To create a successful TV show, you must create a successful pilot episode. The pilot must hook the audience and establish the setting, the plot, the characters, the mood, and the rules of the show’s universe. Whether it’s an action-packed sci-fi series or a grounded character-based series, you must hook the audience early to keep them interested. The name of the game is intrigue, and these seven series’ do just that with their pilot. Here are the Seven TV Pilot Scripts You Must Read:
1. Twin Peaks (1990) (Tomato Score: 100%)
Episode Info: An FBI agent (Kyle MacLachlan) and a sheriff (Michael Ontkean) find weirdness in a Pacific Northwest town while investigating the murder of a local teen.
Why you must read: A beautiful Pacific Northwest Town. A town where everybody knows everybody. A community rattled by the mysterious murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer. Twin Peaks is a masterclass of intrigue and mystery as an FBI Agent unravels the close-knit community with scandals, sinister motives, and even supernatural forces. Written by David Lynch and Mark Frost, the pilot shows how even the most beautiful surfaces can have dark underbellies as the puzzle pieces are presented and the viewer must pay attention to every line and image to solve this heinous crime. This pilot keeps your senses and brain under fire as you guess what will happen next.
2. Breaking Bad (2008) (Tomato Score: N/A)
Episode Info: High-school chemistry teacher Walter White learns he is dying of lung cancer and takes steps to ensure his family’s financial future.
Why you must read: Written by Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad is a classic example of taking a simple story and dialing it up to 11. It’s a grounded idea since the idea of doing what you must to feed your family is an idea that most people can relate to, but the curveball comes in when Walter White uses his prodigious knowledge of chemistry to cook and sell meth. A simple story, relatable characters, and a criminal backdrop make this series easy to follow and all the more compelling.
3. The West Wing (1999) (Tomato Meter: N/A)
Episode Info: The president (Martin Sheen) and his White House staff make up an eclectic group; with John Spencer, Brad Whitford, Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, Rob Lowe, Moira Kelly.
Why you must read: Flat out, if you want to know how to write great dialogue, you read and watch Aaron Sorkin’s works. The West Wing’s pilot introduces a political drama that challenges the notions of what happens in the White House, and the good and bad of the people in charge of a nation. This isn’t a screenplay full of action and fantasy, this is a masterpiece of dramatic dialogue told through realistic characters.
4. The Office (2005) (Tomato Score: N/A)
Episode Info: When a documentary crew arrives at Mifflin, manager Michael Scott attempts to paint a rosy picture but fails after learning the company will be downsizing.
Why you must read: An adapted work by Greg Daniels, The Office had to set up the series’ plot and differentiate itself from its UK origins. A 30-minute sitcom, they establish some of the most fun over the top characters you will encounter, as well as place them in an environment that’s relatable, all through an intimate lens as a mockumentary. With colorful characters, a downsizing business, and a film crew following everyone, The Office has unique characters and a unique voice.
5. Atlanta (2016) (Tomato Meter: 100%)
Episode Info: Broke and low on options, Earn seeks to enter the music industry, even by offering to be a manager for his rapper cousin, Paper Boi.
Why you must read: In Atlanta, writer Donald Glover presents an immensely intelligent screenplay based around a highly intelligent slacker who isn’t trusted by anyone who knows him. Despite his intellect, he’s a highly impulsive man-child who made a ton of mistakes that got the people around him to turn their backs. He’s in an uphill fight as he tries to be a better man and a manager for a cousin who is up and coming on the hip-hop scene. Both a satire and a drama, Atlanta portrays a three-dimensional world through a down-and-out cynic.
6. Game of Thrones (2011) (Tomato Meter: 100%)
Episode Info: A Night’s Watch deserter is tracked down; Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark learns that his mentor has died; Viserys Targaryen plots to win back the throne; Robert arrives at Winterfell with his family; Ned prepares to leave for King’s Landing.
Why you must read: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ pilot to Game of Thrones is about one thing, World Building. In this episode, you have monstrous beings teased, a suspicious death in the royal court, a twist ending, and the beginning of several plots that jumpstart the series and the season. As more and more characters, families, and political influences are introduced, it plays more like a fantastic game of Risk as you struggle with the moral ambiguity being pushed. Compelling characters and a plot that requires your utmost attention, this is how you introduce a series.
7. GLOW (2017) (Tomato Meter: N/A)
Episode Info: Ruth Wilder, a struggling actress, heads to an audition at an LA gym.
Why you must read: GLOW is one of the most intriguing pilots I’ve read in a long time because it doubles as a character study. Writers Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch take a real-life wrestling promotion, make their own characters, put them in a bottle, and shake it. The lead character Ruth is a sweetheart and a struggling actress who stumbles into a pro wrestling audition, who also slept with her best friend’s husband. The show’s strength is that it helps gain sympathy for someone who knowingly did something immoral but still shows enough heart to get behind as she and a bunch of amateurs find their place in the world of pro wrestling. If you want to learn how to flesh out characters, grapple with this script.
Bonus Pilot: The X-Files (1993) (Tomato Score: N/A)
Episode Info: Mulder and Scully investigate the strange deaths of members of a high-school graduating class in the Pacific Northwest.
Why you must read: Chris Carter’s The X-Files beauty is in its simplicity. Though the series is one of the pioneers of the Monster of the Week format, it is also a cop drama. It is Law and Order with supernatural elements. As for the in-show dynamic, there’s a dichotomy between the two partners. One’s a believer, the other is a skeptic. The entire series is a back and forth between the paranormal and the pragmatic as the world around them exists in a grey area where both are possible.
When writing a series, you have to nail the pilot. These scripts not only added intrigue but added something new to their genres or subverted a trope that added something to the mythos. Whether it was uncovering the seedy underbelly of perfection or ramping up a normal story past expectations, each pilot set the tone for their series. When you read through these screenplays, ask yourself a question: How far is your story willing to go to reach the next level?