Unwanted TV: Ill-conceived Pilots

A new crime fighting force in The Omen walks off into TV pilot oblivion...After the massive success of E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), TV, as it always does, aimed to cash-in on a less epic, more episodic version of the friendly child-like alien visitor concept, and one effort was Wishman (1983), a pilot that ran, if memory serves correct, some time in the summer when all kinds of pilots are occasionally given a spot on the blah TV schedule.

Now, I may be one of two people who actually watched this aborted launch that featured Joseph Bottoms, Linda Hamilton, and a little humanoid alien (uh, little person in an unconvincing suit with robotic face mask) that night, and aside from the alien moppet’s generally inexpressive visage, I remember some final shot that had the ‘parents’ walking with the alien ‘child’ hand-in-hand during a sunset or sunrise.

The real question here isn’t ‘How could anyone make something so dopey and believe it would run as a show?’ but rather why did the network believe airing a one hour, one-off with no fanfare or advance publicity would give it any chance of success among reruns of favourite shows? If no one knows it’s coming, then no one will see it.

Prior to the internet, the success of a TV series mandated a show air in a regular timeslot to ensure viewer habits would eventually embrace that show, and make it a part of a weekly routine. Even if a show was videotaped and watched later on, the timer setting alone was part of the viewing protocol; break that up by delays, rescheduling, preemptions, or a network hiatus decree, and the show had an excellent chance of disappearing from anyone's personal schedule, and would ultimately die.

Networks knew this, and it was one tool they could discretely use to kill a series they didn’t want for any variety of reasons.

So let’s get back to the main question again: How could a pilot like Wishman possibly catch any potential fans when no one knew it existed?

It couldn’t, and that was and still remains a serious flaw in the antiquated system still being practiced by the aging networks. A one-off has little chance of succeeding, which meant Wishman never had a chance at achieving anything beyond a committed airdate; it was just a plaster blob meant to fill a small whole in the prime time grid that week.

This isn’t unique to pilots, however. When a network loses faith in a complete series – as CTV did with Invasion (2005) – they dump their broadcast commitment on days barely anyone watches. About halfway through the show’s run, CTV decided to blow off their accumulated episodes on Sundays, sometimes showing several episodes in a row to end the run. The U.S. network had already signaled its displeasure with the series, and with renewal for a second season out of the question, CTV got rid of its dead weight by filling in some scheduling holes so newer stuff could take over the old Invasion time slot. (I think the resulting crud was the Idol franchise, but I could be mistaken.)

A more apocryphal example is Black Tie Affair, a short-run, half-hour comedy series from Jay Tarses (The Bob Newhart Show, The Days and Nights of Mollie Dodd) that was given coverage by Entertainment Tonight (mostly because star Kate Capshaw was In, and was Mrs. Steven Spielberg). The pilot aired once, and about two episodes were blown off a few days later after midnight on Canada’s Global TV to fill in late night holes. No chance of any success.

Now, what if a network did give us a head’s up? If the pilot blew blue donkeys and both its filmmakers and the network knew they had a turkey, would it have a chance at success if it was treated like a mini-event, particularly if it was branded with a moniker from a recognizable franchise?

Case #1: The Omen (1995)

Back in the seventies, Fox’ own answer to Warner Bros.’ The Exorcist (1973) was The Omen (1976), about a cuckoo child of Satan raised by a diplomat and his wife. Its success begat Damien: Omen II (1978), which had the now orphaned teen raised by his uncle. Fox then tried again with The Final Conflict (1981) with Damien Thorn now a multinational CEO who becomes America’s latest ambassador to England, a position through which he and his lieutenants seek to halt the arrival of the Nazarene. Then came Omen IV: The Awakening (1991), a clumsy, often laughable TV movie that had little adopted Delia mucking up the bliss of her own politically prominent parents. It was the first effort to drift from the franchise’s established characters, and neither of its two directors could make sense of Brian Taggert’s script.

So why try for a TV series?

Well, it’s hard to say, but there are a number of possible scenarios: efforts to conceive a series for a new Damien Thorn couldn’t be worked out into a full season of adventures, so the writers simply borrowed from what was in vogue at that time: weird phenomena; further interest in the battle between religious good and Satanic evil dried out when Taggert scripted Child of Darkness, Child of Light the same year as Omen IV, with similarly bland results; a devil child as an anti-hero might have offended audiences or potential sponsors; or a proposal to create a variation of Fox’ X Files, completely unrelated to the Omen franchise, was given the Omen branding to give it a fighting chance among the many new series debuting that month.

I remember seeing the pilot listed in the TV guide, thought ‘Huh?’ and made a point to catch it out of curiosity – and was shocked to see what a mess poor Jack Sholder had had to direct; he’s a good director (just watch The Hidden) whose career has mostly been mired in mediocre and derivative productions of little note.

Unsurprisingly, The Omen TV series went no further than the pilot, and disappeared as though it never existed, although clips apparently appeared in a one-off TV special, The Best TV Shows That Never Were (2004).

We’ve reviewed the pilot in detail HERE, but the lessons its makers hopefully learned are pretty simple: don’t cheat viewers with unrelated goods; and networks should allow filmmakers to create longer pilots if it massively aids in the creation of compelling characters and conflicts.

Case #2: Justice League of America (1997)

Giving filmmakers room to develop their concepts can be a good thing, but when the concept is so massively wrong, you have to wonder if the writers of this live action version of the Justice League of America [JLA] ever had any doubts, or simply didn’t care.

Maybe they were hired guns whose job was to follow the ridiculous requests of the producers, much in the way the director had to realize each scene in spite of the film’s paltry budget, but when CBS saw the idiocy before them, they wisely killed the pilot’s chances of ever reaching public airwaves.

Enter rumoured overseas airings, comic conventions sales, eBay auctions, and YouTube postings, and this misanthropic mess managed to break free from the graveyard of failed TV pilots and still lives, albeit as a collectable curio.

Other people have written about this pilot, but for more info, you’ll have to check our review of JLA 1997 HERE.

We'll have periodic reviews of other TV oddities throughout the year, but in the coming months we’ll also take a look at shows that were either conceived as limited run series, or were axed before they had a chance to reach a audience.

Coming next: a lengthy examination of Painkiller Jane, the 2007 TV series starring Kristanna Loken, plus the prior 2005 pilot that starred Emmanuelle Vaugier as Jane.

And imminent: two occult thrillers – The Possession of Joel Delaney, and Borderland (2008).


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