’s universal enough not to show its age.” – Steve Heisler, Vulture

  6. 8.

    'Prison Break'


    Episode Name: ‘Pilot’

    IMDb Rating: 9.0

    Critics Say: “Part of the thrill of the show is fretting just how long they can hold off jumping the shark, but miraculously there hasn’t been a fin sighting yet.” – Angie Errigo, Empire

  1. 7.

    'Game of Thrones'


    Episode Name: ‘Winter is Coming’

    IMDb Rating: 9.0

    Critics Say: “Fans of the books can’t complain. This was an absolutely faithful adaptation. Menacing, brutal and complex, a solid start.” – Sarah Hughes, the Guardian

  2. 6.



    Episode Name: ‘A Study in Pink’

    IMDb Rating: 9.1

    Critics Say: “Sherlock worked because it was having fun. It also let down the po-faced pretence that the suffocating abundance of TV detective shows often labour under: that the detective actually cares about the victims.” – Serena Davies, The Daily Telegraph

  3. 5.

    'The O.C.'


    Episode Name: ‘Pilot’

    IMDb Rating: 9.1

    Critics Say: The O.C. is refreshingly free of both Spelling-style camp and the twee earnestness that has characterized more recent teen dramas.” – Carina Chocano, Entertainment Weekly

  4. 4.

    'The Walking Dead'

    Episode Name: ‘Days Gone Bye’

    IMDb Rating: 9.2

    Critics Say: “If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead in graphic novel form, the series will be incredible, because it brings to life every image from the comic books. If you’re a zombie fan who doesn’t know the world of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, you’ll find a familiar world with new characters that you’ll instantly be drawn to.” – Ron Hogan, Den of Geek

  5. 3.

    'Mr Robot'


    Episode Name: ‘’

    IMDb Rating: 9.3

    Critics Say: “By grounding the action entirely within the psyche of a bug-eyed, Robin Hood-esque hacker named Elliot Alderson. [creator Sam] Esmail successfully constructs a compelling thriller that examines modern-day urban alienation via the socio-political zeitgeist, with an engaging visual aesthetic to boot.” – Vikram Murthi, Vulture

  6. 2.


    The best ever TV pilots, according to IMDb

    Episode Name: ‘Pilot: Part I’

    IMDb Rating: 9.3

    Critics Say: “Lost delivers on every promise it makes to its audience and is simply the best new show on any of the networks this season.” – KJB, IGN

  7. 1.



    Episode Name: ‘The Crocodile’s Dilemma’

    IMDb Rating: 9.4

    Critics Say: “Since it is a whole new case and cast of characters, viewers who haven’t seen the movie will still be able to follow the series (although you really should see the movie). But if you’re a fan of the Academy-Award-winning film, you won’t be disappointed. The series has captured the essence and the spirit of the film.” – Amy Amatengelo, Paste Magazine

(Images: HBO/Rex)