30 Pilots in 30 Days

Hello all! Congrats on stumbling across this blog, or more likely, being a personal friend of mine who was nice enough to humor me. So what is it you’ve stumbled across? Only some analyses of TV pilots, specifically the pilots for some of the most well-regarded shows of the past 18ish years, as well as some new pilots on the block that have gotten some buzz. 

Why TV Pilots though?

Well, on a selfish level, because I want to write them and I thought this little project might help with that. Furthermore, TV pilots are a uniquely intriguing art form. It’s not just “hey, here’s a fun story” the way that a novel or a movie might be. It’s a story that begs for a continuation. It’s “please spend the next 5-10 years of your life listening to this story.” And because pilots work this way, I suspect we often confuse “pilots” with “tv shows.”

We forget which of our favorite tv shows actually had strong pilots. We forget the strong pilots that lead to disappointing tv shows. Or if we do remember them, we only remember them as martyrs, the wonderful concepts that died due to poor execution so the rest of us writers could maybe learn a lesson or two from it.

Over the course of this month, I want to try to separate pilots from the legacies that their shows left behind and see if they can stand on their own. Hopefully I’ll learn some things I can apply to my own pilot writing, and maybe I can even pass a few of those lessons onto you.

So what are the rules?

The rules are simple. Watch one pilot everyday from the list below until I’ve done all thirty. Write about them. I don’t necessarily have to watch them in order, because I want to have some liberty to pick based on what I’m in the mood for that day. The big rule, and I hope this ends up being the hardest one to follow, is that during the month of August, I am not allowed to watch ANY episodes of these shows besides the pilots. At the end of the month, I might do a recap post where I let you know which ones I’ll pursue. And while it is true that some of these are shows I’ve already seen in full, I really want to force myself to assess the pilot all by itself, hence not watching other episodes. I’ll be assessing them based on how entertaining they were, but also whether or not they made me want to watch more.

THE LIST

So what were my thoughts in putting this list together? I’ll include rationale for each show when I post its review but for the most part, these were my priorities:

  • Diversity of genre/topics

I wanted shows that covered a wide variety of content. You’ll notice things like Grey’s Anatomy and The West Wing to represent the hospital and political dramas that have been done over and over again, as well as things like Breaking Bad and Mr. Robot to represent the more inventive concepts that have gotten trendy over the last decade-ish. You’ll notice I have concepts as mundane as Gilmore Girls as well as shit like Game of Thrones and Stranger Things. I wanted to explore all sorts of genres, not just the ones that suit my personal tastes. 

  • Diversity of distribution

This list of 30 shows includes 8 from network tv, 7 from basic cable, 8 from premium cable, and 7 streaming originals. The rules of each world are slightly different, so I wanted to make sure all four of these categories were represented. I also wanted to make sure there was diversity within those four categories: I didn’t want all my streaming originals to be Netflix, I didn’t want all my premium cable picks to be HBO, etc.

The list:

  1. The West Wing (NBC, 1999-2006)
  2. The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007)
  3. Gilmore Girls (WB/CW, 2000-2007)
  4. 24 (Fox 2001-2010)
  5. The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008)
  6. Lost (ABC, 2004-2010)
  7. Grey’s Anatomy (ABC, 2005-present)
  8. Dexter (Showtime, 2006-2013)
  9. Friday Night Lights (NBC, 2006-2011)
  10. Psych (USA, 2006-2014)
  11. Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2015)
  12. Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-2013)
  13. The Good Wife (CBS, 2009-2016)
  14. The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010-present)
  15. Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-present)
  16. Homeland (Showtime, 2011-present)
  17. Shameless (Showtime, 2011-present)
  18. Arrow (CW, 2012-present)
  19. The Americans (FX, 2013-present)
  20. House of Cards (Netflix, 2013-present)
  21. True Detective (HBO, 2014-present)
  22. Daredevil (Netflix, 2015-present)
  23. Mr. Robot (USA, 2015-present)
  24. The Crown (Netflix, 2016-present)
  25. Preacher (AMC, 2016-present)
  26. Sneaky Pete (Amazon, 2016ish-present)
  27. Stranger Things (Netflix, 2016-present)
  28. Westworld (HBO, 2016-present)
  29. 13 Reasons Why (Netflix, 2017-present)
  30. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu, 2017-present)

Final tallies:

Network TV 8

  • ABC 2
  • NBC 2
  • WB/CW 2
  • Fox 1
  • CBS 1

Basic Cable 7

  • AMC 4
  • FX 1
  • USA 2

Premium Cable 8

  • HBO, 5
  • Showtime, 3

Streaming 7

  • Netflix 5
  • Hulu 1
  • Amazon 1