15 Comic Book TV Shows That Didn’t Make it to the Small Screen
Syfy just announced their upcoming television development slate, including a new Booster Gold series. Hopefully, Booster Gold will make it past his pilot, but not all comic-to-TV adaptations do. In fact, for every Smallville, there seems to be a Bruce Wayne that lies in the development afterlife, never to appear in syndication. In some cases, TV audiences dodged a speeding bullet, but a few of those series looked pretty promising. Here are 15 comic book-based series that didn’t get past their pilot, and a few that didn’t even make it that far.
Mike Mignola’s Dark Horse one-shot about a metallic Civil War-era secret agent with a detachable head received a Sci Fi Channel pilot (back before it was Syfy) in 2006. The series boasted an impressive pedigree, with Pushing Daisies creator Bryan Fuller co-writing the script, Paul Giamatti voicing Screw-On Head, David Hyde Pierce as Emperor Zombie and Patton Oswalt as Screw-On’s butler Mr. Groin. The Sci Fi Channel put it online with a number of other pilots, asking viewers to vote on which series should be greenlit. Sadly, the station didn’t pick up the series, so we’re left with just this little nugget of sepia-toned wonder. Mignola claims he’s never watched the pilot himself; he says it’s too difficult for him to watch something that’s based on his artistic style but is artistically distinct from his work. We, however, can still watch the entire pilot online.
The WB hoped to recapture the success of Smallville with an Aquaman spinoff. Arthur Curry arrived in Smallville during the show’s fifth season, around the same time that HBO’s Entourage put its fictional movie star Vincent Chase in the water-soaked tights. The series would follow young “AC” as he grew up in the Florida Keys and discovered his destiny as king of Atlantis. TK reprised his Smallville role as AC for the pilot, and it looked like the aquatic hero would be gracing the prime time schedule. However, Aquaman’s quest for television dominance was thwarted when the WB and UPN merged, and the resulting CW declined to pick up the series.
Another possible (and rather ill-conceived) Smallville companion show was The Graysons, about Dick Grayson’s pre-Robin years. Another handsome kid, some high-flying acrobatics — how could the CW lose? Well, there’s that uncomfortable business about surrounding a show around a family that’s doomed to die. Oh, and they were going to change Dick’s name to DJ (much like AC), because apparently, no one wants a teen hunk named “Dick.” Warner Bros. wisely scrapped the series, stating that “the concept doesn’t fit the current strategy for the Batman franchise.” In other words, Robin was going to make The Dark Knight seem way less cool.
Smallville actually has its roots in an older show, one that would have revolved around a young Bruce Wayne. In 1999, Tim McCanlies, who directed the movie Secondhand Lions and wrote the script for The Iron Giant, pitched a series about Bruce Wayne’s “missing years” to Tollin-Robbins Productions. We would have seen the early years of Bruce Wayne as he put his life back together and embarked on his crime fighting training. The show would show the dark side of proto-Batman, to the point where we wouldn’t be sure if we should really root for the young vigilante. Tollin-Robbins loved the pitch and so did Warner Bros., which was eager to pair the show with Angel once Buffy the Vampire Slayer went off the air. Shawn Ashmore, who played Bobby Drake in the X-Men films, was rumored as the star.
So what happened? Well, it just so happened that the WB’s movie division was already working on a Batman: Year One movie (before Christopher Nolan started work on Batman Begins), and wasn’t willing to let a TV show encroach on its territory. Eventually, the concept was reworked into the early years of Clark Kent, and Smallville was born. After the Batman movie was shelved, Tollin-Robbins tried to convince Warner Bros. to pick up Bruce Wayne as a companion to Smallville, but were rebuffed. Eventually, Nolan made Batman Begins, effectively burying any hopes for Bruce Wayne, and Tollin-Robbins instead produced Birds of Prey. You can, however, read the Bruce Wayne script here.
Some series ideas just look better on the drawing board. I’m sure someone at CBS thought that Justice League of America was a surefire winner: established characters, an ensemble cast, endless merchandising opportunities. But when the 80-minute TV movie and backdoor pilot aired in 1997, it seemed little thought had been put into the execution. The cheesy special effects, numerous plot holes and an oddly portly J’onn J’onzz meant that the highest praise it received was “so bad it’s almost good.” Nobody wanted to see a full series, not even ironically.
Of course, the recent big-name superhero not to land her own series is Wonder Woman. David E. Kelley wanted to Ally McBealize Diana Themyscira/Diana Prince, portraying the Amazonian princess in all of her facets: superhero, CEO and ordinary woman. And maybe that could have worked if it was funny, smart and paid homage to the character. When photos of Adrianne Palicki in those shiny vinyl pants popped up, fans were worried. But questionable taste in costuming was nothing compared to a Wonder Woman who tortures criminals and chatters about the size of her action figure’s breasts. NBC passed, leaving us to hope that Wonder Woman’s next trip to the screen — large or small — is a smoother, more adventurous journey.
The television adaptation about Warren Ellis’ comic about a covert intelligence organization is one of those projects that keeps bouncing in and out of limbo. The WB commissioned a Global Frequency pilot in 2005 with Survivor producer Mark Burnett at the helm, starring Michelle “Admiral Cain” Forbes as Miranda Zero. When the pilot was leaked on BitTorrent, fans were largely delighted with the show. But popular acclaim wasn’t enough to assuage the higher-ups, who were upset enough by the leak to kill the project entirely. Ellis told his email list, “It’s my current understanding that the bittorrenting of ‘GLOBAL FREQUENCY’ has rendered it as dead as dead can get as a TV series.” Ah yes, please, kill the show with critical buzz. That wasn’t the last of Global Frequency, however. In 2009, Ellis announced that the CW would take a second crack at adapting the comic, with Scott Nimerfro scripting the pilot. Nimerfro’s adaptation didn’t even make it to the pilot, however. In August 2010, Ellis told MTV that that there was no further movement on the project. It sounds like we’ll probably be seeing a different series from Ellis very soon: Wastelanders, the web series he’s currently developing with Joss Whedon.
Rather relegate their projects to development hell, Marvel would frequently produce them as TV movies that essentially served as backdoor pilots (see also: The Trial of the Incredible Hulk and perhaps those Captain America movies from 1979). In fact, 1977’s The Amazing Spider-Man started its life as a two-hour TV movie on CBS. In 1996, Fox hoped to pair a Generation X series with The X-Files, because the X-marketing just writes itself. But the low-budget tale of Emma Frost and Banshee running their mutant school wasn’t a hit with fans, and it didn’t help that Jubilee, our point-of-view character, was played by Heather McComb, a white actress.
When most non-comic readers picture Nick Fury, they picture Samuel L. Jackson as the man behind the eyepatch. But if Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. had been a ratings hit, David Hasselhoff would be our most enduring live-action image of the man. This 1998 TV movie, scripted by David S. Goyer, served as another of backdoor TV pilot, but fans voted with their eyeballs and said “No” to the ‘Hoff.
An earlier backdoor pilot was 1978’s Dr. Strange, starring Peter Hooten as the Sorcerer Supreme and Jessica Walter (better known to modern audiences as Lucille Bluth) as Morgan Le Fay. Stan Lee was a consultant on the show, and indicated he had more involvement in that TV film than the others in the late ’70s. The film wasn’t picked up for a full series, but Lee didn’t blame the quality of movie or the audience demand for Dr. Strange. Rather, he blamed it on the time slot; Dr. Strange had the bad fortune of airing opposite Roots.
After failing to land the role of Wonder Woman, actress and model Angela Bowie — who was at the time married to David Bowie — acquired the rights to produce a Daredevil/Black Widow TV series in 1975. According to Ms. Bowie, the show was considered too expensive to produce, and never found a production company. But that didn’t stop her from taking some cheesy publicity shots with actor Ben Carruthers, whom she hoped would play the man without fear. Is his mask just painted on there?
Marvel and DC aren’t the only publishers to use TV movies as backdoor pilots; in 1990, Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again aired on NBC. While so many proposed superhero TV shows were prequel series, this was a sequel series, with Archie Andrews returning to Riverdale 15 years after his high school graduation, only to have Betty and Veronica renew their pursuit of him. The hope was that nostalgic adults would gravitate toward a show featuring familiar characters in contemporary situations, but the Archie TV movie ranked 51st in its time slot, ending any hopes for this updated Riverdale.
Michael Kupperman’s limbless comedy duo made its TV debut on Adult Swim in 2009. The pilot featured the crime-solving, criminal beating talents of the hissing Snake and factually accurate Bacon (“Wrap your dog’s pill in me.”), in addition to surreal animated sequences about rabid district attorneys, fruit-wearing teen grandpas and disembodied floating heads in love. Despite featuring Kristen Schaal as a green fairy in a flapper outfit, the show wasn’t picked up as a full series. You can still watch it now at Adult Swim.
Based on the Eltingville Comic-Book, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Role-Playing Club comics from Evan Dorkin’s anthology series Dork!, Welcome to Eltingville aired as a 22-minute pilot on Adult Swim in 2002. Before it aired, Dorkin said he’d love to do a five-episode Eltingville miniseries, but unfortunately, he never got the chance. Adult Swim didn’t pick up the series, and it became one of those pilots they’d air on special occasions alongside Korgoth of Barbaria.
The TV version of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s fantasy horror series Locke & Key may not be dead, but it’s so bruised and battered it seems unlikely to recover. 20th Century Fox greenlit the pilot, which was produced by Dreamworks TV and written by Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles show-runner Josh Friedman. Fox passed on series, apparently in favor of JJ Abrams’ Alcatraz (grumble, grumble). The pilot had its bittersweet debut at last summer’s San Diego Comic-Con, where it received enough acclaim to turn the heads of MTV. Sadly, it seems MTV decided not to purchase the series, and it’s already going down as one of those promising shows that never found a home.