Let’s face it, the single greatest moments in a TV series always come the pilots and finales. Those first impressions and painful goodbyes are what get us hooked shamelessly to stay loyal to said TV shows. But they’re also the best way to measure the success of a show, even after it goes off the air. It’s tough to get everything right on the first try, but oddly enough a lot of beloved series have managed to accomplish this nearly impossible goal.
From the perfect cast to a proper setup and send off, pilots and finales can certainly be the ‘make it or break it’ moments that either turn us onto a show or convince us it was a complete waste of time. At the time these shows aired, we had no idea how much they would be appreciated for shifting the culture or filling a void we didn’t even know existed, but we’ve learned to love them all just the same.
Here’s our list of TV series with the best beginnings and endings that showed a story worth remembering:
"Pilot" from 'How to Get Away with Murder'
Shonda Rhimes’ hit ABC thriller caught us all by surprise when it first premiered, but it’s safe to say viewers were hooked from the minute Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) marched into her classroom to teach her infamous “How To Get Away With Murder” course. What appeared to just be an unorthodox way of instructing a class of eager law students, quickly unfolded into a never-ending murder mystery series that had us hooked from the get-go.
The show’s premiere provided the perfect layered foundation to keep us guessing about how a group of wannabe lawyers – Connor, Lauren, Mikaela, Asher and Wesley – got roped into a murder plot that reveals a slew of shocking truths throughout the show. The best part of this pilot is undoubtedly Davis’ impressive performance, but curiosity of the missing sorority girl and murder of Keating’s husband is what really sucked us into the rollercoaster ride of a show.
"Chapter I" from 'Dear White People'
The Netflix original series was actually a proper spinoff inspired by the satire film of the same name, a rarity for continuations that dare to extend beyond their spotlight moment. “Chapter 1” of Dear White People set the stage for what would come to be an extreme deep dive into the politics of identity, racism, sexuality, and classism throughout the series. The premise of the show’s first episode fixates upon Samantha White (Logan Browning), a college radio host at Winchester University and student activist (who’s also biracial – a key part of the show), who blasts the white students on her college campus for attending a blackface party.
The episode then chronicles the back-and-forth battle with Samantha’s identity, where she’s torn between her Black Caucus crew and secret white lover who is exposed to her friends. But the most appalling moment of the pilot is finding out that Samantha set up the racist blackface “social experiment” in an effort wake her fellow peers up and point out her school’s most glaring issue. The charm of Dear White People comes from its storytelling abilities to peel back the layers of each character, and it’s something fans of the show have always admired.
"Pilot" from 'Empire'
Empire was the fire that reignited Fox’s primetime slots when it first made its way to our TV screens back in 2015. Despite those that tuned out after season one, we were all amazed to see how this music-focused drama with the Lyon family shifted the culture so much and so quickly.
Right from the first episode, we were lured into the show’s intriguing family characters with Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) and Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), as well as their sons Jamal (Jussie Smollett), Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) and Andre (Trai Byers) who made up the dysfunctional group that was taking over the show’s fictional music industry. Their soap opera-like family drama that largely stemmed their record label was too addicting not to tune into every week, but that pilot episode is what really made us what see how the plot behind the Lyons’ rise and fall happened.
"The Big Bang" from 'Atlanta'
When we heard Donald Glover was coming out with his own TV show, I’m sure none of us knew what to expect from the TV writer/ comedian/ rapper. But his visionary concept for Atlanta turned out to be right on the money because it’s easily become one of the most highly-regarded series in modern television. The Emmy-winning show has no particular genre that it can be categorized by, but the pilot series premiere itself set out to not only show the world what it’s like to be Black, but how it feels too.
In “The Big Bang,” we see a broke, down-on-his-luck Earn (Donald Glover) desperately trying to chase his rap dreams clinging onto the reputation of his local famous cousin, Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry). The show’s premiere provides a genius backdrop to how we see the series eventually unfold like mini films that follow after this unpredictable, yet hilarious journey to rap stardom. Though we’re still impatiently waiting on its third season, Atlanta is a gem we’re all happy to oblige considering how great the writing is.
"Insecure as F**k" from 'Insecure'
For the OG Issa Rae fans, HBO’s Insecure had big shoes to fill following the mutli-hyphenate creator’s wildly-successful web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. The half-hour dramedy followed a similar storyline of an awkward Issa navigating her own friendships and relationships, but this time around we got to see how the maturity (and immaturity) in Issa played a huge role in how she figured out her path through adulting in LA.
The pilot, “Insecure as F**k,” kicked off with an unhappy Issa trying to avoid coming home to her unemployed boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis) as their relationship is slightly on the rocks, so she convinces her bestie Molly (Yvonne Orji) to accompany her to an open mic night at a club where she reconnects with her hot ex. This night unfortunately sets herself up for an epic failure in her relationship later down the line, but what came of it was the best show for Black millennials that we could’ve ever imagined. Oh and of course her famous rap, “Broken P***y.”
"Becoming Pauletta" from 'Being Mary Jane'
For those who made it through the tumultuous four seasons of Mara Brock Akil’s Being Mary Jane, you know the entire premise of the show was hung up on Mary Jane’s (Gabrielle Union-Wade) numerous failed relationships and her journey to finding true love. Thank God she was able to find it (though she almost lost it from her self-sabotaging ways) in the end, putting a neat bow on what was overall an extremely messy series.
True fans of the show were happy to see her finally get her happy ending after so many letdowns with love. The “Becoming Pauletta” special was the only kind of finale that made sense after the huge cliffhanger we were left with at the end of season four. But with her newborn baby and new husband, Justin, Mary Jane ended up finally winning in life and got her peace. That’s all we ever wanted to see from season one.
"Behold" from 'Greenleaf'
OWN’s Greenleaf was the church drama series we always knew we needed, so it was refreshing to see a show finally get it right without sucking the integrity out of a storyline. Make no mistake, Greenleaf had more than its fair share of twists and turns and headaches over its five seasons, but the best thing that came out of its finale was clarity. Any good show always need a proper wrap-up if fans are going to get the closure they need, especially so they can continue to ride for it even in its absence from TV.
Greenleaf’s “Behold” did that by tying up any last loose ends, and even dangling a few new ones to give us a glimmer of hope for a possible spinoff. Though the patriarch (Keith David) of the family was lost, every other member of the family got a chance to have a new beginning, and thankfully it all made sense for the story.
"Exactly How We Planned" from 'Power'
Power had one of the most roundabout finales that truly came full circle for its hero/villain, James St. Patrick/ Ghost (Omari Hardwick). The crime game is how we were initially introduced to Ghost and eventually the game is what took him out. He always thought he was larger than life and could never be taken down, but Power destroyed that main character complex by taking out the source of every character’s issue.
Over the course of the series, people have died, gone to jail, disappeared or had their life destroyed all because of a chain of events that stemmed from Ghost. So it only made sense that they capped the series off with him getting capped by his own kid, Tariq (Michael Rainey Jr.) – a straight carbon copy of him. But it worked out because now we’re getting a whole Power Universe with sequels and prequels based on some of the show’s favorites. I’d say the series finale worked out well for everyone – especially 50 Cent.
"Full Circle" from 'Lovecraft Country'
The HBO anthology series had such a bittersweet ending to its one and only season, but it wrapped in the most complete way possible. “Full Circle” accurately describes how everything in the nightmarish show worked out in the end, though it came at the expense of Atticus’ life. The primary plot was resolved after Diana was saved and Christina was finally eliminated before she could gain immortality, but it came at a cost.
Our heroes are able to save the end, and though the death of Atticus marked the end of a tragic battle, it also marked a new beginning for his unborn child. The war moments of everyone in battle were also sprinkled in with pleasantries where the family was able to have a sense of peace for once when they’re not being terrorized. Overall, Lovecraft Country showed the realities of being Black in America and it’s an experience many of us resonated with throughout the show. If only it didn’t have to end so soon.
"Series Finale (Part II)" from 'Pose'
FX’s Pose has without a doubt shaken the TV landscape to its core and finally given an ostracized community a show where they could truly feel seen today, in all shades and hues and forms. The groundbreaking legacy series blazed an incredible trail in sharing stories of the LGBTQIA+ community and it won’t soon be forgotten even though it’s time has come to an end.
Since the very beginning, fans so desperately waited to see if every beloved character got the ending they deserved so we were all thrilled to see that hope become a reality in the finale. The joyful ending was the most important aspect of the show because it proved that happiness was attainable for this community and so well-deserved for those who make sacrifices day in and day out. Though we’re sad to see the series go, we’re all glad we got to experience its rich storytelling in real time.