In some ways, TV shows follow rules, especially within certain genres. Sitcoms, for instance, don't usually advance the plot too quickly over time, so viewers can tune in to single episodes without feeling lost. (How many times have you watched a random episode of
Friends or The Office, thanks to syndication, without worrying about what happened on the previous episodes?) And procedurals generally present a mystery or crime that can be solved before the episode is over. But that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of groundbreaking and genre-bending TV shows out there. These out-of-the-box TV pilots totally changed the game, and in the golden age of TV, that's no small feat.
Of course, streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are changing the nature of TV pilots, too. When each season of a show is released at once, viewers can sample more than a show's first episode to decide if it's something they're interested in watching. Still, the pilot is viewers' first impression of a show, even if the series ends up going in a different direction over time. With that in mind, here are some of the most inventive, original, and just generally great TV pilots that have aired in the 21st century. (And yes, this list is a bit comedy heavy, and it's by no means exhaustive — I'm sure the shows I haven't seen and listed are great, too.)
The Good Place is changing the TV game in so many ways, as evidenced by the show's premise and pilot episode. (When's the last time you saw a show about the afterlife, that didn't include some element of the supernatural?) Plenty of shows start off with life-changing events like breakups. But it's not often that the first few minutes of a pilot reveal that the main character is actually dead.
And in its third season,
The Good Place is just as inventive as ever. The plot actually moves along — complete with some shocking twists — a lot quicker than many sitcoms do. And whatever your beliefs about the afterlife are, the show just might make you rethink your earthly actions.
Who would have thought a Netflix series could get fans to care so much about
who drew the dicks? The true-crime spoof is hilarious for fans of the genre and casual viewers alike. The first episode set up Dylan as a lovable protagonist, and it established Peter and Sam as the wannabe detectives fans can't help but love.
Where would TV be without
Lost? The show premiered all the way back in 2004. But thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, where the ABC drama's six seasons now live, the show has gained plenty of new viewers over the years. A lot of ridiculous stuff happened to the Oceanic Airlines plane crash survivors, but the pilot established the original cast members as characters worth following on their journey through the mysterious island.
Getting inside the mind of a serial killer is risky, if this twisty Netflix series is to be believed. Based on a book by a real-life former FBI agent,
Mindhunter will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about what inspires people to kill.
'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt'
Trauma, but make it comedy. Considering it's about a woman who escapes an underground cult,
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's first season probably shouldn't be as funny as it is. But thanks to great writing and Ellie Kemper's perfect delivery, the show is hilarious, and unlike almost anything else. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's quality has gone down as the seasons have gone on — and it's had some pretty insensitive storylines about race — but its first season is comedy gold. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has plenty of devoted fans who are tuning into its fourth and final season. But before the show started, it was hard to know what the series was going to be about.
From the beginning, though,
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has defied all expectations about what TV shows (and romantic comedies) can be. With frank depictions of mental illness and plenty of original songs, it's impossible to categorize Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as just one thing. And that's great for other TV shows, moving forward.
Considering the fact that
The Bachelor is going into its 23rd season, it's hard to imagine a time before the ABC series was on the air. But try to imagine the showrunners pitching this reality series for the first time. "A guy dates dozens of girls...at the same time...and he chooses a 'winner' at the end." It's wildly successful now, but that's a heck of a premise for a dating show.
It's impossible to mention
The Bachelor without also mentioning UnReal. The scripted drama series, which is clearly inspired by the reality series, shows a set of producers who have no limits when it comes to manipulating the Bachelor-style dating competition series. UnReal gives "meta" a new meaning.
In terms of body positivity, TV's landscape is changing for the better — but that doesn't mean there's no room for improvement. Plus-size TV characters often fall into the same tropes, which is why
American Housewife was so refreshing. Originally titled , the sitcom gives fans an unapologetic, confident protagonist who just happens to be plus-size. The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport
There are no scenes of her weighing herself or trying to lose weight here — and her life doesn't revolve around her body, either. That shouldn't be revolutionary, but it is, and it's great that ABC picked up the series.
Breaking Bad premiered in 2008, but in many ways, its message about the broken U.S. healthcare system is as relevant as ever. The pilot gave fans Walter White, a complex protagonist who would go on to become one of TV's most legendary antiheroes. It also introduced Walter's relationship with Jesse, taking teacher/student connections to a whole new level.
'How I Met Your Mother'
The "group of friends hanging out" sitcom style didn't start with
How I Met Your Mother, but the show did take it to new levels. For one thing, the show's pilot set up a central will they/won't they couple that many fans actually rooted against — just look at the divided reaction to the show's finale.
And unlike most series,
HIMYM started out with Lily and Marshall together, and it explored their relationship struggles over the course of the show's nine seasons. Romantic comedies often stop with the fairytale ending, but Lily and Marshall's relationship gave an honest look into some of the struggles long-term couples might face. The Handmaid's Tale captured audiences with its dystopian future about latent sexism, and it's not hard to see why. Anyone who was surprised by the results of 2016's presidential election might have wondered what else the political future could have in store. Hopefully, it's nothing like the government takeover that leads to Gilead's society — but the fear that it's possible is enough to hook viewers in. Arrested Development's fourth and fifth seasons may have been lackluster, but its original run was incredibly inventive. The show's pilot introduced the Bluth family, who took sitcom characters to new levels of cluelessness and unlikability. Ostensibly about whether the family patriarch was guilty of crime, Arrested Development set the stage for future meta sitcoms, like Community, to come. Community fans know the show is impossible to describe. But long before the Fistful of Dollars and Muppet Babies parodies, the show's pilot showed what a diverse group of people might attend school at a community college. It was inspirational, funny, and just weird enough to be intriguing.
'How To Get Away With Murder'
For as many shows about the legal system as there are out there,
How to Get Away with Murder still feels new. The title comes from Annalise's law school class, where she instructs her students about ways to defend potentially guilty clients. Of course, they eventually find themselves committing crimes of their own — and the pilot left viewers craving more of the drama.
'The Last Man On Earth'
Most things set in the apocalyptic future aren't comedies. And most TV shows wouldn't bet on a single actor to carry an entire pilot. But
The Last Man on Earth wasn't like most shows. Will Forte's Phil Miller spends most of the episode thinking he is, in fact, the last living person on Earth. The pilot explores how lonely anyone could become if that were actually the case — just before introducing another cast member in Kristen Schaal. Once Upon a Time got progressively stranger as the seasons went on. But the show's original premise and pilot — in which protagonist Emma discovers that her son lives in a town enchanted by the literal Evil Queen — is super original. Who would have thought that fairy tales could work in a modern-day story — and be so powerdul? It's a credit to the show's creators and writers, who weren't afraid to think outside the box.
And it's definitely these pilot that have taken TV to a whole new level.