The Disappearance of “Mean Jean” and Other Pilots

The Disappearance of “Mean Jean” and Other Pilots

I suspect your first question might be “What the heck is Mean Jean?” 

As the West Coast half of LezWatch.TV, I do my best to get to any local tapings when they’re open for it. The amazing people at Audiences Unlimited reached out to me over the summer to let me know a new show we might be interested in was airing. At the time, it was an untitled show. For FOX. About a lesbian.

The Untitled Lesbian Show

We’ve been seeing rumblings of this show for a while. The people behind It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia were working on a show about a woman, her ex-husband, and her wife, trying to raise a family. That sounded pretty interesting, and when the pilot taping was moved to be a day I could make, we decided to go.

Then I read the updated log line:

A new untitled FOX comedy from the team behind “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” that follows a woman, her ex-husband, and her new wife who are working together to raise a family in middle America. Leah Remini stars as Jean, who considers herself a patriot who loves her country and firmly believes in everyone’s right to be left alone. Jean in many ways fits the stereotype of a typical conservative. However, she leads a very progressive lifestyle as she is now married to a woman (Kaitlin Olson). Together, they’re raising Jean’s two boys with the help of the boys’ father and Jean’s ex-husband who currently lives in the garage. Co-starring Rob Riggle.

I read that a few times and got a sinking feeling in my gut, that this would be basically a lesbian Roseanne, but not the good one, the bad reboot one.

Then things started to collapse in an odd way. The date of filming was changed three times. The first two I could make, but the last I would be on a plane across the Atlantic for work. With my deepest regrets, I let my friends know I was unable to make it, but please keep me on their list if the date changed again.

The Beginning of the End

When a pilot episode reschedules filming over and over, I start to wonder if they’re making late breaking changes. Was there re-casting? Re-writing? What had gone wrong in rehearsals to make the delays happen? We never really found out why.

The date didn’t change, but weirder than that, the show vanished off the radar. All I was able to find out was that the show was “not going forward.” Thus the show is abandoned with nothing more than an IMDb credit to its history.

The reality is that it’s incredibly common for a show to make it all the way to pilot and never progress.

Why Do Pilots Vanish?

This is not an uncommon occurrence. A number of amazing looking pilots drop off the face of the earth without any warning. They film, they edit, they end. Much of this depends on the type of pilot they are.

Shows are picked up for a variety of reasons. There are often new shows that are simply pitched as-is without a pilot being filmed at all, but since that doesn’t happen all the time, it may help to understand what the different types of pilots are.

  • Standard pilot
    • Presentation: If a show isn’t picked up by it’s premise, they may film a quick 1-day pilot
    • Broadcast: This is the one we’re used to seeing, where the first episode is filmed in air-quality.
    • Demo: Similar to the presentation, this isn’t meant to be aired. It’s low quality and shorter than a normal episode
  • Backdoor pilot
    • Spin-offs: You’ve seen TV shows that are spin-offs. Well, this is often how they get made. It was hugely popular in the 1970s and 1980s, where one stand-alone episode on a series would be really different, with brand new characters, and the new show would be picked up based on that episode’s results. Batwoman would be an example of this.
    • Movie or MiniSeries: The other popular kind of backdoor pilot is a made-for-tv movie or short series. This is far more rare.
  • Unintentional pilot – These are weird, but it helps if you remember that The Simpsons used to be a short on The Tracy Ullman Show, and from that became a series.
  • Put pilot – This is a pilot the network has committed to airing, one way or another. That means if it films it will either see the light of day or the network will pay a lot of money.
  • Unsold pilot – This is when we have a pilot that a film studio makes but is unable to sell to a network.

Unless a pilot is a put-pilot, we may never see it. Which means a lot of shows hit this wall and disappear. Pilots aren’t always made by TV networks, you see. This is best explained by the move of Brooklyn Nine-Nine to NBC. While the show aired on Fox originally, the studio that filmed it was owned by NBC. When the show reached 100 episodes, the threshold for syndication, it would cost more money for Fox to air. They decided not to pay, and the show was canceled.

Many networks would rather use in-house studios, ones they have an ongoing deal with, to keep costs low. They only pay the studio, after all.

It’s a Gamble

It’s hard to tell from one episode if a series will work. While Netflix and Hulu often make put-series orders, that’s exceptionally rare. On streaming media, it’s easier for the whole show to get a full series without airing a pilot, as the ratings don’t matter until renewal. For network TV, however, the ratings are everything. Low ratings means it’s harder to sell advertising space, and network TV needs those to survive.

Being able to pick a winner TV show from a script is a phenomenal skill. Not all stories translate well to screen and much of a show’s success is based on the chemistry of the cast. That’s why those tests, where they check if two actors work well together, are so important. As are the test audiences who see what the creators can’t.

Finally it’s up to the network to decide the worth. It a network (or it’s executives) don’t like a show, or the premise, it’s never going to see the light of day. This is why some networks have nothing but the same type of shows, over and over. And the more toxic a network is … well. You get the idea.

In the end, it seems like a miracle any series gets made at all, with all those hurdles. So don’t be surprised when a pilot you hear about vanishes. It’s expected.

About Mika A. Epstein

Mika has been deep in fandom since she could say 'Trekkie.' With decades experience in running fansites, developing software, and organizing communities, she's taken on the challenge of delving into the recesses of television for queers long forgotten. Making this site with Tracy is nothing short of serendipity. Mika lives with her wife and their cats in Southern California. Of course she has a hybrid, but she'd rather ride her bicycle.
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