Shooting a strong pilot episode is always at the top of the agenda for any TV series creator, as it not only determines whether a network or streaming service will give a full series order, but also helps in hooking viewers when the show finally begins airing. It’s, therefore, not uncommon for a TV tale to start strongly, only to become less interesting as the season unfolds.
Various factors contribute to a television show starting brilliantly only to run out of steam later on. It could be that the general premise wasn’t rich enough to be stretched across multiple episodes, and once the premiere was over, the writers struggled to come up with something interesting. It could also be down to behind-the-scenes factors, such as the exodus of certain production team members who were involved in birthing the project or a directive from the network executives requiring the showrunner to change their strategy.
Here, we look at 10 average TV shows with strong pilots, and dive into what happened with each series.
10 Big Sky (2020-2023)
Adapted from The Highway series of crime novels, Big Sky stars Katheryn Winnick (best known as Lagertha from Vikings) as an investigator solving a variety of crimes in Montana. Each season has a new mystery, coupled with plenty of minor subplots that revolve around family, work, and relationships.
Beginning on a High Note
Any television writer looking for a perfect example of how to hook viewers needs to watch the Big Sky series premiere. The show begins on a high, with a tense Truck vs. Car chase sequence, which is modeled after the one in Steven Spielberg’s Duel. The trucker then kidnaps the girls who were driving the car, forcing various investigators to spring into action.
And a state trooper, who initially appears to be the cleanest of the justice seekers, ends up murdering one of the protagonists in the dying minutes. Sadly, the tension dies out in the following episodes, with the show leaning towards subplots that don’t add value to the investigative aura. Stream on Hulu
9 The Newsroom (2012-2014)
After creating one of the best political shows of all time, the Emmy-winning The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin sought to replicate the magic. He quickly came up with The Newsroom, a show that covers the behind-the-scenes drama at the offices of the fictional Atlantis Cable News (ACN) channel. Unfortunately, the new project didn’t achieve the same level of longevity as his earlier one, lasting only three seasons.
Character Relationships Get in the Way of Real-World Issues
The first episode goes big and merges fiction with reality by providing plenty of clever commentary on the real-life Gulf of Mexico oil leak. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t touch on other major news events similarly. In the episodes that follow, office politics eclipse real-world politics, with the characters often seen engaging in Machiavellian duels that never amount to much. Stream on Max
8 Last Resort (2014)
One of the late Andre Braugher’s greatest performances can be found in Last Resort, where he plays Captain Marcus Chaplin, the commanding officer of the U.S. Navy Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine. Soon after picking up a SEAL team off Pakistan’s coast, he receives an order to nuke the Asian country, but chooses to defy it because it didn’t come through the proper communication channels. This causes him and his crew to be declared enemies of the state, forcing them to seek refuge on an island.
Losing Its Course After the Pilot
Given what’s at stake, the crew members remain on their toes throughout the first episode’s running time, but once they dock on the island, they are left with nothing much to do, so the show drifts towards friendship arcs rather than the intense action it promised.
The pilot is also very educative, and one of the details it reveals is that military orders should only be made through Cold War channels if Washington D.C. gets destroyed. Besides that, the pilot makes it obvious that there is a major government conspiracy, but the following episodes don’t milk much from this premise. Stream on Fubo TV
7 Under the Dome (2013-2015)
Based on Stephen King’s similarly titled novel, Under the Dome transports viewers to the fictional town of Chester Mill, where residents cannot leave because a large transparent dome has cut them off from the rest of civilization. As military officials try their best to break the barrier, the residents find innovative ways to survive.
Unrealistic Narrative Choices
Anyone who hasn’t read the book is likely to enjoy the pilot. It works well by triggering curiosity, making one wonder what caused the dome and if the people will ever get out. Sadly, the remainder of the show is very unrealistic. The residents somehow never run out of essentials, despite being unable to access the rest of the world, and the characters always appear too relaxed for people dealing with such a major quagmire. So poorly done is the show that even King lambasted it. Stream on Paramount+
6 Flashforward (2009-2010)
Based on the novel of the same name by Canadian sci-fi writer Robert J. Sawyer, Flashforward dances between the lives of different people who all lost consciousness for approximately two minutes and 17 seconds on October 6, 2009. During this brief blackout, they saw strange visions of what their lives would be like six months later, specifically on the date, April 29, 2010. Lasting only one season, the series ends on a major cliffhanger because of an abrupt cancelation.
Struggles with Focus
Flashforward’s potential is evident in the pilot. All the seeds get properly planted, driving anticipation for what will come. As the show unfolds, it develops a “focus problem.” Too many subplots emerge, making it harder to give each of them the attention it deserves. Too much time is also spent on flashbacks to the things the people saw while they were blacked out, instead of putting the protagonists on a path to solve the current problem. Rent on AppleTV or Prime Video
5 Crisis (2014)
- Release Date
- March 16, 2014
In Crisis, students of Ballard High School (mostly consisting of children of Washington’s politicians and tycoons) get kidnapped while on a school trip. One of them happens to be the President’s son, and another happens to be a high-ranking FBI agent’s niece. This raises the stakes, and as several parties search for them, Secret Service agent Marcus Finley finds himself deep in the chaos.
Fizzling Out (and Fast)
Crisis’ quality deteriorated so fast that it joined the undesirable category of shows that were canceled before all the season’s episodes were aired. As brilliant as the pilot is, the premise is the kind that would only be good for a movie. After the events of the premiere, the show struggles to find ways to keep things interesting once the children are in the kidnappers’ lair, and the reasons why they aren’t rescued soon enough are even more flimsy. Additionally, the explanation given for how the plan was executed isn’t satisfactory either. Stream on Paramount+
4 Revolution (2012-2014)
Set in 2027, Revolution follows the inhabitants of an apocalyptic Earth as they survive years after an unforeseen event caused a worldwide electrical blackout. The show was created by Eric Kripke (best known for his work on Supernatural and The Boys), but unlike the celebrated television writer’s other shows, it never stayed on the air for long, only lasting two seasons before getting canceled.
Inconsistencies Plagued the Series
It’s not a surprise that Revolution’s pilot is so good. It happens to be one of the TV episodes directed by a Hollywood filmmaker — Jon Favreau. But for a show with so much talent in the cast and crew, it’s surprising that there are too many unrealistic elements. For example, the characters have a few tech gadgets, yet they are living in a world without electricity. They also look healthy, yet the dystopia is reported to be ravaged by famine. Given the flaws, the series doesn’t hold up, especially when compared to others of its kind. Buy on AppleTV
3 Touch (2012-2013)
- Release Date
- January 25, 2012
Shortly after the end of 24, Kiefer Sutherland signed up for an action-light show that didn’t turn out to be as good as his fans had hoped it would be. That show was Touch, and it centers around the widowed father, Martin Bohm, as he raises an 11-year-old son who can predict the future using numbers.
Math Isn’t Always Fun
As brilliant as watching a genius child is, Touch’s plot is the humdrum kind. Each episode involves Martin and his son trying to figure out various arithmetic sequences, and it all gets boring after a while. Martin’s role in his son’s life isn’t handled properly either. In the pilot, he is a hardworking dad, aiming to ensure his son gets the best life, but for the remainder of the series, he becomes more of his son’s sidekick, and his parental duties are ignored. This makes him a weak character because he lacks the high IQ required to keep up with what his son is thinking about. Stream on Fubo TV
2 Reaper (2007-2009)
Reaper is remembered for having one of the best depictions of the devil in television shows. In it, 21-year-old Sam Oliver (Bret Harrison), learns that his parents once sold his soul to Satan (Ray Wise), so that he could be cured of a terminal illness. As payment, he is forced to work as the devil’s “collector,” capturing souls that have escaped from hell and sending them back where they belong.
A Bad Genre Change
The show’s slight genre change is its biggest undoing. The pilot is a total laugh fest, packing in plenty of one-liners and incorporating many sitcom tropes. Surprisingly, events keep getting darker and darker with each new season. For many viewers, there was a feeling that they were not getting what they signed up for, hence they tuned out. Consequently, the network axed the series after Season 2. Buy on AppleTV
1 The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-1993)
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles covers the childhood years of the famed cinema archeologist, Indiana Jones, hence serving as an unofficial prequel. The character is played by actors Sean Patrick Flanery and Corey Carrier at different stages of his life, with Harrison Ford also making an appearance as the older version of the character in one episode. Unfortunately, the show was canceled due to low ratings and ballooning budgets.
A Different Take on a Beloved Character
Despite the protagonist being much younger, the pilot goes big and features plots such as Indy heading on a voyage to Egypt and getting captured by Mexican revolutionaries. Because of the ambitious plots, fans get the impression that they will be getting the same kind of blockbuster action that the film series offers.
Surprisingly, the remainder of the episodes take a slow-burn approach, taking plenty of time to flesh out the protagonist’s background story. While this would be good for any other show, it doesn’t work here because fans are used to seeing the character on the move. Stream on Disney+