If you’re writing the pilot episode of a TV series, you have a choice to make: will this episode be more-or-less typical for the series, or will it be The Beginning?

The latter are called premise pilots, because they establish the underlying premise of the series — how it all came to be. In screenplay-speak, premise pilots contain the inciting incident of the entire series. Without this event, the series would be fundamentally different.

Many of the pilots you remember were premise pilots:

  • Lost: The plane crashes on the island.
  • Moonlighting: Dave meets Maddie.
  • Remington Steele: Con-man assumes role of fictional detective.
  • Buffy: Buffy moves to Sunnydale, meets friends.
  • Angel: Angel moves to Los Angeles.
  • Six Feet Under: Father dies, leaving funeral business to his sons.
  • Frasier: Dad moves in.
  • Heroes: An eclipse reveals people with superpowers.
  • Arrested Development: Father arrested.
  • 30 Rock: Liz meets Jack and hires Tracy.
  • Futurama: Fry awakens in the future.
  • Desperate Housewives: The narrator kills herself.
  • Star Trek (TNG): Characters meet for first time.
  • Star Trek (DS9): Sisko takes over as commander.
  • Star Trek (Voyager): Ship stranded in the Delta Quadrant.

Other shows start with non-premise pilots that could have just as easily been episode four:

  • Star Trek (TOS) (Both the Kirk and Pike versions).
  • South Park
  • The Office (British and U.S.)
  • Mad About You
  • The Simpsons
  • Gilmore Girls
  • Seinfeld
  • Law & Order

Remember: a premise pilot doesn’t mean introducing the setup to the audience. A premise pilot is about what’s new inside the world of the show. It’s the big thing that’s changed which marks this The Beginning.

For shows that last several seasons, it may become easier to argue that the events of the pilot weren’t fundamental to the premise. For example, if you only watch the first season of Cheers, it seems like a premise pilot, since it is the first time Sam and Diane meet. But several seasons in, it’s clear that Sam and Diane’s relationship isn’t fundamental to the show. 1

By the same logic, True Blood feels like a premise pilot now — Bill and Sookie meet — but as the show has evolved, it’s easy to see other moments that could have been the starting point.

Why this matters

Networks hate premise pilots. Studios, too. They will flatly tell you that they don’t want to make premise pilots. They may offer a few reasons why, but one stands above rest:

Premise pilots don’t feel like the show. It’s often hard to get a sense how a “normal” episode of the show will function based on a premise pilot. Watching fifteen pilots, the network wants to pick the shows it feels it understands. They want to know what episode eight will be like. That’s hard to do with a premise pilot.

So studios and networks will insist that they don’t want premise pilots. But secretly, they do: roughly half the new shows every fall begin with a premise pilot. The Good Wife is a premise pilot. Same with Glee, Mike and Molly, Undercovers, The Event, Vampire Diaries, Outsourced, Hawaii 5-0 and $#*! My Dad Says.

In fact, outside of true procedurals (body-of-the-week like CSI) and family shows, it’s rare to find a series that doesn’t start with something of a premise pilot. The trick may be to do it less overtly, introducing one small-but-important change in the world rather declaring this day one.

In the pilot episode of Friends, Rachel arrives at Central Perk in a wedding dress, having bailed on her nuptials. If this was called The Jennifer Aniston Show, it would clearly be a premise pilot. But because the six primary characters already had relationships — Ross and Monica already knew Rachel — I’d argue that it falls in a middle ground I’ll call One New Guy. You’re introducing a new member to an existing group.

The pilot for Modern Family includes Mitchell and Cameron presenting their daughter Lily to the rest of the extended family, but if she had been introduced in episode four or ten or twenty, the basic dynamics of the show would have been the same. Everyone already knew each other. The arrival of Lily made a good starting point for the audience, but it wasn’t the start of the family.

Similarly, Adam Scott joins the catering company in the pilot of Party Down. Structurally, the episode works like any other, just that characters are introducing themselves to him.

Both of these are examples of One New Guy. In Party Down, the newbie is more central to the action, but it’s not his show. You could do an episode without him, but you probably wouldn’t do an episode that focused on him but not the rest of the cast.

I’ve written one pilot of each type. D.C. is clearly a premise pilot: the gang meets and moves into the house. Alaska is a One New Guy, with a new prosecutor joining the team. Ops is very deliberately an ordinary episode, with the company already up and running.

You can find all three in the Library.

If you take away nothing else from this, let me stress again that a premise pilot isn’t about setting up the characters or world — every pilot has to let the audience figure out who’s who and what’s what. A premise pilot is about Something Happening that marks the pilot as the beginning.

  1. In fact, Cheers is a One New Guy pilot.