From Classics to Newbies: Begin Your Year with These Pitch-Perfect TV Pilots
Written by Izzy Garfinkel, Alexandra Hidalgo, Heaven Infinity, and Alina McMahon
Developmentally Edited by: Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Edited and Posted by: Heaven Infinity
As we enter the new year and agnès films returns from hiatus, we want to invite you to think about a different kind of beginning. The mighty and so-hard-to-get-right TV pilot. Pilots introduce characters, set up tone, build worlds, and perhaps, most important of all, they hook us. The best pilots also resonate throughout the whole show, giving the story a satisfying circularity between the series opening and the finale. Tall order. Here are eight pilots we at agnès films think beautifully struck that balance. Tell us about your favorite pilots on our Twitter, @agnesfilms, or our Instagram, @agnes.films!
Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar
By Alexandra Hidalgo
Growing up in Venezuela in the 80s, I was not exposed to the Addams family. We had four TV channels, and the only one partial to supernatural families chose to air The Munsters (to my unending childhood joy). Thus, when our family sat down to watch Wednesday, I was as uninitiated as my eight-year-old son, Santiago, for whom the show has become a portal to all things spooky, witty, and deliciously hard to explain. The pilot, co-written by co-creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, reminds us why we fell in love with the resilient outcasts championed by director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman in earlier classics like Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. These four collaborators open the show on a sunny day as students in bright outfits enter Nancy Reagan High School. We’re quickly introduced to Wednesday (Jenna Ortega) as she parts the teenage waters in her braids and black dress to find her sweet, plump brother Pugsley (Isaac Ordonez), inside her locker. He falls to the ground as she opens the door, an apple gagging his mouth, his body tied up. She asks for the perpetrators’ identity, but he can’t tell her. It doesn’t matter since, as she releases him, she jerks her face upward, and we see a vision of past events through her eyes of older boys attacking Pugsley. Her revenge on the bullies features piranhas and is set to Édith Piaf’s irreverent “Non, je ne regrette rien” (No, I don’t regret anything). And that’s just the cold open’s 2 minutes and 40 seconds.
From there, Wednesday is expelled and lands at Nevermore Academy, the school for magical outcasts where her parents met, and we’re treated to a master class in character development and world building. In roughly 51 minutes we meet her parents, Gomez (Luis Guzmán) and Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who proudly parade their fondness for each other, much to their daughter’s annoyance. As they part, Wednesday tells Morticia, “I’m not you, Mother. I will never fall in love or be a housewife or have a family.” While some of those predictions may turn out to be true, she is very much like her mother—from whom she inherited her ability to see the past and the future—in ways she will have to face as the story evolves. We also meet Wednesday’s two antagonists/reluctant allies, Principal Weems (Gwendoline Christie), her mother’s former roommate and rival, and Sheriff Donovan Galpin (Jamie McShane), who suspects her dad of having literally gotten away with murder while he was a Nevermore student. We fall in love with her friend/foil/roommate Enid (Emma Myers), a sunny werewolf with only claws to show for her heritage, who is as terrified of isolation as Wednesday craves it. And let’s not forget the dreamy boys destined to populate her love triangle. Sensitive artist Xavier (Percy Hynes White), whose meet-cute features saving her from a plunging gargoyle, and down-to-earth Tyler (Hunter Doohan), who works at the local coffee shop and whose espresso machine she fixes, even though the instructions are in Italian, a language she speaks because who wouldn’t want to read Machiavelli in the original? Then there’s my son Santiago’s favorite: Thing, the jaunty severed hand that helps her navigate life and investigate murders, earning my Emmy nomination for most expressive acting. Wait, no. That actually goes to Jenna Ortega, who manages to make everything feel dark and playful whenever the camera lands on her face, which thankfully happens quite often. I sure hope Venezuelan children are getting to watch this Addams family iteration. Wednesday is bound to give them wild, whimsical visions of the world and the role they can play in it.
Find Wednesday on Netflix (and talk about it with Santiago anytime you like).
Created by Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson
By Izzy Garfinkel
Four and three and two and one…Broad City’s iconic countdown theme song rings in my head as I think of this comfort show of mine. The jingle’s playful suspense prepares me to be thrown into a fast-paced, half-hour journey of tomfoolery in which each story curveball is more wild and unexpected than the rest. The pilot opens on a video call between best friends Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana (Ilana Glazer). Abbi makes sure to hide what she was looking at before the call—a post-it scheduling when to masturbate, while Ilana unabashedly reveals she is having sex mid-call and uses her partner’s bare stomach as a laptop stand. Still on top of her partner, Ilana tries to convince Abbi to ditch work for an impromptu Lil’ Wayne concert together. That barely scratches the surface of the unapologetic indulgence that is Broad City.
In this episode, we catch a glimpse of these two broads’ daily life in New York City. Abbi is an aspiring artist making ends meet as a cleaner at the high-end gym, Soulstice, where she is undervalued and underpaid, while Ilana stirs up chaos at her Deals Deals Deals! dead-end internet sales rep job. Whether she actually works is debatable, unless working means smoking pot and falling asleep in the bathroom; we start to see more and more that Ilana is clearly a Type B personality, and Abbi a Type A. Ilana drops in on Soulstice to “rescue” Abbi, who resists at first, but the two eventually romp around and encounter some buddies of theirs along the way. We meet Lincoln (Hannibal Buress), a successful, goofy dentist—Ilana’s love interest and the man from the opening video call; and Matt Bevers (John Gemberling), Abbi’s roommate’s slob boyfriend, who might as well be Abbi’s roommate instead; we never see his girlfriend. We watch every moment of Abbi and Ilana navigating their relationships and they are as hectic as life in the Big Apple and we begin to see why they stay there, even with all their quirky misfortunes and outlandish shenanigans. On a broader scale (pun intended), Abbi and Ilana’s zany adventures remind me of my own dynamic duo friendships and the importance of showing up for each other, judgment free.
You can watch Broad City on Hulu.
Dead To Me
Created by Liz Feldman
By Heaven Infinity
Dark humor murder mystery rom-com, anybody? Doesn’t seem like genres that would necessarily go together, but Netflix’s Dead To Me makes it work. The pilot opens on a shot of a casserole given to protagonist Jen (Christina Applegate) from one of her neighbors as a “sorry for your loss” gift in honor of Jen’s dead husband, Ted. In Jen’s conversation with her neighbor, we find out that Ted was killed in a hit and run, three months prior, and Jen and her sons are understandably still healing from the accident’s aftermath. Jen attends a grievance counseling meeting where attendees are encouraged to share their stories to help them heal. Jen is very reluctant to participate, but still interacts with Judy (Linda Cardellini) who is grieving her late fiance, Steve. Judy is the perfect foil for Jen, as she is silly and bubbly and kind, while Jen’s grief has made her angry and cold. Judy gives Jen her phone number and encourages her to give her a call so they can keep each other company through this dark time in their lives. Jen eventually calls Judy and over the next few weeks, the two quickly become good friends, talking for hours on the phone, watching TV, and drinking wine.
The pilot ends with a shot of Judy’s car that just so happens to have a human-sized dent in the bumper and a shattered windshield, exactly the kind of car that could’ve been involved in Jen’s husband’s hit and run! The audience is left in suspense that things may not be what they seem and that a glorious friendship may be based on lies. Dead To Me is on its third season and packs in as much feminism, queerness, mystery, and dark humor as one show could possibly hold. It’s definitely worth binging with your bestie and/or secret frenemy.
You can watch Dead To Me on Netflix.
Created by John Wells
By Alina McMahon
Shameless is raunchy, raw, and real—basically my mom’s worst nightmare. It tells the story of a family, the Gallaghers, and their struggles living in poverty on the Southside of Chicago. That sounds pretty sad, doesn’t it? The magic of Shameless is that yes, the premise is grim and so are countless storylines throughout its 11-season runtime, but the writing and line delivery create an inexplicably light-hearted, easy to watch, and funny show that gives representation to thought-provoking subject matters underexplored in mainstream media—like mental illness, violent homophobia, substance abuse, and teen pregnancy to name a few. The American version of Shameless began as an adaptation of the British show by the same name created by Paul Abbott. US showrunner John Wells was able to transform the concept into something relevant to American audiences while keeping the spirit of the original.
The pilot opens on dozens of people gathered around a bonfire as we hear Frank Gallagher’s (William H. Macy) two-minute voiceover. Frank, the Gallagher patriarch, introduces each of his six kids. Fiona (Emmy Rossum) is the oldest. She takes care of the house, the other kids, the bills, even her dad. Lip (Jeremy Allen White) naturally excels in school, making money to pay bills through tutoring. This allows him to stay in high school (unlike Fiona) and have less of a parental role to his younger siblings. Ian (Cameron Monaghan) is about a year below Lip, and, in Frank’s words, has “an incredible work ethic! Don’t have a clue where he got that from.” All Frank has to say about Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) is “um, I don’t really know that much about Carl,” which remains true until the eight-year-old grows up in later seasons. Debbie (Emma Kenney) is around Carl’s age and is depicted as a clever sweetheart. She loves her family and has a good heart, but also knows how to make a quick buck. Liam (Brenden Sims) is a black toddler in the entirely white Gallagher family. Liam’s racial identity is explored in later seasons, but for most of the show it’s a running joke that Liam is the result of Frank’s ex-wife having an affair. Frank also introduces the Gallagher’s neighbors, Kev (Steve Howey) and Veronica (Shanola Hampton) as a couple of very happy sex addicts. Finally, Frank introduces himself as “father, teacher, mentor, captain of this little ship,” all things that the audience quickly learns could not be further from the truth, aside from the biological use of the word “father,” (at least for all but one of them).
That opening monologue does a magnificent job at giving the viewer an understanding of the relationships, dynamics, and personalities that make up the Gallagher family. With the information from that first scene, someone could flip to any random episode and pretty much follow what’s going on, appreciate the jokes, and understand the different roles each character plays in the family dynamic. Shameless covers so much ground over ten years that there is something for all viewers to relate to and enjoy. I urge you to experience the simultaneously crude and heartfelt story of the Gallaghers, and, to quote Frank, “I guess that’s it. Not much left to say really. Except, time’s precious, don’t waste it. Have a good time. I sure as hell did.”
Shameless is available on Netflix.
Created by Sarah Streicher
By Alina McMahon
It is not often that I feel completely understood by a TV show. The Wilds is a show that represents characters with vastly different backgrounds and entirely different personal struggles, unified under the common theme of girlhood, acknowledging and validating countless struggles teenage girls go through. It gracefully addresses racism, grooming, homophobia, parental pressure, body-image issues, mental illness, and even colonialism. What comes to be an overarching struggle for all nine main characters is the shared experience of exploring and developing sexuality as young women in the global West.
The nine girls comprising the main cast come from varied backgrounds. They have all been sent on a retreat marketed as a therapeutic healing experience for young women. The pilot opens in a strange, disorienting manner with Leah (Sarah Pidgeon) being told limited information about what’s going on, and being prepped for an interview process that remains purposely vague to the audience. We’re shown medical tests, hospital gowns, and IVs being inserted intermixed with flashbacks of Leah covered in mud, closeups of scratches covering her arms, and a shot of Leah pulling another girl out of the ocean. If you feel confused right about now, good, so do I. Streicher makes this opening sequence disorienting. It is impossible to discern what on earth is going on in this opening sequence upon your first watch, and as a result, we are put into Leah’s headspace.
Leah, pragmatic, skeptical, and alert, begins her interview slowly, puzzled along with the audience. The men interviewing her refer to whatever mysterious thing she was just rescued from as “living hell” which launches Leah into a monologue about how girlhood in America is the real living hell, and what she and the eight other girls have been through was simply torture. During this monologue, we are given a glimpse into each girl’s life at home and what may have caused them all to end up in the same place. Martha (Jenna Clause) is quiet and optimistic, the opposite of her best friend Toni (Erana James) who picks fights with others seemingly just for fun. Nora (Helena Howard) is a bookish social outcast and spends most of her time worrying about her twin sister Rachel (Reign Edwards,) who is overly committed to diving. Jeanette (Chi Nguyen) is bubbly and friendly, maybe to a fault. Dot (Shannon Berry) is extremely dependable and also a total badass with a rough exterior, in sharp contrast to Shelby (Mia Healey), an ultra-Christian pageant queen with a perfectly maintained exterior. Fatin (Sophia Ali) is a cello prodigy who, facing parental pressure to excel, feels like an Indian American stereotype. Except to rebel against her strict parents, she is extremely sex-positive and embraces her femininity. Finally, Leah, prior to whatever “torture” the group faced was a depressed, lovesick teenager, something that has clearly changed by the time she’s being interviewed. As Leah explains in her interview, the girls seemed to come in pairs. Toni and Martha are best friends, Rachel and Nora are twin sisters, Dot and Shelby are far from friends but attended the same high school just like Fatin and Leah did, and Jeanette was a bit of a mystery with no ties to any other girl.
Fifteen minutes into the pilot, we learn where the title of the show comes from. The private jet that is meant to be taking the girls to the retreat crashes, leaving the entire group stranded on a deserted island and fighting for survival. This is no Gilligan’s Island rip-off, The Wilds is gritty, honest, and equal parts heartbreaking and heartwarming. Once the mysterious circumstances surrounding the plane crash begin to unravel, you won’t be able to stop watching.
Watch both seasons of The Wilds now on Amazon Prime.
Created by Pendelton Ward
By Heaven Infinity
What time is it?! Adventure time! And who doesn’t love a good adventure? Compared to the remaining ten seasons of the cartoon, the pilot of Adventure Time is what I’d like to call a humble beginning. The six-minute pilot opens with Finn the human (Jeremy Shada) and Jake the dog (John DiMaggio) hanging out in a normal-looking field. This scenery is very different from what appears in the full-fledged series, which takes place in the magical, post-apocalyptic Land of Oo. Finn and Jake spot flying rainbow unicorn, Lady Rainicorn, crying and trail her to see what’s wrong. Finn and Jake follow Lady all the way to the Ice Kingdom, where the evil Ice King has kidnapped Princess Bubblegum of the Candy Kingdom in hopes of convincing her to marry him. Throughout the show, Finn and Jake save many princesses from the Ice King, even though he plays the role of goofy, comic relief instead of posing an actual threat to his would-be brides.
After the short pilot ends, you might think, “What in the world did I just watch?” That’s certainly what Nickelodeon thought when the show was pitched to them. Luckily, Cartoon Network green-lit it and it ran for 10 seasons, even getting Adventure Time: Distant Lands, a special limited spin-off series on HBO. Throughout the show’s run, it dealt with substantial topics such as queer relationships, non-binary characters, having empathy for others, self-discovery and growth, how to cope with the death of loved ones, and the importance of consent. The adventures also became great worldbuilding plotlines that interconnect copious small stories within the universe, so much so that there are innumerable Adventure Time timeline videos on Youtube, which are fun for nerds like me to watch and go down a rabbit hole of lore and conspiracy. I can’t wait to watch the entire series again, as I’ve already done countless times. There’s always time for an adventure!
You can watch the Adventure Time pilot on Youtube and the full series on Hulu.
Created by Sharon Horgan and Brett Baer
By Izzy Garfinkel
The amount of new TV shows I feel the need to watch is overwhelming, but when my roommate’s parents put the pilot of Bad Sisters on the TV as we cozied up on Thanksgiving, I knew I had to put down every other show I was watching for this one. A rare thing for me. The first half of the pilot is ambiguous toward the show’s overall tone—a drama, but could this be a comedy, too? The pilot’s title, “The Prick,” certainly lends itself to a dramedy genre. The opening scene is preparation for a funeral. Ambiguity comes in when the deceased John Paul Williams (Claes Bang), husband to Grace (Anne-Marie Duff), has a visible erection in his open casket. “The Prick” is relevant both to this scene and John Paul, himself, as we learn that Grace’s four sisters, the Garveys, despise him. As the pilot unfolds, we discover it’s with good reason. We are left to wonder how bad these sisters truly are, and what they might have to do with the premature death of the abusive, prick brother-in-law that is John Paul Williams.
Bad Sisters travels between past and present and gradually unravels the events before and after JP’s death, which according to passing comments at the funeral was supposedly violent. We catch a glimpse of each sister’s subtle characteristics within the pilot’s first few minutes, and slowly discover that their lives and those of others at the funeral are intricately entwined in JP’s death, though we still don’t know the exact cause. There’s Grace, the fragile widow; Eva (Sharon Horgan), the eldest and most motherly to the girls; Bibi (Sarah Greene), with her eyepatch and her blunt communication style; Ursula (Eva Birthistle), a busy nurse and mother of three; and Becka (Eve Hewson), the youngest and apparent black sheep of the five, who shows up late to the funeral—wearing a hot pink sweater, no less. Stakes heighten with the introduction of Thomas (Brian Gleeson) and Matt (Daryl McCormack) Claffin of the borderline bankrupt Claffin and Sons Insurance Company. As they search for foul play in JP’s death to avoid paying out his life insurance claim, their stories become even more intertwined. Just from the pilot, Bad Sisters presents itself as a ride through mystery, comedy, thriller, and drama that unveils the importance of family and showing up for each other in times of need. Watching Bad Sisters during my first Thanksgiving away from my own family reminded me that we can have family that’s there for us in various parts of our lives. It is a show that iterates the power of family bonds and also of our chosen families. The time we share might not always involve nail-biting mysteries or thrillers, but sprawling out on the couch and binging some good TV together works just fine.
You can watch Bad Sisters on Apple TV.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino
By Alexandra Hidalgo
Over Thanksgiving dinner, my brother-in-law asked everyone which show we’d take to a desert island. My answer, Gilmore Girls, was instantaneous. It’s cheerful, witty, and pulls at every heartstring. Unlike most fans of all things created, written, and directed by Amy Sherman-Pallidino, however, I fell in love with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel first. Trying to fill the void left by Mad Men and Masters of Sex, I checked out Maisel for the 1950s setting, but it was the characters that drew me in. The pilot opens with the sound of voices and silverware clinking on glasses over a black screen. We hear a woman’s voice say, “Who gives a toast at her own wedding?” We wonder, who indeed? The screen reveals Midge (Rachel Brosnahan), a bow above her veil, hair perfectly styled, lacy white dress. She goes on, “I mean who does that? Who stands in the middle of a ballroom after three glasses of champagne on a completely empty stomach? And I mean, completely empty, because fitting into this dress required no solid food for three straight weeks. Who does that?” Midge gestures her arms outward. “I do.” The guests laugh and clap as she drinks it all in.
You could argue Sherman-Palladino, who wrote and directed the episode, set up the whole show in the 34 seconds I just described. Maisel is, after all, the story of an Upper West Side Jewish wife and mother who becomes a stand-up comedian and juggles friendship, career, romance, family, and the whole feminist-in-heels-and-corsets conundrum for five spellbinding seasons. Actually, I can’t vouch for the fifth because it comes out this winter. Let me say, though, that the pilot sticks with its storytelling economy. In 12 minutes and 29 seconds, we meet Midge’s wanna-be comedian husband Joel (Michael Zegen) and her more-than-friends comedian mentor Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby). We’re introduced to them during her speech, which ends with, “And yes, there is shrimp in the egg rolls,” to the outrage of her kosher-observing guests, and the embarrassment of her parents Marin (Rose Weissman) and Abe (Tony Shalhoub). That embarrassment will continue to haunt her parents as Midge climbs the slippery steps up the stand-up comedy ladder. We fast-forward to four years after the wedding and watch Midge and Joel go to the Gaslight club at Greenwich Village. As in Gilmore, Sherman-Palladino features on-screen musicians who provide the soundtrack as the camera tracks our characters walking, arms connected, toward their destination. In this case, that would be the bar at the Gaslight, where Midge bribes the manager with her scrumptious brisket to get Joel (a hack at telling jokes) a better time slot. There we meet Gaslight employee Susie (Alex Borstein), who seems to be the only one hip to Midge’s tricks. By the pilot’s end, these two women embark on a professional and personal journey that will change their lives and enthrall viewers as much as Midge enthralled her wedding guests before dropping the shrimp bomb. This might be the second show I take on a desert island, but before I commit, let’s see how Sherman-Palladino ties it all up in the final season.
You can watch Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime.
What are some of your favorite pilot episodes? Tweet us @agnesfilms. Learn more about Izzy, Heaven, Alex, and Alina on their profiles.