Sunday, June 14, 2009

Top TV Pilots of All-Time, #1

And finally we arrive at the end of this long, drawn out countdown. Sorry it took so long to get here, but I'm big on delayed gratification. So, without further adieu...

#1 Friday Night Lights (2006)

There was never any doubt this would top the list---none whatsoever. The pilot for Friday Night Lights, directed by Peter Berg, is simply the pinnacle of great television. From the beyond perfect musical score by Explosions in the Sky, to various shots of the spare environment of west Texas, to a hand-held documentary-style production, one instantly becomes aware that this is not some run of the mill football show. It is a football show, and that's certainly an entertaining aspect of it, but it's not about football. The 2004 movie, also directed by Berg, was a solid adaptation of the book by H.G. Bissinger called "Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream." The key element the movie neglected, however, was the town. While the movie is much more of a "football" movie, Friday Night Lights the television show is much more about community, family and the shared experiences of both. The medium of serialized television serves these themes far better than a time-limited movie could ever do. Berg, second cousin of Bissinger, had desperately wanted to return to the material to do it justice. It's safe to say the only injustice now is that so many people have not seen the pilot.

About the pilot, The New York Times raved, "Lord, is “Friday Night Lights” good. In fact, if the season is anything like the pilot, this new drama about high school football could be great — and not just television great, but great in the way of a poem or painting." Tom Shales at The Washington Post called the pilot, "Extraordinary in just about every conceivable way." The San Francisco Chronicle said, "Friday Night Lights" is not good. It's great. Not to put too fine a point on it, but "Friday Night Lights" manages to be everything you don't expect it to be -- a finely nuanced drama instead of "Beverly Hills 90210," a portrait of small town life instead of a cheesy back-lot fantasy, and even a sports story with real authenticity, from the preparation to the game action." The critical raves are well deserved and seemingly endless, but it's that last point about defied expectations that's the most important. Friday Night Lights could very easily have become a Dawson's Creek sort of melodrama and, at times, it drifts into that territory in later seasons. But for purposes of the pilot, and essentially the full first season, FNL is simply better than you can imagine. Cheerleaders with hunky hothead football players? It's just not that simple, I promise.

Special honors go to the performance of Kyle Chandler as head coach Eric Taylor. Finding just the right blend of sweetness and toughness, Coach Taylor is the glue holding together a cast of equally talented performers. Some people's faces convey such earnestness, such empathy, such pain and such love that it's impossible to not feel for them...with them. The final scenes of the pilot are about as moving as anything I've ever seen, and Chandler's face reduces me to tears each and every time I watch. How good is the pilot? Despite having other episodes available to me to watch, I chose to watch the pilot four times before moving on to the second episode. The second episode, as luck would have it, is just as good as the pilot.

And there you have it. The best television pilots of all-time as revered by yours truly. Television is a special medium, one that often doesn't get the credit it so justly deserves. Some mock television as being commercial-driven and vapid, and certainly plenty examples exist to fit that description. But when television is done right, as these ten shows certainly demonstrate, television has the ability to leave film in its dust. Both forms have their limitations, but I'll take a great serialized drama over a great movie any day of the week. You'd be well served to give these pilots a chance.

#2) Twin Peaks
#3) Lost
#4) South Park
#5) The Shield
#6) Hill Street Blues
#7) Mad Men
#8) Boomtown
#9) Battlestar Galactica
#10) Police Squad


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