Although we’re about settled into TV’s second wave of summer programming — namely, Breaking Bad, Louie, and Political Animals — it’s impossible to get too comfortable. Thanks to Comic-Con and the TCA tour, buzz for fall 2012 is nearly in full swing and has us bracing for the series of snap judgements we’ll have to make about the new season of television. As many showrunners have pointed out, it’s unfortunate that a TV show only has a limited window to prove itself. At the same time, we can’t complain when a series starts out with a bang. And, as shows like Breaking Bad have proved, a stellar start and well-plotted story development don’t have to be mutually exclusive. To follow up our recent look at the best opening scenes in cinema, we decided to recall some of the best TV pilot opens, taking into account style, innovation, and sheer ability to capture the attention of easily distracted brains. Have a favorite we missed? Please let us know in the comments!
Breaking Bad is known for stellar cold opens that range from the mystifying (the pink teddy bear throughout Season 2) and genre-bending (the “Negro y Azul” music video or Los Pollos Hermanos commercial) to the expository (all the flashbacks), but the pilot’s in medias res start is, IOHO, still the most memorable: Walter, plowing through the desert in his camper, bodies in tow, followed by a heartfelt confessional to his family on a videocam. The last image of the sequence — Walter on the open dirt road, clad in his tighty-whiteys, aiming a gun — is indelible to fans (and even those who don’t watch the show), and for good reason.
As Jack rushed to administer medical aid amidst the exploding remains of Oceanic Flight 815 in the opening minutes of the pilot, we felt like we were watching the aftermath of one of our worst nightmares unfold. And we couldn’t peel our eyes away. The pilot’s estimated $11.5 million price tag ostensibly paid off in the form of the show’s six-season run, and whether or not you hung around for the duration, it’s hard to deny that the series had one the most explosive beginnings in TV history (no pun intended).
Game of Thrones
In the opening scene of the pilot we got our first shots of the expansive 700-foot Wall, those crazy blue-eyed White Walkers, and, true to GOT form, a decapitation. Those who went into the episode with no prior knowledge of the story might have assumed this was going to be another zombie show, but after the opening credits we were transported to warmer climates in Winterfell, for some ostensibly normal medieval fare. Nonetheless, with an opening scene like that, the Walkers and the threat of their return were never far from our minds.
Unlike many awkward sitcom starts, AD established its style and wit from the get-go, cutting through the laugh track and implementing hand-held cameras, visual aids (in the form of family photos, maps, and newspaper clippings) and an uptempo narrator as important to the humor of the show as its cast. The opener introduced us to the entire Bluth family (minus the kids), establishing characters whose arcs the series would see to the end. And the continuity didn’t stop there — in the precious opening three minutes we were also introduced to some of the most important motifs of the series: boats and magic.
In the miniseries opening we saw the Cylons show up after 40 years of peace to declare war on the world. But most remember this as the first time we saw Number Six in a red dress.
The dark, gritty New York City street in the opening sequence actually stands in stark contrast to the show’s iconic neo-noir Miami set — nonetheless, much of what made this ’80s buddy-cop romp groundbreaking was on full display in the pilot’s memorable first minutes: the soundtrack (Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” The Deele’s “Body Talk”), cinematic attention to detail, danger — and a penetrating sense of “cool” that stemmed from the atmosphere and Tubbs’ general bad-assery. The only things missing were the white blazers, pastel tees, and Ray-Bans. But they got there. Oh boy, they got there.
My So-Called Life
Can you think of another TV show that managed to capture just how painfully awkward adolescence can be? And this dramatic voiceover from Angela Chase in the opening scenes of the pilot describes those feelings so perfectly, setting the scene for all of the delicious angst that will follow: “So, I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff, just for fun. Just ’cause it seemed like if I didn’t, I would die, or something. Things were getting to me. Just how people are — how they always expect you to be a certain way. Even your best friend. … Like, with boys, like they have it so easy. Like you have to pretend you don’t notice them noticing you. … Like cheerleaders. Can’t people just cheer on their own? Like to themselves? … School is a battlefield for your heart. So when Rayanne Graff told me my hair was holding me back, I had to listen. ‘Cause she wasn’t just talking about my hair. She was talking about my life.”
Six Feet Under
It’s not just that they killed off the dad within five minutes, which, frankly, anyone can do for a cheap hook. The reason this pilot opener makes the list is because it so brilliantly distracted us from anticipating Nathanial Sr.’s imminent end, despite all the signs pointing towards death — like the faux luxury funeral coach commercial that kicked off the entire sequence (see above). Which isn’t to say we didn’t wise up. After a few episodes we (wisely) began bracing for the freakish opening deaths that came to define the series.
While Six Feet Under took a stab at death with dark humor, Pushing Daisies went in the opposite direction with its storybook look and feel. If a Technicolor palette, quirkiness, or Amélie drives you mad, you should probably click on. Otherwise, we encourage you to feast your eyes on the pilot (above), in which young Ned learns he has the ability to raise the dead, albeit with some caveats. We also can’t help but noting the episode is titled “Pie-lette” for its protagonist’s pie-making abilities (aw).
It was difficult not to be immediately charmed by Fry, the lovable loser pizza boy who fell into a cryonic tube (a mishap we later learn wasn’t an accident at all) and woke up in 31st-century New York City, beer still in hand. It was a quick-and-dirty setup that gave us a character and storyline we could get behind, plus it was funny. See Fry’s opening remarks when he came to 1,000 years later: “My God, it’s the future. My parents… my co-workers …my girlfriend… I’ll never see any of them again. Yahoo!!!”
If there’s any question as to why Revenge was a smash success last year, check out the dramatic pilot opening, which brought us months into the Emily Thorne saga’s future — at her “Fire and Ice”-themed engagement party to Hamptons prince Daniel Grayson, to be exact. The first five minutes gave us a scattering of clues (and red herrings) as to who ostensibly shot the groom-to-be, before wheeling backward five months in time and leaving us sputtering for more. There was no way anyone with a weakness for manipulative soaps could have resisted the series after seeing this.
Laura Palmer’s body was discovered within five minutes of the show’s start, and the sequence leading up to the discovery is a perfect example of Twin Peaks‘ obsession with undoing our superficial assumptions: drawn-out opening credits set over scenic clips of the mountain town, Josie Packard humming as she stares into her mirror, and Pete Martell announcing to no one in particular, “Lonesome foghorn blows,” before discovering Laura’s body on his fishing trip. Unlike many shows that open on a shocking event, Twin Peaks got us there slowly and quietly, leaving us more unsettled than horrified. In simplest terms, this opening made us feel weird, in the good way.
McNulty’s interview with a witness about a murdered youth called “Snot” in the opening scene of The Wire was indicative of both the social commentary and realism that would come to define the show. And, as was evident in their banter over Snot’s nickname and stealing habits, gravity and humor weren’t mutually exclusive in Simon’s dialogue. Also worth noting is the lasting impression this scene made by withholding the shot of the victim’s head on the pavement — eyes wide open — until the end of McNulty’s stoop interrogation.
The Twilight Zone (the original TV series)
The first story of the series, “Where is Everybody?,” might evoke a simpler, CGI-free world, but its eeriness and psychological thrill still hold up. See the opening scene: A man in a jumpsuit walking down a dirt road is drawn to an empty cafe by strains of jazz music inside. There he serves himself breakfast while announcing to the missing attendant that he can’t remember his identity. As his meal unfolds, it dawns on us that there is no attendant, sending chills down our spine — because once you realize someone’s talking to himself, things get inexplicably creepy.
Later on in the episode, we (spoiler!) learn that the man is actually an astronaut who has hallucinated the town in some sort of solitary confinement training exercise, and that he has in fact lost his grip on reality. The story might sound ho-hum, but if you watch the entire episode (or just the opening scene) it’s easy to see how this show became one of science fiction’s greatest influencers.
The Wonder Years
“There’s no pretty way to put this: I grew up in the suburbs,” Kevin told us in his first opening monologue, before taking us back to a neighborhood game of football that somehow touched on both the themes of young love and the tragedy of Vietnam, without being didactic or cheesy. This was only the first four minutes and we’re already feeling choked up after re-watching. We have to say, the narration of this show was damn good in its manipulation.
Two side notes: Winnie’s glasses were amazing. And when (adult) Kevin says, “But, I’ll get to that,” all we can think is Ted Mosby.
Freaks and Geeks
Instead of giving us the typical “lay of the land” introduction, in which, say, Lindsay Weir described the social hierarchy of her school via voiceover in the school cafeteria, Freaks and Geeks let the dialogue between the kids (and their geographic relation to the football field) establish their social context in the pilot opening. Nick Andropolis belting, “I believe in God, man. I’ve seen him, I’ve felt his power. He plays drums for Led Zeppelin and his name is John Bonham, baby!” — and pretty much everything else said in this opener — is high-school-sitcom gold.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
The pilot opens with a faux-pants-tent sequence. To say much more would be overreaching.
The Thick of It
Within five minutes of this British series, we get a healthy hint of its predilection for the F-word and the most deft sneak-attack firing we’ve seen on TV. The scene’s last line — “You want me to write my own obituary?” — astutely encompassed the humor and despair of the show’s satire, and set up Armando Iannucci’s first takedown of government press offices perfectly (for the American version, check out HBO’s Veep).
The first sequence of True Blood had the perfect balance of everything that made the first season great: social commentary (a clear allegory for LGBT rights), suspense, and playful riffing on horror-flick tropes. It was like Twilight for adults! And although we clearly have our qualms, we’re still watching five seasons later.
We began this list with one TV icon (Walter White, tighty whities), and find it fitting to end on one: Don Draper, smoking, scribbling illegible ideas on a scrap of something. This opening scene all but hooked us on the show’s mid-century aesthetic, and nearly had us fooled that Don was merely a simple, square-jawed, workhorse hero.