Perhaps no exchange more efficiently lays bare the unsentimental heart of the TV business quite like the back-and-forth between Jules and Vincent at the beginning of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. As the two hit men are on their way to make a collection, Jules reveals that their boss’ wife, Mia Wallace, once starred in a pilot.
Because Vincent’s pop culture appreciation seems to have died out with Mamie Van Doren—“I don’t watch TV,” he says—Jules finds himself defining the term “pilot” for his dopey, dope-addled partner.
“Well, the way they pick TV shows is, they make one show. That show’s called a ‘pilot,’” Jules explains. “Then they show that one show to the people who pick shows, and on the strength of that one show they decide if they want to make more shows. Some get chosen and become television programs. Some don’t, become nothing. She starred in one of the ones that became nothing.”
This year, another 53 pilots joined Mia Wallace’s doomed Fox Force Five in the dustbin of TV history, a roster that includes a number of high-profile flameouts. What follows is a list of some of the more promising concepts that won’t be appearing on a TV set near you this fall.
Downwardly Mobile, NBC (Twentieth Century Fox Television)
A multicamera family comedy starring Roseanne Barr as the soulful, sassy proprietor of a trailer park, this comeback attempt would have reunited Barr and John Goodman for the first time since 1997. Unfortunately for fans of Roseanne—and there were an awful lot of them; at its peak, the show averaged 21.5 million households—test audiences did not respond well to Downwardly Mobile’s brassy blue-collar comedic sensibility.
Super Fun Night, CBS (Warner Bros. Television)
Conan O’Brien was an executive producer on this loopy comedy starring Bridesmaids scenery chewer Rebel Wilson. The Aussie comic wrote and created this multicamera sitcom about three girlfriends who dedicate their Friday nights to the never-ending pursuit of a “funcomfortable” good time. Jenny Slate of SNL/Marcel the Shell fame was set to play one of the female leads. (While CBS passed on the show, Warner Bros. is shopping Super Fun Night elsewhere, with an eye toward earning a spot on a basic-cable network.)
The Manzanis, ABC (ABC Studios)
Yet another multicamera comedy, the script for this shrill sendup about a squabbling family that disrupts a quiet, WASPy New Jersey neighborhood reads like a primer on the most offensive Italian-American stereotypes. Former Cheers co-stars Kirstie Alley and Rhea Perlman were set to headline, and while poor testing put the kibosh on any hope of a series pickup, at least one Twitter account is trying to convince ABC to change its mind.
Susan 313, NBC (Twentieth Century Fox Television)
Sarah Silverman wrote, starred and served as co-executive producer on this apparently autobiographical single-camera comedy about a woman struggling to return to her old life after a particularly tough breakup. The pilot was backed by serious muscle (Brian Grazer and Ron Howard), and Silverman is a popular stand-up comedian and performer. Still, her sensibility is rather raunchy for prime time—Silverman has made a cottage industry out of vagina jokes, so much so that Whitney Cummings should cut her a hefty royalty check—and the networks also tend to steer clear of comics who traffic in political material. Ultimately, the decision to pass on Susan 313 simply may have come down to NBC reversing course on its female-centric comedy strategy. After premiering Whitney; Up All Night; Bent; Are You There, Chelsea?; and Best Friends Forever in 2011-12, NBC elected to go with a broad slate of family comedies (Men With Kids, The New Normal), workplace sitcoms (Animal Practice, Next Caller) and the Matthew Perry comeback vehicle, Go On.
Friday Night Dinner, NBC (NBC Universal Television)
Based on a popular U.K. series, Friday Night Dinner was to have paired off the great Allison Janney and Tony Shalhoub as the parents of two unmarried adult sons who come home for Shabbat dinner every Friday. The homegrown adaptation was executive produced by Greg Daniels (The Office). Despite unspectacular testing, Friday Night Dinner is said to have been in contention for a series pickup until just before the network’s May 14 upfront presentation.
The Flintstones, Fox (Twentieth Century Fox Television)
Seth McFarlane and The Flintstones
Announced during last year’s upfront show, Seth MacFarlane’s reboot of the classic “modern Stone-Age family” cartoon appears to have been put on ice, indefinitely. The Flintstones would have been the Family Guy creator’s fourth animated series on Fox, but network entertainment president Kevin Reilly wasn’t blown away by MacFarlane’s first draft. Rather than knock out another script, MacFarlane elected to give up on the project altogether. Good news for Flintstones purists who greeted news of the remake with a hearty “Yabba Dabba Don’t!”
Untitled Louis C.K./Spike Feresten Project, CBS (CBS Television Studios)
As fans of his FX series Louie can attest, Louis C.K. is the smartest, darkest comedian alive, a T-shirt-clad existentialist who has more bracing insights about capital-D Death than Woody Allen and Norm MacDonald combined, yet can evoke a sense of hard-won joy with a simple dick joke. Every year he tosses out his material to start from scratch, and while this act of forced renewal carries a whiff of fanaticism, damn it if he doesn’t pull it off. He’s also figured out the digital-distribution conundrum, raking in some $1.1 million on $5 downloads of his 2011 comedy special, Live at the Beacon Theater. How anyone thought Louis C.K. would find a home on broadcast TV (and on CBS, no less, home to lowest common denominator fare like Two and a Half Men and 2 Broke Girls) remains a puzzle for the ages, but this pilot never really had much of a shot.
Living Loaded, Fox (FX Productions)
Based on a book by booze columnist Dan Dunn, Living Loaded was executive produced by the three creators of the FX comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton. This single-camera comedy about a bibulous blogger (the character literally drinks for a living) who tries to clean up his act so he can co-host a radio show at his father’s NPR affiliate would have starred Mike Vogel and Donald Sutherland. Fox instead elected to go with the female-targeted Mindy Project, which will be paired with New Girl, and the family comedy Ben & Kate. Incidentally, this was the second broadcast pilot the Always Sunny trio worked on together; in 2009, Fox shot down their outer-space comedy Boldly Going Nowhere.
Devious Maids, ABC (ABC Studios)
A sudsy drama series based on the Televisa telenovela format The Disorderly Maids of the Neighborhood, this was to have been Marc Cherry’s successor to ABC linchpin Desperate Housewives. ABC cooled on the project after screening the pilot, and some observers said Devious Maids’ chances weren’t helped by the timing of the Nicollette Sheridan court case. (The selection process coincided with Sheridan’s testimony in her $20 million lawsuit against Cherry for assault and wrongful termination.) Thus far, Cherry pilots are batting .000; while Desperate Housewives earned him a long-term development deal with ABC, the network also passed on his 2011 pilot, Hallelujah.
Rebounding, Fox (Twentieth Century Fox Television)
A late spec script buy starring Will Forte as a guy recovering from the death of his fiancée with the support of his basketball buddies, Rebounding was hampered by a very tricky premise. (Dead fiancées are comedy killers.) Sure, the opportunity to watch Forte in a lead would have been tremendous—he even made the anvil-headed feature film MacGruber somewhat watchable, and he’s long been the funniest guest character on 30 Rock—but even with Modern Family’s Steven Levitan aboard as an executive producer, the script was a little light on laughs. Still, the pilot tested through the roof (Forte earned particularly high marks) and Rebounding had a shot at a series pickup right up until the week before Fox’s May 14 upfront presentation. Ultimately, the network decided to commit to the aforementioned live-action comedies Ben & Kate and The Mindy Project.