Miscast? Or mistakes? TV series that got the ax get a second look on the Trio cable channel.
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published August 31, 2003
A TV remake of the Oscar-winning film L.A. Confidential starring a pre-24 Kiefer Sutherland? A small-screen version of the Coen brothers' classic Fargo, featuring Sopranos matriarch Edie Falco in Frances McDormand's signature role?
Sounds like surefire TV gold in the making. So why didn't either of these series ever see the light of network prime time?
That's what cable channel Trio aims to explore in its Brilliant, But Cancelled series this week, featuring some of the best pilots you've never seen.
The fun starts Monday with the documentary Brilliant, But Cancelled: Pilot Season, in which everyone from ex-Batman star Adam West to late-night host Conan O'Brien talks about how some of Hollywood's most ambitious TV efforts never got past the network suits who guard the prime-time gates.
Through the week, Trio will air some of the pilots discussed in the documentary, so viewers can judge for themselves. Among them: Lookwell (Monday, 8 p.m.), featuring West in an O'Brien-produced show about an unemployed actor who believes he can solve real crimes; L.A. Confidential (Monday at 10 p.m.); Fargo (Tuesday, 9 p.m.); a 1991 series starring Pam Dawber and George Clooney dubbed Sick in the Head (Wednesday, 10 p.m.); and a 1983 adaptation of Diner starring James Spader, Paul Reiser and Michael Madsen (Friday, 9 p.m.).
Then, beginning Sept. 8, the channel will broadcast episodes of series that actually aired but suffered short lives (hence, the Brilliant, But Cancelled title). Airing at 8 p.m. weekdays, these showings begin with a dramedy about small-town cops called Bakersfield, P.D.
Trio's explanation for why the pilots never got to TV? The documentary quotes producers who cite a combination of office politics, bean counting and cluelessness by network executives who say they want groundbreaking television but often have no idea what to do when it's delivered. (All interesting notions to ponder as the 36 shows that did get network approval make their debuts next month.)
With a touch of diplomacy, Trio president Lauren Zalaznick noted that these pilots more often highlight ideas that just didn't work or were ahead of their time.
"Often, you can say the pilot was brilliant, but it wasn't right to go to series at that time at that network," said Zalaznick, who noted that the channel spent nearly a year tracking down the pilots airing this week - inspired by tales from producers whose shows were featured in their first Brilliant, But Cancelled week last year.
"It was something that made the road map to peace look less challenging," she said of tracking down who actually owned the pilots - usually, the production company that developed the show, not the network that rejected it. "It was a fleet of very devoted researchers getting into the bowels of their archival systems. In general, it was a big pain in the neck."
Trio isn't the first to try finding a use for pilots, which may be Hollywood's great untapped resource. (One group of producers even created a company, The Other Network, to bring screenings of shows such as Lookwell to clubs, theaters and coffeehouses across the country.)
As Trio's documentary outlines, networks assemble pilots through a byzantine process - spending around $1-million per project developing about 100 pilots each season, only to "green light" about a third of them for series production.
The whole mess raises an interesting question: Are networks really missing out on quality shows because they're too dysfunctional to find them?
It's a thesis that makes sense to Lisa Rosenthal, an instructor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, who has written for TV series such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Martin and Married . . . With Children.
"A big part of what people don't know is the political part. . . . Who is making the decision (to pick up a pilot), what relationship do they have to the producers - do they like them? - and do (the decisionmakers) relate to the subject matter?" Rosenthal said. She recalled working on a few shows in which the talent agency Creative Artists Agency brought together the star, producers and writers - all of whom were clients.
"They're not always picking the best people, because these deals limit their options," she said. "These are businessmen in their 20s making these decisions . . . the way another business decides whether a new widget gets made. They're not starting from characters and story. . . . They're saying, "We've got a deal with Bette Midler, what are we going to do with her?' "
Rosenthal's criticism gets no argument from Tim Brooks, a programming executive at cable channel Lifetime and co-author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows. But Brooks, who once helped test pilots for NBC, doubted there were many gems lying in network vaults.
His reason? With so many cable outlets scrambling for signature series, offbeat ideas that couldn't get past a network executive 10 years ago are getting on screen.
Brooks remembers far more pilots that never should have been made in the first place. One example: Whizzle Falls, featuring pudgy, booming-voiced Cannon star William Conrad as a guy trapped on a island filled with living puppets.
"Through the whole pilot, the poor man looked like (he was thinking), "What did my agent do to me?' " Brooks said, laughing.
"Sometimes it sounds really offbeat in the pitch, but you think, "If they can pull this off, it will remake television,' " he added. "But by the time it gets to the screen, most of them (are) just a snoozer."
Trio's Brilliant But Cancelled shows back up Brooks' viewpoint.
Sure, an L.A. Confidential series sounds like a great idea. But the movie was a tangled web of conflicting stories in which every character exposed a seamy, unsavory side. A TV series version featuring Sutherland as a cop who slips cash anonymously to the family of a guy he accidentally killed only comes off as a watered-down, confused vision.
And despite Falco's considerable acting chops, she never really makes her Marge Gunderson distinctive enough to erase the vision of McDormand's down-to-earth, smart and very pregnant portrayal in the film Fargo.
"A show like Diner . . . where the first half of the show takes place in a diner booth, really was a pre-Seinfeld kind of show. . . . Literally nothing happens," said Trio's Zalaznick. "That one, I think, really was good. But America was not ready."
Former West Wing co-producer Kevin Falls knows the pain of pilot rejection, seeing his drama about a disgraced attorney, Better Days, refused by ABC this spring despite deafening industry buzz that it was headed for the fall schedule.
"Testing is the thing that kills you," said Falls, who now is a producer on West Wing alum Rob Lowe's new series, The Lyon's Den. "The days of (a network executive) going, "This is a great show, we'll stick with it,' are gone. My pilot, because it was character-driven, didn't test well. To watch it go from their favorite to . .t. well, you can hear it in their voices, and you realize you're dead."
Trio's Pilot Season documentary speaks to those problems, noting that many successful series (including Seinfeld) never tested well with focus groups.
Producer Darrell Vickers, a former head writer for The Tonight Show who has worked on Robert Townsend's The Parent 'Hood, Faye Dunaway's It Had to Be You and Dabney Coleman's Drexel's Class, doubts that quality has anything to do with why a network picks up a pilot.
Maybe the network has a "pay or play" deal with a star that requires them to pay the actor even if the show doesn't air. Or perhaps they have a relationship with a hot producing team they'd like to preserve. Or perhaps the network owns part of the show (or the company that owns the network owns part of the show).
Or perhaps the executives themselves are star-struck. "If Mel Gibson's producing it, they'll buy it because their secretary can say, "Mel Gibson's on line two,' " Vickers said, laughing. "He comes to their office and pitches it, he's on the set or at the press party. That can be impressive."
Vickers' dream system: a Hollywood in which networks make pilots based purely on the quality of the script - with executives barred from seeing the writers' names until they pick up the project.
"If you made cars like Hollywood makes pilots," Vickers said, "there would be accidents all over the freeway."
Coming . . . or going . . . soon
Here's this critic's short list of shows that could soon find their way to Trio's Brilliant But Cancelled series:
Keen Eddie - It's not officially canceled yet, but this cheeky Fox summer series about an American cop forced to work in Britain has sagged seriously in the ratings, despite improving noticeably from its confused premiere episode. Too bad viewers didn't notice.
Lucky - Critics had hoped this oddball sorta comedy starring John Corbett as a pro gambler struggling to leave the life might be nurtured by HBO wannabe outlet FX. But it turns out Corbett and location filming in Las Vegas cost the channel too much cash for too few viewers.
Andy Richter Controls the Universe - Beloved by critics and ignored by viewers, this sitcom starring former Conan O'Brien sidekick Richter as an oddball office worker just didn't gel quickly enough to win a big fan following.