A look at the best cancelled TV shows
Imagine a TV world in which Kiefer Sutherland stars as a flinty action hero in…a small-screen version of ”L.A. Confidential.” A TV world where Edie Falco isn’t emoting subtly on ”The Sopranos” but instead says ”Yah” very broadly, playing Frances McDormand’s role in the weekly series ”Fargo.” And imagine a TV show that costarred George Clooney and Pam Dawber as…well, just imagine a TV world in which George Clooney and Pam Dawber are costars.
At various times, the industry imagined all those things — for about as long as it took to make a pilot, watch it, and say ”Next!” This is the universe of the Trio network’s ”Brilliant, But Cancelled,” a repository for abandoned projects. It starts its regular run this week with a batch of pilots that have languished in TV limbo and never made it to series. The Clooney-Dawber effort, a 1991 show called ”Rewrite for Murder,” was a cutesy cringer in which the future ”ER” star played a raffish, thriller-writing ex-con and the former Mindy played a sedate mystery author, a sort of younger version of Angela Lansbury. The erstwhile series laboriously arranges to have these two opposites work together. The 1982 movie ”Diner” was turned into an ’83 pilot by its director, Barry Levinson. Paul Reiser stuck around, but the pallid new cast included James Spader and Michael Madsen. They were neither brilliant nor cancelled; they were mercifully shelved.
So, much more unfortunately, were the sitcoms ”Sick in the Head” (a hilarious 1999 Judd Apatow-written show starring David Krumholtz as a newbie therapist and a pre-”SNL” Amy Poehler doing a fantastic turn as a suicidal patient) and 1996’s ”Dear Diary,” with Bebe Neuwirth narrating her Manhattan married life with martini-dry wit. (This David Frankel creation, slightly reworked, subsequently won a short-film Oscar.)
But what about those hit-movie adaptations I mentioned? Well, it’s fascinating to see Falco slip into McDormand’s pregnancy-expanded police uniform, but the pilot, as developed by Robert Palm and the late Bruce Paltrow from the Coen Brothers film, is too formulaic — you can imagine Falco’s Marge becoming a frostbitten Columbo, being wily and feigning clumsiness all too easily while solving weekly crimes. And as for ”L.A. Confidential,” well, the wonderful writer Walon Green (”The Wild Bunch”) does his best to convey early-’50s Los Angeles, but the measly budget lets him down: The show looks cheesy, and the voice-over narration by Pruitt Taylor Vince as the editor of sleaze rag Hush-Hush is parody Raymond Chandler. Sutherland makes the Kevin Spacey role his own, though; you can see why, in 2000, the ”24” producers might have looked at this brave but dented pilot and said, ”That’s our Jack Bauer.”