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TV Time-Waster: The Best Pilots Ever

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Love the show now, but… seriously? / NBC

Oooh, this should be a good way to blow off some work this afternoon. TV Guide has come up with its list of the 10 Best TV Pilots in the issue on newsstands now. Their list, my knee-jerk cavils and additions, and your invitation to play along, after the jump:

No. 1 – LOST (2004) Forget that we still have no idea why the hell Flight 815 went down. From the moment Kate started sewing up Jack’s injuries, we were sucked in like that dude who got too close to the engine. Plus, anything that can introduce one of TV’s loopiest mythologies and Josh Holloway is totally worth a $12 million budget.

No. 2 – 24 (2001) Real time was a real turn-on when Jack Bauer got to work cracking bratty Kim’s disappearance, the threat of Senator Palmer’s like [sic; I think they mean the threat on his life], and a shocking final-moments airline explosion that only hinted at how bananas Bauer’s day was about to get. Probably would have called in sick had he known.

No. 3 – THE SHIELD (2002) Who knew the Commish was such a badass?! Michael Chiklis practically scorched our corneas with his blazingly intense Det. Vic Mackey, the dirtiest Harry ever, in this profane, violent opener that took NYPD Blue’s idea of flawed cops to a corrupt new high. Or is that low? Either way, it was truly arresting.

No. 4 – THE SOPRANOS (1999) Ducks. One word and we’re having a panic attack right along with Tony again. Filmed two years before HBO ever aired it, this Godfather-gone-neurotic series showed that mobsters are people, too, and gave us two wildly divergent ideas of family that were both utterly unfuhgeddable.

No. 5 – 30 ROCK (2006) After a few tweaks and the swap out of Rachel Dratch for Jane Krakowski, Tina Fey’s second pass at her hit’s opener deftly nailed the bizarre world that is sketch TV, while flipping a major bird at corporate-network synergy. Comedy is rarely this smart, accessible or, well, Rock solid.

No. 6 – FOOTBALL WIVES (2007) James Van Der Beek, Eddie Cibrian, Lucy Lawless and Gabrielle Union in an American version of the Brit soap about jocks and the women who, um, support them. Hot, right? Too bad ABC dropped the ball by not picking these Wives up, ‘cause they would have scored big time.

No. 7 – DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (2004) With a mix of soapy goodness and comedy darker than the garb at Mary Alice’s funeral, our Wisterian wonders somehow made bad parenting and suburban dysfunction as delicious as Bree’s muffins. Maybe it was the fierce cast. Or the fact that none of them actually looked like our real neighbors.

No. 8 – SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (1975) Live from New York, it’s the one that started it all! Hosted by George Carlin, the late-nighter – then called NBC’s Saturday Night – felt cheap and unpolished, but with Andy Kaufman’s Mighty Mouse bit and the nascent Not Ready for Prime Time Players, it was clear that
we were seeing subversive greatness take shape before our not-so-sleepy eyes.

No. 9 – ER (1994) Marcus Welby officially left the building after these frenetic medics crashed through the doors of County General with about 1,000 ccs of realism and George Clooney on the verge of breakout stardom. When those EMTs rolled in suicidal nurse Carol Hathaway, we almost flatlined.

No. 10 – ALIAS (2001) While there is little in this world cooler than Jennifer Garner in that red wig, what really blew us away was the adrenalized action, the coed-turned-spy’s emotional complexity and the arsenal of twists creator J.J. Abrams packed into over an hour of commercial-free mayhem. Like Sydney, this one kicks butt.

OK, I’m solid on the first four picks, SNL is a smart inclusion and none of these are really indefensible. But as someone who makes lists I know the point of them is to pick fights.

So, first—no Arrested Development? Where’s my gun? If not the best sitcom pilot ever, the best one I’ve ever seen as a TV critic. I still remember the afternoon I put it in my DVD player, watched it, watched it again, then marched down the hall and told Joel Stein he absolutely had to watch this show.

Second, Freaks & Geeks. Or you cannot be my friend.

Football Wives? Eh. If we’re going for never-made-it-to-air pilots, you’ve got to think about Mulholland Drive, Heat Vision and Jack or Lookwell.

Now I have to bump a couple to make room, to be fair. First, easy: Desperate Housewives? Spare me. I’ll admit I never fully got the phenomenal appeal of the show, but I also think that the show hit its stride that first big season after the pilot, which was way too heavy on the American Beauty style smugness about the suburbs.

And don’t take this the wrong way, but: 30 Rock? Listen, back in the fall of 2006, I was a broken record telling anyone who would listen or cared that, of NBC’s two big shows about SNL-type sketch comedies, 30 Rock and not Studio 60 was the one to watch. And I remember almost anyone who would listen or cared looking at me like I was insane, in part because they said the 30 Rock pilot, while hilarious in spots, was too disjointed and scattershot. And while TV Guide does cite the retooled pilot here, I still think they’re engaging in revisionist history. (Maybe they needed Tina Fey for a photo shoot?) I did love this pilot, but the show hit an entirely new gear halfway through its first season.

Those are my starters. Your turn! If you don’t waste at least 15 minutes of your work day unable to do anything bu think about this, you must turn in your Tuned In digital-cable-decoder ring.

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