Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Pilot Programs

It seems there are many things that piss me off these days. Drivers who seem congenitally incapable of using their turn signals, for instance. People who walk in front of me while I’m browsing grocery aisles, without so much as an “excuse me.” Reality shows that presume I care a tinker’s damn about the private lives of narcissistic celebrities. Illiterate advertising slogans. Aggressive salespeople. And presidential contenders who think I’m stupid enough to believe that they’re “mavericks,” after they’ve just spent years kissing the fat asses of people who might help them get elected.

Oh, and it pisses me off, too, when critics pontificate about the “best” of anything, even though their memories apparently don’t seem to stretch back further than 10 or 15 years.

Case in point: TV Guide senior writer Damien Holbrook’s recent rundown of what he insists are the “top 10 television pilots.” According to his LinkedIn profile page, Pennsylvania writer Holbrook graduated from college in 1994, which probably puts him in his mid-30s--old enough to know that more TV history occurred prior to George W. Bush’s occupation of the White House than since. Yet of the 10 shows he lists, only three--The Sopranos (1999), ER (1994), and Saturday Night Live (1975)--debuted before 2001. And with a single exception (the unsold 2007 pilot for something called Football Wives), the remainder of Holbrook’s list holds no surprises, but is simply a reminder of what Nielsen-ratings families supposedly watch most often these days.


I’m not the first person to take issue with this list. (Others have weighed in here, here, and here.) But allow me to suggest my own alternative selections of memorable TV pilot films, focusing on crime dramas. There are lots of options, but these are the four teleflicks that seem to have stuck most firmly in my mind:

Banyon (1971). Despite its cancellation, the 1972-1973 NBC-TV series based on this teleflick was pretty good. It featured Robert Forster as a raw-around-the-edges private eye working the tough but star-studded streets of 1930s Los Angeles. However, the pilot, which also starred Darren McGavin as Lieutenant Pete Cordova (a role taken over in the series by the far less engaging Richard Jaeckel), was exceptional, a moody rumination on fraud and loyalty. The New York Times calls that pilot “a number-one detective yarn ... Robert Forster, emulating John Garfield in virtually every scene, plays private eye Miles C. Banyon. Right now he’s in dutch because a beautiful young woman has been found murdered--and Banyon’s gun was the murder weapon. This state of affairs plunges the detective into a maelstrom of deceit and double-cross involving (among many elements) a [Walter] Winchell-style radio commentator (José Ferrer), a paroled big-time gangster, a scar-faced assassin, and a Nazi Bund camp. Once he solves the main mystery, Banyon is faced with the unhappy Maltese Falcon task of exposing a close friend as a murderer.” Well worth watching, if you can get your hands on a copy. So far, Banyon hasn’t been released in a DVD set. (UPDATE: Learn more about the Banyon pilot here.)

The Rockford Files (1974). Along with Harry O, The Rockford Files represented a high-water mark for American private-eye TV series of the ’70s. Much of this NBC show’s appeal was attributed to its protagonist, played by James Garner, who brought a bit of his previous role as con man/card sharp Bret Maverick, and a bit too of Philip Marlowe (who he’d played in the 1969 film Marlowe), to the character of a violence-shy, habitually impecunious Los Angeles gumshoe. The pilot (later repackaged as a two-part episode called “Backlash of the Hunter”) did an outstanding job of introducing Jim Rockford as an ex-con who won a pardon from California’s governor, now lives in a rundown trailer home in Malibu, and only takes cases that the cops have been unable to solve. (That theme was eventually dropped from the series.) This story has him being hired by lovely Lindsay Wagner (then only 25 years old, in her pre-Bionic Woman days), who works in a bikini shop, as I remember it, and wants Rockford to look into the death of her father, a derelict whose death the police have written off as the result of natural causes. Not being the trusting sort, Wagner wants to involve herself in Rockford’s work, which drives him to distraction--especially when she questions his methods (such as printing phony business cards on a machine stored in the glove box of his Pontiac Firebird). Their repartee is both realistic and entertaining, and Rockford’s warmth shines through quite clearly, even when he’s frustrated by his client’s inability to pay her debts. Stephen J. Cannell, who created The Rockford Files with Roy Huggins, wrote this pilot. Most of its characteristics would be translated smoothly into the series, though Robert Donley, who played Rockford’s father in the pilot, was replaced by the more avuncular Noah Beery Jr. The pilot is included in the DVD set The Rockford Files: Season Two.

Last Hours Before Morning (1975). Among unsold pilots, this is one I remember best. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to track down a copy of it through any of my usual Web sources. But maybe someday I’ll be able to catch it again on a late-night TV broadcast. The New York Times provides a pretty good synopsis of the film: “Prolific character actor Ed Lauter enjoys one of his few starring roles in this made-for-TV mystery yarn. Set in the 1940s, the film casts Lauter as Bud Delaney, a former policeman who was bounced from the force after being framed by a mysterious higher-up. As he tries to track down the person responsible for his firing, Delaney keeps food on the table by working as a house detective in a seedy Hollywood hotel, moonlighting as a private eye. Along the way, he gets mixed up in the theft of a movie star’s jewelry and the murder of a pompous gambler--two seemingly diverse crimes that are actually, and inextricably, linked together. Originally telecast by NBC on April 19, 1975, Last Hours Before Morning was the pilot film for the unsold weekly series Delaney.” That’s one series I would’ve been glued to every week. Damn those network execs!

Miami Vice (1984). Curious, I just realized that all three of the previous teleflicks were made for NBC. And here’s yet another one. Although the two-hour introductory installment of Miami Vice (titled “Brother’s Keeper”) is often considered just another episode of the series, it was really a pilot. According to Wikipedia, creator Anthony Yerkovich (formerly with Hill Street Blues) “devised the concept after learning about asset forfeiture statutes that allow law enforcement agencies to confiscate the property of drug dealers for official use. The initial idea was for a movie about a pair of vice cops in Miami. Yerkovich then turned out a script for a two-hour pilot, titled Gold Coast, but later renamed, Miami Vice. Yerkovich was immediately drawn to South Florida as a setting for his new-style police show.” As well he should have been. This pilot, which found Miami-Dade vice squad detective James “Sonny” Crockett (Don Johnson) teaming up with Manhattan cop Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) to pursue a Colombian drug dealer, set the tone for the six-year series that was to follow: lots of stylish pastel-colored clothes, slick and shiny streets, fast cars, curvaceous beachgoers, and enough armaments to take Fort Knox. Oh, and of course there was the music--lots of pop and rock hits from the Reagan era, plus Jan Hammer’s synthesized instrumentals. “MTV Cops”--that was one NBC exec’s synopsis of the show, and it fit perfectly. “Brother’s Keeper” is packaged with the DVD set Miami Vice: Season One.

Anyone out there care to offer more nominations?

UPDATE: In a May 2010 profile of actor Ed Lauter, The Screen Lounge mentioned that Delaney, the series that was supposed to have been introduced by the 1975 pilot Last Hours Before Morning, was solidly in the running to be picked up by NBC, “but the network optioned Ellery Queen over his show at the last moment.” I don’t think I’ve heard before that Ellery Queen, which starred Jim Hutton and was also set in the 1940s, had anything to do with Delaney’s failure.

READ MORE:The First Episode,” by Lee Goldberg (A Writer’s Life); “The Six Best (and Five Worst) Failed TV Pilots,” by Todd Ciolek (Topless Robot); “7 Great TV Pilots That Never Got Off the Ground,” by Aaron Koehn (OMG Lists).


James Reasoner said...

I thought I was the only person in the world who remembered "Last Hours Before Morning". Either that, or I had just imagined watching it more than thirty years ago and it didn't really exist! Thanks for confirming my memory. It was indeed really, really good.

And I'd buy a DVD set of "Banyon" in a second, if they'd ever release it. Wonderful stuff.

Paul Bishop said...

I'm with you regarding your choices -- especially Banyon.

I'd add the pilot to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Outsider (with Darrin McGavin).

J. Kingston Pierce said...

I have to admit, Paul, that I've never seen the pilots for either U.N.C.L.E. or The Outsider. Thanks for the recommendations. I'll have to track them both down.


Winifred said...

Interesting that every single programme listed in all the links given are for US pilots & series.
Does the rest of the world not produce excellent TV programmes?

One of the best TV series ever made is Inspector Morse & strangely enough never a mention of it! You could be excused as it didn't exactly have a pilot, they made 3 episodes for the first series. Now there's confidence for you!

The list of the 10 best pilots on TV Guide is farcical. I won't even bother to comment on it.

J. Kingston Pierce said...


I'm afraid you will have to excuse me, but being an American, I don't have a chance to see most of the UK pilots. That's why the Comments section of these posts exists, so that other readers can add suggestions of things I might have missed. Thanks.