Failed TV Pilots That Paved The Way For Breakout Hits

Had these pilots been given the green light, we might have been without Breaking Bad, 24, Hannibal, Community and more…

Den of Geek Breaking Bad

It’s not always bad news when TV networks decline to pick up pilots. Sometimes, we’re even grateful. Hindsight teaches that every so often, passing on a particular show is the best thing a channel could have done. Not ordering one pilot to series spurs its creators on to start another, and frees up its cast to join new projects.

Had the failures below all thrived, there’s a chance we could now be living in a world with no Breaking Bad, Hannibal, or even South Park. Had these pilots gone on to enjoy healthy, lengthy lives, then Jack Bauer, Oberyn Martell, Chandler Bing and more might all be unrecognizable today.

Here are the TV pilots we’re grateful weren’t taken to series because their failure left room for others to come in their stead.

Had L.A. Confidential been picked up…

We could have lost Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer

Filmed in 2000 (but not made publicly available until 2003 when it was was included as an extra on the special release DVD of the film of the same name), you could say that Fox’s L.A. Confidential pilot was a decade or so ahead of its time. Had it been made today, it could have found itself in better company as one of a slew of TV series based on nineties movies. Fargo, Hannibal, From Dusk Till Dawn, Twelve Monkeys, ScreamL.A. Confidential might have slotted in nicely alongside those bedfellows. Alas, it wasn’t to be, and Fox declined to order the show to series.

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That was good news for fans of Jack Bauer, as it released Kiefer Sutherland from the role of Det. Jack Vincennes in good time to film the 24 pilot and subsequent seasons in 2001.

Had A.M.P.E.D. been picked up…

We could have lost Breaking Bad

You wouldn’t usually find this site cheering the loss of an original sci-fi show, but all bets are off when it comes to Breaking Bad.

Following their time on The X-Files, you might remember that Vince Gilligan and Frank Spotnitz co-wrote a 2007 pilot for a show called A.M.P.E.D. A sci-fi cop procedural, A.M.P.E.D. was set in present-day Minneapolis and told the story of a group of police officers investigating strange goings-on in the city caused by “a small-but-growing percentage of the population that is falling prey to strange genetic mutations, causing them to do destructive things to the city and those around them.” Robert Lieberman directed the trial episode, which featured Lee Tergesen, Sarah Brown and Tony Curren.

Cable network Spike TV didn’t pick up the 2007 pilot to series, which worked out for the best, as AMC ordered the first season of Breaking Bad in June of that year. The rest, as they say, is history.

Had Play Or Be Played been picked up…

We might have lost Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead

Before he was cast as Rick Grimes in Frank Darabont’s forthcoming zombie comic book adaptation in April 2010, Andrew Lincoln filmed a legal drama pilot called Play Or Be Played for NBC. Lincoln appeared alongside co-stars Alan Tudyk, Christina Vidal, Frankie Faison, Kurtwood Smith and Megan Dodds.

The pilot, about unscrupulous lawyers at a prestigious law firm, was originally in development for the 2008-2009 season but NBC eventually passed on it. Had it gone the multi-season path of a Suits, Damages or The Good Wife, Lincoln could have been known to the US as lawyer Joe instead of lawman Rick. Perish the thought. 

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Had Mockingbird Lane been picked up…

We could have lost Hannibal

The only reason to celebrate the loss of a Bryan Fuller project is if it means the arrival of another Bryan Fuller project. That’s why we can’t mourn the passing of NBC’s Mockingbird Lane, which was finally dropped in December 2012 after a tricky development period between the network, Fuller, and co-executive producer Bryan Singer.

Based on The Munsters, the fun supernatural show was first ordered to pilot in November 2011, the same month that Fuller was brought in to write the first Hannibal script. The Mockingbird Lane pilot was filmed in summer 2012 and aired that October on NBC as a Halloween special, but the network declined to take it to series. That freed up Fuller to dive right in to showrunner duties on Hannibal, which went into production in the spring of 2012, premiered on NBC in April 2013, and is gearing up for its third season as we speak. 

Had Ultra been picked up…

We could have lost Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey in Game Of Thrones

Now, this one’s unthinkable. In 2006, Lena Headey and Peter Dinklage both appeared in Helen Shaver and Barbara Hall’s failed comic book pilot, Ultra. The show, based on the Luna Brothers’ story of the romantic trials of a superheroine was courted by by The CW and CBS, but ultimately rejected. Headey was in the lead role, with Dinklage playing her Professor X-alike mentor.

We’re not saying that Ultra being picked up to series would necessarily have kept the pair busy for the next three years, but imagine if it had. Dinklage was the first actor announced for Game Of Thrones back in May 2009, with Headey joining him in September of that year. Say Ultra had worked out and been renewed, those two might have had their hands tied and we’d be looking at a new Cersei and Tyrion. As we said, unthinkable.

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Had Giants Of Radio been picked up…

We could have lost Joel McHale and Danny Pudi from Community

Writer/director Jason Winer (Modern Family, The Crazy Ones) went several steps further than most when Fox gave him a $150,000 cheque to produce a glossy teaser of his radio-set single-camera sitcom in 2007. He made the entire Giants Of Radio pilot for the teaser money, casting a certain Joel McHale and Danny Pudi in the process.

As Winer tells it, Fox opened a bidding war on the pilot, which was snapped up by CBS for several million dollars, and then not taken to series. Yes, that might have meant the loss of one potentially great sitcom, but it also led to McHale and Pudi being snapped up almost immediately to play Jeff and Abed on NBC’s newcomer, Community.

(Likewise, Joel McHale starred in the much-derided US version of The IT Crowd, which, if it had been picked up might have meant a different Jeff in Community. If you’ve seen the pilot, that’s not the only reason we’re glad they didn’t press ahead with that one, though). 

Had Hench At Home been picked up…

We could have lost Arrested Development

As Mitchell Hurwitz was developing Arrested Development and co-writing Michael J. Fox ABC sitcom Hench At Home at more or less the same time, there’s no telling which way he would have leaned had both, and not just the former, been picked up to series.

Nevertheless, the fact that Michael J. Fox’s first pitch at an autobiographical show (which was ordered to pilot in February 2003, just a month before the Arrested Development pilot was filmed) wasn’t picked up freed Hurwitz up to spend more time with the Bluths, something for which we’re eternally grateful.

Had LAX 2194 been picked up…

We could have lost Matthew Perry in Friends

Not only did Jennifer Aniston almost not play Rachel Green in NBC’s nineties behemoth (CBS nabbed her for sitcom Muddling Through first – reportedly to mess with the burgeoning Friends buzz – but that only lasted 10 episodes which freed her up to not marry Barry and so on), but Matthew Perry almost didn’t play Chandler Bing.

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Had LAX 2194, an ABC pilot for a show about a space-age airport customs office, gone to series then Perry would have been saddled with Ryan Stiles and Kelly Hu peddling this, instead of revolutionising the way generation X intoned.

Had Sick In The Head been picked up…

We could have lost Freaks And Geeks

The pilot for Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s superlative Freaks And Geeks was greenlit in January 1999, the same month that the pilot was shot for another joint project the pair was working on, psychiatry comedy Sick In The Head. David Krumholtz, Kevin Corrigan and Amy Poehler appeared in that pilot, about the life of a young therapist.

According to Apatow’s diary entries, he was confident that Fox would pick up Sick In The Head, until his pal at Fox, Peter Roth, was replaced by Doug Herzog from Comedy Central. Herzog reportedly liked the pilot but didn’t order the show to series, telling Apatow it was because “nobody loved it”. The pilot eventually aired in the US on Trio’s ‘brilliant but cancelled’ segment in 2003.

Now, this one’s a ‘damned if you don’t and…’ kind of situation. Sick In The Head could have been tremendous, but if that had been picked up and developed that year either instead of Freaks And Geeks, or pushing the high school drama back and potentially losing its terrific lightning-in-a-bottle cast, then we’d have lost something very special indeed. 

Had The Sixth Gun been picked up…

We could have lost Pedro Pascal and Michiel Huisman in Game Of Thrones season 4

Another casting one here, involving a potential TV adaptation of supernatural Western comic book series The Sixth Gun.

NBC ordered The Sixth Gun to pilot in early 2013, and filled it with a solid cast including Pedro Pascal and Michiel Huisman. Come May though, the network had decided to pass on the show, which meant that Messrs Pascal and Huisman were able to fly over to Croatia and take up the respective roles of Prince Oberyn Martell and (the recast) Daario Naharis in Game Of Thrones season four. It just wouldn’t have been the same without them.

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Had Our Family Business been picked up…

We could have lost Ted Danson in Cheers

As so many do, 1981 failed pilot Our Family Business (watch a clip here, from approx 4:00 to see Danson in all his resplendent eighties glory) eventually aired as a one-off TV movie. Had that not been the fate of the mob crime show in which Ted Danson played Sam Wanamaker’s police-informant son, it could have stopped Danson from from taking on his signature TV role of Sam Malone in 1982’s Cheers.

Former football player Fred Dryer (who later earned a returning role as sports newscaster and Sam’s old baseball team-mate, Dave Richards in the show) was one of those competing for the role of Sam, himself originally a football player but changed to suit Danson’s physique. Who knows? Had Our Family Business made it big, not only might Danson not have played Sam, but Mayday Malone might not even have been a baseball player.

Had the US version of Peep Show been picked up…

We could have lost Johnny Galecki in The Big Bang Theory

Like the US version of The IT Crowd, there are a number of reasons to be thankful that the American Peep Show wasn’t pressed ahead with, and here’s one of them. Had Roseanne’s Johnny Galecki stuck with the role of Mark (opposite That Seventies Show’s Josh Meyers as Jez) from the 2005 Fox pilot, and had the US Peep Show enjoyed anything like the longevity of its British counterpart, then that would have stopped Galecki becoming a multi-millionaire thanks to the role of Leonard Hofstadter in The Big Bang Theory. To be honest, Galecki’s probably as grateful as anyone for that turn of events.

Had Time Warped been picked up…

We could have lost South Park

Trey Parker’s failed 1995 satirical history musical Time Warped was briefly in development at Fox as a straight-up Kids show. Had executive Brian Graden picked it up for Fox Kids, then Parker may have been too tied up to develop what became 1997’s South Park from the two infamous animated shorts he and Matt Stone had made in the early nineties. Picture it, a world with no South Park. Not pretty, is it?

This article first appeared in February 2015 on Den of Geek UK.