The story of American television’s recent past is one of upended traditions, a once cozy and complacent medium revolutionized by shattered taboos and antiheroes, serialization and binge-watching. But a lot of what’s fresh and inventive about the Peak TV era looks a little less so when you consider the precedents. Think it was gutsy of Game Of Thrones to bump off Ned Stark in episode nine? Then perhaps you haven’t seen how HBO’s very first hour-long drama ends its series premiere.
All of which is a rambling and pretentious preamble to protect the spoiler-phobic from being exposed to the full contents of this feature as they innocently scroll through their feeds. Consider yourself warned: Surprising developments in the first episodes of six scripted television programs are discussed in full below. But this is more than “Spoiler: The Inventory.” This is the tale of how a single creative choice can ripple across the surface of an entire art form, inspiring others, opening up previously unseen narrative avenues, and building into an entirely modern TV phenomenon that’s also one of the oldest TV stories there is: One show’s successful idea, imitated and altered ad infinitum.
1. Oz (1997)
While overseeing Homicide: Life On The Street, Tom Fontana began dreaming up a series that would explore the lives of those caught up in the criminal justice system long after they’d had their last court date. The result was the 1997 prison drama Oz, which was a tough sell for most networks. But that just emboldened Fontana and his collaborator Barry Levinson, and their early treatment for the show killed off the presumed entry-point character, Dino Ortolani (Jon Seda)—a plotline that carried over into the pilot episode. This was after the then-president of HBO, Chris Albrecht, famously asked Fontana what he’d always wanted to do in the pilot of a broadcast show that he wasn’t allowed to, and the latter replied “Kill the leading man.”
When we met Dino in “The Routine,” he’s like a fish in water in Oswald State Correctional Facility—he has prison connections, a family waiting at home, and seems much better off than new inmate Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen). But by the end, he runs afoul of too many other factions in the unit known as Emerald City. It’s a classic case of misdirection; as Tobias’ chances for survival grow bleaker, we fail to notice that Dino is “on self-destruct.” That bold decision in the pilot was just one of several ways in which Oz helped develop the prestige-series formula. [Danette Chavez]
2. Six Feet Under (2001)
Death is an inextricable part of life, which is why nearly every episode of Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under begins with someone’s demise, untimely or otherwise. But the first death in the series is still a major shock, arriving as it does just three minutes into the pilot episode. Even if you’d already gleaned that the series revolved around the Fisher Family—Ruth (Frances Conroy), Nate (Peter Krause), David (Michael C. Hall), and Claire (Lauren Ambrose)—learning to run the family funeral business without their patriarch, you couldn’t be prepared for Nathaniel Sr.’s (Richard Jenkins) exit from this mortal coil, or his last words: “I’m quitting right now.” But this abbreviated introduction revealed a lot about Nathaniel: He had some good intentions (like giving up smoking, the subject of his loaded adieu), made a few empty promises, and perhaps most vitally to the show, had unresolved issues with his wife and children. Unlike Dino on Oz, Nathaniel Sr. wasn’t poised early on to be our guide through the series, but his presence lingers throughout the show’s five-season run. He, in a sense, haunts his family and the audience at home, just like the rest of the main characters Ball created for this profound and bittersweet HBO drama. [Danette Chavez]
3. The Shield (2002)
The Shield’s pilot is a rote affair for much of its runtime: good cops, bad cops, and cops with political aspirations clash in Los Angeles. But the final three minutes of the episode properly prime viewers for the compelling machinations of Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), and reveal just how long they’d been taken for a ride by series creator Shawn Ryan. When we first met the Strike team, it looks like the central conflict of the show will be between Vic and his subordinate Terry Crowley (Reed Diamond); the latter is helping build the Justice Department’s case against the former. There are shades of Donnie Brasco and other mob/informant movies, and Diamond, who was a bigger name at the time than most other cast members, even has third billing in the opening credits. But after the case of the week is put to bed, Mackey and the boys go right back out into the night, killing and robbing a drug dealer before offing Terry and making it look like he was killed in the line of duty. The narrative and audience expectations shift considerably in those moments—the earliest signs of The Shield’s greatness. [Danette Chavez]
4. Bunheads (2012)
Thanks to the aw-shucks charm of Alan Ruck, the character of Hubbell evolves from possibly unhinged stalker to sweet, besotted love interest over the course of the premiere of Bunheads, an Amy Sherman-Palladino/Dan Palladino production post-Gilmore Girls/pre-Mrs. Maisel. We meet Hubbell as the obsessed admirer of Michelle (Sutton Foster), a burned-out Vegas showgirl. Granted, he definitely shouldn’t have married her in a drive-thru chapel after she’d had too many martinis. But all he wants to do is offer her a better life, taking her to his small but idyllic hometown of Paradise, California. The sobered-up Michelle is a bit dubious, but is soon won over enough to have sex with her groom at their wedding party, thrown by Hubbell’s disapproving mother Fanny (Kelly Bishop). Fanny and Michelle head to the local bar to try to break the ice, but are interrupted by the instantly sobering announcement that Hubbell got in a car accident while he was out looking for them. Hubbell’s death isn’t officially announced until the next episode, but his loss instantly shifts the show’s focus completely from an offbeat romance to a fish-out-of-water showgirl who rediscovers her love of dance by teaching at her mother-in-law’s school. [Gwen Ihnat]
5. On Becoming A God In Central Florida (2019)
Fresh off his Emmy-winning turn on Big Little Lies, Alexander Skarsgård makes an indelible impact on the pilot of On Becoming A God In Central Florida, even though he’s only around for the first 30 minutes. His exquisitely mulleted Travis is snared in a multi-level marketing system, much to the dismay of his dubious wife Krystal (Kirsten Dunst). Soon Travis’ Founders American Merchandise mentor Cody (Théodore Pellerin) convinces him to quit his J-O-B, which he does in a theatrical flourish, complete with a full tuxedo with tails, limo, and champagne. Unfortunately, after he leaves the limo for his own car, Travis is distracted by a vision of a giant white moose, and winds up in some water off the road. He survives the crash, only to get eaten by an alligator, leaving Krystal destitute. Her dire financial situation leads Krystal to start doing deals with FAM herself, as she tries to get the better of this pyramid scheme that has taken so much from her. But the specter of Travis remains: a FAM victim who fell for the false promises of million-dollar homes and helicopters, the guy who dutifully repeated company slogans like “Go-getters go get!” [Gwen Ihnat]
6. Watchmen (2019)
Were it not for the objections of the ABC brass, Lost would qualify for inclusion above, its sense that no one on the island is safe emphasized by the death of Jack Shephard in the series premiere. But like a version of the character played by Michael Keaton, this tantalizing possibility was banished to the alternate reality of “What if?” In our timeline, Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof didn’t bump off Batman, but he did riff on another masked DC vigilante’s early demise: The opening pages of Watchmen depict The Comedian’s fatal fall, and at the end of “It’s Summer And We’re Running Out Of Ice,” Eddie Blake’s grinning, hypocritical 2019 counterpart has been hoisted into the air by his neck. Police chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) is dead, and the wild, eight-episode trip that follows treats his demise like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons treated Blake’s—a badge-splattering entry wound through which we spy a conspiracy that’ll nix all sympathy you might have for the deceased. The sense of ironic justice comes later; first, there’s just the shock, thanks in no small part to the casting of trusted television lawman Johnson, playing a character with a skeleton in his closet—one that wore a mask, the type directly responsible for the unambiguous atrocity that kicks off this Watchmen. [Erik Adams]