Weathering the storm that is the television industry is not easy. Some shows make it to the promised land of “six seasons and a movie.” Others sink before they even get a chance to swim. Failed TV show pilots, like shows that last only one season, hold a certain mystique for all the potential they hold. A series that never aired is a series that never got bad. On another world, in an alternate universe, TV execs greenlit these series to air. Here are some shows our alterno-selves are obsessing over, granted they didn’t, in fact, get bad. (Looking at you, Homeland.)
17th Precinct (NBC)
The first major project from Outlander‘s Ronald D. Moore post-Battlestar Galactica/Caprica was developing a fantasy police procedural, entitled 17th Precinct. The NBC potential series boasted an all-star cast including BSG alums Jamie Bamber, Tricia Helfer, and James Callis, Caprica alum Esai Morales, Kings‘ Eamonn Walker, and the incomparable Stockard Channing.
The premise is strange but simple: it’s a cop show in world ruled by magic rather than science. Necromancers replace medical examiners, especially good cops have prophetic powers, and everything is plant-powered. Literally, like giant plants are power plants. Get it?! Some elements are a little hokey, but the pilot works to introduce the bizarre-yet-familiar world and that great colorful characters that populate it. Morales’ D.I. Liam (formerly Lisa) and his history with Channing’s D.S. Mira is especially intriguing. Plus, the hints of the major antagonists (anti-magic Stoics who champion the mysterious notion of “science”) just make me want to know more. You can read more about the pilot here, or “find” it somewhere on the Internet like I did when it leaked back in 2011.
Having ordered pilots for both 17th Precinct and Grimm, NBC chose the other fantasy police procedural. Grimm‘s pilot plays like a male police detective version of Charmed compared to 17th Precinct‘s first episode introducing a whole lot of high concepts in a totally fresh new world. NBC went with the more familiar choice. And that’s why I still refuse to watch Grimm.
Another failed Ronald D. Moore network TV pilot, Virtuality did make it to (legally) air in 2009. Repackaged as a TV movie, the would-be Fox show followed the crew of a spaceship en route to the Epsilon Eridani star system. The crew endure their ten-year journey, documented as a reality series, through virtual reality modules (think Oculus on steroids). But not is all it seems on the Phaeton, as crew members keep secrets from one another and a mysterious man wreaks havoc on their virtual reality simulations.
While Fox didn’t pick up the series, I’m sure most of the cast feels just fine about it now. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau went onto slay enemies (and his twin sister) as Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones, Jimmi Simpson creeps up a plethora of media from White House Down to House of Cards, Joy Bryant brought some much-needed diversity on Parenthood as Jasmine, and James D’Arcy is set to star as the real-life Jarvis in the upcoming Marvel ABC series Agent Carter.
True story: I watched the Virtuality TV movie while in the throes of swine flu, half-sleeping/half-dreaming as the show grew progressively more disturbing. Visions of creepy Jimmi Simpson and Wolverine (90s cartoon version, not Hugh Jackman) swirled through my head that night. I called my mother into my room, mumbling, “We have to tell them. We have to tell the world the X-men are real!” Swine flu circa 2009 was no joke.
All Signs of Death (HBO)
As a longtime Ben Whishaw fan, the loss of All Signs of Death was especially a bummer. Before letting True Blood to fester for two more seasons after his departure, writer Alan Ball developed an adaptation of Charlie Huston’s The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death for HBO. The book and show, a modern LA-set noir, follows Web (Whishaw) as he works as a crime scene cleaner and becomes embroiled in a murder mystery.
For whatever reason, HBO didn’t order the pilot to series. Whishaw moved on to star in the excellent albeit short-lived The Hour and provide the visage for a modern-day Q in Skyfall. He’s also primed to be a big, huge star and could do no wrong in my eyes. Ball is currently an executive producer of the Cinemax crime thriller Banshee.
Gilded Lilys (ABC)
The year was 2012, and US audiences were all dreaming of Downton Abbey. Riding the Downton wave, Grey’s Anatomy showrunner and future ruler of Thursday night TV, Shonda Rhimes developed an American-set period ensemble drama entitled Gilded Lilys. Doctor Who and Torchwood phenom John Barrowman was set to anchor the show as the bad boy brother of the Lilys family who runs New York City’s first luxury hotel. Apparently, Barrowman wasn’t known well enough in the United States, and so ABC got cold feet, resulting in the end of the series before it even got started.
Gilded Lilys‘ failure to launch also seemed to be ABC’s move to back away from future competition with NBC’s American-set Downton Abbey prequel from Julian Fellowes. Um, where’s that? Nowhere, that’s where. But a Lilys-less world is a world in which Barrowman gets to kick ass and take names (literally) on The CW’s Arrow. He also guest starred on Rhimes’ Scandal, as Mellie’s fixer in the epic end of the hit series second season.
The Vatican (Showtime)
Every few months I check Google News to see if Showtime will air this series. Hey, if the network released a random Borgias series finale e-book, they can release the Ridley Scott-directed pilot for The Vatican. Set in a modern-era, fictionalized Catholic bureaucracy, The Vatican was to follow progressive New York archbishop Cardinal Thomas Duffy (Kyle Chandler) as he makes his way through the political intrigue set at the seat of the Catholic Church. Matthew Goode and Rebecca Ferguson also featured in the series, scheming as a priest with the Pope’s ear and a powerful European socialite, respectively. Plus, Bruno Ganz (Hitler in the meme-making Downfall) was primed to star as the Pope. (Too real?)
With issues from the bottom-up (problems with the pilot episode to corporate politics surrounding Sony’s Amy Pascal), the series never went anywhere. I’ve already documented my love for Ferguson, and such a cast and creative team would’ve been a marvel to see.