Kicking off a series is an extremely tricky thing to get right. Introducing a brand new world, making people fall in love with brand new characters but still holding enough back to make sure all those brand new viewers come back next week – it’s almost an art form in itself.
But the following shows truly nailed it, managing to strike a perfect balance between all of the above and adding plenty more besides. Bask in their confident, series-link-grabbing glow.
1. The Walking Dead – ‘Days Gone Bye’
Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont wrote and directed this masterful slow-burn opener, which is so good some fans argue it’s still the best single episode of the show’s eight seasons.
Compare it to what we’ve had from the show’s recent run and it almost feels like it’s been beamed in from a completely different series. Hooking us from the opening moments, we track Rick’s awakening from a coma into a world of the undead before setting up his mission to find his family.
It was one of those rare moments you know you’re watching your new favourite series, before the opening credits had even rolled. Darabont shot on 16mm film, too, making it feel more like a mini movie than a TV show, making it endlessly re-watchable.
2. Chappelle’s Show – ‘Episode 1’
Dave Chappelle’s pioneering sketch series didn’t just mix up comedy and politics, it changed culture in the US. It may have only lasted for two seasons, but its influence is still felt today, with everyone from acclaimed writers to chart-topping rappers namechecking it.
But what makes the opening episode so special is that it contains ‘Blind Supremacy’, a sketch revolving around the life of Clayton Bigsby (played by Chappelle), a blind white supremacist who isn’t aware he’s a black man. Even when he’s given comprehensive proof that he’s black, he won’t relinquish his racism – a reveal that felt like a comment on the blindness of ignorance.
The sketch remains daring and brave, but it had an instant impact on the zeitgeist, with Grantland naming it as the best sketch of the show’s full run.
After a long hiatus, Chappelle will be back soon, having been paid $60 million dollars to make two stand-up specials for Netflix. In the meantime he’s been throwing shade in the direction of Key & Peele for taking a little too much influence while he was away.
3. The X-Files – ‘Pilot’
Arguably the most important sci-fi show of the ’90s came into existence perfectly formed. Every defining element was present, whether it was the ‘Truth is out there’ tagline, the ‘I want to believe’ poster or, most importantly, Mulder and Scully’s relationship.
David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson’s chemistry was intense from that opening scene and the electricity combined with a genuinely compelling mystery about alien abduction.
The killer cliffhanger – who can forget that reveal of a gigantic, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style warehouse, full of suppressed information – just ensured that anyone that caught The X-Files opener was an instant addict.
4. Freaks & Geeks – ‘Pilot’
A lot of first episodes are so focused on establishing the show’s world and characters they can feel a little bit crammed, with unrealistic exposition akin to information overload leaving little room to breathe.
This pilot is the diametric opposite of that. Freaks & Geeks was a subtler show than most in general, but this tone is established in a pilot that only really tells us that it will (mostly) take place in McKinley High School in 1980, and it will follow the two titular sets of characters as they have a bunch of identifiable experiences.
Outside of that, this opener barely gives us even the names of our leads, expecting the audience to wait until the characters genuinely have a reason to address each other. We’re hanging out with these people, not getting their complete life history.
It was such a different form of storytelling that it lost viewers, part of why the show was cancelled sadly after just one season – although its reputation grows with every year that passes. But as a statement of intent, it’s as impressive as anything else on this list.
5. Game of Thrones – ‘Winter Is Coming’
Talk about throwing an audience into the deep end. Let’s tot them up: opening moments involving people we’ll never see again? Check. Fighting monsters we won’t fully understand for several seasons? Check. Insane volume of significant characters to digest? Check. A surprise ending that’s up their with most surprising in the history of telly? Check.
“The things I do for love.”
Game Of Thrones’ first episode is one of the most complex hours of TV ever served up. Instantly compelling, if only because we wanted to find out what the hell was going on, this was televisual literature.
While the show’s arguably gotten simpler, and some would argue snappier, the further it’s moved away from George RR Martin’s source material, this faithful rendering of the book’s opening chapters made Thrones unlike anything we’d seen before.
6. Broadchurch – ‘Episode One’
We were expecting the first hour of new murder investigation show Broadchurch to involve some, well, murder investigation. Instead, it exposed us to the emotional impact of the crime at the heart of the show, as we witnessed the grief of a family of a murdered child on a deep level.
When you consider how many people are killed on your average detective show, almost without a second thought, it was an astonishing subversion of expectations.
But the deviation isn’t to the detriment of the format. If anything, it improves it. When the investigation eventually comes, and it does come, we’re intensely invested in the outcome.
7. House of Cards – ‘Chapter 1’
A dog gets hit by a car. Our lead, Kevin Spacey’s congressman Frank Underwood, goes to help. He kneels down next to the dog. “Sssh,” he whispers. “It’s OK.”
Frank turns to camera, speaking at us.
“There are two kinds of pain,” he says. “The sort of pain that makes you strong, and useless pain, the sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.”
Frank strangles the dog.
This is one of House of Cards’ greatest scenes, summing up its lead’s personality succinctly and shockingly. And it all takes place before the opening credits of the first episode have even rolled.
‘Chapter 1’ of House of Cards is exactly as cool, confident and compelling as you’d expect from a telly episode directed by David Fincher.
8. Lost – ‘Pilot’
Damon Lindelof has had some stick over the years, but the Lost creator knows how to sell a big idea. Featuring more impressive set pieces than most full series manage in their whole runs, Lost hit the ground running (from an explosion).
Astonishingly, in the middle of all of this action, this two-part opener managed to seed a dozen different mysteries, while also introducing us to 15 individual characters who all managed to be given distinctive personality.
Naysayers might accuse the pilot of going so fast the show was never able to catch up to its promise, but it remains an impossibly exciting watch, even now we know how it all ended. Sort of.
9. Battlestar Galactica – ’33’
This is a tiny bit of a cheat, as a mini-series actually came before Battlestar Galactica‘s official first episode, which did a lot of the hard work of setting up the place and characters. But still – any list of great telly openers is completely invalid without ’33’s inclusion. It really is an incredible piece of work.
As an introduction to a world in which the last humans are on the run from killer robots, the episode’s high concept – Cylons are attacking the ship every 33 minutes – is brilliant, with much of the tension coming from the increasingly dangerous symptoms of sleep deprivation that inevitably effect the (very human) crew.
Beautifully structured, with an ending so satisfying you want to punch the stars, Battlestar managed to reward mini-series fans and new viewers alike.
10. Black Mirror – ‘The National Anthem’
Darkly reflective, gruesomely satirical, the first episode of Charlie Brooker’s Twilight Zone for the tech generation completely set the tone for the series as a whole.
Centring around the British Prime Minister doing incredible things to a pig in the name of saving royalty from a terrorist threat in the glare of social media, Black Mirror‘s ‘National Anthem’ remains one of the most-talked about episodes of a show that starts a lot of conversations.
That’s partly because, like all the best science fiction, it was weirdly prescient, with David Cameron’s bizarre tabloid scandal following some four years later.
11. True Detective – ‘The Long Bright Dark’
Wow. That’s the only word we could utter after seeing this brilliantly scripted, stylishly shot and perfectly performed first episode. Intercutting between 1995 and 2012, the relationship between our two leads is as compelling as any of the crimes they investigate.
That’s thanks to a bleak tone, a fascinating mystery and two career-best performances from Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey – all established in the opening hour of a detective show that could have been predictable, but ended up being anything but.
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