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

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 TV.com 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.


CABLE ANTI-HERO REGIONAL

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 RESULTS:


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.

THE RESULTS:



THE GENRE-BENDING REGIONAL

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. 

THE RESULTS:


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." 

THE RESULTS:


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.

Comments (200)
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Mad Men doesn't get good until the fourth season.
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I don't understand.. how is Breaking Bad better than The Sopranos. Mabye short time memory ? ¬¬
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Breaking Bad is a far better show, but the vote isn't about that. It's about which show had the better pilot. I don't remember much from the pilot of the Sopranos, or *any* pilots discussed here for that matter. I wonder if anyone else does.

I do remember that I didn't like the first season of The Sopranos. It was far too slow.

The reason why The Sopranos doesn't come close to Breaking Bad in overall quality is that it didn't have enough of a story. Almost nothing they did had consequences later.
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I saw The Sopranos serie, but for what I remember there were a lot of consequences. I use to remember the pilots I don't know why. The other day I was remembering Desperate Housewives pilot and it was great.
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ONLY PRISON BREAK
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TV.com likes to start things... but ending them.... NOT
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I recon that the champioship will be Arrested Development vs Breaking Bad
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Finding it hard to believe Tony Soprano is being over shadowed by Heisenberg.
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That's not what this vote is about. But now that I think about it, wasn't there another vote about that exact thing about a month ago?
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Heroes had the best Pilot... End of!
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No Supernatural/Castle/Heroes(it's just about the pilot, and heroes pilot was really good)/etc.?
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Did you guys ever even finish that cable tv channel smackdown that you started like over a year ago?
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Needs a SciFi/Fantasy face off and my vote would be for Smallville.
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I haven't seen all of the sopranos episodes, but nothing can beat their pilot, nothing! It's flawless. I love breaking bad, it's one of my favorite-shows but nothing can beat the sopranos pilot. At least that's what I think.
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I don't like any of these shows. BB's S1 was predictable. I called so much of it.
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I agree ... BB really only came into its own in the later seasons. The pilot was nothing more than mediocre.
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Wow, BB is still the best show of all time, along with The Wire, The Sorpanos, and Game of thrones, its better then that shit The Walking Dead.
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In Walking Dead's defense, this is only judging the pilots. The Wire and BB are on my long list of shows to watch (so I can't fairly judge) but the Walking Dead's pilot is quite impressive.
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Yeah i have to agree with that, The Walking Dead's pilot is one of the best episodes of TV. but IMO Lost's, BB and The Shield have better pilots.
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Wow, I had forgotten how good Friday Night Lights is: it perfectly sets the scene - the town and its football obsession, the characters... And that unexpected, shocking moment at the end, that made clear that there would be no concessions, no high notes - something that would have an impact on every character's life. It blew me away!
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Pushing Daisies versus Awake right on the first round?!? So not fair!! But I went with PD... There were just so many things that worked for me in the pilot. It was just so ridiculous in a good way, and so completely adorable.
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I love shows that immediately throw you into their weird, quirky narrative. You can either just go with it and eventually fall in love, or leave it. This is also why those shows don't normally last very long. Esp when they're on network tv. Casual viewers won't bother to wait and embrace the drastically unique/different tone.

Casual network viewers=death of good shows! How many examples can you think of in 10 seconds? LOL (but im actually crying on the inside)
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Tony Soprano is one of my favorite characters of all time.
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John Locke is my all time bar none favorite tv character of all time, of course I'm voting LOST.
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Where is the sic-fi series pilot face-off! I suggest Enterprise vs Stargate and BSG vs Stargate Universe. Then we have a fantasy face-off. Let's see...Dead like me vs Supernatural and Grimm vs Once upon a time. Or maybe True Blood should go in there somewhere.
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The Black Donnely's had the best Pilot ever. If Netflix was more popular back then it would be one of the best shows today. I bought the DVD set and every person I have loaned it to has said it was one of the best shows they have seen. It was just ahead of it's time i guess.
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I completely agree! Canceling it was such a fucking waste. And heaps of horrible shows carry on for 10000+ seasons, it's so frustrating.
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It looks like the most recent show, or the one with the longest runs are getting the most votes. Who would have guessed?
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Where's Boardwalk Empire, Game Of Thrones or Dexter???
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Yeah, the Dexter pilot was pretty good.
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I miss "Awake" every moment that i am awake
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only 8 shows for 15 years? that hardly seems right
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16 shows, 8 matchups!
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And I don't know if the British use pilots the same way to test shows as they do in North America, but if it counts, Sherlock's first episode should certainly be in this competition somewhere...
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Though I agree completely about the brilliance of Sherlock ... I don't think it's fair to put a mini-series in this list.
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True...but many British shows typically have much shorter seasons, and Sherlock will be coming back for a third season, so I don't know if I would define it as a miniseries, even if the Emmy's and other awards shows do. Either way, I just wanted to ensure Sherlock got a shout-out :)
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There wasn't an actual "pilot" for SHERLOCK - BBC picked it up as a 3 episode series from the start (like they were going to turn down their multi-award winning current DOCTOR WHO showrunner). So it really doesn't qualify. Some other shows that ARE competing should be equally disqualified. A "pilot" isn't just a series first episode, its usual purpose is to give networks something to look at before they commit to a series. I'd have to go back over some of my archives to tell you definitely which series those are but I do know at least a couple are on this list.
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Yeah, I was thinking that was the situation. If this was a competition about best series premiere, I'm sure Sherlock would've done just fine. Thanks for replying!
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definitely, that pilot was incredibly fantastic
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While I didn't care for the show much, the emotional gut-punch that was The Killing's first hour deserves an honourable mention. Despite all of the cop and missing persons type shows out there, I'd never really felt for the family and people affected by that kind of case until I saw The Killing, thanks to the superb acting.
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As far as pilots go, I remember Heroes' one completely enchanting me back when it all begun.

Always a sad reminder of the fact that a good start does not guarantee an equally good finish.
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I miss pushing daisies, hopefully Hannibal can last longer this time!
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The absence of 2 very unique shows from you list is surprising for me. The first, DAMAGES - the awkward filming at times, the mysterious characters, the lack of background music, the time jumps and the holes created in the story line and the show's way of filling them, blew me away.

And the second, Gilmore Girls of course, with its own cool rhythm and unforgettable witty scripts! This show was never about the story line, and that's why, for me, it was even more enjoyable to re-watch it's episodes, since it allowed me to focus on the great witty script and on the great great acting!!

I would maybe also consider Suits's pilot, and Battlestar Gallactica's pilot... but on this I'm still undecided :)
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Where in the world is The Wire!!?
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Too bad the rest of The Walking Dead couldn't quite match up to the pilot.
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The Shield pilot might be my favorite of all time. Vic killing another cop set the foundation for the rest of series, and kept Vic from being a sympathetic character. I'm sure people still cheered for him like people cheer for Walter White, but it cast a shadow over Vic, and he went on to do other despicable things.

The Sopranos pilot honestly didn't do it for me. I still love the show, and it did do a good job of showing something innovative at the time, but when you look at the series as a whole, some things seemed off. Things like Carmela wielding a machine gun, Tony having a rough accent, and Tony beating up some guy in front of everybody. Good episode, but not one of my favorites.

The Breaking Bad pilot was a pilot that just really grabbed you. It was a different show back then, and was a little more on the black comedy side. Like Cory said, it sets the stage for the rest of the show, and is the start of the decomposition of Walt's humanity.
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the thing i`ll always like about The Shield and Vic in particular, is that when they aired co-pilot... and we found Gilroy put the screws on them form the beginnning and that he wanted to be legit but was pressured into being like they were to get results. plus, the whole thing!
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As much as I love Breaking Bad, its pilot was not better than the sopranos, Breaking Bad's pilot was good, but not close to the brilliance it is now.
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I agree this is becoming a favorite show poll, not a favorite pilot one. Lost is a good example. It grows in its strangeness and becomes something very original and interesting (disregarding the last season). But how much of that is seen in the pilot? Based on the pilot it was just going to be a show about some people lost on an island fighting to survive, that's all. The pilot was OK, but didn't impress me, but later elements made the show great. And Breaking Bad is about the incredible transformation of Walter White into Heisenberg, so understandably, the pilot is just a small first step.

On the other hand, some pilots present a unique universe right from the start. Pushing Daisies, for instance, catches your attention right from the first scene and you instantly see that's not a conventional TV show at all. I'm talking about photography, story-telling, music, characterization, everything. Other pilots have a similar effect. Awake, with its dual reality. 24 shows us a thrilling story in real time, something I had never seen before as far as I can remember. The Walking Dead, well, has the zombies and they appear right in the beginning. I mean, you know what the show is about right away.

But of course, as usual tvdotcom polls are never too technical anyway, so let's have a favorite show voting.
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While I agree that people are more likely to vote for their favourite show, I don't really agree with Lost as an example. I thought the pilot was stellar and as soon as the credits rolled all I could think was, "this show's gonna be good..."
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Freaks and Geeks was great but nobody saw it, so it's going to lose.
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Putting Freaks and Geeks against FNL ... That's just mean

Also I'd be pretty interested to see a list of what just missed the cut, even without any matchups.
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So help me Homeland better be on the next batch
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Pushing Daisies......there was never a prettier, more adorable romantic comedy murder mystery show.
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And I Still miss it.
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Breaking Bad, The Shield and Awake (i miss this one.. Damn i'm sad again).
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man how do you vote on the sopranos first episode or breaking bad's first episode!! out of all of these votes, thats just the one i cant vote on!! love both episodes dearly!
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Pushing Daisies: Nothing else on TV has wowed me as much as the pilot (and the twenty-one episodes that followed) and as long as I live, it will likely forever remain unchallenged.
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How the hell is Supernatural, Chuck, The O.C. and Veronica Mars not on here?!
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Please never put Supernatural and OC / Veronica Mars in the same sentence ever again. Thank you.
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I cannot believe that The OC is not in consideration!
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TOP 5 "GONE EARLY THAN IT DESERVED"
------------------------------------------------------------------
1) Pushing Daisies
2) My Name is Earl
3) ANGEL
4) Bored to Death
5) Alphas
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I miss pushing Daises.
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SIX FEET UNDER!!!!!
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Nice choices, but I stil gotta wonder: where's The Wire? Or Veronica Mars?
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Wow, Veronica Mars, that's so true! It's just fast-paced fun from the get-go!
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Arrow!!
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Staff
The Shield. Incredible. FNL, superb.
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I think if the Sopranos was still airing it would have been a lot closer.
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It's kind of on the air... HBO airs a rerun episode about 4 days a week around either 8PM or 9PM EDT.

But for a lot, it's out-of-site / out-of-mind. The pilot was 1999...

Here's where it gets scary... that was ~14 years ago. I'd wager a solid number of TV.com readers haven't watched it possibly because it was A) that long ago and B) on premium cable. A scary percentage of TV.com readers/posters probably were too young to even watch it back then and too "hip" to care about it now.

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I'm ashamed to admit I am one of the younger TV.com readers, and if it wasn't for being a TV buff, I doubt I would have watched The Sopranos.
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Which is probably the reason for it receiving fewer votes.
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Wow, don't be ashamed of being young, it's the best thing to be. :)
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There was supposed to be a "not" in front of it. No edit button.
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Ah, yes. The young brigade who keep rubbishing the 15 year old movies that I love. Currently The Matrix, it's apparently too much like Terminator and Tron, haha.
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