Back in her standup comic days, Ellen DeGeneres did a routine on some of the nutty TV shows of her childhood like The Flying Nun and others. Talking of My Mother the Car (where a guy’s mom is reincarnated into an automobile), Ellen said “I don’t know if the guy who came up with that show was on drugs or not. But the network exec who decided to buy it and put it on the air? Man, he had to be on something.” Every year, the network pilot list has at least one show that makes you do a double-take for a concept that sounds out of a SNL skit. And more insane is that every now and then, an idea like that ends up on the air. Some of these shows are just bad but others are downright insulting as hell and the fact they were conceived, let alone bought, written and produced is astounding.
Yet there are also times a network has a crack at a show that looks terrific only to pass on it. In a few cases, the show just needs a bit of retooling and it’s picked up after all. But more often, that show ends up going to another network who end up enjoying huge success with it. From ratings hits to Emmy-winning darlings and even a few shows that changed TV, networks are infamous for giving up on shows that could have boosted them up nicely. Here are 10 shows that networks shockingly passed on to regret and 10 they should regret ever airing in the first place to show how nutty things are in that business.
20 REJECTED: CBS with The Sopranos
Today, it’s impossible to imagine The Sopranos anywhere but HBO. The show transformed television with its stunning look at mob life and a brutal anti-hero fans could root for via James Gandolfini’s Emmy-winning turn in the lead. However, David Chase at first tried to get it to work for networks, including CBS. Amazingly, it wasn’t the violence or cursing that was the key issue, the network liked pushing things with a mob story. What they hated was the plot of Tony being in therapy for his issues as they wanted more of a clean-cut mob drama. Thus, Chase took it to HBO and now is happier as they gave him the freedom to make the show as he wanted. That ended up being a huge Emmy-winning cultural phenomenon that helped elevate television in the 2000s majorly. Again, it’s hard to imagine the show on regular network but still notable how CBS passed on such a groundbreaker.
19 REGRET: Netflix with Fuller House
Some shows deserve to rest in the past. Full House was a huge hit in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, enjoyed for its fun comedy. A backbone of the TGIF lineup, it made stars of the Olsen Twins and successful in reruns. However, it was a product of its time, its clean-cut comedy fitting for the era but out of place today. Having a long-lasting audience is good but trying to continue such a show today seemed nutty. That didn’t stop Netflix but putting out a sequel series with the entire original cast (sans the Olsens) reprising their roles. All it does is remind fans of how lame the “comedy” of the original show was and it should have rested in the past. Seeing the actors back in their old roles is sad, not inspiring as it shows them stuck in the past too much rather than trying to leave the show behind. 30 years ago, House was a fun show but seeing it back today is just a painful reminder of how things were.
18 REJECTED: NBC with Desperate Housewives
Fate is funny sometimes. In 2003, NBC was riding high on top of ratings while ABC was stuck behind in fourth place after years of bad programming. Marc Cherry came to NBC with a show focusing on a pack of women and families in a small community wrestling with secrets. NBC vetoed it, however, as they thought Cherry was foolish picking mostly middle-aged women for the main characters, arguing audiences would want younger fare. They also weren’t pleased with some of the more risqué stuff and so the series was gone. Cherry brought it to ABC who decided to develop it. Debuting in the fall of 2004, Desperate Housewives was a smash hit from the start and critics enjoying its wild stuff. Combined with Lost and then Grey’s Anatomy, it brought ABC up to the top of the ratings game. Meanwhile, NBC suffered a brutal fall from the top that year and could have used a mega-hit to boost themselves. So by passing on this show, NBC only hastened their fall from the top.
17 REGRET: Fox with The Swan
In 2012, Fox did a special to celebrate their 25th anniversary. A highlight was how the network actually took plenty of shots on the many bad shows they’ve put on. One segment had the cast of New Girl listing several of the worst with “what were they thinking?” faces. Calling on a running gag from the show, Jesse announced that Fox should “put $10 million in the Douchebag Jar for The Swan.” The idea was a group of women gathered together in a competition with the winner to get a full plastic surgery makeover to be more beautiful. The very concept was loathsome, the way they pushed these women (almost all of whom were already very attractive) as “ugly” horrible and critics raged against it. The fact that almost every woman who took part in it now regrets it (and that includes the winners) speaks volumes. Even for Fox, this was a low point in programming and they openly admit regret putting it on.
16 REJECTED: NBC, TNT and FX with The Walking Dead
Given it was based on a smash hit comic book and used zombies (always a hot thing), one would think networks would have jumped to adapt The Walking Dead to television. Instead, Frank Darabont met resistance several times with many networks balking at the sheer brutality of the show. TNT and FX (no stranger to harsh stuff) were worried about showing zombies in states of decomposition and the harsh violence of fighting them. They were also concerned of how fans could hook onto the often quieter sections of storyline to show the human characters. The wildest bit was NBC who wanted to turn the show into a bizarre procedural involving zombies with Darabont thought the dumbest idea imaginable (ironically, the CW would turn that into a hit with iZombie). Also, the networks balked at the large budget needed for the series. But AMC took a chance and the results have been a long-running ratings hit that looks to continue for a while and the Dead continuing to walk today.
15 REGRET: E! with Keeping Up With the Kardashians
It’s debatable as some no doubt enjoy seeing Kim Kardashian showing herself off a lot. But in so many ways, this series helped mess up modern American culture. It took a woman who (as Joel McHale was fond of saying) “is famous for having a big ass and a sex tape” and presented her as a fun gal. Somehow, it turned into a hit despite these people having no talent, no skills and just presenting themselves as victims making do with life. It inspired several spin-offs and countless take-offs and helped turn such reality TV shows into a go-to thing for networks. You can also complain about how the very “pay attention for us” mentality led a dumbing down of the country which has affected everything from entertainment to politics. Yes, Kim is sexy and her sisters also hot but the E network should be ashamed of themselves for pushing this clan onto the country and making them a big deal.
14 REJECTED: HBO with Breaking Bad
Bad remains one of the most amazing evolutions of a show ever. At first, it just looked a dark comedy of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) as a schoolteacher over his head dealing drugs to make money for his family before he dies of cancer. But as the show continued, Walter transformed into a cold-blooded murderer with Cranston winning four Emmys for his work with the show winning Best Drama twice and hailed for its amazing run. However, Vince Gilligan had originally pitched the show for HBO, wanting to really have it cut loose with cursing and such. The network passed as they had a few too many “anti-hero” shows as it was and the early view of the show as more a comedy didn’t fit them. AMC took it up and backed Gilligan’s vision. It paid off with one of the most acclaimed dramas around and HBO cursing themselves passing on what could have been a huge hit.
13 REGRET: CBS with Viva Laughlin
Viva Blackpool was a cult hit in England. It took the idea of a crime drama centering on the murder of a man involved with a casino with a good cast including future Doctor Who star David Tennant. What made it notable was the characters would burst into songs covering popular pop hits and do a good job mixing it up with the storyline. In 2007, CBS decided to adapt it thanks to the push of Hugh Jackman, who loved the original show. He moved it to Las Vegas and upped the ante with bigger songs and budget. However, the finished series was quickly slammed by critics as utterly horrible. Except for Jackman, the entire cast seemed horribly out of place (Melanie Griffith as the would-be femme fatale) and the music performances came off laughable. The show was canceled after just two episodes and would be long mocked for one of the dumber attempts at “drama” CBS put out.
12 REJECTED: CBS with The Big Bang Theory
Amazing as it is, CBS came this close to passing on what has become one of its signature hits. The original pilot was much different as there were two female characters, one a nerd attached to the gang. The other, an early version of Penny, was more cynical and street-smart than the bubbly blonde fans would know. It was tough to watch and so CBS decided to pass on it. But the producers noted how fans liked the characters of Sheldon and Leonard and so decided to retool the show to focus on them. They then decided it was better to have a brighter woman as a contrast to them and thus came up with Penny. The result was a show that started off a bit slow and the early seasons more bawdy. But CBS kept it up with adding in other women and soon had a smash hit that’s become a huge success in syndication. Yet remarkable how CBS nearly ignored the series that became one of its flagships.
11 REGRET: UPN with The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer
UPN may be long gone but they still bear the shame of a lot of very bad shows. The worst of the bunch had to be this series which is utterly astonishing was ever conceived, let alone put on the air. Chi McBride played the title role of a British valet for Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. In other words, UPN was doing a comedy on one of the darkest periods of American history and lacing it with 20th century sexual overtones and bawdy antics. Saying this didn’t go over well with the African-American community would be an understatement. The series was soon the subject of full scale protests and constant slams over making light of slavery and historians and veterans weren’t happy with its treatment of the Civil War. As it turned out, the show was just plain bad with too much on lame jokes and not even as “cutting edge” as most hoped it could be. Canceled after four episodes, the series remains one of the most infamous ever aired.
10 REJECTED: HBO with Sons of Anarchy
When one watches Sons of Anarchy, it almost seems perfect for HBO. A Shakespearean take on a gang of bikers in Southern California, the show was gripping in its violence, often pushing the boundaries of what could be shown on cable TV. From brutal murders to very kinky erotic scenes, the show never shied away from rough stuff and did it well. Indeed, Sutter has acknowledged he always had HBO in mind when he pitched the show, convinced only they could handle the adult content he had planned. But the network was already developing a biker series and thought two would be too much. As fate had it, that other biker show fell apart when the Hell’s Angels sued HBO for lack of credit. Sutter took Sons to FX where it became one of the network’s biggest hits and a long-running “why is this not nominated for Emmys” series for critics.
9 REGRET: NBC with Manimal
The 1983 Fall season was an unmitigated disaster for NBC. Eight shows premiered under huge hype and most of them never even made it until the following May. If not for long-running series like The A-Team and comedies, the network would have been in far more serious trouble. The most infamous of these shows would have to be Manimal. The plotline centered around a millionaire who found a way to “tap into his inner beast” and transform into an animal. He thus uses his skills to fight crime. However, due to budget, he ended up just turning into a panther or hawk most of the time with the same cheap FX used for it. The show was utterly laughable to see and NBC did it no favors putting it right up against Dallas. After just four episodes, production was ended and it faded into oblivion, popping up in “what were they thinking” lists. Incredibly, the character returned in the cheesy 1990s show Nightman which only served to show how nutty NBC was trying to make it a hit.
8 REJECTED: Every Network with Stranger Things
NBC, ABC, CBS, FX, TNT, USA, Fox, CW. In total, fifteen networks passed on Netflix’s smash hit series when the Duffer brothers tried to sell it. They thought they had a winner with the tale of some 1980s kids meeting a stranger with powers and drawn into a wild adventure but kept hitting resistance with networks. The few times they had interest, they were met with questions like how they could age the kids into teenagers or if the show had to be set in the 1980s. They were told viewers wouldn’t be interested in such a concept and never hold their interest long enough. Finally, Netflix bit as the brothers enjoyed the idea of a show dropping all their episodes at once to hook fans in deep. It paid off as the series is one of Netflix’s biggest hits and a darling with critics with an intense fanbase leading to the new season. Right now, there are 15 networks giving someone in programming the evil eye for passing on this hit and how letting creators be themselves works.
7 REGRET: ABC with Cavemen
Back in the mid-2000s, Geico had a hit series of commercials talking of how their insurance was so easy that “even a caveman could do it.” It would then show a caveman in modern clothing giving a reaction of “not cool, bro.” Viewers loved it and it helped the company out. But for some odd reason, Joe Lawson thought there was a TV show there. He pitched the idea that cavemen never went extinct but were integrated into modern society, a bit outcast. He made it sound like a great idea, bringing up issues of bigotry but mixing it with comedy. Somehow, someone at ABC thought it was a great idea and ordered the show to series. From the moment it was announced, fans were laughing for all the wrong reasons as it just sounded dumb as possible. The final show was even worse, few real laughs and was canceled thanks to the writer’s strike that year. Few missed it as even a caveman could see this was going to be a mess.
6 REJECTED: HBO with Mad Men
From the start, many believed Mad Men was a show that seemed better suited for HBO than for AMC. Back in 2007, AMC was still into movies, not original programming and tackling the storyline of an ad agency in the 1960s seemed offbeat. Of course, it worked out as the show was an Emmy-winning smash that made Jon Hamm a star. It got hails for its style and how it showed the “good old days” of the ‘60s were an ugly mess. However, Matthew Weiner originally thought the show would be perfect for HBO and pitched it but they felt it was too “retro” for their tastes. It’s interesting to imagine it as the show might have been more gripping freed of censors to allow cursing and nudity. At the same time, Weiner thinks the restraint of basic cable helped ground the show and plot it out better. The fact Men ended up beating HBO shows at the Emmys several times shows how bad a move the network made skipping it.
5 REGRET: BBC with Heil Honey I’m Home
Here’s proof the British can come up with stuff as utterly insane as anyone in America could dream of. It’s an idea so crazy even Monty Python wouldn’t try it: a sitcom where Adolf Hitler lives with Eva Braun in a 20th century apartment building next door to a Jewish couple. The idea was to parody typical sitcoms and poke fun at the clichés and all. But…it was a show with Adolf Hitler as a jokester making cracks about Jewish people and welcoming Neville Chamberlain for dinner. The studio audience clearly had no idea whether they were supposed to laugh or gasp in horror at the antics and the reaction was utterly atrocious. True, much of the cast was Jewish but some thought that made it even worse by making light of one of the worst mass-murderers in history. Only one episode was aired to an outraged public before the show was yanked and remains possibly the craziest thing to ever air in England.
4 REJECTED: CBS with The Blacklist
For years, Jon Bokenkamp had nursed a gem of an idea: The world’s most wanted criminal turns himself in to the FBI and offers his aid catching even worst crooks. He had the concept around and then met with James Spader who loved the idea of playing main character Red Reddington. However, despite a big name star and a cool premise, Bokenkamp met resistance pitching the show. He made a big push for CBS, thinking the procedural style of the show would fit that network well but they passed on it. NBC decided to take it on and promote it well. The Blacklist soon became one of the network’s most dependable hits, now in its fifth season. Critics loved Emmy winner Spader in the part and the show’s deep mythology has hooked fans well. The series is preparing to hit its 100th episode and wow fans even more, making this a rare time NBC got a winner over other networks.
3 REGRET: ABC with Work It
Back in the early 1980s, Bosom Buddies was a surprise success for two seasons. It focused on a pair of friends (one a then-unknown Tom Hanks) who dress as women to settle into a posh all-female apartment complex. It was offbeat but fans could suspend disbelief to watch it. Trying to have that concept work in 2012 was nuts and the final product was worse. Work It showed a pair of salesmen convinced they can’t find jobs because women now dominate the workplace. This had actual women in business laughing out loud at the idea they somehow were the dominant force. So the two dress as women to get jobs at a company. Putting aside how no one would buy these two as women for a single second, the series pushed the insulting idea of men more deserving than women of work and biased because of gender. That’s not to mention how upset transgender groups were at this insulting take. Audiences agreed as the show was axed after just two episodes and a black eye to an otherwise good year for ABC.
2 REJECTED: ABC with CSI
The early 2000s were not a good time for ABC. The network made the huge mistake of putting Who Wants to be a Millionaire on multiple nights which burned out audiences and various shows failed to ignite much interest. What’s worse is that ABC could have had a series that would have redeemed themselves majorly. In 1999, movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer started to develop a series using CGI to show how crime scenes were investigated. He brought it to ABC as he had a deal with them but they thought It would be just boring and too cerebral for audiences. He thus brought it over to CBS who decided to take a chance. At first ignored on Fridays, CSI soon grew into a mega-smash hit that would bring up the age of procedural dramas. It outlived two of its three spin-offs and a huge winner in syndication, meaning ABC passed on one of the biggest hits of the 2000s.
1 REGRET: ABC with Cop Rock
When Glee premiered in 2009, most didn’t give it a chance of working. A TV show using music was just rough and the failures more than outweighed the successes. A key example would have to be this 1990 series which many feel is bizarre given who came up with it. Steven Bochco helped create the modern cop show with hits like Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and more. Yet somehow, he believed a musical cop series could work out. Set in L.A., the show focused on cops, D.A.s and crooks mingling together in hard times. Seeing a hard-hitting scene suddenly transform into a rap over a dead body or a jury turning into a gospel choir was just way too much for audiences to take back then and it only lasted eleven episodes. Bochco continues to defend the show but most find it one of the dumber ideas ever that made ABC a joke for a long while.
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