There are television moments that stay with you forever but rarely do they occur in the opening seconds of a brand new series. The helicopter scene that opens new series Midnight Sun is a gnarly way to be welcomed into the world of a new show, making finding out what happens next essential.
First episodes are tricky because the creators behind the show have to sell the concept in one hit. It is an even more difficult challenge in the US pilot system where the whole first episode is used to sell the show to network executives in hopes of getting the show commissioned. As a result, you get a self-contained story setting up all the main players, but with little consequence to series as a whole. Like golf, you have to take drop with the pilot and second episode of a series to get past both the groundwork and the network retooling that goes on between the show going from pilot to a full series order.
The greatest challenge for any new show is reeling in the audience and keeping them past that first episode. One trick is to open the series with an unexpected, unforgettable attention-grabbing moment in the first episode.
A show infamous for petering out against the mythos it developed, but there’s no denying how explosive its debut episode was, dropping you in the middle of the carnage of the airplane crash of Oceanic Flight 815. The shot of a passenger getting sucked into a working jet engine became representative of the shock tactics the show would employ to keep its hooks in viewers week-to-week. And this was only the beginning. Beyond the crash, there was a smoke monster lurking in the jungle, a shady bunch of survivors, polar bears, and the iconic line that would launch thousands of fan theories, “guys, where are we?”
Pants fly through the air, land on a desert road and get run over by a wayward Winnebago. For all praise for Breaking Bad, it began with pants. Mysterious pants.
We then meet Walter White (Bryan Cranston) escaping a crashed campervan wearing only his underpants and a gas mask; sirens are blaring in the distance. He then walks toward the road and stands his ground holding up a gun.
Breaking Bad excelled with the way Mr. White continually jumped out of the meth cooker (sometimes, for real) and into the fire. The pilot reverse engineered our introduction to Mr. White by arriving at his lowest moment and working back to his humble suburban origins to set up a man out of his depth.
It’s not shocking for explosions or surprise twists but the awkwardness of it all. In 2001, the opening moments of The Office and the documentary style it presented raised the question, is it real? David Brent (Ricky Gervais) slithered into the television landscape and caused muscle spasms with the amount of cringing he caused. Gervais and co-creator, Stephen Merchant, revived the mockumentary and it was way too good to be true.
Game of Thrones
There’s a lot going on in the first episode of this juggernaut series. It’s focus is on establishing the world of Westeros, a large roster of interconnecting characters and a little conspiracy around the crown. There’s a sprinkle or the gratuitous sex and violence that would become a mainstay of the show but the big surprise was in how nasty it would get. Game of Thrones saved their bombshell for the final moments when a boy, Brandon Stark, gets pushed out a window after discovering brother and sister, Jamie and Cersi Lannister, having sex. Game of Thrones stated it wasn’t going to play nice.
Detective John Luther (Idris Elba) returns to work after a nervous breakdown to investigate the murder of a couple. Seems like a standard murder case. Luther also has a decent witness, the couple’s daughter, Alice (Ruth Wilson); she seems nice and is cooperative. The case should be solved quickly and Luther can focus on his recovery. Small problem, Alice is revealed to be a brilliant psychopath who brutally murdered her parents and plans to stalk Luther. As Luther would say, it’s right messed up, innit, Guv?
Saving the worst behaviour until last, The Shield leaves no questions hanging around where the moral compass of Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) sits. Throughout the episode we meet Mackey and his strike team who have questionable methods but always manage to get results. The slow reveal of their corruption is brilliant and in the final scene Mackey shoots one of his own team who is about to snitch. With one shot, the entire genre of television police dramas is sent into chaos.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) sleeps around, drinks, smokes and sweats his way around the first episode while looking damn fine in a suit in the 1960s setting. Right when we feel like we’ve got a got read on this guy, he gets on a train to the suburbs and arrives at a perfect house, with two perfect sleeping children and a wife that appears in the doorway like Grace Kelly. Jesus, Don! And this was only scraping the surface of one of the most complex leading characters in television history.
The official title is The National Anthem but we all know this episode as ‘the one where the Prime Minister has sex with the pig’. Black Mirror is a dark series and it takes a grotesque first step when a kidnapper demands the Prime Minster have sex with a pig in exchange for the safe release of a member of the royal family. Surprisingly, the opening episode did not deter people from seeing more of what the series had to offer and it’s currently four seasons deep.
Check out the wild first episode of Midnight Sun, a show which opens with a shocking moment and just keeps layering it on: