Close But No Time Slot
I often receive exasperated e-mails from fans who want to know why their favorite show, otherwise known as "the best thing on TV," was canceled. While I offer friendly consolation, after watching Trio's documentary special, Brilliant but Cancelled: Pilot Season, I've decided that a more appropriate response might be: so many TV shows, so little time. Literally. Any show that makes it to a broadcast network's prime-time lineup is part of a very exclusive group. However, this exclusivity isn't necessarily tied to quality, as most TV viewers would like to think. Money, timing, star power, behind-the-scenes personalities, fear, stubbornness, and more than a little mojo also come into play.
Brilliant but Cancelled: Pilot Season offers an outline of how a TV series reaches the small screen from pitch session to season premiere. But what intrigues are the stories behind "failed" pilots. One such story includes a 1960s Garry Marshall satire, Evil Roy Slade. John Astin (The Addams Family) starred in the Western spoof in the title role. Though meant to be a comment on excessive violence, test audiences at the time misread the satire as a celebration of violence. Fortunately, the show didn't entirely die. It was later reconstituted into a movie of the week and gathered a devoted cult following. Other wonderful nuggets include clips from a Conan O'Brien-Robert Smigel project, Lookwell!, starring Adam West (Batman) as a faded TV actor who believes his career playing a TV cop makes him suited to solve real-life crimes. (One of West's choice lines: "Maybe if you watched more television, you'd be better at your job.")
Failed projects are not just the legacy of hacks and wannabes, but of well-known TV icons and filmmakers. Allison Anders (Mi Vida Loca), Marshall Herskovitz (thirtysomething), Tom Fontana (Oz), Bernie Brillstein (Just Shoot Me), and others share their candid, behind-the-scenes look at a TV-making process that is startlingly antiquated and, perhaps not so surprisingly, equated to bad sex.
"The networks like to screw, but they don't like to cum," an unidentified talking head states in the rough screener I reviewed. "Great, classic screw job," "a great sense of coitus interruptus," and "we're all adults" are among the phrases interviewees utter -- most of them men, by the way -- proving that watching TV is a lot safer than creating it.
Brilliant but Cancelled: Pilot Season airs Monday, Sept. 1, at 8pm, on Trio. During the week, Trio features notable pilots of series that didn't make it to the small screen, including:
Lookwell!: Adam West stars as Ty Lookwell, a former actor turned private detective. Airs Sept. 1 at 7pm
Beat Cops (2002): A low-budget half-hour comedy starring Sam Seder and Jon Benjamin as clueless New York City desk cops sent out to on-foot patrol. Airs Sept. 1 at 7:30pm.
L.A. Confidential (2000): Based on the Oscar-winning film and starring Kiefer Sutherland. Airs Sept. 1 at 9pm.
Fargo (1997): Based on the Oscar-winning film and starring pre-Sopranos Edie Falco, turning in her own marvelous turn as Marge Gunderson (played by Frances McDormand in the 1996 Coen brothers film). Airs Sept. 2 at 8pm.
Dear Diary (1996): Bebe Neuwirth stars as an introspective New Yorker lamenting the onset of middle age. The pilot was later reworked to become an Oscar-winning short film. Airs Sept. 2 at 9pm.
Sick in the Head (1999): An off-the-wall comedy about a new psychiatrist whose first patient is suicidal. Airs Sept. 2 at 9:30pm.
Rewrite for Murder (1991): George Clooney stars as an ex-con who writes pulp crime novels hired to revitalize a failing TV show written by a prissy mystery writer played by Pam Dawber. Not so brilliant, but a hoot to watch, particularly for its jabs at the TV industry. Airs Sept. 3 at 9pm.
Savage (1973): A behind-the-scenes look at a TV news-magazine show, starring real-life married couple Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. Airs Sept. 4 at 8pm.
Diner (1983): James Spader, Michael Madsen, Paul Reiser, and Michael Binder star in the pilot based on Barry Levinson's 1982 film. Airs Sept. 5 at 8pm.
Black Bart (1975): Based on Mel Brooks' film Blazing Saddles. Stars Louis Gossett Jr. as a black sheriff in the old West. Airs Sept. 5 at 8:30.
Returning Brilliant but Cancelled series include The Ernie Kovacs Show; East Side/West Side; The PJs; God, the Devil and Bob; and Gun. New to the lineup is Bakersfield P.D., a sitcom about a big-city detective who joins a small-town police force. The returning Brilliant but Cancelled lineup begins Sept. 8 at 7pm. Check local listings for details.