Monday, June 1, 2009

Top TV Pilots of All-Time, #3

#3 Lost (2004)

The first thing you'll notice about the 2-hour pilot for Lost is how intensely cinematic it feels. Co-creator J.J. Abrams, most recently the genius behind the relaunch of the Star Trek franchise (review forthcoming), immediately thrusts the audience into the action with a thrilling sequence filmed on-location in Hawaii. It looks every bit as good as a feature film...and it should. With a rumored budget somewhere between $10 and $14 million, it's the most expensive pilot in television history. It's also money well spent.
The pilot for Lost is one of those episodes where you actively want to show it to other people simply because you know it would be impossible for them to not get hooked. There's a certain pleasure in the shared experience of addiction, and an even greater pleasure in being the pusher. The #1 show on this countdown, due to be revealed in about a week or two, is the single best example of this phenomenon I can offer, but Lost is a close second in that category. I've seen the pilot at least five times now, each time drawing in a new and unsuspecting victim. Quite frankly, I'm sure I'll be seeing it a few more times before the end of my life.
Unless you've been living in a cave (or on a beach, or in a hatch, or on a sub, or in the past, or in the future), the story of Lost is fairly well known by now. A plane crashes into the ocean---a terrifying sequence shown in the pilot---and then the motley group of survivors slowly realize the "uninhabited" island they've washed up on is not your usual island. I'll spare the spoilers, but I will say for those who have not seen Lost that there are several "what the fuck?" moments in the pilot which gave me chills. Principally, the pilot works on three storytelling levels. It works as a Castaway-type drama as our protagonists struggle to deal with the aftermath of the plane crash; it works as a sci-fi mystery as pieces to the puzzle that is the island are slowly revealed in just the right measure; and it works, above all else, as a human drama.
If there's one thing J.J. Abrams does best, it's elevate a fairly standard idea to excellence by simply caring enough to care about his characters. In everything Abrams does, including Mission Impossible III, he takes great care to infuse authentic human emotions into his characters. Sometimes they're Hollywoodized, sure, but it's rare when Abrams isn't successful in moving me over his characters. Action is cool if it looks good and is exciting, but when you genuinely have emotions at stake over the outcome, something which Abrams manages to create, it's an entirely different experience. Over the course of the two-hour pilot we're introduced to each of the main characters via flashback, a narrative device that is maintained in one way or another for the entirety of the series. It works as well as almost any flashback I've seen in either television or film. It's not just some lazy gimmick. It's an integral part of the story.
The pilot itself was nominated for six Emmys, twelve total in its debut season, and the show won six Emmys including Best Directing, Best Casting, Best Score, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects, and Best Drama. If you're not a Lost watcher, it's never too late to start. ABC has every episode online for free---in HD, no less. This upcoming season will be the finale and the show has yet to disappoint.

#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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