1. Gossip Girl, “Valley Girls” (2009)
Have you ever seen an episode of a TV show that inexplicably relegated series regulars to a B- or even C-story, spending more time following the adventures of characters we’ve only just met? Then you’ve stumbled into the strange, sometimes distressing world of the back-door pilot, essentially a traditional test episode for a new series clumsily grafted onto a regular episode of its parent show. These often succeed; shows from Maude to Mork And Mindy started out as back-door pilots. But every so often, a back-door pilot fails and finds its way into the syndication package, a testament to a show that never was.
The “back-door pilot” fell out of favor as a device for introducing a new series more than a decade ago, but it’s made a bit of a late resurgence since Grey’s Anatomy spun one of its doctors off to Los Angeles in an extra-long episode of the show. For a less successful example, take “Valley Girls,” a 2009 episode of Gossip Girl designed to create a flashback spin-off about the childhood of Kelly Rutherford’s Lily, starring Brittany Snow, Krysten Ritter, Cynthia Watros, and Andrew McCarthy. Considered a sure thing for pickup when The CW green-lit the episode, the series never saw the light of day. (Though it probably would have been better than the other shows The CW did pick up, including a misbegotten Melrose Place remake.) The concept needed a bit more work than just “Lily was a wild child!”, and for some reason, every teenage male on the show was played by a curiously flat-faced man, but there was the kernel of something good in “Valley Girls,” the story of beautiful young people running loose to the tune of new-wave hits in ’80s Southern California.
2. Who’s the Boss?, “Mona” (1987)
One of the most typical ways to make a back-door pilot is to spin long-running characters on one show off to their own shows. ABC’s mid-’80s sitcom hit Who’s the Boss? gave this a shot by sending its best character, Katherine Helmond’s blowsy grandma Mona, off to a hotel to visit her brother. While there, she learns that he’s purchased it with his savings and hopes she’ll come help him run it. The episode features turns from everyone from James Sikking (as the brother) to Joe Regalbuto (pre-Murphy Brown), but it never finds a way to suggest it would make a good show of its own. ABC, Helmond, and producers decided not to proceed with the project, fearing it would irreparably hurt Boss for something that wasn’t a sure thing. (Helmond told the Toronto Star she wanted to “stick with a winner.”) Although Boss’ season finale that year acted as though Mona was gone for good, the hotel was never mentioned again.
3. The Cosby Show, “Mr. Quiet” (1985)
The Cosby Show hadn’t reached the end of its first season before the producers started thinking of ways to turn the show’s phenomenal success into a mini-empire. Step one: Get another beloved TV icon, Tony Orlando, to play the director of a community center dealing with troubled kids and lower-income families. Nothing came of the Orlando show—instead, The Cosby Show’s lone spin-off would be A Different World, arriving after the end of the third season—but for a glimpse at what Carsey-Werner Productions had in mind, watch “Mr. Quiet,” a season-one Cosby Show episode in which Cliff Huxtable teaches a childbirth class at the community center while Orlando’s character, Tony Castillo, deals with a reticent urchin. Even given its cheery tone, the Orlando project might have been too focused on poverty for the go-go ’80s. No great loss, although the brief appearance of a young Angela Bassett as an opinionated mother-to-be suggests a much better road-not-traveled.
4. Matlock, “The P.I.” (1994)
If only George Peppard hadn’t died unexpectedly of chemotherapy-induced leukemia, we might’ve enjoyed many years of Peppard as grizzled Hollywood-based private investigator Max Morgan, cracking cases alongside his daughter, played by former child star Tracy Nelson. But alas, Peppard didn’t make it, and though “The P.I.” worked fine as an episode of Matlock, no network wanted to go to series with one of the Square Pegs gals in the lead and no one from The A-Team to compensate. In the end, Matlock had only one official spin-off: Jake And The Fatman. (Though J&F itself spun off Diagnosis: Murder, so there’s that.)
5. The Facts Of Life, many episodes (1979-1988)
After Diff’rent Strokes spun off the successful show The Facts Of Life via back-door pilot, Facts’ producers attempted to launch new series after new series in exactly the same fashion. Nearly all of these were so misconceived as television-series ideas that they turned into disconnected Facts episodes, consistently baffling children in syndication for years to come. The potential series-starters included a second-season episode where the girls visit Tootie’s aunt, who’s married to a white man (played by Richard Dean Anderson!); two attempts in the third and fourth seasons to launch a show about a boys’ military academy; an episode focusing on Blair going to college; and the two-part series finale, which introduces Blair as the new owner of the Eastland boarding school, with Seth Green, Juliette Lewis, and Mayim Bialik as her pupils. All of these were as awful as they sound.
6. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “His Two Right Arms” (1972)
The gang in the WJM newsroom says the words “Pete Peterson” so often in this episode that the audience is almost ready for the Second Coming when Mary goes to see the rookie city councilman. Rhoda says he’s cute! Ted Baxter and Murray both voted for him! Instead, he turns out to be Bill Daily, then still best known for I Dream of Jeannie. The usual sparkling writing from the MTM production company staffers goes down the drain in the Peterson scenes, which prove that building a show around a dim bulb like Ted is harder to do than it looks. Peterson is an idiot, but he employs a group of young, multicultural staffers (a prerequisite in many back-door pilots) who earnestly joke about such ’70s hot-button issues as urban integration. The episode flopped, and Daily instead landed a role on The Bob Newhart Show.
7. Magnum, P.I., “J. ‘Digger’ Doyle” (1981)
Supermodel Erin Gray was a familiar face on TV in the ’70s and ’80s, thanks to her memorable turns in Buck Rogers and Silver Spoons. But Gray never got to anchor her own show, in spite of the best efforts of Magnum P.I.’s producers, who brought the Honolulu native back home for a first-season episode of Magnum intended to launch Gray in a new series. Gray played Joy “Digger” Doyle, a security expert who pretends to be a fan of Robin Masters, but has actually been hired by Masters to see whether Magnum and the rest of the staff is up to snuff, security-wise. Though bright and sexy as always, Gray’s Digger didn’t make enough of an impression in her one Magnum appearance. Not only did she not get a series, the character never appeared again on the show. Her loss was Ricky Schroeder’s gain.
8. The Brady Bunch, “Kelly’s Kids” (1974)
Actor Ken Berry knew a thing or two about spin-offs, having helped The Andy Griffith Show transition to Mayberry R.F.D., but he couldn’t pull off the same trick twice. In the final season of The Brady Bunch, producer Sherwood Schwartz tried to keep the “house full of kids” concept afloat with a new show starring Berry as a friend of the Brady family, and a dad to three adopted children: one white, one black, one Asian. But the stab at social relevance didn’t really fit with The Brady Bunch’s feather-light tone and corny humor, and Kelly’s Kids remained just a glint in Schwartz’s eye—until he revived the concept a decade later as the Elliot Gould/Dee Wallace-Stone vehicle Together We Stand. It didn’t work any better in 1986 than it had in 1974.
9. Star Trek, “Assignment Earth” (1968)
“Assignment Earth” is full of dull action, exposition, and a constantly yowling cat. Also, Teri Garr turns up as a secretary roped into the main storyline via an improbable series of coincidences. Focusing on Robert Lansing’s “Gary Seven,” a human descended from people abducted from Earth millennia ago and arriving back on Earth in 1968 (conveniently, just when the starship Enterprise shows up), the show wanted to make all of Gene Roddenberry’s utopian liberalism subtext into text, then add a dash of secret-agent excitement. Instead, Lansing talks a lot, Garr listens wide-eyed, Kirk and Spock get in the way every so often, and Gary’s cat turns into a woman for no apparent reason. Roddenberry would have to wait until Star Trek was over to get another show on the air, though Gary Seven lives on in a few Star Trek novels.
10. Tiny Toons Adventures, “Take Elmyra Please” and “Grandma’s Dead” (both 1992)
Tiny Toons’ spin on Elmer Fudd, Elmyra Duff, was one of the series’ fan favorites, due to her gleeful attitude toward the cute little animals that made up the show’s central characters. She proved so popular that all involved kept trying to figure out ways to stick her in her own projects, eventually tossing her into the mix over on Pinky And The Brain for barely explained reasons. Still, the two Tiny Toons episodes where we meet Elmyra’s family are good fun, though they don’t suggest how a character so abrasive could be turned into the center of a series without robbing her of what made her so fun in the first place.
11. Gilmore Girls, “Here Comes The Son” (2003)
Over the course of its seven seasons, Gilmore Girls ran its mother-daughter heroines through multiple relationship gauntlets, but because the heart of the show was Lorelai and Rory—not Lorelai, Rory, and Some Dude—Gilmore Girls proved less skilled at bringing any of its leads’ romantic storylines to satisfying conclusions. Any actor hired to play a potential Gilmore Guy could count on a decent run of episodes, followed by an abrupt, contrived departure. The series’ creator and head writer Amy Sherman-Palladino did try to do right by at least one suitor: Jess Mariano (played by a pre-Heroes Milo Ventimiglia), Rory’s bad-boy dalliance, who leaves Stars Hollow at the end of the third season to go live with his estranged dad in Venice Beach. The WB intended the episode “Here Comes The Son” to be an introduction to a new Jess-centered series called Windward Circle, all about the California skateboarding scene, but the costs of shooting on location proved prohibitive, and the show was scrapped. Jess was reduced to showing up on Gilmore Girls about once a year to tell Rory she was wasting her life.
12. House, “Not Cancer,” etc. (2008)
In keeping with House’s status as a detective show masquerading as a medical drama, the producers tried to work a little “Frank Cannon meets Barnaby Jones” magic in the fifth season, having their cantankerous diagnostician Gregory House hire private dick Lucas Douglas (played by Michael Weston) to spy on his friends and colleagues. The goal was to have the scruffy youngster appear in a few House episodes on his way to starring in his own series, but the House writers never found a way to make Lucas a distinctive enough character to warrant more than a few guest shots. “They kind of feel like they stuck their toe in the water and just didn’t feel like it worked,” Fox president Kevin Reilly told Entertainment Weekly in 2010. Lucas has returned to House off and on, most recently as a surprise boyfriend for House’s boss, Lisa Cuddy.
13. Green Acres, “Hawaiian Honeymoon” (1971)
In the early ’70s, the writing was on the wall for CBS’ large roster of rural-based, goofy sitcoms about bumbling yokels. Though Green Acres was one of the better examples of this form (and one of the first truly surreal TV series to ever air), it had grown long in the tooth and was about to be yanked. Series mastermind Jay Sommers turned one of the final episodes over to a hail-Mary pass of a pilot about Oliver and Lisa Douglas taking a “fifth honeymoon” to a hotel in Hawaii, which Sommers must have thought surely couldn’t be written off as unsophisticated and hick-ish. He was out of his element though; he tossed everything from a Hawaiian rock band to hippie weddings at the screen, trying to come up with something that wouldn’t be canceled. Sommers’ brand of lunacy just felt tired in the new setting, and the show faded away.
14. Starsky & Hutch, “Huggy Bear & The Turkey” (1977)
Antonio Fargas became a breakout TV star thanks to his portrayal of slangy stool pigeon Huggy Bear on Starsky & Hutch, so in the second season, the writers gave Fargas his own showcase, pairing him with a stiff white dude named J.D. Turquet (played by Dale Robinette) and having him become a private eye. The low inspiration level is just about summed up in the title of the episode and the name of Huggy’s new partner. (“Black folks like to call white folks ‘turkey.’ Let’s give Huggy Bear an old friend whose nickname is ‘Turkey.’”) By the time the S&H crew finished shooting their Huggy-heavy episode, they must’ve realized an old truth of the television business: Some characters work best the less the audience sees them.
15. The Simpsons, “22 Short Films about Springfield” (1996)
This maybe wasn’t a true back-door pilot, in that it wasn’t specifically produced with an eye toward a new show spinning off from The Simpsons, but in the DVD commentary for the episode, producers reveal that the episode’s success was enough to make them consider, at least briefly, creating a show that would focus less on the Simpson family and more on the denizens of Springfield, sort of a comedic anthology series about America’s small town most prone to mob violence. Producers abandoned the idea in the end, which was probably the smart thing to do. Though “22 Short Films” is one of the series’ best episodes, an entire series based around disconnected stories of characters we already knew might have felt strange and, well, centerless.
16. Laverne & Shirley, “Here Today, Hair Tomorrow” (1983)
In the eighth and final season of Laverne & Shirley, Cindy Williams was feuding with the producers, so Laverne & Shirley effectively became Laverne, with the other half of the duo appearing in only a couple of episodes. What did that mean for Shirley’s occasional boyfriend, Carmine “The Big Ragu” Ragusa? He was left to pursue his lifelong dream of breaking into show-biz, and in L&S’s shrug of a series finale, Carmine finally reached the promised land, getting a part in the original Broadway production of Hair. “Here Today, Hair Tomorrow” was intended to set up a Carmine spin-off, but by the mid-’80s, audiences were fairly exhausted by the Happy Days-verse. Too bad. A show starring Eddie Mekka as a Midwestern galoot navigating Broadway’s wildest era could’ve been something special. Who wouldn’t want to see The Big Ragu try out for A Little Night Music?
17. The Nanny, “The Chatterbox” (1995)
“The Chatterbox” is almost worth watching to sense a mid-’90s studio audience’s uncertainty with what to do about catty gay men. Set in the show’s hair salon, where nanny Fran Drescher takes her young charge to get her hair done, the series revolves around sweet, naïve Mary Ruth, whom Drescher decides to get a job at the salon after meeting her at random. The Chatterbox is the sort of TV business that’s only populated by broad stereotypes, including the aforementioned catty gay man, a hunky lothario who sets old ladies’ hearts a-quivering, and a Korean nail lady played by a young Lauren Tom. The performers throw themselves into this scenario with zest, but there’s little to the idea beyond “What if there was a show set at a hair salon?” and we never spent a significant amount of time at The Chatterbox again.
18. The Twilight Zone, “Mr. Bevis” and “Cavender Is Coming” (1960 and 1962)
Rod Serling created one of TV’s most influential science-fiction shows. He perfected the short play for TV with “Requiem For A Heavyweight.” And he inadvertently created Touched By An Angel and Highway To Heaven with these two episodes of The Twilight Zone, both intended to become series of their own. Both episodes follow remarkably similar arcs: a character suffers bad fortune, only to have guardian angels show them just how good their lives are, via a Zone-ish twist. “Cavender,” in particular, is an obvious back-door pilot, even concluding with a speech about how the bumbling angel is sure to have many wacky adventures to come. (It sounds better coming from Serling’s writing staff.) Neither episode is particularly good, but the general idea of an angel helping hapless humans would prove durable (though again, not very good) in other hands.
19. Smallville, “Aqua” (2005)
The saga of the ill-fated Aquaman series stretches back to the summer of ’05 and the second season of HBO’s Entourage, which featured a popular subplot about Vincent Chase starring in an Aquaman movie. Warner Bros., which owns the actual Aquaman property, tested the waters (so to speak) by introducing Alan Ritchson as Arthur “Aquaman” Curry in a fall ’05 episode of its Superman-as-a-teen series Smallville. The episode, “Aqua,” presented Aquaman as an environmental activist and potential love interest for Lois Lane, and though the character left town at the end of the episode, “Aqua” drew unusually high ratings, so Warner Bros. and The CW went forward with a real pilot for an Aquaman series, now with Justin Hartley in the lead. But while the Aquaman pilot became a hit on iTunes, the series never materialized. Hartley went on to play Oliver “Green Arrow” Queen on Smallville, and would even appear opposite Ritchson’s Aquaman a couple of times. Superheroes are weird that way.
20. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, “Spacecataz” (2004)
There are other ways to get that failed pilot seen. Just before the third season of Aqua Teen’s run, producers decided to try spinning off the characters’ main nemeses, the Mooninites and the Plutonians, into something resembling an interstellar tale of long-range truckers, looking for a way to kill the monotony of long, long days in the middle of outer space. (Sort of a much nastier Star Trek by way of C.W. McCall.) Instead, Adult Swim rejected the pilot, figuring there was little more that could be done with the characters. Rather than never letting the pilot see the light of day, however, Aqua Teen producers cut it into bite-sized segments and aired it in episodes of the parent show, hoping to raise enough fan outcry that Adult Swim would have to pick up the show, then put the full thing on a DVD. While the characters are amusing enough, it’s easy to see why Adult Swim was so worried. The project sucked all the plot out of an already pretty plotless show.
21. The Golden Girls, “Empty Nests” (1987)
And sometimes the pilot gets picked up and still doesn’t work. Conceived as a show about Rita Moreno and George Dooley dealing with their children’s departure from home, the series was introduced as an episode of the parent show wherein the eponymous Girls suddenly worried about the marital problems of a woman we’d never seen them talk to before. NBC picked up the show because it wanted to keep the Girls producers happy, but it was drab and depressing and in need of retooling. The producers and NBC fired everyone in the cast but David Leisure, hired Richard Mulligan, and turned it into Empty Nest, which ran for seven seasons and won Mulligan an Emmy. Moreno bounced around the television landscape until the late ’90s, when she played a recurring role in many episodes of Oz.