A pilot episode is like a job interview. It is your one chance to show people who you are and what you’re capable of. It is the 30-45 minutes on which everything hangs. A failed pilot means no show.

Hello, students, and welcome to the master class in making a pilot from a person who has, through his podcast work, watched and analysed his fair share.

Lost

ABC

In my research, I have found that a pilot must achieve three things:

The first is to tell a complete story. A pilot must have a beginning, middle, and an end in order to show viewers that you as a creator are capable of telling complete stories. If you can begin, middle, and end a pilot then in theory you can begin, middle, and end a season of TV and a series overall.

The second is to make people crave more by teasing them with the potential for further stories. It seems as though the first and the second cancel each other out because how can you have an ending that leaves people wanting more? Well, therein lies the challenge.

And finally, and most importantly, you need to introduce characters, setting, plot, stakes (to a point), and tone.

Let’s look at some perfect pilots. Mad Men’s pilot is perfect and hits all of the points. The episode is structured around a day at the ad firm of Cooper Sterling. The episode has clear stakes in that the main character, Don Draper, must deliver a pitch to Lucky Strike to help them sell their deadly product and he has no ideas. The pilot establishes who Don is as well as a few of the auxiliary characters (some more than others) and hammers us pretty hard with the ’60s setting.

The pilot has a clear beginning, middle, and end with Don needing ideas, not having ideas, and then having a great idea in the climax. It also has a twist ending in which Don, after a hard day of drinking, smoking, and meeting his girlfriend, goes home to a house in the suburbs where his wife and children are waiting for him. So we have establishment, a complete story, and the tantalizing grip of what the future may hold.

But Mad Men is a long form character study structured more like a novel in which each episode forms a chapter of a bigger story. What about a show that is more week to week stories? A perfect pilot there is The X-Files. The X-Files has its overarching plot about aliens and UFOs, but in its early years, there were frequently monster of the week episodes. The pilot is a great example of both by having the monster of the first week be aliens. The first episode of The X-Files is masterful and as confident a pilot as I’ve ever seen. Not only does it manage to establish characters, setting, and tone, it manages to get it perfect the first time.

Mad Men establishes a great deal in the pilot but also beats you over the head with the period setting, and it’s clear most of the characters aren’t quite finessed yet. Some are too light, some too awful, and it wouldn’t be for a few more episodes that they would lock the characters down. The X-Files has it all there straightaway. The music, the motels, the car trips, the banter between the leads, the slides, the jokes, the sense of playfulness, the horror movie aesthetic. All is present immediately, and the pilot is a complete story: a case is presented, sorta-solved (as is The X-Files way), and then the government covers it up. We get the satisfaction of a case most of the way solved but we also get the taste that there is a bigger plot that needs unfolding, and it will unfold if the show gets picked up for a season order.

There are hurdles for pilots that some shows overcome and some fall. Two notable shows with similar premises aired around the same time but held one striking difference. Lost and Heroes are both ensemble shows with a group of disparate characters, who are somehow connected, dealing with supernatural occurrences. Interestingly, both pilots forego the beginning, middle, and end to focus more on mysteries and cliffhangers, and each has a similar character hurdle with introducing an ensemble cast in the first episode. A grand ensemble introduction can be omitted in the pilot if the focus is placed mainly on a single character, who, if interesting enough, will carry the show until future episodes may be dedicated to illuminating the supporting characters, as Buffy the Vampire Slayer perfected. Lost and Heroes had major characters but mostly shied away from dedicating anyone as a lead character.

Lost holds up as one of the great pilots and Heroes is just okay, because in its first episode Lost narrowed its focus to three characters. On the first episode only Jack, Charlie, and Kate get flashbacks, while in Heroes at least seven characters get origin stories, and, as they’re all in different parts of the world, they don’t interact with each other, leaving the audience with no understanding of their connection. Lost does boast the advantage of having all of its characters in the same place, but it would have been easy to give the entire ensemble flashbacks in order to tease out plots to hook the viewer. Instead, the focus and lack of clutter made the pilot a huge success.

How I Met Your Mother

CBS

The key to making a successful pilot is to draw from the great ones. The West Wing works by having the president be introduced at the end so we spend time with the staff rather than having POTUS be the main character and everyone else a distraction. Friends literally has a scene in the middle that is a series of vignettes in which each character basically gets a joke line to show off their comedy chops.

How I Met Your Mother seemingly tells a complete story and then has a twist ending that opens the show wide open. Breaking Bad, much like Mad Men, tells a 45 minute movie and dares you not to come back for more. And The Shield, another truly great pilot, gives you a hero who is going to bring down corruption in the LAPD and then shows you exactly what the cost of being a hero around Vic Mackey is.

Your homework is to go out there and watch twenty of the best pilots and then find me on twitter and tell me why they’re good. The best answers will receive a smiley face emoji, the highest grade this class offers.

Featured Image: AMC