The one-hour ABC special The Best TV Shows That Never Were, at 8 p.m. Monday, could also be called Busted Pilot Theater 3000. A snarky narrator introduces, describes, and makes fun of failed TV pilots.
What's a pilot? Best TV Shows That Never Were uses a clip from the movie Pulp Fiction in which Samuel L. Jackson explains to John Travolta that a pilot is the first episode of a proposed TV series.
Every year, each TV network films about 30 pilots, but fewer than 10 usually make it to the air. The others are consigned to a TV graveyard, never to be seen again.
In recent years, a small cottage industry has emerged as producers dig up these broken pilots. Pop cable network Trio has aired some of them under its Brilliant But Canceled umbrella. But back in 1990, TV producer Lee Goldberg (Diagnosis: Murder) first delved into this pop culture cesspool with his book Unsold Television Pilots. It was the basis for an early '90s CBS special. Now he and writing partner William Rabkin, with whom he co-executive produces Lifetime's Missing, have unearthed clips from more failed pilots for The Best TV Shows That Never Were.
Best is actually a misnomer. Most of the pilots showcased are awful but in a so-bad-it's-funny way. Goldberg's and Rabkin's script for the special, which they completed a couple of years ago and have been waiting for ABC to air, is quite funny.
On the John Denver-as-FBI-agent pilot Higher Ground: "When he sees crime, he gets Rocky Mountain mad. He also likes to break into song when he isn't breaking arms."
On the cop/family/lifeguard/car racing show Daytona Beach, from the producers of Baywatch: "They just couldn't capture lightning in a bikini twice."
My favorite failure in the special: K9000. It's about a cop who gets an implant that allows him to hear his canine partner's thoughts. Better yet: The dog somehow functions as a cell phone.
"Unlike any other industry, television [failures] are laid out for the world to see," Goldberg said of his illuminating, fast-paced, entertaining special. "It's a great reflection of what's going on in the culture at the time."
Selling ABC on the special was an easy pitch that can be summarized like this: You think what's on TV now is bad? See what didn't get on. "I think there's a perverse pleasure in looking at what did not get on the air," Goldberg said.
Getting the rights to use clips from these episodes proved to be a greater challenge. Most of the shows featured did air at some point, often as a late-night movie if it was a two-hour pilot. If a pilot has not aired, it becomes a lot more expensive to get rights to a clip from it, Goldberg said.
And then the actors featured have to sign off on use of their voice or image.
"There was a pilot called Claws that was Baby Talk from the point of view of cats, all done by famous people, including Dennis Miller," Goldberg said. "None of them would allow us to clear their voices. Dennis Miller talks a good game, but he didn't want the world to know he was the voice of a talking cat for a sitcom on CBS. We have a thousand George Clooney busted pilots he wouldn't let us use. But Tom Selleck said, 'Use any one you want.'"
Goldberg uses a clip from the wacky sci-fi sitcom LAX 2194 in Best TV Shows, but only clips without a pre-Friends Matthew Perry, who would not allow footage of himself to be used.
If this look at TV failure succeeds in the ratings, Goldberg said it would be easy enough to whip up another edition.
"There were close to 3,000 pilots in my original book in 1990, and there have been 100 flop pilots a season since then."
Let the exhumations begin!
Th e Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.