100 Greatest TV Episodes: Pilot (s1 ep1)

A new series charting the 100 greatest individual television episodes, as chosen by the Failed Critics.


By Dr. Pangloss

I had to write this entry early, if only to preclude someone else inevitably chiming in with “Pine Barrens is the best episode of The Sopranos”. For sure, ‘Pine Barrens’ is an immaculately realised vignette with some of the deftest comedy to be seen in such a high minded drama, but it can hardly be held aloft as representative of a show best described as a sprawling narrative, drama in the most literal sense that is patiently grown over hours of screen time.

In that sense, it is almost impossible to pick one episode of the show to champion, as the intricate intertextuality (and obscenely consistent high quality) of the episodes which build on one another make it difficult to wrest one out of context as the best. But as the title of this post suggests, I’m going to make a case for the ‘Pilot’ episode nonetheless.

While inevitably not as layered as subsequent seasons, the first is (perhaps because of the fact) the show’s most complete. Each piece fits neatly into the next, inexorably leading towards the intense finale – which itself sets into motion the events of the next season. And, working backwards, it is the Pilot which sets the foundations for all that follows.

Like all essentially true revelations, the central concept behind The Sopranos seems so inevitable, so intrinsically true, that it is a wonder it had not been done a thousand times before. In a Postmodern world, of course a mob boss would suffer from stress-induced panic attacks and be forced to visit a psychiatrist.

It is from this one simple, delectable idea that the entire show is built. Throughout the six seasons, Tony’s struggle with identity, both as an American, a father and an alpha male, his attempts to reconcile obligations to Family and family, his fractured relationships with friends, family, women, colleagues – all are thrown into stark relief through his sessions with Melfi. Never has a TV character been so impeccably recognised, and deeply explored, as Tony Soprano.

The show displays levels of subtlety, subtext, immediacy, depth, visceral fear and even empathy that no other before it or since has come close to matching. Not only that, the series operates within one of the most hackneyed, over-saturated genres in film and TV and one over which The Godfather films bestride, unmoveable. And yet, not only does the show, and the pilot episode, confidently operate within this sphere, it has the the audacity to incorporate countless elements, references, quotes, impressions and indeed actors from the genre’s most famous examples, in effect negating their power and excavating a space in which to operate. “What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type” – he grew up, he got in touch with his feelings. His type is gone. Never had a TV show interacted in such a sustained way with its bigger Hollywood brothers; not even as their equal, but as their superior.

Pilots are often a test run, something to be changed and adapted according to executive and viewer feedback in order to reactively shape the future of a show. This was no such thing. ‘Pilot’ was a fully-formed, fully realised 54 minutes which was to act as a blueprint for every episode that followed. The seeds sown, narratively, thematically, stylistically, take root throughout the rest of the season and sprout over the course of the show’s course. This is why, were it not for seasons 3-15 of the Simpsons, The Sopranos would be my favourite TV show of all time and why I think comparisons with shows like The Wire etc to which it is often subjected are belittling.

While an unconventional choice (Whitecaps, College and Made in America usually feature prominently in such lists), the first episode may also seem a bit like a cop out. But before you flee in your white robe, consider just how revolutionary ‘Pilot’ was, and how utterly essential each aspect of it was for both the original season’s arc, the five seasons that followed and indeed its place at the vanguard of HBO’s drama production, which revolutionised how audiences perceived TV and what such programmes could achieve.

It’s no stretch to suggest that without ‘Pilot’, we would have no The Wire, no Six Feet Under, no Band of Brothers, no Breaking Bad, no Mad Men – in other words, nothing produced after the year 2000 that will appear on this list.

And that, quite aside from its own considerable merits, is enough for its inclusion.

Do not accept prescriptions from Dr. Pangloss, his doctorate is in philosophy. Also, it’s not a real doctorate. Do, however, take his writings as gospel.

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