The 50 Greatest Sitcom Pilots
“It’s a great show, but you need to give it six or seven episodes to find itself.”
We’ve all heard it; we’ve probably all even said it. Lots of the sitcoms we love — even ones we return to over and over again; ones we’ve recommended to friends and felt compelled to purchase on physical media so we never lost access — are not that great right off the bat.
Pilots are hard, because a pilot has to do a lot. It has to establish its setting. It has to introduce characters and show us why they’re there. It has to tell us all their names and all their relationships to each other. It has to tell a story that’s entertaining within the span of the episode, and it has to give us confidence that future stories it may tell will be just as compelling. Sometimes, a pilot assaults you with how pilot-y it is. And other times, you arrive at the closing credits astonished that you didn’t just watch a show that’s always been in your life.
It’s pilots in the second category that I’ve listed here — and, to be clear, this is a list of pilot episodes only, not a list of the 50 greatest sitcoms. Lots of extremely important shows aren’t represented here because their first episodes don’t pop the way subsequent episodes do; maybe they didn’t lock in their tone, casts or formats until later in their runs. No offense is intended to, for example, The Golden Girls, Seinfeld or The Simpsons, which are all great shows, but which have pilots that are off-model.
With that said, here’s a countdown of the pilots that took off most confidently, with links to the places you can find them…
CBS’ How I Met Your Mother isn’t the first sitcom to copy the shaggy hangout vibe of Living Single (which we will get to almost immediately), but it’s by far the most overwrought. The framing device is also a lift from shows like The Wonder Years: from later in life, Ted (voice of Bob Saget) narrates the titular story to his teen children Luke and Penny (David Henrie and Lyndsy Fonseca). But in our present day — the mid-aughts to the mid-teens — we see Ted is played by Josh Radnor, and the pilot of the show he headlines is very eventful. His best friend and roommate Marshall (Jason Segel) gets engaged to Lily (Alyson Hannigan), whom he’s been dating since they met mere moments into the start of their freshman year of college. Ted decides he is also ready to get married, just before he meets Robin (Cobie Smulders). They go on a date, things progress, he’s impressing her, but then just as they’re about to kiss, he confesses he’s in love with her, and she gets freaked out that he’s moving so fast.
And that, old Ted tells the kids, is how he first met their Aunt Robin. She’s not their mother at all! Who is? WELL, that’s a story long enough to span several network sitcom seasons. It’s a high-concept take on a rom-com, but as pilots go, it’s a solid hook.
As Late Night With Seth Meyers writer Amber Ruffin is fond of reminding her boss, there was a show like Friends before Friends and which some might say Friends knocked off, and that show was Living Single. The theme song, performed by star Queen Latifah, situates us in “a 90s kind of world,” she’s glad she’s got her girls and the pilot does a brisk job letting us know who they all are and what they’re about. Synclaire (Kim Coles) is a receptionist at independent magazine Flavor; her ditziness, we learn, loses her friend, boss and roommate Khadijah (Queen Latifah) her next cover subject, who was to have been Maya Angelou. Their friend Régine (Kim Fields), a boutique clerk, soon blows into the office to brag about her boyfriend and his limo. Back home later in the Brooklyn brownstone all three share, their lawyer friend Max (Erika Alexander) stops in to see what’s going on. Across-the-hall neighbors Kyle (T.C. Carson) and Overton (John Henton) are also near-constant fixtures; the latter flirts with a receptive Synclaire, while the former is clearly meant for Max.
The friends pull together when it turns out Régine’s new guy is not what he seems, and she decides to console herself by getting her hair done, or maybe just buying some. The premise doesn’t have much meat on it, but it also doesn’t really need more than it has: Friends are hanging out and cracking wise in large spaces in New York City. We keep seeing it because it works!
One Day At A Time (2017)
In the 1970s, One Day At A Time was a Norman Lear sitcom hit that dared to revolve around a divorced mother of two teens, starting over. For the 21st century, Lear revisited the proven premise, but adapted it — with former How I Met Your Mother writer Gloria Calderón Kellett and former Everybody Loves Raymond writer Mike Royce — for a Cuban-American family in Los Angeles. As we learn in the pilot, our single mother this time is Penelope (Justina Machado), who’s separated from her husband. Penelope and her ex are both military veterans, and as we learn in the episode, lingering anxiety from their service — which she wanted to deal with, and he wanted to ignore — is one of the reasons they have parted.
Penelope starts taking antidepressants, but her first-generation immigrant mother Lydia (Rita Moreno), who lives with Penelope and her kids, is certain that Penelope needs a reunion with her former husband more than her prescription. Filling out the cast are Penelope’s daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez), whose feminist principles are driving her to refuse a traditional quinceñera; Penelope’s son Alex (Marcel Ruiz), a sneakerhead with little respect for his mother’s budget; and Schneider (Todd Grinnell), the building super who believes he’s part of the family. The specificity the cast and writers bring to this story of the contemporary Cuban-American experience makes the pilot spark.
Having made enough money as the co-creator of Seinfeld never to have to work again, Larry David decided to work again, adapting his quasi-stand-up special of the same name into a sitcom. David plays “himself,” and the pilot gives us a good idea of the kind of comic possibilities he can plumb from his life of relative leisure. He shows his wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines) how the stiffness of his corduroy pants causes them to tent even when their contents are entirely flaccid. He gets annoyed when Cheryl volunteers him, without his approval, to take a female friend of hers to a movie. He’s horrified when said friend, Nancy (Robin Ruzan), looks down at the wrong moment and thinks she’s aroused him. He clashes with his friend Richard Lewis (also as “himself”) when Larry has a run-in with Richard’s new girlfriend (Sofia Milos) and Richard takes her side.
If these all sound like the kind of banal storyline premises we were, by this point, all familiar with from Seinfeld, you’re right — except Larry has absolutely no vanity about his image and will readily make himself look like an absolute monster; his real-life celebrity friends can play themselves; and everyone can swear.
It’s undeniable that some of the jokes in the Will & Grace pilot wouldn’t be appropriate for a show premiering now. But the world was a different place 25 years ago, when this pilot first aired, so if you can cast your mind back to those long-ago days, you can still get a lot of laughs out of it (and some of them are so retrograde that you might actually feel a bit naughty doing it).
Will (Eric McCormack) is a lawyer, and gay. His best friend — and, long-ago, once his girlfriend — is Grace (Debra Messing), an interior designer, and straight. Grace has been living with her boyfriend Danny for years, but they fight a lot, Will doesn’t like him and he clearly doesn’t know Grace half as well as Will does. Then one fight gets resolved with a wedding proposal; when Grace accepts, Will admits his disapproval, and the fact that he’s willing to risk their friendship if it means saving her from a bad decision proves which of the men actually loves her more (though the fact that Danny is almost entirely off-screen and has no lines also affects our views).
Will and Grace also each get a sounding board — Grace’s flighty assistant Karen (Megan Mullally), who’s married to a wealthy man; and Will’s friend Jack (Sean Hayes), also a single gay man but one who seems to be having a lot more fun than Will. Grace decides not to marry Danny, securing her connection to Will, and though the title did kind of tip off this outcome, the authenticity of their friendship gives the pilot its heart.
This isn’t the only title on the list that features an older character narrating the story of his childhood. It’s not even the only one in which a celebrity plays himself. It is, however, the only one about a Chinese-American family trying to run an extremely American steak house in mid-1990s Orlando. Our protagonist is future celebrity chef Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang in live-action kid form; himself as narrator), and we meet him just as his family has moved to join his father Louis (Randall Park) in the aforementioned Florida tourist destination. In D.C., from which they’ve relocated, the family lived in Chinatown and were near lots of family and friends. Eddie and his mother Jessica (Constance Wu) have the most difficulty with the culture shock, though at least Jessica doesn’t also have to deal with bullies at school making racist remarks about the Chinese noodles Eddie’s brought for lunch.
The pilot’s best scene comes after Eddie fights his bully over an ethnic slur. The principal drags both his parents to the office, and instead of being cowed by his authority, they both turn on him for focusing on the wrong problem. Park already had an impressive comedy CV by the time this show premiered, but Wu, who was less well known then, is a revelation.
When it came time to create his namesake sitcom vehicle, Original King of Comedy Bernie Mac didn’t have to try too hard, particularly since he’s playing “himself,” a successful touring comedian; he could have just headlined his own take on Seinfeld. Instead, he loosely adapted an experience he’d had with his own family for the premise of the series: When Bernie’s sister goes into rehab, he agrees to look after her three children to keep them from having to enter the foster care system. Bernie narrates his own story in direct address, which allows his internal monologue, as it were, to be an expression of pure id in terms of his frustrations with the kids; in actuality, he’s much more tender and understanding with them than his gruff manner would suggest. The pilot also sidesteps the pilot-y practice of working exposition into dialogue, instead telling us who everyone is with on-screen text and arrows — an innovation more shows should adopt, imo.
Many of the shows on this list serve as performers’ breakout vehicles. And since some of them have racked up multiple awards either for their work in shows mentioned here or that they did afterward, it’s not exactly logical for me to say Maitreyi Ramakrishnan has the most obvious star power in her pilot. But that’s how I feel! Instantly, this seems like a fated marriage of character and role.
Ramakrishnan plays Devi Vishwakumar, a Sherman Oaks, California high school student whose grade-grubbing is matched only by her biggest academic rival, Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison). When Devi’s not angry about his insults, she’s angry about the recent loss of her beloved father Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy) — and so is her mother, Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan), who has always felt like she was on the outside of her husband and daughter’s relationship. The pilot ends with Devi getting Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) to agree to be her partner when she loses her virginity, which she thinks will change her image and destiny. But the truest chemistry is between Jagannathan and Ramakrishnan as mother and daughter — which, spoiler, will turn out to be the show’s big love story.
Much has been said — and justly — about the aspects of Friends that haven’t aged well. But most of those are not in evidence in the very good pilot. Monica (Courteney Cox) and her best friends are in her local coffee shop, cheering up her brother Ross (David Schwimmer) as he grieves the end of his marriage, his wife Carol having left him for a woman named Susan. Ross has just blurted that all he wants is to get married again when a woman in her bridal gown bursts in. (Matthew Perry, as Chandler: “And I just want a million dollars!”) The woman turns out to be Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), who grew up with Ross and Monica on Long Island; who has fled her wedding to an orthodontist named Barry, because she suddenly realized she didn’t love him; and on whom Ross has had an unrequited crush since they were teenagers.
The writing zips. The simplicity of the premise allows for endless potential stories in the future. But above all, the cast of mostly unknowns is quite obviously one of the best in sitcom history. I can’t defend every aspect of the show, but it’s hard to get mad at this episode.
Having quite successfully written on workplace comedies The Office (U.S.) and Parks and Recreation, Michael Schur partnered with Dan Goor to co-create yet another beloved entry in the genre with Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Then freshly released from his run as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, Andy Samberg headlines the show as the titular police precinct’s Det. Jake Peralta. And while he probably could have continued delighting and/or annoying his colleagues forever with his juvenile antics, something changes in the pilot: the arrival of new captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher). Peralta’s man-child tendencies immediately clash with Holt’s firm sense of propriety and professionalism — Peralta is particularly offended by Holt’s demand that Peralta wear a tie to work — but working a murder case together allows the two to respect each other’s talents for the job. The excellent casting on the entire squad, plus crack directing by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, make this pilot a memorable winner.
One of the many descendants of All in the Family, The Jeffersons moves the titular family from Queens, where they lived next to the Bunkers, to a luxury apartment in a high-rise on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. And while their material anxieties may be forgotten, they have new concerns. When Louise (Isabel Sanford) makes friends with Diane (Paulene Myers) after they meet in the laundry room, Diane assumes Louise is, like her, a maid for one of the building’s wealthy residents, not one of the residents herself, and an awkward moment ensues once Diane realizes that there is a class gulf between them, no matter how much Louise wants to ignore it.
Things get more tense when George (Sherman Hemsley) wants to hire a housekeeper, and Louise — formerly a maid herself — resists the idea of being on the other side of the transaction. The debate eventually draws in the Jeffersons’ new neighbors, Helen and Tom Willis (Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover), and since Helen is Black and Tom is white, George’s disdain for them reminds us that he is, in his way, just as intolerant as his old sparring partner Archie.
This one has some rough language for a 2023 viewer, but it also makes clear that the show will be just as fearless in addressing changing American mores as was the show that spun it off.
The original Wonder Years (1988), as a series, was groundbreaking and influential. Its pilot, however, has issues, starting with its nostalgic framing of its protagonist’s idyllic suburban childhood. We’re watching Kevin (Fred Savage) 20 years earlier, and while change is roiling American society around him — and war is ongoing overseas — none of that directly touches him. When someone Kevin knows is killed fighting in Vietnam, it’s someone at a remove from him: his neighbor, Brian Cooper (Bentley Mitchum), older brother of his crush, Winnie (Danica McKellar). By contrast, the pilot for Saladin K. Patterson’s sequel to The Wonder Years has a lot to say about America both in 1968 and today.
At the center this time is a Black family, the Williamses, in Montgomery, Alabama. Youngest child Dean (Elisha Williams, with adult narration by Don Cheadle) attends a school named after Jefferson Davis, where some of the white kids newly required to share space with Black classmates, are wary of non-segregated water fountains. As a 12-year-old, Dean lacks the maturity to understand the gravity of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, which closes the episode, and focuses instead on his crush kissing his best friend. But Dean’s kid perspective isn’t the only angle on the story; the writing manages to feel both subtle and urgent.
I understand that there are readers who will scan this list and be annoyed that, say, M*A*S*H isn’t on it when this show, which they’ve never even heard of, defiantly is. Sorry, but while I recognize that, say, M*A*S*H is important in the canon of sitcoms and that particular episodes changed culture forever, the pilot bored me senseless, whereas I’ve watched the Frisky Dingo pilot dozens of times and will watch it dozens more before I die.
As it begins, Killface (voice of Adam Reed, who also created the show) is describing his supervillainous plans to propel the planet into the sun using his doomsday weapon, the Annihilatrix. Then, after a long pause, it becomes clear that he’s not totally sure what he’s doing, and the USC film school-trained twins (Brendon Small) he’s hired to film his warning infomercial are no help; their attempts to educate him about media buys only enrage him further. Braiding together outsized cartoon villainy and banal real-world considerations is a perfect introduction to the nonsense yet to come as the series goes on. Plus, a bisected corpse is repurposed as a hand puppet.
The late 1990s into the early aughts were a boom time for single-sex bands assembled by managers on the make, but they couldn’t all be the Spice Girls. In Meredith Scardino’s sitcom, the titular Girls5Eva (“’cause 4Eva’s too short,” as their theme song explains) had a very brief moment of freak fame before drifting into other pursuits. Decades later, a rapper named Lil Stinker (Jeremiah Craft) samples one of their tracks, and a burst of nostalgia returns the members who are still alive — RIP Ashley — to the spotlight.
The show comes to us from Tina Fey’s production company (Scardino is an alumna of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt writing staff), so the jokes-per-minute rate is typically high. But the show doesn’t sacrifice strong characterization for gags. As Gloria, Paula Pell finally gets a star vehicle worthy of her gifts; and Broadway star Renée Elise Goldsberry, playing Wickie, ascends to the pantheon of Fey’s self-involved divas. Also: the songs, by Jeff Richmond, are uniformly great.
A coming-of-age period comedy narrated by the protagonist’s older self might prime the viewer to expect a rosy, nostalgic remembrance. But this protagonist is Chris Rock, and in the pilot, he’s telling the story of moving from Brooklyn’s housing projects to a marginally more desirable apartment in Bed-Stuy.
Chris (Tyler James Williams) has a tough mother, Rochelle (Tichina Arnold); a penny-pinching father, Julius (Terry Crews); a younger brother, Drew (Tequan Richmond) who’s taller than he is; and a sister, Tonya (Imani Hakim) who knows exactly how to manipulate their father at Chris’ expense. In addition to the standard amount of responsibility latchkey kids had to shoulder in the 1980s, Chris must also take a very long transit trip to his school in a safer neighborhood, then deal with the challenges of being one of the school’s only Black kids and thus an immediate target for the school bully.
Chris’ day is tough, but given how much worse his dad had it in his day, Chris keeps his complaints to himself. It’s a tight 25 or so minutes that situates us in time and place, shows us all the family members’ interrelationships and teaches us why you never eat the big piece of chicken mom set aside for dad.
A lot of shows might hold off on an episode called “The Gang Gets Racist” until it laid more groundwork under its characters so that the audience would be confident about their intentions. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia isn’t that kind of show, and it wants the viewer to know that immediately. While telling a story, Charlie (Charlie Day) is overheard by his crush, the Waitress (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), repeating a racially charged remark his new (Black) acquaintance Terrell (Malcolm Barrett) said. The misunderstanding that ensues leads the gang to try to make more Black friends. One thing leads to another, and before long, Terrell’s promotional efforts on behalf of the gang’s business, Paddy’s Pub, have essentially turned it into a gay bar — which is fine with Dennis (Glenn Howerton), who’s straight but not so straight that he doesn’t relish all the attention and compliments he’s getting from the new clientele.
As is emblematic of the rest of the series, success leaves the gang as quickly as it came, and a lot of entirely avoidable offense is caused along the way.
After Roseanne and Married… With Children opened the door for sitcom families to be less-than-aspirational, shows like Malcolm in the Middle could rush through. And the pilot makes sure viewers know exactly what they should expect for the run of the show by kicking off with Lois (Jane Kaczmarek) giving Hal (Bryan Cranston) his monthly body hair shaving — in the kitchen, because where better? The titular Malcolm (Frankie Muniz) serves as our narrator, often in direct address, and introduces us to the rest of the family. Eldest brother Francis (Christopher Kennedy Masterson) gets the most play, including a montage of the various crimes that got him sent away to military school. But as we learn through the pilot, Malcolm isn’t a delinquent like his brother; he’s officially a gifted student, and the kind of boy who’ll defend a less-cool classmate (Craig Lamar Traylor’s Stevie) against the school’s cruelest bully.
The pilot also shows Lois carrying on a whole conversation, with a counselor from Malcolm’s school, while standing in the doorway topless. It’s important for us to know that even in a household full of disgusting boys and one disgusting man, Lois is more than a nag; she also gets the space to be as strange and off-putting as they are.
The Troubles in Northern Ireland are the backdrop for this coming-of-age story, which has been justly acclaimed for its irreverent, sometimes savage humor. Our protagonists are four Catholic teen girls in the titular city in the mid-1990s. In the pilot, Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) — by far the meanest one — introduces her friends to their new classmate, her cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn). Since he’s English, and the relevant authorities are pretty sure that he’d be relentlessly bullied at the boys’ school, he’s going to be the first-ever male student at Lady Immaculate College. The indignities James suffers don’t end there. He’s forbidden access to a bathroom at school and finds out before the end of the episode that his mother has gone home to England and left him to Michelle’s family to deal with.
Growing up in a war zone that isn’t just active but has been active for decades might seem like a story that should be told in a drama. Derry Girls is a great reminder that the difference between comedy and tragedy is usually a matter of perspective.
As a former head writer of Saturday Night Live, Tina Fey is well positioned to create and star in a show about being the head writer of a sketch comedy show that films in the titular building, 30 Rockefeller Plaza. In the pilot, we first encounter Fey’s Liz Lemon in a scene that perfectly encapsulates the character we’ll come to know: When a rude stranger tries to cut the line at a hot dog stand, Liz’s sense of justice (and/or spite) leads her to buy the vendor’s entire stock to distribute to everyone but her new enemy. Then Liz gets back to the office and meets her new new enemy: Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin). An executive imported from NBC’s parent company, G.E., Jack’s complete lack of experience in television programming doesn’t prevent him from sharing his ideas, starting with an order that she hire disgraced comedian Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) to headline Liz’s sketch series, The Girlie Show.
Her whirlwind meeting with Tracy at a strip club, her reluctant admission that Jack might not be entirely wrong and her irritation at having to placate her touchy star, Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), all become hallmarks of the series going forward. Funny, almost manic in its speed, and packed with jokes at NBC’s expense, 30 Rock’s pilot tells you right up front what the show will be like until its finale.
Former Late Night with Jimmy Fallon writers Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin co-created this series about the South Side of Chicago, telling its stories through two pairs of characters who, between them, experience the full range of humanity in the neighborhood. Best friends Simon and Kareme (Sultan Salahuddin and Kareme Young) are, as of the pilot, brand-new college grads; however, as Simon discovers in the pilot, his extensive list of interactions with police, including an arrest in the pilot, are going to keep him from employment with the reputable companies where he dreams of working.
And speaking of police, we also meet Officers Goodnight and Turner (Salahuddin and Chandra Russell), who patrol the neighborhood. Turner’s annoyance at the many small-time hustlers they have to deal with is matched only by her annoyance with Goodnight. The speed of the jokes and the authenticity of every bit player bespeaks a show made by people who love the setting deeply enough to mock it properly.
Among Adult Swim original series, The Venture Bros. is probably in the 20th percentile of weirdness. It scores much higher in the beauty of its animation, the caliber of its voice talent and the intricacy of its lore. The pilot sets up the stakes: Dr. Thaddeus Venture (voice of James Urbaniak) is a “super-scientist” with a gift for inventions that seem benign to him but extremely dangerous to even a casual observer, making him valuable to the American military. He is beset by The Monarch (Christopher McCulloch), an archenemy he doesn’t know about but who is morbidly fixated on Dr. Venture’s destruction. Dr. Venture also has twin sons, Hank and Dean (McCulloch and Michael Sinterniklaas), but since he is an indifferent father at best, they’re lucky to have the support of a bodyguard like Brock Samson (Patrick Warburton).
The connections among all the family members are threatened with a trip to New York that proves a particular trial for the innocent and sheltered boys, who are definitely not prepared for a solicitation by a sex worker on the street. Penis jokes, ninjas, the U.N., savage beatings — what more could anyone want from a cartoon?
Working with formerly incarcerated people, as Julio (Chris Estrada) does at a gang rehab called Hugs Not Thugs, can be difficult. It’s even more difficult when his just-released cousin Luis (Frankie Quiñones) becomes one of his charges. In the pilot, we see Julio’s frustration quickly mount as Luis recreates their dynamic from Luis’ pre-prison life. Roasting Julio at home is one thing — and that definitely happens too, since Luis is also living at Julio’s mother’s house, with Julio — but Luis’ challenges to Julio’s tiny amount of authority only makes Julio exercise it with increasing intensity.
The pilot also gives excellent showcases to the show’s standout supporting cast members: Michelle Ortiz, as Julio’s unpredictable ex Maggie; and Michael Imperioli as Julio’s boss, Minister Payne, who’s exhausted by the demands of a life in nonprofits. Most importantly, the pilot establishes that while formerly incarcerated people and the trouble they have re-entering society are a topic to be explored, they’re much more rarely the butt of any joke than Julio, whose freedom has only ever been curtailed by his own bad decisions.
A community college isn’t exactly the same as a bar in terms of the possibilities it permits for a comedy writer. But it’s true that almost any kind of random freak could wander through either a bar or a community college. In this case, the primary random freak of Greendale Community College is Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), a lawyer who’s been bounced out of his job upon the discovery of his fraudulent credentials. If he can meet a minimum level of academic achievement, he can resume his comfortable former life and career. He wants to do this as fast as possible, so he’s not looking to make any connections — that is, until he meets his Spanish classmate Britta (Gillian Jacobs) and decides a study group is a good idea.
Said study group soon fills up with more random freaks. Donald Glover (who plays football player Troy) probably would have broken out to the mogul we now know him to be whether he’d landed this gig or not, but thinking back to 2009 when he, Jacobs and Danny Pudi (who plays Troy’s eventual best friend Abed), were all relative unknowns compared to the careers they’ve enjoyed since, you really have to tip your cap to the behind-the-scenes talent that assembled this cast. (Chevy Chase is also present but the less said about him, the better.)
Black-ish introduces the Johnsons, a young family in Los Angeles. The success of father Dre (Anthony Anderson) and mother Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) has afforded their four children a very comfortable life — maybe too comfortable, Dre fears. In the pilot, we learn about his challenging childhood, and how their life in a predominantly white neighborhood has skewed the Johnson kids’ view of themselves and their community. A prime example: Son Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) tells Dre that for his 13th birthday celebration, he wants a bar mitzvah like the ones so many of his friends have had. Dre also feels conflicted about a promotion at work that puts him at the head of his ad agency’s new urban division.
Anderson had tried a few different comedy series before this one, and the way he locks in with his cast here — also including actual legends Laurence Fishburne and Jenifer Lewis as Dre’s parents — is a testament to the crucial importance of casting chemistry in making a show like this work.
A year after the series finale of Friends, Lisa Kudrow used her blank check to do something notably different from Phoebe Buffay: a mockumentary about a sitcom star whose success was much dimmer than Kudrow’s, and whose later-in-life prospects were much more limited. It’s the mid-aughts, which means sitcoms like I’m It, a breakout vehicle in its day for actor Valerie Cherish (Kudrow), are harder to land. Now, in order to play someone called Aunt Sassy in a twentysomething-focused, partial nudity-intensive sitcom called Room and Bored, rapidly aging actresses must also agree to have their comebacks filmed for a companion reality show, The Comeback — though Valerie thinks she’s up for a role as one of the roommates.
Valerie also may not be entirely sure she’s willing to make the sacrifice of headlining a reality show, until she finds out her competition includes Kim Fields and Marilu Henner (as “themselves”). Kudrow has no vanity in embodying this often irritating, clueless character, and its glimpse at the dirty business of reality TV is more resonant with each passing year since it premiered.
Primo wasn’t the first show of 2023 that made comedy fans find out that there’s a streaming platform called Freevee — that honor belongs to Jury Duty — but it’s the better one by far. The pilot has a tough challenge: It has to introduce our lead, Rafa (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio); his single mother, Drea (Christina Vidal); Rafa’s friends; Rafa’s crush… and Rafa’s five uncles. The last of these is the toughest, because the audience must understand that these five men are (a) all absolute lunatics; (b) each ungovernably wild in five distinct ways; and (c) exponentially crazier when they all share the same physical space. But incredibly deft casting, nimble writing and across-the-board spectacular performances from the entire ensemble put the show over and leave you craving the season’s remaining seven episodes, plus however many more we can dare to dream of. Please let the strikes end so this show can get renewed already.
In their third and undoubtedly best collaboration for HBO (after Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals), Danny McBride and Jody Hill turn their attention to the world of megachurches. In the 1970s, Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) and his wife Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles) founded an evangelical church in South Carolina that has grown into an enormously profitable institution encompassing broadcasting and even a theme park. But now Aimee-Leigh has died, Eli is getting older and the couple’s three children are selfish jerks who aren’t fit to take on their parents’ work.
This is plain to see in the pilot, as Eli and his sons Jesse (McBride) and Kelvin (Adam DeVine) private-jet home from a missionary trip to China, then drive luxury SUVs to the ostentatious mansions where they each live on Eli’s enormous estate. The kids snipe at each other, embarrassing Eli, but he doesn’t know the half of it, as Jesse finds out when a blackmail request comes through, accompanied by a video of Jesse wilding out with coke and sex workers at a recent Christian conference. The pilot closes on a disastrous handoff with the blackmailers. Are one or more of them dead? Who is behind the extortion attempt? It’s rare that a sitcom pilot delivers cast cohesion and a mystery; The Righteous Gemstones continues to give us more than we asked for, three seasons in (and counting).
After her twin triumphs on Community and Mad Men, Alison Brie (who played Annie and Trudy, respectively) could have probably done almost anything, but we’re all lucky she chose GLOW. As in Mad Men, she goes back in time — only to 1985 this time — to play Ruth Wilder, a struggling actor forever trying to push the boring roles she’s up for into something that could show the fullness of her range. When she washes out at yet another audition for a one-line secretary job, the casting director sends her to a tryout for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a sketchy women’s wrestling operation overseen by washed-up horror director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron). All the women have their own wild backstories, but none has the profile of Ruth’s friend Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin), a former soap star frustrated on a forced break with her new baby. And while something like GLOW should be beneath Debbie’s notice, she soon finds out she and Ruth have beef when she learns Ruth slept with her husband; her coming to the ring to confront Ruth lets Sam see the possibilities in their rivalry.
It’s a glorious episode, introducing a dozen or more fantastic characters we would come to love in the show’s tragically short run.
One of the most inspiring blogger success stories is that of Quinta Brunson, who started at BuzzFeed, progressed to the first season of A Black Lady Sketch Show and now stars in Abbott Elementary, a wildly popular network sitcom that she also created, and for which she won a writing Emmy in its first season. The clarity of her vision is evident starting in the pilot. Brunson plays Janine Teagues, who teaches second grade at the titular Philadelphia public school. While the mockumentary format lets her show several funny examples of herself and her fellow teachers making do with the limited resources available (like Janine getting around her old textbooks by taping in printouts about the last three U.S. presidents), Brunson is a graduate of the Philadelphia public school system, and there is an edge to each gag that reminds us how real students are being cheated.
The whole cast is outstanding, but in crooked, unqualified principal Ava Coleman, Janelle James brings us a love-to-hate-her villain for the ages.
A spin-off of a spin-off has a greater than usual degree of suspicion to overcome, but Good Times — a spinoff of Maude, which spun off from All in the Family — makes a strong case for itself from the jump. The Evans family — Florida (Esther Rolle), James (John Amos) and their three kids — live in a Chicago housing project. James, who has been cobbling together a living doing odd jobs, is excited to start a government training program that will prepare him for a stable, high-paying union job. Unfortunately, the top end of the program’s age range is 35; he’s over 40, and there’s no relaxing the rules. While James is out, Florida and her friend Willona (Ja’net DuBois) take a break from putting together the party James has suggested to goof around imagining what Florida’s life will be like after she and James are rich. So it’s heartbreaking for the family and the viewer when James brings home the bad news. The episode showcases the performers’ range, and the proof of the story’s timeless effectiveness is that another working-class comedy, Roseanne, paid it homage in the second-season episode “Guilt By Disassociation.”
After Frisky Dingo, Adam Reed left the world of superheroes and villains for something less esoteric: an animated spy comedy. In the pilot, we meet the titular Sterling Archer (voice of H. Jon Benjamin), agent for the super-secret organization International Secret Intelligence Service — ISIS for short. Archer is an excellent agent — just ask him (or don’t; he’ll tell you either way). He’s fearless on assignment, sexually insatiable and unfailingly stylish. But his life is not all charmed: his very hostile ex-girlfriend Lana (Aisha Tyler) is a fellow agent, and his branch of ISIS is operated by his even more hostile mother Malory (Jessica Walter), about whom Archer has complex Oedipal feelings.
Archer’s relationships with both of them and his other colleagues — including Cyril (Chris Parnell), Lana’s new boyfriend — are all elucidated in the pilot against the backdrop of Archer’s hunt for a mole in the office. The story shows us that Archer is unpredictable and difficult, but he is also actually good at his job. The voice actors are all funny and sharp, and the slightly static animation style is strangely pleasing to the eye.
Introducing a new character to an established setting is a classic pilot setup for a reason: It’s an economical way for all the other characters to tell us and the new person, simultaneously, what their names are, and generally what they’re all about. So it is with NewsRadio, as Dave Nelson (Kids in the Hall alumnus Dave Foley) arrives from Milwaukee to be the news director at the radio station WNYX. Here’s the twist: The station owner, eccentric billionaire Jimmy James (Stephen Root), hasn’t told current news director Ed Harlow (Kurt Fuller) that he’s being replaced — Jimmy wants Dave to do it. Dave lets Ed think he’s the “new sports guy” while scrambling to figure out how to get through this, and meeting all the other station staffers who don’t yet know they’ll soon be reporting to Dave. This includes producer Lisa Miller (Maura Tierney), who thinks she’s next in line for Ed’s job.
Creator Paul Simms seamlessly transitions to multi-cam from his previous job on The Larry Sanders Show, and Phil Hartman steps over from his long run on Saturday Night Live to play world-class blowhard Bill McNeal. It’s one of the great under-appreciated workplace sitcoms of the 1990s, and if you’ve never watched it, five great seasons await you.
One of the comedies on this list to have its genesis as a web series, Broad City stars and was created by Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. One of the ultimate hangout comedies, the pilot gets straight to introducing the kind of women we’re dealing with: Abbi marks off time on her calendar to masturbate, whereas Ilana has no compunction about video-calling Abbi during sex with Lincoln (Hannibal Buress), a partner so easygoing that he lets Ilana balance her computer on him while they’re in the throes of… well, is “passion” the right word?
The pilot then gives them a project: to collect enough money to buy tickets for a Lil Wayne show. This sends them all over the city, trying to get cash back from a clerk at an office supply store; attempting to busk as bucket drummers; and cleaning in their underwear for a freak (Fred Armisen) Ilana somehow knows, and who then weasels out of paying them. We close on another video call Ilana imposes on Abbi from next to the toilet she is soon to drunkenly throw up in.
Is this a show for everyone? No. But if it’s for you, the pilot leaves you in no doubt about it.
The first big comedy hit from the prolific Norman Lear, All in the Family could have confronted its audience straight out with its divisive protagonist, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). Instead, we hear a lot about him as his daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers), son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner) and neighbor Lionel (Mike Evans) describe him — his irascible manner; his tendency to patronize Lionel and his professional career ambitions because Lionel is Black. Then Archie and his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) arrive home early from church, walk in on Mike and Gloria fooling around and kick off multiple arguments about social issues of the day, replete with ethnic slurs from Archie and unwittingly undermining interjections from Edith. You can tell out of the gate what kind of conflict is going to ensue in the house, and that you will want to see the combatants in action.
What happens to a family when its youngest member’s social media makes him an overnight pop sensation? The Other Two investigates through its titular characters, the other two siblings who haven’t made it yet. The pilot quickly situates us by showing their struggles: Cary (Drew Tarver) is officially employed as a waiter while going out for commercials; I am convinced by his performance as a guy at a party who smells a fart, but it’s unclear whether he lands it. Brooke (Heléne Yorke) works in real estate, which is convenient, since she can squat in a vacant apartment when she’s not showing it. When their mother Pat (Molly Shannon) arrives from Ohio so their younger brother Chase (Case Walker) — now professionally known as Chase Dreams — can start working with his managers, Brooke and Cary must reckon with his leapfrogging them both with his career success. Still, they don’t turn on Chase or Pat, keeping the family interactions (at this point) very grounded and sweet. Debra Messing catches their strays instead.
Fox had a legacy as the network home of The Simpsons. Loren Bouchard had a legacy as a producer on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and Home Movies. These two legacies came together for Bob’s Burgers. An animated family comedy about the struggling New Jersey diner of the title, its pilot sets expectations for what is yet to come with a grabby story: Health inspectors have descended to follow up on a rumor that the restaurant is serving human meat from the funeral home next door. We learn everything we need to know about the Belcher family at the center of the story from their reactions to the crisis — or, in the case of Louise (Kristen Schaal), from the genesis of the crisis, since it originated with her trying to upstage a classmate at Show and Tell. The Simpsons will probably end someday; when that happens, the Belchers will be ready to take over as TV’s most important animated family.
Indigenous artists from different continents, Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi co-created this hangout comedy about a group of high school students living on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. The pilot is an extraordinarily effective version of the whole series in microcosm. It kicks off with a heist (which we’ll continue to see, as the Dogs try to assemble a fund that will let them permanently move to California). It goes from there to a salvage yard, where a white man named Kenny Boy (Kirk Fox) inappropriately co-opts their culture (which we’ll continue to see, because clueless white people are everywhere). The Dogs hold an informal memorial for their friend Daniel on the anniversary of his death by suicide (a loss that will continue to haunt them, sometimes literally). There’s a scrap with the NDN Mafia, a rival “gang” (which we’ll continue to see as they battle for the limited amount of turf available). And when Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) passes out, he has his first meeting with William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth), the ghost of a fallen warrior (who will keep trying and mostly failing to offer Bear life advice he can use). Bringing the viewer to a world they may not know but that feels instantly familiar is one of this episode’s — and this show’s — great strengths.
After bringing British audiences the pitch-black political comedy The Thick of It (and the spin-off film In the Loop), Armando Iannucci turned to the U.S. with Veep. The premise of the show is how pointless a job vice-president actually is, which is evident right from the start when Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) tries to go hard after a Clean Jobs Commission as proof of her political bona fides — and a basis for a potential run for president herself, down the line — but small and stupid mistakes from her variously competent, universally potty-mouthed staffers accumulate to stymie her. The cast clicks from the start, and Louis-Dreyfus proves that Seinfeld’s Elaine was only one of her era-defining TV roles. (Maybe there’s a third yet to come!)
As much fun as it is to get hooked on a high-concept sitcom, a pilot like The Bob Newhart Show’s reminds you of the pleasures of a straight-ahead meat-and-potatoes sitcom that can comfortably rest on its cast chemistry. Newhart plays Bob Hartley, a Chicago psychologist. In the pilot, he’s getting ready to take a group of patients on a plane trip to help them face their fear of flying. He has a notion to take his wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette) to New York in the process, but then she reveals that she’s morbidly scared of flying, too. Bob pushes her to try to come with him anyway, in the course of which we find out her terror is greater than his gifts as a therapist.
In the dénouement, Emily breaks down crying, in a way that uneasily puts me in mind of poorly drawn, cartoonish wives in much older sitcoms… until it leads Bob to reveal that her crying always makes him involuntarily laugh. It’s an unexpected turn delightfully realized by both performers, and makes you want to keep watching them.
Arrested Development wastes no time establishing itself as a refutation of every trope of family sitcoms. It keeps adding members to the Bluth family without any apparent fear of servicing their various storylines; it establishes that they all barely tolerate each other; and it tells us that our protagonist plans to abandon his closest relatives — all in the pilot’s cold open. The episode goes on to introduce characters’ backstories in a way that makes clear none of their conflict is really going to be resolved by the closing credits. Lore rolls out at a breathless pace, like creator Mitchell Hurwitz really enjoyed creating the show bible and wanted to put as much of it on-screen as he could in case cancellation came before his best gags came to light. Maybe there would be Full House-ish family sitcoms after this (like Fuller House, to name just one), but if they were intended for real comedy fans, they could not ignore Arrested Development’s influence.
What We Do in the Shadows started out as a fairly episodic feature film mockumentary from Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement; the sitcom of the same name, which came five years later, is one of the most logical and fitting film-to-series adaptations in pop-culture history. Officially a sequel (as we learn later in the first season, when movie characters pop up on the show), this FX series introduces us to a group of vampire housemates on Staten Island. Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) sired Laszlo (Matt Berry), then married him; she continues to hold a candle for a former lover named Gregor who, as we learn in the pilot, she believes has been reincarnated as a parking lot attendant named Jeff (Jake McDorman). Nandor (Kayvan Novak), once a Middle Eastern warrior, is now assisted by his eager familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) on such errands as acquiring “creepy” (crepe) paper for party decoration. The show’s best innovation since the movie is the introduction of energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), who feeds by boring people. The pilot had to convince fans of the cult hit movie that they could love a new cast; this is a proof of concept and then some.
In Los Angeles, you’re rarely more than 10 feet away from an actor; if you hire a catering company for your event, cut that number in half. The titular catering company we meet in the pilot is made up of performers at various points on the spectrum of aspiration to abject failure, with Jane Lynch’s Constance somehow precisely in the middle and ready to tip in either direction. As Henry, Adam Scott undergoes an agonizing night getting recognized for a long-ago beer commercial that both defined and ultimately ended his acting career. The supporting cast — including Martin Starr, Lizzy Caplan, eternally underrated Ryan Hansen and five-tool player Ken Marino — will forever change the way you see people passing apps.
Jeremy (Robert Webb) is an aspiring yet untalented EDM artist. Mark (David Mitchell) is a tight-assed office drone. These twentysomething roommates have the kind of friendship that improbably works right until the essential nature of one or the other (or both) drives them into conflict. The pilot — which, like the rest of the series, is shot entirely from alternating characters’ points-of-view — revolves around Jeremy’s hurt feelings over Mark’s trying to score with a sexy neighbor by jointly mocking Jeremy’s “music.” But it also gives us glimpses at the kinds of anxieties that drive them both: Mark’s recurring run-ins with neighborhood tweens who seem threatening despite their youth and size; Jeremy’s self-imposed pressure to deliver a great sexual experience to a woman he believes is fighting cancer.
The operatic levels of cringe retroactively make it feel obvious that one series co-creator, Jesse Armstrong, would go on to bring us Succession.
Before I Think You Should Leave became a sensation among comedy nerds, Tim Robinson partnered with fellow Michigander Sam Richardson to co-create Detroiters, a love letter to the titular town. (Zach Kanin and Joe Kelly are also credited as co-creators, but do not boast native connections to the state.) Confident idiots are mainstays among American comedy shows, and in Sam and Tim, the Detroiters pilot presents two superlative examples of the archetype. Their determination to land GM as a client for their tiny local ad agency leads to a vehicular accident involving an executive at the company (Jason Sudeikis), and while that might seem outlandish, the tack-sharp writing actually makes it feel entirely inevitable.
Garry Shandling, a former “permanent guest host” of The Tonight Show in the Johnny Carson era, passed on headlining a late-night talk show of his own after Carson’s retirement. Instead, he and Dennis Klein co-created a single-camera HBO sitcom about Larry Sanders (Shandling), a comic turned late-night talk show host. While a famous and powerful showbiz star isn’t necessarily going to be the most relatable protagonist, the pilot efficiently captures both Larry’s frustrated attempts to maintain some shred of authenticity and the pressures of working within a corporate TV network when executives try to make him do live commercials for the Garden Weasel. The controversy is elucidated through the reactions of Larry’s closest associates on the show: his feckless sidekick Hank (Jeffrey Tambor), and his trusty, profane producer, Artie (Rip Torn, in a career-defining performance).
Issa Rae had already made two seasons of her web series, Awkward Black Girl, before partnering with seasoned showrunner Larry Wilmore to launch the dramedy Insecure for HBO, and her deep-down familiarity with the milieu and character come through in the polished pilot. As Issa Dee, a staffer at an educational nonprofit in Los Angeles, Rae makes her white co-workers’ microaggressions visceral for the viewer. But she’s even more brilliant outside the office with Molly (Yvonne Orji), her longtime best friend. The years they’ve spent supporting and roasting each other underlie all their interactions. A climactic and filthy rap performance provides the episode with a strong statement of intent for the rest of the series run.
The “prestige TV” era has vastly expanded our ideas of what TV can be across all genres, but maybe none more than comedies. HBO’s Barry, which ended its run this spring, is a great example, and the pilot grips us from its very first moments with the freshness of its premise and vision. We meet the titular Barry (Bill Hader), a sociopathic ex-Marine turned assassin for hire, while he’s dispassionately completing a job in an anonymous hotel room. When his next assignment takes him to Los Angeles, a wild concept gets heightened further, when Barry finds himself around a group of aspiring actors and decides this might be the right third act for him. Hader, who also co-wrote and directed, never loosens his grip on the character or the story, and his assurance is apparent immediately.
Whereas American sitcoms tend (with some notable exceptions) to value moments of emotional sincerity among the gags, it’s more common for British sitcoms to push the limits of comedic cruelty. The Office, from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, not only reset the bar for what this genre of sitcom does, they launched a franchise that has spun off 14 official remakes in markets around the world (plus one unofficial knockoff). As paper company regional manager David Brent, Gervais embodies a particular kind of nightmare boss — not a screamer or even an authoritarian, but one whose misguided attempts to crack up his employees and be their friends can be even more soul-killing; his staffers’ long, deadly pauses and eloquent silences changed cringe comedy forever.
The tumult of the 1960s led to social change that was reflected in culture — for example, that Mary Richards (Moore), a woman in her 30s, might exit a dead-end relationship and start over by pursuing her career instead of another partner. In the pilot, we see Mary embarking on her new life in Minneapolis, from moving into her adorable new apartment to making a new best friend (Valerie Harper’s Rhoda) to landing an even better job in a local TV newsroom than the one she’d applied for. Moore has to be the still center around whom a bunch of weirdos revolve, which could be a tough gig for a lesser actor. Fortunately for the show, she was a comic genius, and her seemingly effortless charm is a huge part of what makes this a Hall of Fame sitcom pilot.
James Burrows, Glen Charles and Les Charles spent the late 1970s together on Taxi, one of its era’s best workplace/hangout comedies, and the experience taught them what not to do on their next show — for instance, set it somewhere bright and fun, where viewers will want to spend time. But the location is only the most basic component of what makes the pilot of Cheers, the team’s Taxi follow-up, so great. There’s also across-the-board perfect casting; instant and undeniable chemistry among all the performers; Swiss-watch timing in the writing (especially tough given how expository it has to be); and genuine emotional moments that don’t come at the expense of solid jokes. Cheers became a show that conceivably could have gone on forever, and the proof of its solid construction is there from the very start.