In my decade covering American television I can’t think of a year when more projects that started as also-rans, or came back from the dead, or barely made it to pilot, or overcame major recastings, went on to land series orders. And some of them are among next season’s most buzzed-about new shows. It feels like almost all pilots that had recastings — once an ominous sigh for a project’s future — went to series, and those that went through hardship on average fared much better than their non-problematic counterparts.
When a pilot script is passed on by the network that developed it, in 99.99% of the cases that means the end of the road, with the script headed to the writer’s drawer as its final destination. But in the case of Mindy Kaling’s medical comedy The Mindy Project, a pass by NBC where it was developed led to a pilot pickup at Fox, where the project quickly emerged as the network brass’ darling and landed on the fall schedule in the plum post-New Girl time slot.
Like rejected scripts, dead pilots also hardly get resurrected. Sci-fi veteran Rockne S. O’Bannon wrote Cult for the 2005-06 development season when he landed a pilot order at the WB but the project became a casualty of the UPN/WB merger and the pilot was never made. Six years later, O’Bannon’s updated Cult script got a pilot order at the CW, the pilot was shot and took another step forward, landing a midseason series order.
It took Will & Grace creators David Kohan and Max Mutchick about as long to get a comedy inspired by their real-life straight man-gay man friendship on the air. The idea’s first incarnation was at CBS during the 2006-07 development season and the second at ABC the following season. Both times, Kohan and Mutchick’s scripts went to pilot starring Jay Mohr and Brian Austin Green (CBS) and Alan Tudyk, Josh Cooke and Ty Burrell (ABC). Both times Kohan and Mutchnick felt there were script, casting and other issues. The two had moved on when last year CBS approached them about revisiting the idea but getting it right this time. The result is Partners, which also went to pilot. It hit a bump — after the table read, Elizabeth Regen was replaced with Tracy Vilar, while another role played by Lucy Davis was written out, with a new character introduced. But Kohan and Mutchnick’s six-year journey had a happy ending, with Partners sailing through testing and screenings to beat the highly competitive CBS comedy field and become the only CBS comedy pilot on the fall schedule, landing behind How I Met Your Mother and getting a rousing reception at the network’s upfront presentation.
Both NBC’s 1600 Penn and Fox’s Goodwin Games were the last comedy pilots ordered at each network. Neither network seemed keen on picking them up, so both projects were given an ultimatum — NBC would only greenlight White House family comedy 1600 Penn if co-creator Josh Gad, originally not attached as an actor, agreed to star, and Fox would only order sibling comedy Goodwin Games if Becki Newton was cast as the female lead. After a lot of hustling, both actors were signed and the projects landed the elusive pilot orders. 1600 Penn faced another hurdle when Brittany Snow, originally cast as the First Daughter, was replaced by Martha MacIsaac after the table read. But both pilots ultimately made it to series with midseason orders.
Another Fox comedy pilot, Ben Fox Is My Manny (now Ben & Kate) was on the verge was being shut down after the table read when its female lead had to be recast. The pilot was already late after struggling to cast its two leads when Abby Elliott, ultimately set as the female lead, was released. After a 24-hour scramble, Dakota Johnson was cast in the role. The pilot was a late delivery but its fortunes turned around the moment it was seen by Fox brass, It quickly emerged as a strong contender and ultimately landed one of two comedy spots on Fox’s fall schedule.
CBS’ drama pilot Golden Boy also suffered an early setback when Ryan Phillippe, who had been tapped as the lead, pulled out. A lengthy new search ensued, resulting in the casting of little-known British actor Theo James in the lead role. The pilot still landed a series order for midseason.
Another pilot, NBC comedy Guys With Kids, tracked great from the taping all the way to a series order (the only NBC multi-camera pilot to get one) despite recasting one of the co-stars, Courtney Henggeler, with Sara Rue after the table read and despite Rue being in second position on her other pilot, Malibu Country, which was tracking strong at ABC. (It was eventually picked up, so the role on Guys With Kids will be recast again.)
Lake Ben & Kate, two other pilots came from behind. In a move that now looks prophetic, CBS’ second new comedy series, Friend Me, was picked up to pilot on the same say as Partners, January 27. But while Partners was in the can by mid-March, Friends was still nowhere with casting as it was waiting for How I Met Your Mother director Pam Fryman to become available. The pilot didn’t cast its leads, Nicholas Braun and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, until early April to become the last pilot this season to lock in its stars. But Friend Me proved to be a late bloomer, rising steadily since its late delivery.
Speaking of a late start, NBC greenlighted Infamous to pilot on February 14, long after all other drama and all but one comedy pilots on any network had been picked up. While a quick turnaround can be pulled off by a multi-camera comedy pilot, getting a high-end drama pilot staffed, cast, produced, edited and delivered in two months is a daunting task. Despite the disadvantage, Infamous beat five other NBC drama pilots ordered before it to land on the network’s schedule.