4 Examples of Television’s Most Compelling First Episodes

Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley

The opening episode of a TV series is a make or break deal. If it’s a great episode, people come back for more. I’ll share 4 such episodes that I think are outstanding.

What makes a first episode great? I have a few ideas. I’m most intrigued if I don’t understand what’s happening. I like shows that plunk you down in the middle of a situation and go full blast with no exposition.

That creates interest, and more importantly, questions. Who are these people? What’s going on? How is it all related? What’s going to happen?

Another important factor is that the characters must be engaging. They don’t have to be perfect, it fact it’s better if they are not. They have to be real, alive, human.

There must be some hint as to what the drama will be about. Is it a family drama? A police story? A tale of crime or medicine or danger or spies?

I’m sure there are many first episodes that could be named in a post like this one. I’ve picked 4 of my favorites. Feel free to add your own examples in the comments.

Orphan Black

Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black

Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) gets off a train. Moments later a woman who looks exactly like her steps in front of a train as she watches. Before the episode is over, she meets another woman who looks just like her. Who are they and why do they look alike?

Although she doesn’t understand the dead woman’s life, she tries to step into it to abscond with her money. She has a daughter she wants to reunite with, a foster brother named Felix (Jordan Gavaris) and a grifter’s heart.

She’s immediately plunged into a mysterious and dangerous situation. I’m hooked.

Killing Eve

Jodie Comer in Killing Eve

An innocent looking blonde woman kills people for hire. She calls herself Villanelle (Jodie Comer). In MI5, there’s an agent with a fascination for female assassins. The agent is Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh).

The spy will undertake a hunt for the assassin, but there’s a lot going on with both of them. They get equal attention from the camera. The killer is as interesting, if not more interesting, than the hunter. I’m hooked.

Happy Valley

Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley

An English cop named Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) is on the job. Her ex husband shows up and wants to take her out. It has something to do with a man named Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) – something to do with her grandson being the child of rape – and something to do with her desire to grind Tommy Lee Royce under the heel of her dirtiest shoe and bury him out on the moors.

Concurrently, a disgruntled employee named Kevin (Steve Pemberton) plots to have his boss’s daughter kidnapped for a large ransom. One of the men who will do the kidnapping is named Tommy. I’m hooked.

The Fosters

Teri Polo and Sherri Saum in The Fosters

We’re in the middle of a family home where we make one discovery after another. There’s a woman, a cop, named Stef (Teri Polo). She has a female partner, Lena (Sherri Saum). Oh, my, an interracial lesbian couple. That’s unusual. They have three kids – one is the bio child of the cop, the other two Latinx adoptees. Even more unusual.

Home comes Lena with another kid – one she plucked from the foster system to bring home temporarily. The new kid, Callie (Maia Mitchell) has a little brother she’s determined to rescue from the foster home they were in. The rescue is dangerous and pulls in Stef in her cop role. I’m hooked.

For bonus points, read this post: That Magic Moment When I Fell for Lost Girl.

You can probably guess from my choices that I’m looking for interesting women in leading roles in my favorite TV shows. I could add that to my reasons for getting hooked, but the same factors I outlined at the beginning would apply to a series with a male lead. TV shows about women are a preference for me, but not a requirement.

What about you? What do you look for in an opening episode? How do you get hooked?

2 thoughts on “4 Examples of Television’s Most Compelling First Episodes”

  1. Twin Peaks first episode was a two-hour pilot directed by David Lynch. Does not get any better than that – the Lynchian weirdness, the distinctive music, and the atmospherics were all there, and it was unlike any TV show before it.

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