You know that old theory about how no two snowflakes look exactly alike? Well, television shows are….nothing like that. No matter how good or bad a series is, there’s always a sameness to nearly all of them. It’s a Cop Show or a Workplace Comedy or a Primetime Soap. Find a popular genre, and then find a way to bring people back to it when they have 137 other, similar viewing options.
Now as you read this, the TV networks are keeping the cycle going. They’re currently in the midst of their annual Pilot Season, shooting dozens of first episodes of series they hope will make it to air come fall. Most of these will try to fit into established genres, with a few little twists here and there. And most will end up lasting about as long as a Kim Kardashian marriage because they couldn’t differentiate themselves from the pack.
Every once and a while, though, there are shows that come along and completely redefine their genres and grow into major hits. Just by watching the first episode, you can tell that they are series ready to rewrite TV history. So, to celebrate the good things that can sometimes emerge from Pilot Season, take a look back at these first episodes of shows that became instant classics.
Grey’s Anatomy, “A Hard Day’s Night”
Medical shows always seem to have three things in common – the constant pushing of gurneys by people yelling “Stat!” a lot; dramatic plots involving patients suffering from horrific tragedies and unpronounceable diseases; and a staff so good-looking you wonder if their medical school doubled as a modeling agency. The “Grey’s” pilot had all that, but its cast also had a chemistry that very few doctor shows have ever been able to create as quickly.
The Office. “Pilot Episode”
Workplace comedies have been around ever since Rob Petrie sat in the writers room with his buddies on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” but there has seldom been one quite as innovative as “The Office.” (Unless you count the British series of the same name it was modeled after.) That was apparent from episode one. By pretending the whole thing was shot by a documentary film crew was an unusual touch, and still allowing Steve Carell to find the sad and sensitive side of boss Michael Scott as well as his idiot side, this became a workplace comedy with heart as well as humor.
Friday Night Lights, “Pilot”
While sports always does well on television, shows about sports don’t tend to have the same luck. (Raise your hands if you remember “Bay City Blues”?) After all, the games themselves have plenty of humor and drama so why attempt a series with one or the other? Nonetheless, this program instantly invigorated the genre by keeping football as its centerpiece but also incorporating relevant stories that anyone could relate to. The pilot made this very clear. Good guys don’t always win. Bad guys won’t always lose. But family, whether it’s the one raising you or the one you play with on the field, will always be there to help you.
Miami Vice, “Brother’s Keeper”
The cop show is as much a TV tradition as the wacky neighbor or the smart-mouthed kid, which is why everyone is constantly trying to do something different with it. However, from robot cops to dog cops to funny cops, these attempts usually fall flat. “Miami Vice,” however, changed the genre by making it as much about style as it was about substance. The too-expensive-for-any-cop-to-afford wardrobe, the unique color schemes of the Miami locations and the terse, tough guy dialogue made it clear 10 minutes into the pilot that this was some seriously arresting television.
Desperate Housewives, “Pilot Episode”
The problem with primetime soap operas is that, for all the ridiculousness of their plots, they still tended to take themselves far too seriously. “Desperate Housewives” changed all that in the first few minutes of the first episode, when we heard narration from a dead neighbor who introduced us to the wild women of Wisteria Lane. Each one seemed like the expected stereotype – the Career Woman, the Perfect Mom, the Cheater, the Wholesome One – but expectations made a u-turn on this cul de sac by the time Hour One was done.