Thursday, January 18, 2007

Stealth Spinoffs

What was the last show to do a "stealth pilot" episode? You know what I'm talking about: an episode that, while disguised as a regular-run episode of a successful series, is actually a pilot for a potential new series. They used to be very common from the '60s through the early '90s, but they don't seem to happen any more.

There was always a very practical reason for trying to launch a spinoff this way: by producing the pilot as part of a show that was already running, you guaranteed that the pilot would air and thereby defrayed the costs of making it, even if it didn't get picked up. But there's also a very practical reason why this is hardly ever done now: there's no good time to create or air a stealth spinoff.

Most of these types of episodes used to be produced towards the end of a season, often as the very last episode to air. The last episode of All in the Family's second season is the pilot for Maude. The last episode of the first season of Diff'rent Strokes is the pilot of The Facts of Life. That made sense in a time when there was no hype around the last episode of the season, and the last few episodes of the season aired outside of the sweeps period. Now there's a lot of hype around the "season finale" and even the few episodes leading up to it (networks will put out press releases about the fantastically amazing last four episodes of a season), so it's obviously not possible to use these episodes as the springboard for a possible new show.

While it's interesting to watch an episode a popular series and realize you're seeing the pilot for a show that got picked up (e.g. the episodes mentioned above, or the Andy Griffith Show episode that spun off Gomer Pyle), the fun thing is to realize you're watching a pilot that didn't get picked up, meaning that the episode revolves entirely around characters no one will ever see again. Unsold pilots aren't easy to find, so watching these unsold stealth pilots are the only opportunity we've got, most of the time, to get an idea of why a pilot doesn't sell.

The unsold stealth pilot most people sort of remember is the one from Star Trek, with Robert Lansing and Teri Garr as time-travellers. I remember The Facts of Life used to do a stealth pilot every year, sometimes two: Richard Dean Anderson as one half of an interracial couple; Megan Follows and Soap's Donnelly Rhodes in a projected spinoff about a blue-collar family vaguely related to Jo; Jimmy Baio (also from Soap -- boy, they were really trying to help out those Soap veterans) in a stealth pilot about a military academy. In the final season they did two stealth spinoffs with existing characters from the show, trying to figure out a way to keep at least one of the characters going after the series ended. I don't think they ever did a pilot that got picked up. Then there was that Matlock episode that was a spinoff for George Peppard (looking in very poor health; he died not long after). Or that awful episode from the first season of The Cosby Show that appeared to be an attempted launching pad for the wacky heartwarming adventures of a multi-lingual community center.

The only other question about a stealth pilot, besides "did it get picked up or not?" Is "how do they pretend it's an episode of the show we're watching?" There are two basic ways of doing this. Either you have a little prologue with the lead characters, after which they mostly disappear and leave the whole episode to the spinoff characters. Or you take one regular character and have him or her involved in the plot, at the margins. So the stealth pilot of Gomer Pyle is pretty much all Gomer and Sergeant Carter, but Andy does get to solve Gomer's problem as we'd expect him to.

But I ask again, in conclusion: what was the last show to do a stealth pilot? Have there been any recent shows at all that tried to do something like this?


30 comments:

Icepick said...

Did Buffy do a stealth pilot for Angel? I don't think so, but does anyone with a better memory know for certain?

Anthony Strand said...

Buffy did not do a stealth pilot for Angel. Angel leaves at the end of season three like he's just disappearing.

But Gilmore Girls did one for the Jess spinoff that never got picked up, where he goes out to California to bond with his real dad. That was season three, so 2003.

And (I'm ashamed I know this. I really am) the Disney Channel's That's So Raven did one that was a vehicle for Alyson Stoner from those "Mike's Super Short Show" interstitials. She was a TV star who wanted to live a normal kid's life. Raven's brother Cory won a guest spot on her show, but he was hardly in the episode. I'm not certain, but I think that concept may have become "Hannah Montana" instead.

Why do I know this much about the Disney Channel? I don't know.

Jason said...

The entire sixth season of Highlander: The Series was a stealth pilot for a new Highlander series starring an immortal woman. Each ep from that season tried out a different female character, some of whom I quite liked and thought had some good series potential. Highlander's regular cast didn't even appear in a couple of these episdoes.

Unfortunately, when the producers made their choice for the spin-off, they tried to force one of the established Highlander characters (Amanda) into a formula prototyped for one of these experimental, guest-star characters, and the whole thing turned into a disaster...

Russell H said...

More recently, CSI had stealth pilots for CSI: MIAMI and CSI: NEW YORK.

I'm trying to remember if X-FILES actually had a stealth pilot for THE LONE GUNMEN, or if they just began featuring the characters again to build up interest in the new show.

Could the appearance of Robin Williams in his "Mork" character on HAPPY DAYS be considered a stealth pilot for MORK AND MINDY?

Sterfish said...

The most recent stealth pilot I know of came last season when the then-UPN sitcom "Girlfriends" did an episode revolving around one of the characters' cousins. That stealth pilot resulted in the comedy "The Game" which now airs on The CW along with "Girlfriends."

Jon Delfin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon Delfin said...

Not a stealth pilot per se, but this week's Law & Order: SVU featured Adam Beach as a Brooklyn detective who was clearly being introduced as a potential new regular. And sure enough, today's news is that we'll see him again soon.

Anonymous said...

I remember "Cosby" doing a stealth pilot for a proposed series which would have had Tony Orlando running a community center.

As fantastic and 'can't miss' as that concept sounds somehow it was a non-starter.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0547031/

Anonymous said...

Well, they have a lot of people who come onto the L&O shows and stay for 6-episode or so runs before disappearing, so it might one of those. What's really weird is how they took one of the leads from "Conviction" and now she stars as a different character from L&O:TOS.

I'm pretty sure there had been at least one Lone Gunmen-featuring episode of X-Files before they turned it into a real show.

I wouldn't consider the Mork & Mindy thing a stealth pilot, though I guess it's possible. It's hard for me to imagine that they actually planned it out that way!

Let's not forget The Practice, which had an entire "stealth season" to lose all the remaining cast members to turn into (the superior) Boston Legal!

Anonymous said...

Benson was a Soap spinoff, don't know if there was a stealth pilot episode.
Chris

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Benson was a Soap spinoff, don't know if there was a stealth pilot episode.

No, there wasn't -- they did the pilot of Benson separately and then had Benson say he was leaving Soap (the part where he left was in the pre-season recap episode which unfortunately isn't included on the DVD).

Loren said...

I'm trying to remember if X-FILES actually had a stealth pilot for THE LONE GUNMEN

Sort of. When Duchovny and Anderson were off doing the movie, they filmed "The Unusual Suspects," which was a flashback episode focusing almost entirely on the Lone Gunmen. The following season they did another episode, "Three of a Kind," that had the Gunmen as the leads. Although not intended to launch a spinoff, they proved popular enough to get the spinoff OKed.

As for other stealth pilots, Smallville comes to mind, especially with the "Justice" episode airing tonight. The episode guest-starring the Flash was clearly to test the waters for a Flash series, and that was even more true of the Aquaman episode, since a Mercy Reef pilot was actually shot, but not picked up. Even the recent Green Arrow arc seems to be eyeing a potential spinoff.

The last few episodes of The Practice were one big set-up for Boston Legal.

Home Improvement did a stealth pilot for a show called Buddies (starring Dave Chappelle), which bombed rather quickly.

Anonymous said...

This certainly isn't the latest one, but it seemed to me that the episode of "My Three Sons" where Robbie, Katie and the triplets move into an apartment with landlords Richard X Slattery and the lady who did the voice for Ursula in the Little Mermaid (I think) was a possible pilot for spinoff.

Hal said...

A stealth pilot aired at the end of the second season of The Golden Girls for a series called Empty Nest, starring Rita Moreno as half of a married couple adjusting to life without their grown children. NBC kept the set and actor David Leisure, who played a wacky neighbor, but dumped everything else, turning the show into a vehicle for Soap star Richard Mulligan

Marty McKee said...

It's hard to tell unless the series actually gets picked up, but I believe WALKER, TEXAS RANGER did one for SONS OF THUNDER. NUMB3RS brought in Lou Diamond Phillips for a guest shot two seasons ago that surely looked like it may have been a pilot. I also thought the Beach appearance on SVU this week might have been a pilot.

Ivan G. said...

I'm surprised no one brought up one of the most famous of all stealth pilots--Kelly's Kids, which aired as an episode of The Brady Bunch. Ken Berry and Brooke Bundy plan to adopt one boy but end up saddled with three...a WASP, a black and an Asian. Because their neighbors are a bit racist, the wacky complications soon ensue!

Mike said...

I remember the episode of Growing Pains that launched Just the 10 of Us. There was also the episode of Who's the Boss that launched (I believe this was the title) Living Dolls.

And I remember this episode of The Cosby Show that had John Ritter and Amy Yasbeck as guest stars, and Amy was very pregnant. The episode spent a lot of time just with John and Amy, and inside their characters' houses, etc. It seemed very unusual for an episode of The Cosby Show. So I wonder if it was really a backdoor pilot for some sitcom starring the two of them. I'm not sure because I don't know when it aired, if John was too tied up with Hooperman at that time to devote himself to another series.

Slowjack said...

I know the Golden Girls episode "hal" refers to, but I don't think we can call that a "stealth" spinoff, because there's no attempt to pass it off as an actual Golden Girls episode (the Girls do not appear). What's odd to me is that the episode is part of the syndication package so it keeps showing up on tv.

Rob Bates said...

Well, this doesn't really answer Jamie's question, cause it is kind of back in the day, but the Mary Tyler Moore show had an episode focussing around a City Councilman played by Bill Daily that I could have sworn was an attempt at a spin-off. And let's not forget The Jeffersons was introduced on an All in the Family episode.

Great topic!

pastor.kev said...

Dan Aykroyd did an episode of Home Improvement as Rev. Mike Webber, which led right into his own show called "Soul Man," where he played a preacher. It didn't last long.

Thank the man who invented IMDB.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

the Mary Tyler Moore show had an episode focussing around a City Councilman played by Bill Daily that I could have sworn was an attempt at a spin-off.

Yes, that episode ("His Two Right Arms") is one I forgot to mention in my original post. And, as usual, the attempted spinoff pilot was done as the "season finale": it's the last episode of the second season.

Of course, when that show didn't get picked up, MTM gave Bill Daily a part on The Bob Newhart Show.

Kenny said...

The only stealth pilot I remember seeing was the "Married...With Children" episode that was really a pilot for the Matt Leblanc show "Top of the Heap." It aired on a night when Fox promoted back-to-back episodes of "Married..." but I remember being very annoyed that the second episode was obviously not an episode of "Married..." at all.

"Top of the Heap" was about a lower class father and son (Leblanc) who constantly tried to better themselves through ill-conceived get rich quick schemes. I think the stealth pilot involved them dressing up in tuxedoes and crashing some sort of rich peoples' event. The father was supposedly a friend of Al's, and Leblanc was dating Kelly Bundy for a while (and even appeared one or two more times on "Married..." after TOTH started running).

Al Bundy appeared at the start of the episode, where the new characters came by the house. The rest of the Bundys are absent, and the story soon abandons Al completely. At the episode's conclusion, Al breaks into the father and son's apartment and steals their TV set to settle a previously-mentioned debt.

Right after that, I think Fox aired a commercial promoting the further adventures of these new characters we had ostensibly just fallen in love with. I remember thinking that was a terrible way to launch a pilot, since instead of enjoying the characters I was hating them for hijacking the show I had actually wanted to watch.

Peter Lynn said...

I know it's not recent, but I amazed that any discussion of stealth spinoffs could take place, especially on this blog, without mention of Richie Brockelman, Private Eye as a spinoff of The Rockford Files. And, of course, there was also the attempt to spin Issac Hayes and Lou Gossett, Jr. off as Gabby and Gandy.

Todd Lucas said...

I'm pretty sure that Green Acres had a couple of these that didn't get picked up. There was one episode dedicated to one of Oliver's former secrataries at his old law firm or something like that. She was played by Elaine Joyce and I seem to remember Richard Deacon in the episode, as well. Sure looked like an attempt to launch a new series.

There was another episode where Oliver and Lisa go to Hawaii on vacation but the plot centers around the Hotel owner (played by the dad from Gidget) and his daughter. Looked like another failed attempt to me.

Jessica said...

On JAG they had an episode which was essentially a stealth pilot for NCIS.

Anonymous said...

There was a stealth pilot for The Critic on The Simpsons. Matt Groening took his name off the episode.

Anonymous said...

Justice League Unlimited did an episode that was clearly testing the waters for a Legion of Superheroes show.

It had mixed success - there is a LSH series running now, but it's not using the same character designs as the JLU episode.

Anonymous said...

What was the other stealth pilot Married With Children did? The episode involved Bud being in love with the girl who went on to star in 'Felicity'.

The main locale was the radio station at Bud's college. There was an obvious attempt at a memorable 'hook' by having the DJs snap their fingers in the air, which produced a whiplash-type sound effect. It was pretty lame- the premise AND the sound effect.

Bec said...

Gilmore Girls immediatly jumps to mind on this topic.

They tried to spin off the charecter Jess and have him find his father (and new stepmother/girlfriend of his father was cast by the same actress who eventually was cast as the women Luke, his uncle had a kid with, if that makes any sense).

Episode was pointless, show went nowhere.

Why do people think that moving people to the beaches of LA calls for a spin off? (see current spin off, Private Practice)

Anonymous said...

I can't be certain, but based on the strange Golden Girls / "Empty Nest" quasi backdoor thing, I wonder if they tried this on at least one other occasion...

The episode "Vacation" has the girls sharing a hotel room with three wacky younger guys ...including one named "Winston Hardwick III" -- which is a sitcom character name if I have ever heard of one. The boys don't have their own plot--they get stuck on an island and become buddies. One of the guys was someone that was on TV a lot in the 80s...sort of a cutrate howie mandel. (That's pretty cut rate).

It could have been a setup for the opposite Golden Girls buddy sitcome.