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TV Review: A network for shows that didn't last

Sunday, August 31, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Finally, a network for the quality shows that didn't last. Or never made it to air in the first place.

 
 


"Brilliant But Cancelled"

When: Beginning tomorrow at 8 p.m. on Trio.

   
 
 

Trio, a boutique cable channel lurking at the upper end of the channel spectrum, has found its niche as a home to "Brilliant but Cancelled" programs. Trio is available locally on Comcast's digital premier tier (Channel 137) and to DirecTV subscribers (Channel 315). Trio is not available to Adelphia subscribers.

Dubbed the current "It" network by Entertainment Weekly, Trio first aired high-quality, quickly-canceled shows in December. Now it's moving on to failed pilots, test programs that never aired anywhere.

Some of these pilots are spin-offs of movies, including a 1983 pilot based on the movie "Diner" (9 p.m. Friday) and a "Blazing Saddles" spin-off called "Black Bart" from 1975.

Others are independent creations, including Martin Landau and Barbara Bain as crusading TV journalists in "Savage" (9 p.m. Thursday), directed by Steven Spielberg in 1973.

The new documentary "Brilliant but Cancelled: Pilot Season" (9 p.m. tomorrow) helps make sense of why some pilots go to series and some don't. It's an insightful look at the process and includes interviews with producers and network executives who have all been through the frustrating pilot process.

In addition to failed pilots, Trio continues to premiere short-lived series, including Fox's "Bakersfield, P.D." (8 p.m. Sept. 8). Fox's "Pasadena" also remains on Trio president Lauren Zalaznick's wish list.

For whatever reason, people who work in television often aren't as emotionally invested in their shows as the audience. But Zalaznick said TV creators are particularly interested in discussing their unaired failures.

"They say the real gem was the pilot that never even went to series so it didn't have a chance to be canceled," she said. "It was never ordered."

Below are capsule reviews of some of the failed pilots featured on Trio this week:

'Beat Cops' (8:30 p.m. tomorrow)

This proposed, 1999 half-hour sitcom stars a bunch of unknowns who clearly spent too much time watching "Seinfeld" reruns. Two NYPD desk jockeys get assigned to walk the beat; one won't use a bathroom unless he's used it before. The other is inexplicably attracted to women who work for delivery services ("I wonder if they breed them," he says), but when he finally meets one, he's so nervous he cites her for obstructing the sidewalk.

Casting pathetic losers as series leads is tricky business. It doesn't work for "Beat Cops."

'L.A. Confidential' (10 p.m. tomorrow)

Kiefer Sutherland stars in this 2000 Fox pilot based on the Oscar-winning 1996 film, and you don't have to squint to see shades of Jack Bauer, the character Sutherland went on to successfully play in "24." Here he's cast as Jack Vincennes, the character Kevin Spacey played in the movie. Pittsburgh native David Conrad stars as weaselly internal affairs cop Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce in the movie) and Josh Hopkins plays Bud White, the role originated by Russell Crowe.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out this series probably never stood a chance of making it to the air on Fox. CBS, maybe, but with its 1950s setting, it's just not a Fox show. "L.A. Confidential" the series is also a slow build. Until the final scenes, when virtually all the characters end up at a party, the show doesn't evince much forward momentum. Just as it begins to show strong signs of potential, the pilot ends with a "to be continued card" whose promise will never be fulfilled.

'Fargo' (9 p.m. Tuesday)

Based on the Oscar-winning film of the same name, this proposed spin-off series stars a pre-"Sopranos" Edie Falco in the role originated by Frances McDormand, police chief Marge Gunderson.

When this series was in development at CBS in 1997, I was intrigued because I liked the movie. But, again, I understand why CBS passed on it. The "yahs" and "OK, thens" that were so endearing in the film could grow tiresome in a weekly series.

The pilot preserves the same melancholy, borderline depressing music from the film, but the tone of the show itself is lighter and not as dark. Developed by Robert Palm and the late Bruce Paltrow ("St. Elsewhere"), the "Fargo" pilot -- directed by Kathy Bates -- has moments of comic brilliance. But in the cold, desolate world of "Fargo," it thaws enough to reveal that humor only on occasion. Still, as a case study of film-to-TV translations, it bears closer examination for television scholars.

'Dear Diary' (10 p.m. Tuesday)

Bebe Neuwirth, best known as Lillith on "Cheers" and "Frasier," allows her ice queen persona to melt for this 1996 ABC pilot. She plays a married New Yorker who turns 40 and begins writing diary entries. The show is heavy on narration, but it works amazingly well, telling an intriguing, entertaining story while creating characters with a strong sense of nuance.

When ABC decided not to air this program, the production company released it into theaters and "Dear Diary" won an Academy Award for best live action short film.

'Rewrite for Murder' (10 p.m. Wednesday)

Watching these failed pilots, it's understandable why some of them didn't make the cut. Not this one.

Pam Dawber ("Mork & Mindy") stars as the prim writer of a low-rated "Murder, She Wrote"-like TV show. When the ratings sink, her boss (Greg Germann, "Ally McBeal") brings in a rough around the edges ex-con (George Clooney) to spice things up.

"Rewrite" cuts frequently from the real world to the minds of the prude and the ex-con, and Dawber and Clooney also play the fictional characters the two writers imagine. It's a romantic, inventive comedy-drama.

"Rewrite" is occasionally a little too inside ("Television, geez, couldn't you find any honest work?" complains a Clooney compatriot), but not to the degree of "Action!" or other failed backstage Hollywood series.


You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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