The Funniest, Weirdest and Most Ridiculous TV Pilots Ever Produced
Imagine for a second that the movie industry operated the same way that TV does. That would mean that every year, tons of half-hour and one-hour movies would be produced, most of which would never see the light of day. The TV biz makes hundreds of pilots every year, and only a handful ever make it to the air. It’s not the smartest business model, but it does provide for some truly bizarre — and occasionally awesome — one-off shows.
Back in the ’70s and ’80s, networks would occasionally burn off pilots during summer reruns. But now with cheap, year-round reality programming, there’s no need to confuse viewers with a one-off episode of a show the network decided not to pick up. So every development season, countless hours of television are placed on network shelves, occasionally making their way to the internet.
Of course, there’s a reason why most pilots are sent off to failed TV heaven, where they reside with episodes of ‘Emily’s Reasons Why Not’ for all eternity. But a select few, like the ones below, are worth your viewing time. Some are so good, it’s a shame they never made it to series. Others are just so bizarre or downright awful, they have to be seen as proof of the nonsense that network executives will throw ridiculous sums of money at. Take a look at some of the best lost pilots available for your viewing pleasure on the Web.
It’s hard to believe now that NBC ever passed on a pilot written by Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog fame. But they did, way back in 1991 when Conan and Smigel were up-and-coming ‘Saturday Night Live’ scribes.
The pilot, which aired once during the summer before vanishing into cult history, starred Adam West as the titular washed-up 1970s TV actor whose efforts to assist the police with real crimes only make things worse. It’s a brilliant, hilariously executed premise that still holds up today. (Shades of ‘Lookwell’ can be seen in ‘Andy Barker, P.I.,’ the short-lived NBC detective series Conan produced for Andy Richter.)
‘Heat Vision and Jack,’ 1999
Before ‘Community,’ writer/producer Dan Harmon teamed up with his ‘Monster House’/’Channel 101′ collaborator Rob Schrab and director Ben Stiller for an offbeat pilot that spoofed ‘The Six Million Dollar Man,’ ‘Knight Rider’ and other high-concept action shows of their youth.
Despite a cast that included Jack Black, Owen Wilson (as a talking motorcycle) and Ron Silver playing a villainous version of himself, the pilot proved to be too quirky for Fox.
Thanks to screenings at festivals and comedy clubs, ‘Heat Vision and Jack’ has gained a following over the years. (Stiller even referenced it in a mockumentary produced to promote ‘Tropic Thunder.’) With Harmon wrapping up ‘Community,’ perhaps now is the time to bring Jack and his trusty motorcycle pal to the big screen. What else is Kickstarter for than jump-starting forgotten TV shows?
‘North Hollywood,’ 2001
Before he became Hollywood’s comedy king, Judd Apatow was the king of cancelled-too-soon TV shows and brilliant failed pilots. Following the cancellation of his Fox series ‘Undeclared,’ Apatow made three pilots which are considered to be among some of his best work.
‘Sick in the Head’ — which starred Amy Poehler, David Krumholtz and Kevin Corrigan — was a clever modern-day spin on ‘The Bob Newhart Show.’ ‘Life on Parole’ found ‘Office Space’ star David Herman as a parole officer who is roommates with one of his parolees. But best of all is 2001’s ‘North Hollywood,’ a blisteringly satirical look at the trials and tribulations of actors in Hollywood loosely based on Apatow’s early days with Adam Sandler.
Today, the cast of ‘North Hollywood’ would run the average studio millions of dollars: Jason Segel, Amy Poehler, Kevin Hart and Seth Rogen all starred along with Judge Reinhold, who played a heightened version himself before his memorable turn on ‘Arrested Development.’
Unfortunately, the pilot was killed by ABC execs who were reluctant to greenlight an edgy comedy, particularly one in which Reinhold was arguably the most recognizable star at the time. (HBO also passed on it, opting for ‘Entourage’ instead which just adds insult to injury.)
‘Justice League of America,’ 1997
We didn’t say all the pilots on this list were good, just that you should watch them. And if you’re a comic book fan, you need to watch the 1997 pilot for the Justice League sitcom. Yes, sitcom.
Loosely based on the lighter Justice League comics from the late ’80s, the pilot skipped heavy hitters like Superman and Batman in favor of C-listers like The Atom and Martian Manhunter.
In between defending the city of New Metro from the evil Weather Man, the Leaguers delivered “funny” confessionals to the camera. The only thing funny in this pilot is Flash’s awful rubber costume.
‘L.A. Confidential,’ 1999
With ‘Bates Motel’ and ‘Hannibal’ currently freaking out viewers, TV adaptations of hit movies are suddenly all the rage. But past attempts to bring your favorite flicks to the small screen have met with mixed success. Such was the case with the TV take on the Oscar-winning film noir ‘L.A. Confidential.’
Instead of Kevin Spacey, we got Kiefer Sutherland, while Melissa George took over the Kim Basinger role. (Eric Roberts and ‘Breaking Bad’s’ Anna Gunn were among the other familiar faces in the cast.)
Originally conceived as a 13-part series for HBO, the pilot was filmed for FOX in 1999 but didn’t surface until 2003. By then Sutherland was happily busy playing Jack Bauer on ’24.’ (You can see the stylish pilot on the ‘L.A. Confidential’ DVD and Blu-ray.)
With a career that ran the gamut from dramatic roles in movies like ‘Joe’ to his long-running turn as Ray Romano’s pop on ‘Everybody Loves Raymond,’ the late actor Peter Boyle had quite the resume. Buried waaaay down is this 1990 ABC pilot where he played a deceased cop who comes back as a talking dog.
‘Poochinski’ attempted to cash in on the “cop with a dog” craze that began and ended with ‘Turner & Hooch’ and the Jim Belushi vehicle ‘K-9.’ This time, they did away with the cop altogether, killing off Boyle’s detective character (who is conviently named Poochinski) in the first act. He’s then reincarnated as — you guessed it — a grumpy talking bulldog.
NBC tried their own ‘Turner & Hooch’ rip-off with ‘Tequila & Bonetti,’ a show about a slick cop and his dog whose thoughts could be heard by viewers. But that show didn’t have a scene where a bulldog chomps down on a bad guy’s cajones.
(You can watch the entire ‘Poochinski’ pilot here. If you love idea of a bulldog with the voice of Frank Barone, you won’t be disappointed.)
‘Global Frequency,’ 2005
‘Survivor’ producer Mark Burnett and screenwriter John Rogers (‘Transformers,’ ‘Leverage’) were behind this adaptation of Warren Ellis’ action-packed comic book series about a vast network of special agents comprised of experts and average folks who protect the world from secret government plots.
Michelle Forbes of ‘The Killing’ and ‘Homicide’ fame was cast as agent Miranda Zero, while the writing staff was to be stacked with geek-friendly scribes like Ben Edlund (‘The Tick,’ ‘Firefly’). The pilot leaked to torrent sites and garnered raves from fans, but unfortunately execs at TheWB didn’t like the idea of people passing around something they actually enjoyed before it aired (this was back in 2005, before the networks had given up fighting bootleggers), so they decided to pull the plug.
The CW briefly resurrected the project back in 2009, but it has since stalled. Now that ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘ is on its way, there probably isn’t room for another series about a group of secret agents who keep the world’s bizarre menaces in check.
FX recently greenlit an updated ‘Fargo’ TV series which will feature another set of wacky local cops and a true crime murder that just happens to take place in the same location as the acclaimed Coen Bros. movie. Weirdly enough, this isn’t the first time a ‘Fargo’ TV show has been attempted.
In 1997, a pilot was filmed for a potential ‘Fargo’ series with a pre-‘Sopranos’ Edie Falco in the Marge Gunderson role, dontcha know. Falco wasn’t a bad substitute for Frances McDormand, and the show had the potential to be a fun cross between ‘Law & Order’ and ‘Northern Exposure.’
Of course, it never happened, and Falco went on to Carmela Soprano and Nurse Jackie. The pilot ended up being aired in 2003 on Trio, an excellent cable network that itself was short-lived probably due to the fact that it mostly ran awesome, too-good-for-TV pilots. (You can find the ‘Fargo’ pilot on torrent sites, if you’re into that sort of thing.)
Sketch comedy shows have never fared well in primetime, with such casualties as ‘The Dana Carvey Show’ and ‘Kelsey Grammer Presents The Sketch Show’ as proof that viewers prefer their commercial parodies and Bill Clinton impressions on late-night. A similar fate met ‘Next!,’ a fast-paced sketch comedy series produced by Bob Odenkirk of ‘Mr. Show’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ fame that Fox commissioned back in 2001.
As with many comedy projects from the early ’00s, the cast is littered with now familiar faces. Zach Galifianakis, Fred Armisen and Patton Oswalt all made appearances along with Jerry Minor (‘The Office’) and alum from ‘Mr. Show.’
Despite sharp bits that skewered filthy rap lyrics and internet geek culture before skewering such things became tired, Fox ended up literally saying “next!,” and opted for the broader variety series ‘Cedric the Entertainer Presents,’ which itself got canned after a short run.
‘Beat Cops,’ 2003
Fans of deadpan comedic actor Jon Benjamin (‘Archer,’ ‘Bob’s Burgers’) will get a kick out of this pilot about a pair of slacker beat cops that Conan O’Brien produced for Fox.
Perhaps the humor was too subtle for Fox, or perhaps after ‘Barney Miller,’ ‘The Job’ and countless other shows about funny cops, Fox felt audiences didn’t like to mix laughs with shoot-em-‘ups. 10 years later, the network is trying the guns and guffaws genre again with the Andy Samberg vehicle ‘Brooklyn Nine Nine.’