Saturday, March 10, 2012

Failure to Launch: Unsuccessful TV Pilots – L.A. Confidential and The Time Tunnel

Over the past month, hundreds of actors and actresses have descended upon Hollywood for what is called pilot season. Each year, all the studios commission and shoot dozens of pilots for potential TV series. Most of them never see the light of day since there's only a few shows that make it to air, and most of them get cancelled before too long too (Terra Nova, The Event and soon I really fear, Awake). Sometimes, a pilot seems like a no-brainer. Based on a hit movie, a project gets the green light hoping that lightening will strike twice. Sometimes, someone has the idea of resurrecting (or 'rebooting,” in the current parlance) an old TV series, dusting it off and hoping nostalgia for it might catch the attention of those who make the decisions about what will and what will not make it to air. For every M*A*S*H or Battlestar Galatica, there is an L.A. Confidential and The Time Tunnel.

Long rumoured, but never seen until the 2-disc version of the feature film came out on DVD in 2008, was the pilot for the proposed series based on Curtis Hanson's superb L.A. Confidential (A side note. I think Hanson's L.A. Confidential is one of the best, if not the best picture Hollywood released in the 1990s). Shot in 2000, three years after the feature film's release, the TV L.A. Confidential starred Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Vincennes (played by Kevin Spacey in the film), David Conrad as Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), Josh Hopkins as Bud White (Russell Crowe), Melissa George as Lynn Bracket (Kim Basinger), Eric Roberts as Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn) and Pruitt Taylor Vince as Sid Hudgens (Danny Devito). There was promise here because the cast was a good mix of TV and film talent, and the pilot was written by Walon Green, a long-time writer on the various Law and Order shows and screenwriter of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. So why didn't it go to series? After watching this on the 2-Disc DVD I can see why they passed on it, because almost everything went wrong.

Cast - TV pilot L.A. Confidential
One of the most disastrous decisions was to make Sutherland's Vincennes not the corrupt hipster involved in the world of Hollywood TV as in the movie, but as a morose, guilt-ridden cop trying to make amends for a bad choice he made in the first minute of the pilot. You can see where this came from (it was the same turn that happens to Vincennes half way through the movie), but by starting there, after a brief glimpse of corruption, they leave the character with practically no where to go. They also make his character too much like the feature's Bud White. Other problems. Vince's Hudgens is no longer the giddily lascivious (but funny) creep he was in the film. Vince chose a low-key, almost bored approach to his narration and role as the publisher of Hush-Hush magazine. Conrad, as Exley, tries to do a riff on Pearce's earnestness in the film, but he ends up coming across as a pathetic weasel. Hopkins as White is okay because he is close to the film version, but Hopkins brings none of the nearly out-of-control rage Crowe showed in the part. The less said about Eric Roberts the better. The only rethink of a character that was remotely intriguing is the take they have on Lynn Bracken. Here, they roll her character back in time where, instead of already being part of the Patchett's prostitution ring as she was in the movie, she is introduced as the ingenue just off the bus from Texas. Her wide-eyed innocence works because, if we had seen the film, we know what became of her. To see where she started out could have been interesting. The last problem was that the series really didn't set up much of a through-line for what the show would be about, so after introducing the character tropes and a few incidents the pilot ended with a “To Be Continued...” No, it wasn't.

It is one thing to try not to copy the source material too much, but it is another thing entirely to almost completely abandon what the film was doing. The pilot was so bad that it was easy for The Suits to pass on it, plus they could always claim it would have been too costly to run a series set in the streets of L.A. in the 1950s. Besides, this left Sutherland open to do 24 whose pilot was shot the very next spring.

Title Card - 2002 pilot The Time Tunnel

In many ways, The Time Tunnel was the complete reverse of L.A. Confidential. The original Time Tunnel was a cheeseball show from the 1960s created by disaster specialist Irwin Allen (The Towering Inferno, The Swarm, etc.). Nobody thought it was a good show. As a child, I remember liking it a lot, but I was six or seven when it was on the air. The whole series scraped through two seasons until the axe finally fell. It became a bit of a cult classic, so that was probably why they released it on DVD in 2005. As a bonus on the DVD for Season Two was the failed 2002 pilot for a reboot of the series. If the old saying that you can't make a great movie from a great book, but you can make a great movie from a bad book, the same may hold true for TV series. The feature film of L.A. Confidential was great; the pilot was crap. The original Time Tunnel was turgid, but fun; the failed pilot had a huge amount of potential.

Writer Rand Ravich
The 2002 version mostly jettisons everything about the original except that the tunnel is a super secret military operation. In the pilot, David Conrad (yes, him again) plays Doug Phillips, an ex-Marine who is working in a dull job in the Department of Energy. He's a family man who clearly loves his wife and children. He is also recognized as an expert in a late World War II battle. At the start of the pilot we immediately see that things are amiss. The stop lights are reversed to what we know, green is stop, red is go. There are 49 states in the US, not 50, etc. On the radio, a conspiracy nut rants on about something called The 240. Nobody comments on any of this, as this is clearly the norm in this world, except to laugh at the conspiracy nut. There is an elegance in the writing here, by Rand Ravich who went on to create the respected, but short-lived TV series Life with Damien Lewis. Ravich manages to pile a whole lot of useful information into a very short period of time. He establishes with a few quick strokes Phillips's appealing relationship with his family before he is whisked away by the military (as a marine, Phillips was still in the reserves). Phillips is told very little other than being introduced to Toni Newman (Rescue Me's Andrea Roth), and that there has been 'an incident' (a small nod to the line from the original The Andromeda Strain where characters are told 'there's a wild fire').

He was brought to a super-secret military facility where he's told the military was working on a hot fusion project, a project that would eliminate the need to use fossil fuels. The project, of course, goes haywire, creating an out-of-control time storm. The storm essentially picks up people from one time period and drops them into another. Since they are never meant to be there in the first place, their presence causes a butterfly effect (a simple thing causing a huge ripple in the present, changing things such as the 50 US states suddenly becoming 49). Anybody who was near the facility when the first time storm hit remembers things as they really were (red meant stop, not green); everybody else, like Phillips, doesn't. The incident lasts 240 seconds, or The 240 (remember the conspiracy nut?) and the effects of it are the only things that cannot be changed. At mission control, time storms can be tracked and the team knows when a new ripple occurs causing damage in the past. They then have a short period to go back in time to fix the problem and make sure nothing else goes wrong in the present. In this case, their mission is to find someone from the 15th century who has been picked up by the time storm and dropped into the middle of the battle in WWII. That person changes the outcome of the battle somehow, so the team members have to travel back to the event, find this person and stop whatever changes they caused.

Actor David Conrad
Phillips gets recruited because he was ex-marine and an expert in this battle. With little time left before the next time storm hit, Phillips gets pulled quickly into the project.  So quickly, in fact, that they miss an important detail about why he knows this period. When Phillips goes back in time with the team, mission control then discovers too late what that detail is. Conrad (who later went on to success in Ghost Whisperer) is very good in these sequences (in fact, unlike in L.A. Confidential, he's very good throughout) where we discover the personal reasons he knows this battle. Writer Ravich also quickly and effectively covers over details such as time paradox, how the team members could all travel back in time and speak all the languages they would encounter, and how the team could be followed verbally and visually from mission control in the present day. It is also frequently funny. At one point, Phillips and Newman have to 'drop trou' and pretend to be doing the wild thing when a German troop encounters them. Phillips glances over at the briefly nude Newman. Newman catches him and says, “FYI, everytime you sneak a look at my ass 100 people back at mission control get a good look too.”

There are also some touching things established here about what impact the 240 seconds has on those who remember it as it was. This includes Newman who told Phillips what she lost. At the end, Phillips also discovered something about what he lost/gained as a result of this incident.

It doesn't all work. For example, one piece of casting was a bit of a mistake. Actress Tamny Cypress is cast as a CIA operative who travels back in time with the team on their missions. The problem? Not her acting, she plays tough broad well, but Cypress is a black woman. That's a problem if she is going to be travelling back in time to multiple periods with the team when a black woman would constantly encounter racial bigotry. It would continually put the team in some sort of unnecessary jeopardy. Perhaps that might have become an intriguing subplot of one of the episodes, but we will never know.

Forgetting that minor quibble, there was a ton of meat here to build a series upon. Why this shot-in-Vancouver show never went to air is anybody's guess. The writing is terrific, director Tom Holland shot the action well, the effects were not bad and the acting was generally very good. I think a couple of things might have put the kibbosh on it. One, Fox Network has never been the bravest network around (and this could have been pretty tough stuff at times, for what they probably thought was to be a piece of fluff), so they weren't willing to take a chance on doing a show based on an old cheesy SF TV series. Who would want to watch that? I should note this was one year before the pilot movie for Battlestar Galatica was shot and went on to become a cultural phenomena.

Where the L.A. Confidential pilot blew it by not adhering close enough to the ideas of the original idea, I think it was plain old fashioned “nobody knows anything, ever” (as screenwriter William Goldman said so long ago about people in Hollywood) that prevented the potentially terrific reboot of The Time Tunnel to make it to air.

The full pilot for The Time Tunnel is on YouTube; for L.A. Confidential's you have to pick up the very fine 2-disc set for the feature film. The latter pilot will disappoint, the former will make you mourn what could have been.

– David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you about the pilot for The Time Tunnel. I just saw it the other day and really enjoyed it. While I was looking into it I thought I read that the network opted to pick up Firefly instead of The Time Tunnel that year, so in the end it's kind of a toss up for me. I just wish there was some way that could have had a shot, though.