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Frontdoor Backdoor Pilots


 

Tonight’s episode of Bones is a “backdoor pilot,” an episode where the main characters team up with a new guy. This guy is better than anyone else at something specific (in this case, finding people), so you know he’s meant to be a TV hero. There’s a new location, and a corresponding shift in focus to people we haven’t seen before. So many people would probably guess, as the show went on, that it was meant to set up a potential new series. What’s different from the way backdoor pilots used to be done: no one is disguising it. Items have been planted about the coming spinoff pilot, creator Hart Hanson has talked about it, warning fans that “when this goes on the air, there’s going to be a loud group of people who hate” the new characters, and the star of the pilot, Geoff Stults, did a long interview where he teases the fact that this episode will upset the ‘shippers:

There definitely is [tension between Brennan and his character] and ‘Bones’ fans are probably like “Oh my God! Please don’t let them hook up! It’s got to be Booth and Bones!” I’m going to get killed here!

All these elements are familiar from decades of backdoor or “stealth” pilots (including the possibility that one of your leads might be attracted to the new character; if that’s not possible, at least have the established characters admire the new character a lot). But networks and producers used to disguise the fact that that was what they were doing, because it might drive viewers away if they knew they were going to be watching a new hero. The usual spot to put this kind of episode was in the last episode of the season, which before the Season Finale concept took hold was often used for filler episodes: hence, Star Trek‘s Assignment Earth was the last episode of the second season, and Mary Tyler Moore ended its second season with a failed attempt to create a new show for Bill Daily.

Today, though, viewers are more familiar with Tropes(tm), there are more TV critics who can point these things out online, and it’s all going to come out anyway; it would be hard to disguise a planted spinoff until that magic moment, 10-20 minutes in, when we realize we’re spending an awful lot of time with somebody new. So it probably makes sense to just be up front about it and present it as a change-of-pace episode, a chance to see our regular heroes against a new backdrop and in new surroundings. And at the very least, testing a pilot on millions of people probably means a little bit more than testing it on focus groups. I said “a little bit,” not a lot.

Here’s the introduction of a show that was introduced as a backdoor pilot, and actually went to series (and the star, Dennis “Adam Sandler’s Director Buddy” Dugan got to make a return appearance on the parent show after this one was canceled). As a bonus, it features a song that is blatantly imitation Beach Boys even by Mike Post’s standards.


 
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Frontdoor Backdoor Pilots

  1. And to link it to your last post Rober Hogan looks a bit like Norm MacDonald.

  2. The other character inrroduced in a backdoor pilot on The Rockford Files was of course Lance White. His show never went to series, but the character does seem to have sold somebody on the idea of Tom Selleck as a tropical detective.

    • I never really thought of Lance as an intended spinoff character, if only because he's such a hilariously over-the-top parody of bad detective-show clichés. But in the episode where they brought him back along with pathetic wannabe detective Beamer (James Whitmore Jr.) it did seem like they were testing the waters for a potential spinoff for one or both of those characters. That same season on the same show, David Chase brought back those Sopranos-ish guys from "The Jersey Bounce" and tried to spin them off, so it's clear the writers were looking for a possible spinoff with the end of the series in sight.

  3. The Partridge Family did that with the last episode of the first season. They met a guy who could write music (Bobby Sherman) and found a guy who could write lyrics (Wes Stern) and got them to team up. The series debut that fall and was called Getting Together. It has the misfortune of being placed against All In The Family on Saturday nights. It lasted until the following January.

  4. It's always interesting when the backdoor pilot doesn't lead to a full series, but since it was an episode of a long-running show, is included in that show's syndication package and pops up in reruns. So rarely do you have a chance to see unsold pilots. It can be interesting to stumble across one, and see if you can figure out why it didn't sell.

    Take the pilot for Empty Nest, for example (which is included among the Golden Girls reruns, as it was initially an episode of that show). It of course eventually did go to series, but only after the premise was heavily re-tooled. You can see for yourself the original premise (an aging couple adjusting to living by themselves after their grown children have left home) was kinda dull. The re-worked one (widowed dad has his grown daughters move back home with him) had a good deal more potential.

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