The Best TV Pilot of the Last 15 Years, Part 2: Vote Now on The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Shield, Pushing Daisies, and More

  • 200comments

UPDATE (9/3): Elite 8 voting is now open!

As of today, we're about three weeks away from the official start of the fall TV season. Before long, we'll all be abuzz about the glut of new pilots. Lots of them will be pretty bad, and a select few of them might turn out okay, but based what we've seen so far, we're not expecting any all-time greats to emerge.

Anyway, this year's relatively sorry prospects got us thinking about the TV pilots we do consider to be all-time greats—and then we decided to ring in the start of the new season by naming the best pilot of the last 15 years. That's where you come in: We've engineered a bracket-style race featuring the 16 best pilots of the last decade-and-a-half, as chosen by your trusty editors. We'll do our best to convince you of each one's merits, but then it's all up to you. Your votes will determine which pilots advance in each round, until we've crowned a winner.

Here's the full bracket:

Before you flip out, remember that we're just talking about pilot quality here; it doesn't matter whether the series went on to delight or disappoint. And as these things go, there several contenders that just missed the final cut; the bracket could have easily expanded to 32.

You can vote on the first four match-ups right here; in this post, we're breaking down the other side of the bracket.


The Sopranos vs. Breaking Bad

THE CASE FOR THE SOPRANOSMASSIVE influence aside, The Sopranos pilot is just wonderful art. The episode feels like a complex, but mostly complete story; It's the beginning of something great, but it's a singular piece of awesomeness in its own right. From the opening credits onward, David Chase and James Gandolfini brought to life a truly mesmerizing character in Tony Soprano, a man who you knew wasn't particularly "good" (and he'd get worse), but who was still surprisingly relatable and sympathetic. The supporting cast was solid and the general outline of the story was obviously on-point, but it was all about Gandolfini. Every one of his scenes was electric, from the browbeating he received from his mother to the therapy sessions to his fascination with the ducks. It's hard to argue with anyone who says this is the most influential pilot of the last 15 years, and maybe of all time.

THE CASE FOR BREAKING BADIf Tony Soprano ushered in the era of the anti-hero, Walter White is about to put an end to it. Breaking Bad's pilot wasn't nearly at inventive as the show went on to be, but it introduced a wild premise and then executed it with enthusiastic aplomb. More than anything else, it set the stage for the show to do so many better versions of what it had to offer: staggering teasers, gripping action mixed with crucial moral questions, great use of the New Mexican landscape, and so on and so forth. And much like The Sopranos, this one thrived because of its out-of-the-blue lead performance. Bryan Cranston used his Malcolm in the Middle reputation to his advantage in bringing Walt to life, creating a character so interesting that many viewers are still convinced he's admirable or worth saving.


The Shield vs. Mad Men 

THE CASE FOR THE SHIELDKnowing how The Shield ends certainly makes the pilot look even better, but it still earned this spot all on its own. The episode is a master class in managing expectations. Shawn Ryan's script worked us over by showing us that while Vic Mackey was nowhere near "by the book," his methods produced results—and important ones, at that. For 40 minutes, Vic seemed like a compelling asshole (thanks to Michael Chiklis's performance, of course), but it's not like he was that innovative of a character. And then those final few moments happened and suddenly you realized that Ryan, Chiklis, and the rest of the show's creative team weren't screwing around. This is another one that might seem a little tame now, but felt pretty groundbreaking at the time.

THE CASE FOR MAD MENThe pilot for Mad Men isn't one of the show's best installments, which says more about the series overall than the quality of its opener. Matthew Weiner spent years developing the script, and that certainly helped the episode come to life almost fully formed. It's not easy to do a period piece on a shoestring budget without falling into easy emulation, but the pilot smartly narrowed in on a single day for Don Draper. Not only did the structure allow the episode to squeeze in some typical Draper pitching—with the clients and with the ladies—but it built to that fantastic moment at the end where we learned that Don actually lived in the suburbs with his wife and kids. That sort of duality and deception have defined Mad Men as a series, and they were a big part of the pilot, too.



Pushing Daisies vs. Awake

THE CASE FOR PUSHING DAISIESThis match-up is all about the uber-creative writers who haven't had the best of luck on broadcast TV. Bryan Fuller's Pushing Daisies probably overdid it with the whimsy, but it still worked. This sucker was beautifully bright, using color and set design in ways that few other shows could. It was also narratively inventive in how it established one of the more ridiculous procedural storytelling engines in recent memory while setting up a weird and moving love story along the way. As a series, Pushing Daisies was probably too weird to survive any longer than it did, but the pilot? So re-watchable and entertaining. 

THE CASE FOR AWAKELike Bryan Fuller, Kyle Killen's had a rough go of things lately. His first two pilots, Fox's Lone Star and NBC's Awake, are probably two of the best to air on broadcast TV in the last few years, and it was difficult to choose just one for this spot. The nod goes to Awake because it took everything that made Lone Star fascinating—a man struggling to make dueling lives and a substantial identity crisis work, despite the odds—and somehow made them more complex and more external, all within the package of a police procedural. That's quite a feat to pull off. Of course, Killen had some help from director David Slade, whose keen visual eye helped demarcate the two worlds with color in such an innovative way, as well as a powerhouse performance from star Jason Isaacs. 


Freaks and Geeks vs. Friday Night Lights

THE CASE FOR FREAKS AND GEEKSNo show in TV history has replicated the real high school experience like Freaks and Geeks, and it was already on full display in the pilot. Each of the Weir siblings' stories took us inside different subsections of the student body, and they worked pretty hard to deconstruct some of the lame stereotypes we're all familiar with. Sure, the freaks were burnouts who didn't care about school, and sure, the geeks were especially geeky, but there was so much more going on with almost all of them from the very beginning. The pilot featured a lovely combination of solid jokes, emotional gut-punches (poor Eli), and minor victories. Sure, Cindy Sanders ended up kind of sucking, but at least we and Sam Weir will always have "Sailing." 

THE CASE FOR FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTSIf Freaks and Geeks is the ultimate high school show, Friday Night Lights is the ultimate small town show. The pilot was built around a structure the show wouldn't use much later on, with the daily build-up to the first game of the season, but it worked perfectly to introduce the show's characters, stakes, and most importantly, its world. By the time the episode got to the actual game and that one really horrible thing happened, not only were you breathless but you totally believed the entire town's dejected response. Pete Berg's direction set the stage for one of the most visually interesting and authentic shows in recent memory. And of course, "Texas forever." 


You have a full week to cast your votes—it's up to you to decide who moves on to the Elite 8. This was Part 2; click here for Part 1.

Like on Facebook