I was over at my father’s this afternoon and he turned on “Emergency!” on MeTV. For my younger readers, “Emergency!” was an hour-long drama from the 1970s about two firefighter/paramedics in Los Angeles and the doctors and nurse who supervised their medical work at a nearby hospital. It was a popular and entertaining show, but it had an even-larger impact on the real world than its ratings would indicate. The show informed the casual viewer about paramedics, an idea that was still in its infancy, and encouraged the creation of paramedic programs in cities and towns across the U.S. It was from Jack Webb’s production company, but an associate of Webb’s named R.A. Cinader was in day-to-day charge of things.
The episode we happened to watch today, however, spent a small amount of time on the regular characters. Instead, it focused on Los Angeles animal control – two officers, one of them played by an impossibly-young Mark Harmon, a veterinarian played by David Huddleston, and a supervisor played by Bing Crosby’s son Gary.
I immediately figured it to be a backdoor pilot – and a quick check of Wikipedia confirmed this.
What’s a backdoor pilot?
Each year, TV networks receive hundreds of proposals for new shows from studios and independent producers. At a certain time of year, each network selects the most promising proposals and orders “pilot episodes” – sample episodes that demonstrate what the show will look like. It’s those pilot episodes that the network uses to decide which ideas it will actually order to series.
Sometimes, pilot episodes are seen by the public. If the show makes it to series, the pilot may – or may not – be used as one of the first-season episodes. However, if the network asked for a lot of changes to the pilot, or if a lot of roles had to be recast, the pilot may never see the light of day, except maybe as a DVD box set extra or what have you. Some cable network – TV Land, maybe – once ran the previously-unaired pilot for “Gilligan’s Island,” which was significantly different from the show which followed it. For example, instead of Ginger being a movie star, Ginger and Mary Ann were secretaries and best friends. There was a high school teacher instead of a professor.
“Star Trek” had a first pilot starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Christopher Pike. NBC disliked numerous things about it but still saw potential, and asked Gene Roddenberry to shoot a then-unheard-of second pilot. By that time, Hunter was unavailable and Roddenberry cast William Shatner instead, changing the character’s name. However, frugal Roddenberry didn’t throw that pilot footage away – he simply declared that Pike had been captain of the Enterprise before James T. Kirk, and that allowed him to use much of the Jeffrey Hunter footage as flashback sequences for a first-season episode of the show.
If a pilot episode is not picked up to become a series, the pilot may be locked away – or maybe shown as a one-time special. A few years ago, there was a very funny pilot, “Mockingbird Lane,” which was a witty re-imagining of “The Munsters” starring Jerry O’Connell and Eddie Izzard. The show was not picked up, but the pilot episode was aired around Halloween as a special.
So that’s a “pilot” – but what is a “backdoor pilot”?
In 1959, Danny Thomas – star of “The Danny Thomas Show” – and his producing partner Sheldon Leonard (Nick the bartender from “It’s A Wonderful Life”) wanted to create a TV show around rising young comic and actor Andy Griffith. They pitched it to CBS, but CBS was not interested enough to put up money to shoot a pilot.
So Thomas and Leonard put their heads together and found a way to shoot a pilot without the network putting up any extra money. They wrote an episode of the show they already had on the air – “The Danny Thomas Show” – in which Danny’s character is traveling through the South and his car breaks down in the small town of Mayberry, North Carolina. Danny is introduced to the town’s sheriff, Andy Taylor, and various other colorful characters.
The strategy worked. Using money already in their budget, they were able to give the network a glimpse of what they were planning even though the network hadn’t funded an official, stand-alone pilot. The network ordered “The Andy Griffith Show” to series, and the rest is history.
This technique of using an episode of an existing show to introduce a potential new one became known as a “backdoor pilot.” The resulting episodes are sometimes clunky and contrived, but that’s the price you pay.
“Emergency!”’s “backdoor pilot” about Los Angeles animal control was not picked up by NBC, and so it remained an unusual – and unusually star-heavy — episode of the show. It was a little bit contrived – the animal control officers rescue a child’s pet goat from a fire, but can’t get it to a veterinary hospital in time to rescue it from heart problems and so must convince a doctor from the normal “Emergency!” cast to operate instead, with the remote radio advice of Huddleston’s kindly veterinarian.
OK, this is probably more than you wanted to know about backdoor pilots. What can I say? Maybe I should propose a pilot episode about the Guy Who Loves To Mansplain Things.