TV shows that nearly made the cut
by Anna Cain; illustrations by Walker Walls-Tarver
For every show that ends up on television, dozens get dropped somewhere along the way. Sometimes a network will order a few episodes, but then decide that a show doesn’t tonally match the rest of their season lineup. Sometimes a show has the perfect cast, but can’t live down a sub-par pilot episode. Sometimes a stellar pitch never even gets out of the boardroom. So in honor of the “Almost” issue, look back at some of the best, worst and weirdest TV shows that almost got made. Consider yourself warned.
“The Farm” (2013, NBC)
Tucked away near the end of season nine of “The Office” is an episode called “The Farm.” In it, Dwight Schrute leaves the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company to attend the funeral of his Aunt Shirley. There, Dwight learns that Aunt Shirley has left the family farm to the wayward Schrute brothers, on the condition that they move home and run the farm together. The episode was forgettable and not particularly funny. And that is a minor tragedy. By season nine, the end of “The Office” was in sight, and there was talk of continuing the series through a spinoff, Scranton’s equivalent of “Frasier.” The Farm wasn’t just a stand-alone episode; it was secretly a pilot for Dwight Schrute’s own show. But when the episode was critically panned, plans for the spinoff were discarded.
“The Corrections” (2011, HBO)
Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” I’ll begin by saying, is a fantastic novel. It jumps back and forth in time to chart the emotional ups and downs of the mildly dysfunctional Lambert family. It won the 2001 National Book Award, and it almost won itself an HBO adaption. The potential mini-series was packed with famous actors: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, maybe even Anthony Hopkins. But, perhaps because the novel was too complex to translate to the screen, HBO pulled the plug after shooting only a pilot.
“The Jake Effect” (2002, NBC)
In 2002, NBC filmed seven episodes of a sitcom starring a then-unknown Jason Bateman as a disaffected lawyer who has a mid-life crisis after helping a client get away with polluting a river. The show was cancelled before airing, but the episodes were released four years later as part of a self-explanatory Bravo segment called “Brilliant But Cancelled.” “The Jake Effect” probably would have been funny, but had Jason Bateman been attached to it, he likely wouldn’t have appeared in a little something called “Arrested Development” the next year. So the universe achieves balance after all.
“Locke & Key” (FOX, 2011)
Even the name “Steven Spielberg” is not enough to guarantee a show will be greenlighted. Spielberg worked as the executive producer for “Locke and Key,” a horror show based on a popular comic books series. The story follows three children who become caretakers of a haunted mansion in New England. The pilot impressed critics with its tone and strong acting performances, but FOX still decided to pass.
“How I Met Your Dad” (2013, CBS)
Rather like “The Farm,” this was a network attempt to reincarnate a popular sitcom. As the title implies, this is a female-oriented spinoff to “How I Met Your Mother.” The plot is a little hazy, but we know the show would have followed a recently-divorced woman named Sally and her quirky New York friends as they tried to find Sally’s (second) dream husband. None of the cast from “Mother” would appear in the spinoff, but the new characters in “Dad” would be in the finale of the original show, as a symbolic torch-passing. The death of “How I Met Your Dad” has less to do with quality than obstinacy. The network refused to guarantee the show would be aired unless the creators did reshoots of the pilot. The creators refused to reshoot the pilot unless the network guaranteed the show would air. An intractable dilemma.
“Utopia” (HBO, 2015)
“Utopia” is a British Channel4 conspiracy theory show about a Nostradamus-type graphic novel that predicts coming wars and disasters. HBO hoped to produce an American remake, and brought in a star lineup. The show was directed by David Fincher, starred Rooney Mara, and was written by Gillian Flynn. However, that star lineup also meant a high price tag, and “Utopia” eventually fell apart over budget issues. HBO still owns the rights, so they may try again someday with a different director.
“The Dictator” (CBS, 1988)
Starring the iconic Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown in the “Back to the Future” movies), “The Dictator” follows a deposed, well, dictator who is forced to flee to New York after a coup. Biding his time until he can regain power, he opens a neighborhood laundromat. The show could have been brilliant, but during filming of the third episode, the 1988 Writers Strike broke out. When the Writers Guild of America returned to work 155 days later, “The Dictator” had already fallen apart. No one has seen any footage from the show. In fact, it’s become a kind of treasure hunt for TV buffs and Christopher Lloyd fans. To date, all they’ve uncovered is a few still images and one magazine advertisement.
“The Vatican” (Showtime, 2013)
Think of shows like “Game of Thrones” and “The West Wing”—dramas packed with backstabbing, intrigue and political machination. Now imagine that–but with a Pope. This was the concept for “The Vatican,” a political thriller with a Catholic bent. The show was directed by Ridley Scott, and despite the clergy’s vows of celibacy and moderation, we’d still get a copious dose of sex/drugs/money. Unfortunately, the pilot episode was disappointing. “The Vatican” may have improved with time, but Showtime didn’t invest in further episodes.
“P.I. Moms” (Lifetime, 2012)
This short-lived reality show was the subject of a recent episode of This American Life, “The Incredible Case of the P.I. Moms.” The program revolved around a private investigator named Chris Butler who formed a special investigative team of crime-solving soccer moms. These private investigators had close connections with county narcotics cops. Very close connections. In fact, a narc agent and Butler resold all the drugs seized by the police. Meanwhile, another member of the P.I. team was secretly a Department of Justice mole working undercover to bring down Butler, the corrupt cops and the P.I. Moms. And the craziest part of this story? Lifetime filmed this Machiavellian game but was completely oblivious. Crew members would sit on crates of drugs seized, and then sold, by police officers. The cameramen never noticed, and Lifetime pulled the plug after failing to get any interesting footage.
“Our Little Genius” (FOX, 2010)
On the off-chance bright kids aren’t already suffering from anxiety over grades and test scores, they now have the chance to prove their smarts on national TV. Produced by Mark Burnett, the man who made “Survivor” and “The Voice,” “Our Little Genius” was a gameshow for child prodigies. The geniuses would answer trivia questions for money, while their parents used lifeline options when the kids got stumped. Before the episodes aired, watchdogs raised ethical concerns. In what I like to imagine was a well-intended gesture to alleviate crushing parental pressure, producers frequently gave the competitors the questions in advance. What’s more, in one case documented by The New York Times, the production staff gave the kids the answers to the questions, in addition. This was the first documented instance of gameshow cheating in 50 years. The FCC even investigated the producers for felony fraud. After the scandal, FOX quietly ensured the episodes never aired.
“Bridge and Tunnel” (MTV, 2010)
How does MTV follow up an unexpected mega-hit like “Jersey Shore?” Make the same show, but in Staten Island. That’s the premise for “Bridge and Tunnel.” I honestly can’t find any tangible difference between the shows, other than an adjustment of geography. Both involve camera crews following hard-partying youngsters with an Italian-American heritage. Instead of Snooki and JWoww, our breakout stars are the sisters Brianna and Gabriella DeBartoli. Except this time, we’re in Staten Island. MTV was set to air “Bridge and Tunnel” in October 2010, but cancelled the show because… it was too much like Jersey Shore.
“Danger Island” (No network attached)
“For the first time in history a television show will take you to a place where even the Gods themselves fear to tread… a place where some of the most clever criminals in the world will compete against the best trained Manhunters on earth for the only thing that really matters… redemption. Pull down the shades… bolt the door… and strap yourself in for the television event of a lifetime.”
That excerpt comes from the website of a failed pitch called “Danger Island,” a website which incidentally may be most instructive as a tutorial on what not to do in web design. The show’s twelve competitors are all convicted felons—no murderers, but everyone else is fair game. Dropped on a deserted island, the criminals try to escape professional bounty hunters long enough to advance to the next episode. The last prisoner standing wins $1,000,000, which they give to their victims. No network ever picked up this pitch. Presumably, the insurance costs would have been shocking.
“Ev and Ocho” (VH1, 2012)
This reality show followed the idyllic, mutually-supportive relationship between football player Chad Ochocinco and his wife, Evelyn Johnson. But when Ochocinco was arrested for committing domestic battery against Evelyn, they got divorced and the networks realized that maybe things weren’t so idyllic and mutually-supportive after all.
“Jingles” (CBS, 2008)
In what may be the most boring reality show ever pitched, this elimination-style competition followed teams trying to write the perfect ad jingle. We once again find Mark Burnett at the helm, joined by the show’s judges: a Walmart marketing executive, a singer who placed seventh on American Idol, and…Gene Simmons? CBS ordered eight episodes, but then decided this wouldn’t make for dynamic television. But some remnants of the show live on, like an endearing YouTube video of two guys auditioning for the show by singing about Elmer’s Glue.
“All My Babies’ Mamas” (Oxygen, 2013)
This reality show followed the relationship between rapper Shawty Lo and his eleven children…who were fathered with 10 different women. There was public outcry and a petition to stop the show from airing, and the network complied.
“Who’s Your Daddy?” (Fox, 2005)
Each episode of this reality show featured a young person who has never met their biological father. The contestant is introduced to eight men: their true father and seven actors. If the competitor can correctly pick their father out of the lineup, they win $100,000. If they guess incorrectly, the actor who fooled them wins the money. It goes without say this game is cruel and emotionally manipulative, so after enough public outcry, Fox buried the six episodes shot.
“Virgin Territory” (No network attached)
Although MTV later ran an unrelated show also called “Virgin Territory” about teens deciding whether or not to have sex, this incarnation of “Virgin Territory” is a bit more outrageous. The pitch was put forward by the team who publicized the Paris Hilton sex tape, and it involved a real-life porn star named Jenna Jameson. The competitors on this elimination-style program were dorky men who have yet to lose their virginity. At the end of the competition, the last geek standing wins the prize of sex with Jameson. No networks took the bait.
“Good Grief” (Lifetime 2012)
Critics and audiences both enjoyed “Six Feet Under,” a show about a family-run funeral home in Los Angeles. And so, the networks may have reasoned, let’s give the viewers a real-life version. And so was born “Good Grief,” a reality show about the Johnson Family Mortuary in Fort Worth, Texas. Would it have been a nuanced look at the business of death and dying? Impossible to say. During filming, the landlord of the funeral home came on the property to initiate eviction proceedings and stumbled upon eight decomposing bodies. The owners of the funeral home were arrested, their license was revoked by the Texas Funeral Services Commission and the show, obviously, was canned.
“Welcome to the Neighborhood” (ABC, 2005)
What better place to end than on the most horrific, offensive show on this list? Brace yourself. “Welcome to the Neighborhood” is a reality show about seven families competing to win a dream home in an exclusive neighborhood of Austin, Texas. The show’s judges are the other families on the expensive cul-de-sac, who will choose which of the seven competitors become their new neighbors. The catch: the established families on the block are all white and conservative, while the competitors most certainly are not. The seven competitors are:
The Crenshaws: an African-American family
The Wrights: two Dads with an adopted son
The Gonzalezes: a Hispanic family
The Eckhardts: a pagan couple who met at the wife’s witch initiation ceremony
The Lees: a Korean family
The Morgans: mother is a stripper
The Sheets: heavily tattooed, lots of piercings.
It goes without say that the show’s very premise violates anti-discrimination housing laws, and it also goes without say that the judging families made numerous comments that never should be aired. Before the episodes ran, ABC wisely cancelled the show, stating that it “risked fostering prejudice.”