The television networks unveiled fall lineups dotted with 39 new prime-time series earlier this month, an annual harvest treated with all the reverence of a papal coronation. Lost amid the emphasis on what they picked, however, is what died on the vine: dozens of series prototypes, or pilots, deemed not ready for prime time.
If you think the series that get on the air are bad, many look like Frank Capra classics next to some of the also-rans. This year, for example, a handful of industry sources urged me to see how dreadfully good intentions and a big star development deal can go wrong by watching “Mr. Ambassador,” an NBC sitcom starring Rupert Everett as a free-wheeling diplomat more interested in partying than politics.
To those who promised the project hit a new low, I can say safely (if not proudly) that I’ve seen worse. That said, the prototype is curiously bad -- squandering not only Everett, a likable enough film star, but also Derek Jacobi (of “I, Claudius” fame), who plays his fastidious aide. If nothing else, it’s not every day a show features an ill-tempered, randy female little person, who in one scene invites Everett to “come downstairs and check out what’s cookin’ on the ground floor.”
Yet NBC won’t show you “Mr. Ambassador,” or for that matter “The Ripples,” with Adam Arkin as half of an ageless couple married for 4,000 years. Nor will you see the unfortunately titled “Not a Clue,” a CBS pilot about criminology students that tried taking “CSI” to college; Fox’s proposed revival of “Mr. Ed,” which didn’t escape the starting gate, of course, of course; or the WB’s updated “MacGyver” -- here built around the original character’s nephew, lest someone watching the WB might have to look at an older person.
Viewers are more sophisticated now about how the herd-thinning works, with comedy clubs screening a few of these never-weres for the public. This got me thinking that pilots, even uproariously bad ones, are worth seeing, especially if the alternative is multiplexing or repurposing or whatever idiotic term cable officials have dreamt up that simply means filling time with network reruns. With so many hungry channels to feed, maybe even TV’s road kill merits a moment in the sun -- with every pilot, to paraphrase Monty Python, deserving a place on your cable dial.
Apparently, I’m not alone. Trio, the sparsely distributed cable channel that re-branded itself in April as “pop, culture, tv” (makes you wonder what other TV channels are devoted to, but I digress), plans to run several unaired pilots this fall.
The idea came to Trio President Lauren Zalaznick, who inaugurated a showcase of critically regarded but short-lived series -- under the heading “Brilliant But Canceled” -- in December. In launching that enterprise, Zalaznick found herself “loving the passion behind the failures” and wondering about what else wound up on the industry’s cutting-room floor.
Up until the late 1980s, viewers actually had a chance to see passed-over pilots. CBS aired something called “CBS Summer Playhouse,” which amounted to a festival of series candidates that didn’t make the cut. Programmers nicknamed it “Amortization Theater,” since airing the shows at least allowed the network to write off some of the expense.
There was nevertheless something fascinating and instructive about that showcase, seeing not just what the network bought but what it rejected en route to getting there.
Trio is accentuating the positive, primarily seeking good pilots that were somehow overlooked, with Zalaznick saying the treasure hunt is both a lot more work and a bit more expensive than she anticipated. On the plus side, she noted, bypassed TV shows are an “infinitely refreshable” asset, joking that the channel could become “the lucrative dumping ground for failures.”
As for showing off the worst of the worst for those who appreciate camp, she said, “I’m sure there will be some fabulous ‘What were they thinking?’ moments.... Some of them are funnily bad ideas for a series, but not necessarily really, really terrible.”
Other cable outlets with ties to major networks would seem to be prime candidates for this strategy. Take Bravo, now owned by NBC, which could easily use ill-conceived pilots to balance James Lipton’s star-fawning on “Inside the Actors Studio,” providing case studies of good actors gone wrong. (For the record, a spokesman didn’t rule out playing pilots but said there are no current plans to do so.)
Even the major networks could probably get mileage out of their clunkers again, given their commitment to offer original programs during the summer, where the current plan hinges on inundating viewers with so-called reality shows. After all, who could resist a promo that said, “Rupert Everett, in a comedy so bad you’ll be talking about it for days!”
Such an approach is unlikely, for a variety of reasons. For starters, networks (and the executives who run them) might want to do business with the talent involved in the future. Moreover, most executives are too insecure to risk parading their misfires down Main Street -- the sort of perverse logic limited to a personality like the late Brandon Tartikoff, who relished his bombs, like “Manimal,” almost as much as his hits, like “Cheers.”
Still, there truly is reason to consider televising pilots. Beyond plugging the gaping hole left during the summer for the price of some residual payments, programmers might occasionally find that they’ve made a mistake -- that a concept catches an audience’s fancy despite all those downward-pointing arrows on the focus group test scores.
For now, most of you will have to take my word about “Mr. Ambassador,” but maybe not forever. Because based on the casualty rates for new series and the challenge of filling today’s heavily trafficked airwaves, honestly, what have programmers got to lose by taking a flier on a few busted pilots?
Brian Lowry’s column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at email@example.com.