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Best. Show. Never.: The Greatest TV Series That Never Were

With so many genius ideas for shows pitched, how did we get ‘The Leftovers’? Inside prime time’s lost treasures

best show never

Fredrick Broden

In the past year alone, networks have passed on series by Deadwood auteur David Milch, Being John Malkovich screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and comedy gods Tina Fey, Lorne Michaels and Paul Feig. Why do so many shows never make it to your TV? What have we been missing?

"It's a terrible system, and I don't know anyone but agents who likes it," says Oz and Homicide showrunner Tom Fontana. "Every year, I watch the pilots of the shows that failed – and they're often my favorite ones. I'm always just kind of heartbroken."

A lot of the heartbreak stems from the networks' anachronistic factory system: a brutal annual creative gauntlet devised in the 1950s to attract ads for the fall's new cars. The Darwinian odds of a show making it are minuscule. "Let's say each year there are 5,000 pitches," says Fontana. "Maybe a thousand get to the script stage. Out of those, maybe a network will spend money on 10 or so pilots."

Of those 10 or fewer pilots at each network, many will never be seen outside conference rooms or test screenings. "I had a pilot for CBS that we made with a great cast that took on Wall Street and called them archcriminals, which they are," says John Cusack. "They spent $8 million making it and then didn't put it out."

Because of the tournament-style timeline, every year producers have to fight over the same actors and creative teams, often shooting pilots with a third-choice actor because the perfect actor is already committed to a show that probably won't survive the process, either. "As much as we wish there were, say, an enormous number of hilarious 30-year-old people, and there's a lot, there's only a few who are unbelievable," says Judd Apatow. "There's 30 pilots, so 27 of them are not getting the right person."

Of course, there are a million reasons a series can die, from bad writing to meddling executives and egomaniacal showrunners. But, knowing that HBO passed on Mad Men before it ended up at AMC, it's hard not to imagine an alternate reality where Apatow had been able to get all his shows on television. Apatow gave Rolling Stone an exclusive look at his hilarious 2001 comedy North Hollywood. "ABC couldn't have cared less," says Apatow. "Not one person said, 'Let's find a way to make it work.' They canceled it like it was nothing."

With so many promising ideas never making it to your screen, here are a few of the greatest misses of recent years.

jonathan franzen

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2001: Novelist Jonathan Franzen, author of "The Corrections." (Photo by James Keivom/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

James Keivom/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

‘The Corrections’

HBO 2012

Jonathan Franzen's 2001 National Book Award winner and controversial Oprah's Book Club selection seemed perfect for prestige cable: an intergenerational saga with sprawling American themes. After more than a decade of development by high-profile producer Scott Rudin (during which time everyone from Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench to Brad Pitt was reported to be circling a film adaptation), HBO finally shot a pilot in 2012. Chris Cooper and Dianne Wiest played the parents; Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ewan McGregor played two of the kids. Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) signed on to direct. "We had some great actors and a great production designer, and I was very sorry that their work was ultimately in vain," says Franzen, who co-wrote the script with Baum­bach. Franzen declined to comment on the finished pilot, but McGregor was a fan, saying, "I wasn't sure I was ready to do TV because it was such a big commitment, but I just thought it was an extraordinary piece of work. Creatively, I was destroyed. It would have been great to spend four or five months a year for the next four years working on it." However, one rival producer says the series never moved forward for the typical reason: Few at HBO liked the pilot or the difficult development process. The producer claims, "Rudin's relationship with HBO hasn't been the same since."

amy poehler

NEW YORK CITY - NOVEMBER 10: Amy Poehler attends the cast party for "Saturday Night Live" on November 10, 2001 at Satrafina in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage

‘North Hollywood’

ABC 2001

A self-serious Jason Segel works as Frankenstein's monster in a local amusement park. Amy Poehler is employed as a personal assistant to Judge Rein­hold (played by Judge Rein­hold). Ride Along star Kevin Hart cockily declares he will someday star in the next Beverly Hills Cop. Apatow was told ABC/Disney wanted to get into "edgier comedy," but the anarchic pilot might have been too much. In one scene, an anxiety-wracked Segel vomits into a toilet before a big audition, as blood runs down his face. "While we were shooting, his nose started bleeding, so we just rolled with it," says Apatow, laughing. "Blood is pouring onto the toilet seat. People said, 'You can't hand that in to Michael Eisner at Disney!' I said, 'Come on – it's hysterical!' " He chuckles. "But maybe that was not right for Disney." 

judd apatow

FREAKS AND GEEKS -- Pictured: Executive producer Judd Apatow -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

‘Sick in the Head’

FOX 1999

Two years before, Apatow developed another show, starring Kevin Corrigan, David Krumholtz and, once again, Amy Poehler. "It was a modern Bob Newhart Show about an unqualified therapist," says Apatow. "I was so sure it was going to get picked up that I'd planned to run that show and not Freaks and Geeks." Fox passed. "Back then, we were just enough ahead of the time to fail every single time," says Apatow. "What we did just didn't match network television. Now it wouldn't seem shocking at all, but it seemed superweird back then that they weren't incredibly handsome sexy kids having sex with each other all the time." 

Tom Fontana

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 01: Executive producer Tom Fontana speaks at the "Copper" discussion panel during the BBC America portion of the 2012 Summer Television Critics Association tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 1, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images


NBC 2007

In 2007, Tom Fontana teamed up with Spike Lee to film a show about a mayor of New York. Bobby Cannavale played hizzoner. Amy Ryan played his assistant. "We would hopefully have been on par with the current crop of government shows like House of Cards or Homeland," says Fontana. The show planned to dive into controversy, which may have made NBC skittish. "I wanted to stir up the dust and ask questions and explore the issues that define where America is in the 21st century," he says. "The network lost faith along the way. I can't tell you exactly what happened, but I know they were nervous about the Muslim story at the center of it. The whole idea of doing a story that implies that there is a prejudice against Muslims post-September 11th made them nervous," he continues, noting that the studio specifically asked him to trim that subplot. (NBC declined to comment.) "Being a Sicilian, I can say it's not personal," says Fontana. "It's business."

jack black

Jack Black during 2003 Toronto Film Festival - "The School of Rock" Press Conference at Delta Chelsea Hotel in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by James Devaney/WireImage)

James Devaney/WireImage

‘Black Market Music’

HBO 2003

In the wake of High Fidelity, this seemed like a can't-miss project. Jason Segel and Seth Rogen would produce, write and co-star as record-store owners, with plenty of musician cameos and an appearance by Jack Black, who would also produce. "I read it and it was really funny," says Apatow.

Sarah Silverman

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 22: Actress Sarah Silverman attends the "Take this Waltz" Premiere during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival at the Borough of Manhattan Community College on April 22, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images)

Craig Barritt/Getty Images

‘Susan 313’

NBC 2012

In 2012, Sarah Silverman filmed a pilot for NBC about a woman trying to put her life together after a bad breakup, co-starring Jeff Goldblum, Tig Notaro and Ken Leung. Silverman remembers getting the bad news: "We were in the editing bay and we had a notes call, and the whole call was 'No notes. We're good.' We hung up and just smiled at each other. We knew it was over. Great lessons, though: There were too many hoops to jump through. It's just not my thing." When it failed, Silverman posted the pilot online. "As a huge fan, I like seeing pilots that didn't go," she says. "Plus there's a part that wants to expose every shit I take, figuratively."

Philip Seymour Hoffman

PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 23: Actor/director Philip Seymour Hoffman poses for a portrait during the 2010 Sundance Film Festival held at the Getty Images portrait studio at The Lift on January 23, 2010 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Matt Carr/Getty Images)

Matt Carr/Getty Images


Showtime Ongoing

Before his death, Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman was set to make his television-series debut. "Hoffman plays Thom Payne, a successful but self-loathing creative director at a New York ad agency," Showtime president David Nevins announced. He showed critics a trailer for the pilot, which co-starred Rhys Ifans and Kathryn Hahn, featured a Louis C.K. cameo and was directed by John Cameron Mitchell. "Happyish is about the fear," Nevins said, "in this world of 25-year-old CEOs and 27-year-old billionaires – of becoming culturally irrelevant at a surprisingly young age." In the footage, Hoffman's Payne is a Viagra-and-Prozac-popping 42-year-old who rants against social media, hallucinates a conversation with a Keebler elf and struggles to rebrand himself. In July, Nevins said, "I'm now sitting on five scripts that are brilliant. If I can cast it the right way, I think it's something I'll make." Without Hoffman, whom Nevins pursued for several years, the show is in limbo.

John Hawkes

Actor John Hawkes poses for a portrait during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival at the WireImage Portrait Studio at The Samsung Galaxy Tab Lift on January 22, 2011 in Park City, Utah.

Jeff Vespa/Getty Images

‘How and Why’

FX Ongoing

In the half-hour single-cam pilot that Charlie Kaufman (screenwriter of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) shot for FX, the brilliant John Hawkes plays a TV host who loses his gig and has to move to a smaller market, where he works for a younger guy (Michael Cera) and with a new crew. Sally Hawkins played his wife, and Catherine Keener was set to guest-star. Trade website Deadline Hollywood reported that FX didn't appreciate its unusual tone and felt it "would not mesh well with the rest of the lineup." Kaufman is rumored to be shopping the show to other networks.

Darren Aronofsky

VENICE, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 10: Jury member Darren Aronofsky attends the Closing Ceremony during the 68th Venice Film Festival at Palazzo del Cinema on September 10, 2011 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images


HBO 2013

A series about con men and magicians who try to take down Hitler, with a script by novelists Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, directed by Black Swan's Darren Aronofsky? The promising show
(described by The Wrap as "Inglourious Basterds with magic") has been in development since 2011 – but HBO stepped away last year, along with Aronofsky. But, like any number of these recent pilots, it could spring back to life. "Sometimes good projects don't go away," Aronofsky says. "They just go into hibernation for a while."

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