Best Pilot Episodes of the 21st Century: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ ’24’ & More

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Daniel Smith/FOX, George Kraychyk/Hulu & Paul Drinkwater/NBC
24 - Keifer Sutherland
Daniel Smith/FOX

24 “12:00 am-1:00 am”

24 changed the look of TV with the explosive “12:00 am–1:00 am” episode, generating split-screen suspense as Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) sets off to save the world—and his imperiled family.

Battlestar Galactica - Edward James Olmos, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, Grace Park
Frank Ockenfels/SCI FI Channel

Battlestar Galactica “33”

The reimagined Battlestar Galactica had hearts pounding in “33,” the number of minutes between jumps as the exhausted heroes stay ahead of the genocidal Cylons in a battle for survival.

Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights “Pilot”

Our hearts were full—and breaking—watching Friday Night Lights’ “Pilot,” which transcends sports with its raw humanity after star QB Jason Street (Scott Porter) is paralyzed in a tackle.

GLEE - Jenna Ushkowitz, Chris Colfer, Kevin McHale, Amber Riley, Lea Michele
Fox Television/Courtesy Everett Collection

Glee “Pilot”

And music lifts our spirits when the high-school misfits in Glee’s “Pilot” raise their voices for a defiant, euphoric chorus of “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Modern Family

Modern Family “Pilot”

Surprise defined the brilliant “Pilot” episode of Modern Family, as we learn that these hilarious characters are all part of the same deliciously diverse clan.

This Is Us - Gerald McRaney, Milo Ventimiglia
Paul Drinkwater/NBC)

This Is Us “Pilot”

That same surprise also defined This Is Us, once the “Big Three” siblings’ connection to their late father, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), is shatteringly revealed.

The Handmaid's Tale - Elisabeth Moss
George Kraychyk/Hulu

The Handmaid’s Tale “Offred”

Feminism thrives in The Handmaid’s Tale’s “Offred,” introducing Elisabeth Moss’ portrayal of the rebellious victim of an oppressive society.

Peter "Hopper" Stone/ABC via Getty Images

Desperate Housewives “Pilot”

Desperate Housewives’ “Pilot” laces its sudsy suburban satire with the mystery of a suicide victim’s blackmail note.

Pushing Daisies - Chi McBride, Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Swoosie Kurtz, Ellen Greene, and Kristin Chenoweth

Pushing Daisies “Pie-lette”

Bryan Fuller’s visually dazzling Pushing Daisies “Pie-lette” spins a macabre fable of a pie maker (Lee Pace) who can reanimate the dead with a touch. Immortals one and all.

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A great pilot sets the tone and baits the hook, leaving you desperate for more.

Scroll through the gallery above for 9 shows that did just that in their debut episodes, from The Handmaid’s Tale to Glee and everything in between.