The Six Best (and Five Worst) Failed TV Pilots

By Rob Bricken in Daily Lists, TV
Monday, August 18, 2008 at 5:00 am

pilotsfront.pngBy Todd Ciolek

A lot of TV shows are terrible, but let's face it: we're lucky. Behind every abomination unleashed on those watching at home, there are likely a dozen potential shows too horrid to be aired, and perhaps a much smaller number of promising series that met the same fate. Often these pitches, good or bad, get only a pilot episode left behind as proof that someone was going to make a show about imprisoned penguins, Aquaman, or a samurai who drove an eighteen-wheeler and pressed elevator buttons with his sword.

Well, here's some more proof: the six most intriguing TV pilots we found, plus five that are also intriguing, but for all the wrong reasons. These are series that we would have watched on TV, whether to see something genuinely good or catch something that would clearly be canceled once the networks saw the ratings.


6) Lost in Oz

It's too early to judge the Sci-Fi Channel's Tin Man as a failed pilot, but attempts at reviving The Wizard of Oz often go unappreciated. Witness the 1985 sequel Return to Oz, dismissed by many critics in spite of its long-standing contributions to inducing psychological trauma in children. Lost in Oz took up the same mantle in 2002, fashioning a Wizard sequel that lands a good distance from its source material.

In the pilot scripted by David "Solid Snake" Hayter, an uncertain young Kansas bride-to-be named Alexandra Wilder (search that name for a Dorothy pun, but I don't see one) is whisked off to the lush fantasyland of Oz during a tornado. With the aid of a displaced horse and an alt-rock soundtrack, she explores her new surroundings, meeting an equally stranded World War II soldier who functions as a smarter and completely human romantic-interest version of the Scarecrow. They're recruited by one of Oz's good witches and sent to rescue the kingdom's rightful queen.

Lost in Oz suffers from rushed exposition and too-cute dialogue that often recalls some abortive Joss Whedon project, but there's a compelling idea or two at its heart. Despite the limp self-mockery, the pilot episode introduces some grisly takes on Oz lore (the Munchkins met an unspeakable fate) and an appearance by the scariest thing from Return to Oz: those shrieking, fucked-up Wheelers. The best bastardization is a flirty, revenge-driven version of the Patchwork Girl. Apparently stitched together from high-school goths' spare leather, she's a lot more fun than the show's wincing Dorothy stand-in.

The Lost in Oz pilot wasn't officially completed or aired anywhere, but that hasn't stopped the Internet from preserving all of its rough, diced-up potential. For extra fun, try and spot the moments where some CG was clearly supposed to make things more impressive.

Why It Failed: If the hurried pace didn't turn off test audiences, that ending song certainly would.

5) Assignment: Earth

Star Trek episodes could be many things: social commentaries, morality plays, excuses to use cheap Nazi uniforms and have women slink around in green body paint, and so on. At least one episode, Assignment Earth, was a slyly inserted pilot for another Gene Roddenberry science fiction series. In this particular episode, the Enterprise once again travels back in time to the 1960s, whereupon an intergalactic secret agent named Gary Seven (Robert Lansing) beams himself and his cat aboard the Enterprise, revealing that he's a time traveler out to help Earth make it through a turbulent age. Despite Kirk and Spock's meddling, Seven manages to defuse the nuclear arms race and gain an unexpected ally in the skeptical Roberta Lincoln (Terri Garr). Things end with hints of further adventures for Seven and Lincoln, who's noticed that Seven's cat is apparently a voluptuous woman (Victoria Vetri) in disguise. What, you thought anime invented that?

Assignment: Earth never became a series, and Garr went on to Young Frankenstein and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Lansing went on to a recurring role on The Equalizer. Star Trek fans, hopeful as ever, like to imagine an alternate universe where Spock has a beard and Assignment: Earth was a full-fledged TV show, and they've created their own openings for it. Here's the least awful one.

Why It Failed: Roddenbery had trouble keeping Star Trek on the air by the time Assignment: Earth closed the second season. Another sci-fi show was a bit much to ask.

4) Global Frequency

If conspiracy theories and Matrix-style secret agents are now passé, they weren't quite so stale in 2002, when comics icon Warren Ellis started the twelve-issue comic Global Frequency. Illustrated by multiple artists, the series tracked an extensively well-financed shadow organization that defused various threats to world peace. It's not Ellis' most original concept, but the comic proved interesting, mostly because it played out like a TV series that had free reign to kill off characters. The only exceptions were Global Frequency sub-leader Miranda Zero and her hacker sidekick.

It was fertile ground for a TV series, and writer John Rogers (who probably deserves better than to be linked to the recent Catwoman and Transformers movies, but we'll link him anyway) put together a pilot in 2005, with Miranda Zero played by Michelle Forbes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and 24 fame. While it carried off the comic's drama with a brisk, stylish pace, the pilot apparently introduced two regular Global Frequency agents, thus stripping a series of some anyone-can-die intrigue. This ultimately didn't matter, because that series never materialized.

Why It Failed: In an entirely apt twist, the pilot leaked out through every possible Internet route, and, according to Ellis, the producers were upset enough to ensure that we never see a Global Frequency show.

3) Constant Payne

The anime industry's war on Western cartoons had only begun in 2000, and few American shows were bothering to imitate their big-eyed, blue-haired Japanese counterparts back then. One of the first to try was one of the better results of this cultural invasion. Developed by writer Micah Wright, Constant Payne followed a self-confidently scatterbrained teenager named Amanda Payne, who helped her crime-fighting scientist father fend off terrorists, henchmen, and evil relatives. Only a 10-minute pilot was produced, showing off rapid-fire snark and lots of fistfights and explosions animated by the anime studio Madhouse. It's certainly a cut above the children's fare of its day, with creative action and dialogue that flows like an episode of Home Movies.

Even though it was thrown in a ditch, Constant Payne was clearly ahead of its time. In the years that followed its pilot episode, lamer anime-style American cartoons such as Totally Spies and Jackie Chan Adventures took root on Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon eventually got into the act with the violent, explosion-filled Avatar: The Last Airbender. If some executives hadn't lost their nerve for no real reason, Constant Payne would've been one the best things on Nick since David the Gnome died.

Why It Failed: According to Wright's website, Nickelodeon initially dragged its feet on introducing even PG-level violence in one of its shows. Then 9-11 happened, and the network nixed any series that showed anything blowing up in a city.

2) Heat Vision and Jack

Vanity projects rarely go well, but Ben Stiller and writer Rob Schrab (Scud: The Disposable Assassin) probably knew this when TV executives let them make Heat Vision and Jack in 1999. So Stiller plays up the self-indulgence, with a deliberately hammy introduction to a deliberately hammy show. In his creation, Jack Black is an astronaut granted immeasurable intelligence by a brush with extreme sunlight (yes, it's a parody of another failed TV pilot called Northstar), while Owen Wilson voices his roommate, who was psychically trapped in a motorcycle by a government agent's death ray. With Jack's sun-fueled mental prowess in high demand, they're pursued by the sinister Ron Silver. No, not a character played by Ron Silver. Just Ron Silver.

It sounds like a live-action Turbo Teen, and there's no question that Heat Vision and Jack knows just how hokey it is during its pilot episode, in which the genius-by-day renegade astronaut and his talking motorcycle battle alien inhabiting the body of Vincent Schiavelli, the expert in portraying sad-sack weirdoes. Jack neutralizes the creature with a scheme worthy of Doctor Who (which Heat Vision watches on TV) and romances a local sheriff played by Christine Taylor, the Hey Dude alumna and Stiller's future wife. Then he rides off into the intellect-dulling night. No woman can hold him.

If Constant Payne got in on the anime-esque cartoon craze too soon, Heat Vision and Jack was nearly a decade too early to join Adult Swim's vein of self-aware live-action parodies. With a higher budget and Ron Silver playing himself, it's arguably better than Saul of the Mole Men or Fat Guy Stuck in Internet.

Why it Failed: The world just wasn't ready for Heat Vision and Jack, though Schrab recently confirmed that a movie version's in the works. Let's see the TV execs stop it now.

1) The Crystal Cube

The Crystal Cube's pilot opens with a spot-on jab at hokey '70s British sci-fi. In the low-budget tunnels of a repressed futuristic society, we meet an on-the-run Hugh Laurie, years from playing a dyspeptic TV doctor or getting rejected in an Annie Lennox music video. He rescues a bob-haired girl, played by Emma Thompson, and tells her all about how he read a book called "The Bibble" and learned of a thing called "Loave." The two reach the surface and meet a kindly old man who, having lived apart from their low-rent Logan's Run, shows them all about "Loave."

Yet The Crystal Cube had ambitions beyond mocking Blake's 7 (and borrowing its Federation guard helmets). As our heroes walk off toward a brave new world, the show then dissolves to a science-oriented talk show where Laurie and Thompson join Stephen Fry and Robbie Coltrane in discussing the nature of genetics and great moments in scientific history. From there the pilot episode, written in 1983 by Fry and Laurie, rapidly turns into a hilarious, far-roaming parody, from Coltrane's turn as a paranoid Cold-War undercover journalism to Thompson's take on a vapid, talking-head anchor. If only the laugh track weren't there.

Why it Failed: We can't say. Perhaps it was a bit too complex of a comedy for a TV audience that let The Benny Hill Show run for twenty years.

Head to page 2 to discover the 5 worst TV pilot failures! Most of them involve dogs, strangely.

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