Top 10 Key Scenes in Great Tv Pilots that sold the show.
Pilots are usually the hardest episodes of a show a writer or writers will ever have to write, of course arguably a series finale is worse but since not that many shows even get to write a series finale due to the constant surprise cancellations that still happen to this day, a Pilot for a television series is the hardest episode that any writer on any tv show will struggle through. Believe me I know from experience. That’s why most pilots frankly suck, though even the mediocre ones that make it like the best ones always have that one defining scene that sells the pilot. You recognize it immediately as a viewer. It’s the exact scene that stuck out so much that even if you enjoyed most of the pilot, it’s that specific scene that was so memorable, entertaining or hilarious that it absolutely made this a show you wanted to watch every week. These are the top ten key scenes that were so effective that it saved some otherwise middling pilots and made even great ones even better.
10. Living Single: “Judging By The Cover.” My Girls.
Living Single took the world by storm in 1993 and what really grabbed viewers the most was the classic ending where the girls sing their own version of “My Girl” in the bathroom early in the morning:
Living Single was funny, fresh and catered to a demographic that hadn’t been catered to before: Twenty something black females. The show wasn’t just popular with that group however. The show became the number 1 show in black households for four of its five year run and gave the NBC version of it, Friends a run for its money in popularity with its demo. Erika Alexander mentioned that she was once told by a college student that on Thursday nights there’d be fights in the dormitory about which show to watch on the dorm’s one Tv, Friends or Living Single. It all started here where we see exactly what the show would be about for five years: Fun, laughter and sisterhood.
9. The Jeffersons: “A Friend in Need”. The N Word Argument and Florence’s realization:
After a back door Pilot that aired as an episode of All In The Family “The Jeffersons Move On Up” back in ’75 the official first episode of The Jeffersons aired as “A Friend in Need” where we first meet Florence who gives one of the greatest one liners in the history of television:
This line and it’s reaction didn’t only earn Marla a full time role of what was supposed to be a one episode spot, but it also got such great reaction that I’m convinced that it along with the next scene sold the show to the network executives:
The Jeffersons like it’s predecessors All In The Family, Maude and Good Times always kept it real and honest and this scene where The Willises and Weezy get into it with George over interracial marriage was a perfect scene to illustrate the characters and their personalities, points of view and the conflicts that would come up during the series.
8. Roseanne: “Life and Stuff”. Roseanne and Dan’s big fight:
The classic Roseanne pilot was just a simple slice of life comedy pilot that had charm and a sense of blue collar reality that was only seen on Married with Children which premiered a year before Roseanne did. But what really won audiences over was the big fight scene between Dan and Roseanne near the end of the episode that was both hilarious and relatable:
This scene was truly indicative of not only the balance of tone of what Roseanne would strike when it was at its best but also set the tone for the Dan\Roseanne Conner relationship that compelled the audience and viewers alike. I of course wasn’t born when this pilot premiered but had I been around when it did I’m sure it would’ve been this scene that would’ve hooked me onto the show immediately.
8. Frasier: “The Good Son”. Crane Vs. Crane.
There are so many fantastic, memorable and classic moments in the Frasier pilot that choosing on that perhaps stood out the most as a attention grabber that really showed the world that this was a show that was going to be different and worth watching was the big argument between Martin and Frasier. It was a gutsy move for the writers David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee to put such a raw, honest and mostly laugh free fight between the father and son in a sitcom pilot but it was very necessary and I’m convinced out of all the classic moments and scenes in this episode, won the audience as well as the critics and the network over enough to greenlight the series for a full season order:
7. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air: “The Fresh Prince Pilot”. Uncle Phil straightens Will out.
The Fresh Prince proved it was legit royalty when it premiered on NBC in 1990 but out of all the great pilot moments what sold the show to viewers, the audience and I’m sure everyone at the network was the great and first of many Will\Uncle Phil scenes where after Will makes a fool out of himself at the Bankses’ fancy party Uncle Phil gives Will a stern reality check about judging someone before getting to know them. The great irony is that at the end of the scene when Will plays Mozart on the piano eloquently, Uncle Phil steps back in with a pleasantly surprised look on his face and realizes that maybe he could take a bit of his own advice:
These two were probably the most important relationship in the entire show with them both being surrogate for each other: Uncle Phil is the father and mentor that Will always needed and deep down wanted and Will represents all the potential and groundedness that Uncle Phil wishes for his own children. Down the line these two would have more iconic scenes together such as the ending of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse” or their goodbye scene in series finale “I Done”. But it was this first real and powerful scene between the two that set that relationship going forward as two seemingly entire different black men who at the end of the day have the same inherent values, strength and general decency as human beings.
6. Magnum, PI: “Don’t eat the snow in Hawaii”. Magnum Vs. Higgins and the dogs and driving off in the Ferrari, Magnum Style.
One of the greatest openings in the history of television, Magnum’s two hour pilot movie started off with a bang where we’re right away introduced to Private Investigator Thomas Magnum and his daily life as a PI who also does security for the Robin Masters Estate which is ran and cared for by the thorn in Magnum’s side Jonathan Quayle Higgins the third and his canine companions Zeus and Apollo. In this opening scene we catch them in the middle of a regular game they play with Magnum stealing Robin Masters’ Ferrari as a security check and Higgins, Zeus and Apollo attempting to stop him:
But the real kicker is after Magnum’s victory he tells us how it was inevitable that he would win because if not Higgins would’ve and fate wouldn’t do that to him. He then gives the classic fourth wall breaking look and peels off ever so smooth in that Ferrari working the hell out of it’s engine launching us into the cool opening credits:
A perfect way to introduce our main characters and their world. The audience ate it up right away and the pilot would be one of the highest rated broadcast of the year.
6. The Rockford Files “Backlash of The Hunter” Part 1. Bathroom confrontation:
The Rockford Files two hour Pilot movie tested pretty high with audiences but the key scene that really sold the series for the viewers as well as the network was the final scene of part 1 of the pilot movie where the muscle bound bad guy who has a black belt in karate follows Jim to a club but Jim knows he’s been tailed and sets up a nice little surprise for the big oaf. Pours out some liquid soap into a spot on the floor and when the big oaf comes in ready for a fight, Jim provokes him and he charges after him with a karate kick but slips up on the soap and Jim lays a nasty sucker punch on him:
Up until the audience liked Jim Rockford and the story but it wasn’t until this classic moment that the audience fell in love with Jim and the show. This was something different than what you’d get in a typical action\crime series. Jim used clever tactics and ingenuity instead of just brute force. The testing numbers for this scene went through the roof and there was no way that this series wasn’t gonna get picked up by a very pleased network.
5. Hill Street Blues: “Hill Street Station”. Hill and Renko get shot and presumably die.
In 1981 Steven Bochco and Michael Kozell’s Hill Street Blues premiered and was a different type of cop show boasting multiple quirky characters and storylines all in one episode, a bit grittier, dirtier and raw then what had come before but it was the ending of this pilot that really put this show on the map and not only got it picked up for the season and viewers instantly hooked that guaranteed them coming back next week but also was rewarded the number 63 spot in Tv Guide’s 1996 tally of the 100 Greatest Moments in Television History. In this scene two uniforms that we come to already really like Bobby Hill and Andy Renko are shot and we presume dead. Never had two major characters been “killed” at the end of the pilot and it stunned the world:
But don’t fret. Renko and Hill do survive and it was due to the audience’s strong affection for both Michael Warren and Charles Haid’s characters and their strong chemistry that made the producers reveal that they did survive the harsh blows. The impact of the scene did not falter, however. It is a bold and captivating scene that still resonates to this very day and I’m sure inspired many dramas to come.
4. The Shield: “Pilot”. Vic Mackey kills Terry Crowley.
When The Shield premiered on FX it charted whole new territory for both cop shows and the whole television drama genre alike. The Shield was about Vic Mackey, a dirty cop head of the strike team that carried out the law as they saw fit and didn’t mind profiting from it. In the pilot detective Terry Crowley is sent undercover to investigate Vic’s team and we assume this will go one for a season or two but the pilot throws us for a loop when Vic does the unthinkable and shoots Terry right in the face killing what we thought would be the second major character in the series:
The whole sequence is exquisite and the fact that it was all done without dialogue adds to its brilliance. Series creator Shawn Ryan explains the idea behind that shocking decision:
This one action shaped not only the whole season but the whole series and it comes back to haunt Vic and his team ultimately in the series finale.
3. The Cosby Show: “Pilot”. Theo’s Economic Lesson.
The Cosby Show’s pilot not only revived both the sitcom genre and NBC but also paved the way for 227, Amen,The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Family Matters, Living Single, Martin, My Wife and Kids, Blackish and many more afro centric television hit series. But beyond its importance it was just a damn funny show with a great cast and that was perfectly shown to us in the pilot episode. Many hilarious moments and lines like “How ugly is he” or the classic “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life!” Or “I am your father. I brought you in this world and I’ll take you out!” But perhaps the most memorable scene that truly captivated America and put The Cosby Show over the top was the classic “Theo learns economics” scene where Cliff gives Theo some real world examples of how he’ll live if he doesn’t get better grades in school:
As funny as the scene is it’s also super relatable and has been ripped off on many other family sitcoms then and even now. A classic scene from a very well made pilot that changed television forever:
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2. Everybody Loves Raymond: “Pilot”. The Fruit of the Month Club.
Everybody Loves Raymond’s pilot was very well structured and the casting was perfection. Though as well made as it was, it was certainly not one of Everybody Loves Raymond’s strongest or funniest episodes as a whole, but this one scene really gave it the jolt it needed and was instrumental in the show getting picked up, going on to become a multiple emmy winning, iconic and beloved television sitcoms of all time. It’s a simple scene with Ray coming over to tell Marie and Frank that Debra just wants to have her birthday with her and the kids this year but of course nothing is ever easy for Raymond and before he can get to the subject his mother freaks out over the fruit of the month club that Raymond signed them up for as a gift with Frank then chiming in “What are we invalids!? We can’t buy our own fruit!?” It’s simple but hilariously funny and illuminating the greatness that Everybody Loves Raymond would become:
It was said by a network exec that after the test screening for the pilot was done people walked out chanting lines from the Fruit of the month segment as well as “BEARRRR MOUNTAIN!”. The scene was tested the highest out of every other scene. This reaction forced CBS to give the little simple show about a guy and his crazy family a chance and boy did it pay off:
1. Miami Vice: “Brother’s Keeper”. In the air tonight.
Miami Vice did for the eighties what I Love Lucy did for the fifties, The Twilight Zone did for the sixties, All in The Family did for the seventies, Seinfeld did for the nineties, The Sopranos did for the 2000’s and Game of Throne did for the 2010’s. It not only defined the decade it in many ways influenced, even created it. Miami Vice was called “MTV Cops” by many because it was designed for the MTV watching crowd. A totally unique cop show that influenced fashion trends with Don Johnson’s signature attire as well as popularizing the five o’clock shadow, as well as brought popular rock songs into television as music for montages and transitions. In the pilot episode Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight was used while Crockett and Tubbs were going to catch some bad guys. The song perfectly illustrated the emotions of the scene:
The day after the pilot aired radio stations across the country were flooded with phone calls requesting “In The Air” by Phil Collins. That was indicative of how strongly this pilot influenced and would go on to influence the culture of the 1980’s. This scene definitely sold the show and helped Miami Vice to become a huge part of television history.
’Til next time, folks! Thanks for reading! More great stuff to come.