I know I am late to the game, but I recently have started watching Leverage on Hulu and it was one of the better first episodes for a series that I have watched. It just had all the elements of a good pilot.
The thing is a good first episode can make or break a new series. There are certain elements that need to be present when you are just starting out with a series because you need to get people to want to watch more. Some times there is enough hype that people will stick with something even when it is not going so well aka Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but that is more of an exception than a rule.
I will sometimes give a show at least two episodes, but if there is nothing in the first episode to hook me than it is difficult to continue on. With Leverage, I have just kept on watching right from the first one! So what does it take to make a good first episode?
If you do not understand the characters in a new show you are not going to care about it. Now it can be easier if the show is based on pre-existing characters such as Arrow and The Musketeers because they already exist in the world. Meaning there is already some knowledge that people have about them that can save you some time with the back story.
Now you do not need to know the full story of a character, but you need to know enough to have an idea of their motives and desires. If you do not understand or care about the characters then it is really hard to care about the story. In Leverage they had five different characters and they had like 30 second flash backs that so perfectly encompassed the character and helped you get right to the core of who they are. You understood each of the characters even if you did not know them completely.
Now the characters are all fine and good, but if there is no story to be told the greatest characters are not going to make a difference. It is not just about creating a story, but it has to have something about the story that makes you want to watch more. It can be a mystery that needs to be solved, characters that you want to find out more about, or even just be funny enough. The important thing is there has to be something that makes you want to keep watching.
In Leverage some of it is the stunts that the characters pulled and the way they worked together made me want to see more. I wanted to see what types of hijinks they would pull and so far I have not been disappointed.
Then there is something that you cannot explain. Some shows just have some part of action, dialogue, or something else that just makes it interesting. The problem is that it is not something quantifiable because for each person it might be something a little bit different. For The Musketeers some of what hooked me was the fight scenes; it was not the only thing, but it was just something that added a little something extra to the show. It is things like that that can just bring the first episode to another level.
Now obviously the pilot does not make the show, but it can say a lot about whether people keep watching or not. The rest of the episodes will tell whether the show is good or not, but that first episode can just set a tone that can either lead or haunt the rest of a first season.