Friday 20 September 2019

Lost quality? The best TV shows you never got to see

Every year, during the autumn pilot season in the US, over 5,000 pitches for the next big TV show are made. Less than 10 of these will be made, and fewer still will reach our screens. In recent years, says Logan Hill, US networks have refused pilots from Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Judd Apatow and John Cusack. But is a dated system cheating us out of quality TV?

Sarah Silverman
Sarah Silverman
American writer Jonathan Franzen
John Cusack

Logan Hill

In the past year alone, US TV networks have passed on series by Deadwood auteur David Milch, Being John Malkovich screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and comedy gods Tina Fey, Lorne Michaels and Paul Feig. Why do so many shows never make it to your TV? What have we been missing?

"It's a terrible system, and I don't know anyone but agents who likes it," says Oz and Homicide showrunner Tom Fontana. "Every year, I watch the pilots of the shows that failed - and they're often my favourite ones. I'm always just kind of heartbroken."

A lot of the heartbreak stems from the TV networks' anachronistic factory system: a brutal annual creative gauntlet devised in the 1950s to attract ads for the autumn's new cars. The Darwinian odds of a show making it are minuscule. "Let's say each year there are 5,000 pitches," says Fontana. "Maybe a thousand get to the script stage. Out of those, maybe a network will spend money on 10 or so pilots."

Of those 10 or fewer pilots at each network, many will never be seen outside conference rooms or test screenings. "I had a pilot for CBS that we made with a great cast that took on Wall Street and called them archcriminals, which they are," says John Cusack. "They spent $8m making it and then didn't put it out."

Because of the tournament-style timeline, every year producers have to fight over the same actors and creative teams, often shooting pilots with a third-choice actor because the perfect actor is already committed to a show that probably won't survive the process either. "As much as we wish there were, say, an enormous number of hilarious 30-year-old people, and there's a lot, there's only a few who are unbelievable," says Judd Apatow. "There's 30 pilots, so 27 of them are not getting the right person."

Of course, there are a million reasons a series can die, from bad writing to meddling executives and egomaniacal showrunners. But, knowing that HBO passed on Mad Men before it ended up at AMC, it's hard not to imagine an alternate reality where Apatow had been able to get all his shows on television. Speaking of his hilarious 2001 comedy North Hollywood, he says: "ABC couldn't have cared less. Not one person said, 'Let's find a way to make it work.' They canceled it like it was nothing."

With so many promising ideas never making it to your screen, here are a few of the greatest misses of recent years.

The Corrections - HBO, 2012

Jonathan Franzen's 2001 National Book Award-winner and controversial Oprah's Book Club selection seemed perfect for prestige cable: an inter-generational saga with sprawling American themes. After more than a decade of development by high-profile producer Scott Rudin (during which time everyone from Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench to Brad Pitt was reported to be circling a film adaptation), HBO finally shot a pilot in 2012.

Chris Cooper and Dianne Wiest played the parents; Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ewan McGregor played two of the kids. Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) signed on to direct. "We had some great actors and a great production designer, and I was very sorry that their work was ultimately in vain," says Franzen, who co-wrote the script with Baumbach. Franzen declined to comment on the finished pilot, but McGregor was a fan, saying, "I wasn't sure I was ready to do TV because it was such a big commitment, but I just thought it was an extraordinary piece of work.

Creatively, I was destroyed. It would have been great to spend four or five months a year for the next four years working on it." One rival producer says the series never moved forward for the typical reason: few at HBO liked the pilot or the difficult development process. The producer claims, "Rudin's relationship with HBO hasn't been the same since."

North Hollywood - ABC, 2001

A self-serious Jason Segel works as Frankenstein's monster in a local amusement park. Amy Poehler is employed as a personal assistant to Judge Reinhold (played by Judge Reinhold). Ride Along star Kevin Hart cockily declares he will someday star in the next Beverly Hills Cop.

Apatow was told ABC/Disney wanted to get into "edgier comedy," but the anarchic pilot might have been too much. In one scene, an anxiety-wracked Segel vomits into a toilet before a big audition, as blood runs down his face. "While we were shooting, his nose started bleeding, so we just rolled with it," says Apatow, laughing. "Blood is pouring onto the toilet seat. People said, 'You can't hand that in to Michael Eisner at Disney!' I said, 'Come on - it's hysterical!'" He chuckles. "But maybe that was not right for Disney."


Sick in the Head - FOX, 1999

Two years before North Hollywood, Apatow developed another show, starring Kevin Corrigan, David Krumholtz and, once again, Amy Poehler. "It was a modern Bob Newhart Show about an unqualified therapist," says Apatow. "I was so sure it was going to get picked up that I'd planned to run that show and not Freaks and Geeks." Fox passed. "Back then, we were just enough ahead of the time to fail every single time," says Apatow. "What we did just didn't match network television. Now it wouldn't seem shocking at all, but it seemed super weird back then that they weren't incredibly handsome sexy kids having sex with each other all the time."


M.O.N.Y. - NBC, 2007

In 2007, Tom Fontana teamed up with Spike Lee to film a show about a mayor of New York. Bobby Cannavale played hizzoner. Amy Ryan played his assistant. "We would hopefully have been on par with the current crop of government shows like House of Cards or Homeland," says Fontana.

The show planned to dive into controversy, which may have made NBC skittish. "I wanted to stir up the dust and ask questions and explore the issues that define where America is in the 21st Century," he says. "The network lost faith along the way. I can't tell you exactly what happened, but I know they were nervous about the Muslim story at the centre of it.

The whole idea of doing a story that implies that there is a prejudice against Muslims post-September 11 made them nervous," he continues, noting that the studio specifically asked him to trim that subplot. (NBC declined to comment.) "Being a Sicilian, I can say it's not personal," says Fontana. "It's business."


Black Market Music - HBO, 2003

In the wake of High Fidelity, this seemed like a can't-miss project. Jason Segel and Seth Rogen would produce, write and co-star as record-store owners, with plenty of musician cameos and an appearance by Jack Black, who would also produce. "I read it and it was really funny," says Apatow.


Susan 313 - NBC, 2012

In 2012, Sarah Silverman filmed a pilot for NBC about a woman trying to put her life together after a bad break-up, co-starring Jeff Goldblum, Tig Notaro and Ken Leung. Silverman remembers getting the bad news: "We were in the editing bay and we had a notes call, and the whole call was 'No notes. We're good.'

We hung up and just smiled at each other. We knew it was over. Great lessons, though: There were too many hoops to jump through. It's just not my thing." When it failed, Silverman posted the pilot online. "As a huge fan, I like seeing pilots that didn't go," she says. "Plus there's a part that wants to expose every shit I take, figuratively."


Happyish - Showtime, Ongoing

Before his death, Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman was set to make his television series debut. "Hoffman plays Thom Payne, a successful but self-loathing creative director at a New York ad agency," Showtime president David Nevins announced.

He showed critics a trailer for the pilot, which co-starred Rhys Ifans and Kathryn Hahn, featured a Louis CK cameo and was directed by John Cameron Mitchell. "Happyish is about the fear," Nevins said, "in this world of 25-year-old CEOs and 27-year-old billionaires - of becoming culturally irrelevant at a surprisingly young age."

In the footage, Hoffman's Payne is a Viagra-and-Prozac-popper who rants against social media, hallucinates a conversation with a Keebler [cookie] elf and struggles to rebrand himself. In July, Nevins said, "I'm now sitting on five scripts that are brilliant. If I can cast it the right way, I think it's something I'll make." Without Hoffman, whom Nevins pursued for several years, the show is in limbo.

How and Why - FX, Ongoing

In the half-hour single-cam pilot that Charlie Kaufman (screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) shot for FX, the brilliant John Hawkes plays a TV host who loses his gig and has to move to a smaller market, where he works for a younger guy (Michael Cera) and with a new crew.

Sally Hawkins played his wife, and Catherine Keener was set to guest-star. Trade website Deadline Hollywood reported that FX didn't appreciate its unusual tone and felt it "would not mesh well with the rest of the lineup." Kaufman is rumored to be shopping the show to other networks.

Hobgoblins - HBO 2013

A series about conmen and magicians who try to take down Hitler, with a script by novelists Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, directed by Black Swan's Darren Aronofsky? The promising show (described by The Wrap as "Inglourious Basterds with magic") has been in development since 2011 - but HBO stepped away last year, along with Aronofsky. But, like any number of these recent pilots, it could spring back to life. "Sometimes good projects don't go away," Aronofsky says. "They just go into hibernation for a while."

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