TV's canceled shows and pilots live again

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Sept. 7, 2003 at 6:48 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Sept. 7 (UPI) -- TV networks have a tradition of throwing out unsold pilots and canceled shows just like trash, but executives at the Trio cable channel have dusted off some of the refuse to give viewers a chance to see what they've been missing.

At a time when the TV industry is preparing to honor itself with the 55th Annual Prime Time Emmy Awards, Trio has built a series around TV pilots that never made it to prime time, despite some obvious merits. The series -- "Brilliant But Cancelled" -- premiered on Labor Day with a documentary that examined the process of how TV pilots get made and, in most cases, tossed into the dumpster.

The series features pilots based on hit movies such as "Fargo," "L.A. Confidential" and "Diner," as well as appearances by such performers as George Clooney and Paul Reiser before they achieved stardom.

Among the failed pilots featured in "Brilliant But Cancelled" is "Lookwell," which Trio describes as an underground cult classic. The pilot -- written by "Saturday Night Live" veterans Conan O'Brien and Robert Smigel and produced by "SNL" creator Lorne Michaels -- stars Adam West as a washed-up actor who once played a cop on TV and can't get the crime-fighting bug out of his system.

Trio dissects the development of "Lookwell," informing viewers that network executives loved the script but hated the idea of handing the starring role to West, best known as the star of the campy '60s TV version of "Batman."

Bernie Brillstein, whose production company made "Lookwell," told Trio he is certain that viewers "would have jumped on" the show if it had made it to prime time.

"That's easy to say," Brillstein conceded. "It never got on."

Trio President Lauren Zalaznick told United Press International it's often easy to explain why shows get canceled once they make the prime time schedule -- it's usually a matter of low ratings. It's harder to explain why shows don't make it to air in the first place.

Zalaznick pointed to "Fargo" and "L.A. Confidential," which she said are very good productions that didn't make it with TV programmers.

"They are great little movies, but they are not supposed to be little movies," said Zalaznick. "They're supposed to be TV shows."

Cost, of course, is often an issue. "L.A. Confidential" -- starring Kiefer Sutherland and based on the Oscar-nominated movie adaptation of James Ellroy's novel, set in the 1950s -- turned out to be too rich for American network TV's blood.

"There are very few period dramas on television," said Zalaznick. "It's a huge, overarching series killer. You can't go to Ikea and prop your show. Needing 38 large fin Cadillacs is the last thing a show can bear."

It's harder to explain what went wrong with "Fargo."

It stars Edie Falco -- pre-"Sopranos" -- as law officer Marge Gunderson, played by Frances McDormand in her Oscar-winning performance in the 1996 feature. The pilot -- directed by Kathy Bates and produced by the late Bruce Paltrow ("St. Elsewhere") -- is a little offbeat. In the current cable environment -- "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under," "Queer as Folk" -- "Fargo" might have had a different fate.

So might "Sick in the Head," created by Judd Apatow ("The Larry Sanders Show," "Freaks and Geeks"). It stars David Krumholtz as an insecure therapist whose first and only client is a sexy, funny and borderline psychotic woman. Zalaznick said networks just weren't ready for that kind of comedy.

"A lot of these shows are pre-cable, really," she said, "before the rise of the anti-hero on cable."

A major element -- perhaps the major element -- in deciding whether a pilot will make it to prime time, is the time honored but still controversial practice of test screening. Programs are shown to audiences who can register their likes or dislikes with a hand-held device that, ostensibly at least, measures their honest reaction to what they're seeing.

Some TV show creators and producers -- such as Tom Fontana ("Oz," "Homicide: Life on the Street") aren't wild about testing.

"Testing is probably incredibly useful -- not to me but to people who have virtually no imagination," he told Trio.

On the other hand, Garry Marshall -- creator of such classic TV comedies as "The Odd Couple," "Happy Days" and "Laverne & Shirley" -- believes in testing.

"It's America," he told Trio. "You can't have a hit with four people liking it."

But Fontana argued that there are limits to what programming executives can learn from testing.

"You rarely find out whether the poorly tested show had a chance to succeed," he said, "whereas the good testing shows fail all the time."

There are limits too, apparently, to the foresight that TV executives are able to muster when they are considering whether to add a show to the schedule. One segment in "Brilliant But Cancelled" tells how the early word on "Seinfeld" -- originally known as "The Seinfeld Chronicles" -- was that the characters were losers with no chance of appealing to TV viewers.

Zalaznick thinks some pilots didn't make it because they were ahead of their time. She said "Diner" -- written and directed by Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson and based on his Baltimore movie of the same name -- may have baffled the network suits.

"You can see those network executives watching the pilot and saying, 'Wait, nothing happens in the show,'" she said. "The first 15 minutes out of 20, it's in the diner booth. Kind of nothing happens. They're talking about french fries with or without gravy for a long time. A few years later, maybe that is 'Seinfeld.' You never know."

Actors and others who work on pilots are, naturally, disappointed when they get the bad news that their show is not ready for prime time. But sometimes that can turn out to be a positive.

"Rewrite for Murder" -- starring Pam Dawber and George Clooney -- didn't make it. The good news for Clooney was that he was free to join the cast of "ER" the following season.

The timing there was almost eerily fortunate. "ER" was actually pitched to NBC three different times -- the star-making role would not have been available for Clooney if the network had said yes to the show earlier.

Trio is following up the series of failed pilots with a Monday-Friday series of shows that made it to prime time, but were then canceled. The series leads off with "Bakersfield P.D.," starring Giancarlo Esposito, Ron Eldard and Brian Doyle Murray. After that, Trio will air episodes of "Ernie Kovacs," "East Side/West Side," "The PJs," "God, the Devil and Bob" and "The Gun."

"Brilliant But Cancelled" is, at bottom, about the decision-making process at networks.

Jake Kasdan -- who tried unsuccessfully to get a TV series based on his 2002 movie "Zero Effect" -- said the process is responsible for much that he finds lacking in TV.

"If there's a huge sort of vacuum opening up in network TV -- that's being filled by theater of humiliation and contrived reality -- it's because the shows aren't good enough," he said. "And the reason the shows aren't good enough is because this process kills everything."

But Marshall Herskovitz, the Emmy-winning creator of "thirtysomething," suggested that TV executives don't have much choice but to continue choosing shows the way they have for the last half century.

"The pilot process is the way they talk about democracy," he said. "It's a terrible system, but what's better?"

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