Every good show starts with a pilot, but not every pilot leads to a good show (or even a bad one, for that matter). Some shows go through the entire process of writing, producing, and shooting a pilot only for the end result to not get a full series order. Usually these abandoned pilots never see the light of day, but some find their way into the hands of the public. Some are aired as special previews, some remarketed as TV movies, and some just fall into the hands of viewers by way of bootleg DVDs at local sci-fi conventions.
Regardless of how they’ve ended up available, a lot of these pilots are interesting to watch, whether due to the bizarre story behind how they were made or as a way for viewers to see what could have been.
The Amazing Screw-On Head (2006)
Comics legend Mike Mignola is best known for creating Hellboy and the universe surrounding the character, but he’s delved into other projects over the course of his career that aren’t quite as well known. One of these is The Amazing Screw-On Head, a pilot made for Sci Fi Channel (now SyFy) in 2006, based on a comic Mignola made in 2002, that never quite took off. It’s a shame, because it’s an exceptionally unique piece of storytelling. The titular Screw-On Head is a robot secret agent with, well, a screw-on head and a stash of different bodies with special modifications and abilities. He works for President Abraham Lincoln and protects the world from supernatural threats to national security.
Watching the pilot now, it’s actually shocking that the show never went anywhere. Not only does it feature an all-star cast of Paul Giamatti, David Hyde Pierce, and Patton Oswalt, but the aesthetic of the show seamlessly translates Mignola’s acclaimed art style to animation. It’s goofy, self-aware, and a whole lot of fun—although admittedly incredibly weird. That weirdness is likely why executives were hesitant to give it a full series order. Looking back, they clearly missed out on something special.
Heat Vision and Jack (1999)
Heat Vision and Jack is very much the original “lost pilot.” It was one of the first failed pilots that leaked and gained a following. Like many others, it’s the sort of show that in retrospect could have been a huge hit but likely seemed too risky and off-kilter to the studios it was offered to. Starring Jack Black as an astronaut and Owen Wilson as the voice of his talking motorcycle, Heat Vision, it was written by now-TV-icon Dan Harmon and directed by Ben Stiller.
It’s clear from watching the pilot that the creators knew what they were doing and had a good product on their hands. All things considered, it likely just fell victim to being ahead of its time. It’s an insanely strange show and networks likely didn’t quite know what to do with in 1999. It’s safe to say it would be huge hit now in the era of irreverent TV comedies like The Eric Andre Show and Rick and Morty, but the world apparently wasn’t ready for Heat Vision and Jack. Now and then rumors of a movie pop up, but for now, all it seems we’re going to get is the 30 minute pilot.
The IT Crowd (2007)
When shows are big hits, TV networks tend to notice and, in turn, replicate that success. For example, upon the success of the now-classic American version of The Office, which is based upon a popular UK TV comedy of the same name, networks began looking for the next British hit they could transfer over to the States. They went with The IT Crowd, an incredibly popular workplace comedy starring Chris O’Dowd and Richard Ayoade. A pilot for a US version was shot for NBC and the show even got picked up, but the plug was pulled before production began.
The pilot leaked in 2012 and watching it is like getting a peek into an alternate universe. The show brought Richard Ayoade back to play the same role he had in the UK series but replaced Chris O’Dowd with a pre-Community Joel McHale. It’s also pretty much a note-for-note adaptation of the UK version’s first episode. The pilot itself is admittedly pretty lackluster and it’s not too much of a shock that it didn’t take off. Still, as a wild little curiosity, it’s kind of fun to witness.
Sometimes it just takes a second try to get a series picked up. The second attempt at a Fargo TV series has been a hit with both critics and audiences. But back in 1997, in the heat of the popularity of the original film, a pilot was shot for a TV series continuing the escapades of protagonist Marge, played this time by Edie Falco.
In the pilot, Marge, still pregnant after the events of the original film, investigates the murder of a local pharmacist. All in all, it’s not a bad episode of television, and Edie Falco as Marge is some genuinely inspired casting. But for whatever reason, networks didn’t have any interest in it at the time. It didn’t air on television until 2003 and no additional episodes were ordered.
Obviously the world of Fargo made it to the small screen eventually (albeit in a radically different take than that of the original pilot). While it’d be hard to argue that this pilot is better than the award-winning series, it’s still an interesting glimpse at what could have been.
Way back in 1991, Conan O’Brien wrote a pilot for Adam West about a past-his-prime actor famous for playing action heroes on TV who begins to believe he’s capable of actual crime-solving. The result is Lookwell, a pilot that seems to have been made about two decades too early.
It has all the trappings of a modern comedy classic: a brilliant comedian as showrunner, Lorne Michaels as executive producer, and Adam West parodying himself—something he was so good at that he basically made a living doing for the second half of his career. The pilot is, as we’ve said, years ahead of its time. It’s the kind of self-referential, metafictional brilliance that would be winning Emmys if it were on the air today. Unfortunately, O’Brien and company gave Lookwell to a world that clearly wasn’t ready for it. Luckily, we’ve at least got the pilot to enjoy.
Professors could probably teach entire college courses on how not to adapt a popular media property to television and anchor it solely around the failed Clerks pilot. While there was eventual short-lived success in bringing a cartoon series based on Kevin Smith’s hit indie film about two slackers working in a convenience store to television screens, there was also a live-action pilot that was a pretty abysmal failure on every level.
Everything about it feels wrong, from the recasting of conventionally attractive actors in the roles of Dante and Randal to the vibrant color scheme when the film was black and white to the fact that it’s a by-the-numbers laugh track comedy when the original film was anything but. It seems to take more notes from Saved by the Bell than the movie it’s based on to begin with. There’s not even much for generous viewers to commend. The Clerks pilot is a shockingly inept adaptation on pretty much every level, but if watching trainwrecks is your thing, the pilot is readily available online.
Mockingbird Lane (2012)
Bryan Fuller has a pretty stellar track record as a showrunner, masterminding hits like Pushing Daisies, Hannibal, and American Gods. So it’s a bit of a wonder why his modernized take on TV classic The Munsters didn’t take off with network executives. With a killer cast including Portia de Rossi and Eddie Izzard, the adaptation was highly hyped and when the pilot aired as a Halloween special it tallied up a solid 5.4 million viewers. It boasts Fuller’s signature dark comedy, some breathtaking production design, and killer special effects. All in all, it’s a remarkably good time.
But for whatever reason, NBC didn’t see a future in it. The lone special, despite its critical acclaim, is all that ended up being produced. While it’s a bummer the series never made it past pilot, it’s great that the special is readily available. In its current state, it’s still a fun throwback to the Halloween holiday specials of old.
Global Frequency (2005)
Most of the pilots on this list were either officially released or leaked after they were rejected by networks. Maybe they weren’t good enough to get a full series order, or maybe they were excellent but didn’t seem marketable to networks. Then there’s Global Frequency, which holds the dubious honor of being the one show on this list that was reportedly snuffed because it was leaked.
Based on a comic series by acclaimed writer Warren Ellis and an assortment of all-star artists, Global Frequency was developed in 2005 by reality television visionary Mark Burnett, the man behind everything from Survivor to The Voice. The show centers on a sort of rogue inter-government agency tasked with protecting the world from covert threats (think 24 but if Jack Bauer and CTU were urban legends).
The pilot is based on the first issue of the comic series and it’s honestly pretty solid. The source material is strong, and it translated well to screen. It seemed primed for success. Warner Bros. hadn’t quite made up their minds on it at the time though, and when the show leaked they passed on it out of frustration. Fortunately, you don’t quite have to wonder what would happen next. The comic, unlike the rest of the TV series, is available in bookstores nationwide.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – original pilot (1996)
Sometimes a pilot just needs some significant tweaking before going to series, and luckily Joss Whedon’s acclaimed Buffy the Vampire Slayer got the chance to make the necessary adjustments. The result is one of the most well-loved television shows of all time. But amidst the legacy of Buffy, it’s interesting to look at where it began: with its original pilot.
The most noticeable differences between the original and the one that aired are its running time and some cast differentiations. The original pilot clocked in at 25 minutes, but was expanded to an hourlong show for air. And the primary cast is almost entirely the same—save for Alyson Hannigan’s Willow. Willow was originally played by an actress named Riff Regan, but Hannigan was brought in for reshoots, a recasting that worked out pretty well long-term. Perhaps more curious is acclaimed character actor Stephen Toblowsky of Memento and Californication fame turning up as the school principal. He was replaced in the finished pilot by Ken Lerner.
The pilot that aired on television is clearly the superior one. Still, Buffy fans will likely get a kick out of looking at the series’ origins, slightly-off as they may be.
Justice League of America (1997)
It’s crazy to remember that superheroes on the big or small screen weren’t always a guaranteed hit, and nothing reminds you of that more than the leaked 1997 Justice League of America pilot. Airing internationally as an 80-minute movie, it never saw the light of day in America. One look at the version available online and you’ll understand why.
The show is riddled with plot holes, bad jokes, and some genuinely horrible performances. It also draws its team lineup from the acclaimed Justice League International comic series, giving viewers a superhero team that consists of Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Flash, Fire, The Atom, and Ice. While the characters worked great in the JLI comic, the writers of the show had little understanding of why that dynamic worked so well in that series and didn’t even seem to make an effort to translate it over to the screen. The costumes are lousy, even for a low-budget ’90s show. And most notably, the show left well-known characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman on the sidelines, which damaged the show’s marketability tremendously.
Still, there’s a certain unintentional campiness to everything going on in the pilot, and if that’s your jam, you may not consider it a total waste of time. Superhero television has come a long way since Justice League of America but there’s a certain novelty in seeing its (incredibly humble) beginnings.
It’s difficult to remember these days, but there was a time when Smallville was pretty much all superhero fans had on TV. The show was a massive hit in its heyday. CW network execs noticed this and wanted to try to capitalize on its popularity. Pretty soon they had their sights set on Aquaman, which filmed a pilot under the working title Mercy Reef.
For a failed superhero pilot from the mid-aughts, the most surprising thing about the pilot is how decent it is. Most of its faults can be chalked up to it being a superhero teen drama and therefore prone to unintentional camp and, well, being made in the mid-aughts (some of the wardrobe is astonishing). Justin Hartley (who would go on to play Green Arrow on Smallville) is perfectly serviceable as Aquaman, or “AC” as he goes by here, and the positioning of AC as an affable beach bro and animal rights activist is actually pretty cool.
There are also some fun turns from Ving Rhames as AC’s mentor and Adrianne Palicki as the monster-of-the-week, a siren from Atlantis. The prevailing theory for its failure is it was pretty CGI-heavy and would have wound up an expensive endeavor for the network. While this one isn’t available on YouTube, the pilot got an official release on iTunes. It isn’t a lost masterpiece by any means, but it’s good enough to leave you wishing we got a chance to see what happened next. You’ll have to decide if seeing it is worth the $2.
Wonder Woman (2011)
One of the more infamous entries in the canon of lost pilots, David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman pilot starred Adrianne Palicki as the greatest Amazon of them all. It was incredibly hyped upon its announcement and fans watched its production progress like hawks. Unfortunately, the result is one of the more notable failures of modern television.
The pilot is kind of a disaster from start to finish. Maybe there’s a way to stick Wonder Woman in the kind of story and setting Kelley made his name on with shows like Ally MacBeal and Boston Legal, but when done here it just feels like a complete tonal mismatch. It doesn’t help that the Wonder Woman costume is laughably bad, looking like it came from a high-end Halloween store rather than a film set.
There is no mystery as to why NBC didn’t pick the show up. The pilot leaked shortly after it got rejected and is pretty widely available to watch on the internet, though it’s only worth enduring as a morbid curiosity. Things turned out okay for fans of the character a few years later, though.