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Great TV Shows That Managed To Survive A Terrible Pilot

It should go without saying that a great television series usually has a pretty incredible start right out of the gate, especially since most shows are sold on the strength of their pilots alone. Whether a network's or studio's interest is piqued by a script, a filmed pilot, or just a presentation at the yearly upfronts, a pilot is supposed to build an entire world, introduce audiences to brand new characters with whom they'll fall in love, and get them hooked on a new story ... but sometimes it doesn't work that way.

Some shows, like Lost and Cheers, drew in crowds immediately thanks to incredibly confident starts, but there are plenty of shows where the pilot left something to be desired or just didn't give a good indication of what the show would eventually become. However, many series with sub-par or even flat-out terrible pilots ended up becoming beloved, so here are just a few examples of TV shows that survived despite their humble beginnings.

The 30 Rock pilot got off to a rocky start

One of the most joke-packed sitcoms of the 21st century, Tina Fey's workplace comedy 30 Rock made the former Saturday Night Live star an official household name, earning Emmy nominations and awards along the way. Fey played the lead role of Liz Lemon, the head writer of an ailing sketch show who's constantly trying (and failing) to have it all. She's also surrounded by a group of buffoonish writers, difficult stars, an incredibly successful boss, and an overly-involved NBC page. The show moved at a breakneck pace while maintaining its definitively offbeat tone, providing some of the funniest and most absurd moments to ever air on network television.

Despite eventually running for seven seasons and winning multiple Emmys, 30 Rock got off to a weak start with an underwhelming pilot that barely featured Alec Baldwin (who plays one of the show's strongest characters). The pilot didn't fare well with critics, and Fey herself critiqued the first episode in her book Bossypants, calling it "awkward" and "sweaty." Most critics at the time surmised that 30 Rock would fare poorly against its Aaron Sorkin-run rival, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but in the end, Studio 60 got the ax while 30 Rock moved past its awkward first outing.

The Office pilot felt unoriginal

It seems unimaginable that one of the most popular comedies on television was once a humble mid-season replacement that most critics thought was a uniformly terrible idea, but clearly, The Office managed to move on from its first few stumbles and become one of the most rewatched, memeified, and beloved shows of all time. Over nine seasons, viewers fell in love with the employees of Dunder Mifflin, led by Steve Carell as the well-meaning but inept Michael Scott until he left the show in the seventh season, and as the show continued, it was often easy to forget that the entire story was a direct adaptation of a British TV show of the same name.

However, if you watch the pilot, you'll definitely be reminded of the original, and that's for a very specific reason: American showrunner Greg Daniels designed it that way. Daniels said his decision was strategic so they wouldn't be taking too big of a risk right out of the gate, but critics responded negatively, which makes sense considering that it seemed like Daniels and his crew simply copied and pasted a British Office script. Luckily, the show made up for this stumble right away in its gut-bustingly funny (and original) second episode, "Diversity Day." Still, it feels appropriate for Michael Scott to have made a bad first impression and then become a part of television history.

The Parks and Recreation pilot felt like an Office rip-off

If The Office was a perfect example of how to not start a show, its immediate successor, Parks and Recreation, unfortunately followed in its footsteps. Throughout six seasons, Parks became completely beloved in its own right, telling the story of a super passionate government employee named Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her unwilling yet eternally faithful coworkers, including the stubborn Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), the overly ambitious Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), and total puppy dog Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt). Created by Michael Schur and Greg Daniels, two of the main minds behind The Office, the mockumentary format definitely made it seem like a direct knockoff of its predecessor, and the pilot definitely didn't help matters.

The pilot faced some negative pre-broadcast feedback before its ultimate release to wider audiences, and some critics expressed their concern that it just wasn't ready to air. Even when it did, some critics said what everyone was already thinking: Parks hadn't tried hard enough to distinguish Leslie Knope from The Office's Michael Scott. In the end, Parks found success with its second season and never looked back, so it's a good thing that both fans and critics gave it a chance to grow before passing too much judgment.

The How I Met Your Mother pilot can't compare to the rest of the show

In the aftermath of Friends, everyone was trying to find the next buddy sitcom, and CBS ended up striking gold with How I Met Your Mother, a multi-camera, laugh track show that maintained many of the same elements as Friends. The show starred a close-knit group of comrades that included tough Canadian Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders), typical playboy Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris), and, of course, the romantic narrator Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor), all of whom live and love in New York. With a bunch of great characters, the show felt like Friends, but with a different framework and plenty of interesting twists as Ted tells his children how he met their mother.

Eventually, How I Met Your Mother proved to be a dense show full of relatively complicated mythology and careful plotting (laugh track notwithstanding), but the pilot might have betrayed that at first glance. While the first episode wasn't as openly awful as the finale, it had none of the spirit of the rest of the show, keeping things super simple and painting characters with the broadest strokes possible. While the series would go on to find its footing, that first episode almost made everyone change the channel and never come back. 

The new Doctor Who pilot was a dud

If you're listing the longest-running and most beloved shows of all time, your list would be incomplete without Doctor Who, the time-traveling British show that has been on the international airwaves since 1963. The series centers on the Doctor, a regenerating and ageless Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who zips around inside the TARDIS, a world-crossing phone booth. To date, there have been 13 doctors, starting with William Hartnell and stretching all the way to the first-ever female Doctor, currently played by Broadchurch's Jodie Whitaker.

The show was canceled in 1989 but revived in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston in the titular role. Unfortunately for excited viewers, Eccleston didn't give his all. While the first episode isn't the wort thing ever made, Eccleston's performance leaves much to be desired. In fact, the actor has been quite vocal about his dislike for the show, even claiming he was "blacklisted" by the BBC when he immediately left the show after the end of the first series. Luckily, David Tennant soon picked up the sonic screwdriver to become one of the most beloved Doctors ever, basically erasing any memory of the pilot and Eccleston's half-hearted performance.

The original Game of Thrones pilot made no sense

Since airing its final episode in May 2019, Game of Thrones has cemented its legacy as one of the biggest television shows of all time, thanks to its incredible action set pieces, powerful leading performances, and complex mythology. Despite an ultimately lackluster final season, Thrones has earned its place as one of the most beloved series of all time, thanks in large part to the storytelling by showrunners David Benioff and D.B Weiss, as well as leading performances by incredible actors like Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, and Maisie Williams.

With a reputation like that, it seems impossible that Thrones could've had a bad pilot, and technically, that's true. However, there's an original pilot that never made it to air, and we should all be very grateful it was violently murdered by the showrunners. The casting changed quite a bit between the two different versions — both Tamsin Merchant and Jennifer Ehle lost their roles as Daenerys Targaryen and Catelyn Stark to Emilia Clarke and Michelle Fairly, respectively — and apparently, the unseen version is just plain awful. Even Benioff and Weiss hated their own pilot, saying the plot was incomprehensible and the relationships between characters was unclear. Benioff said that he and Weiss "made every possible mistake" while filming the episode, and it was evidently so bad that watching the original pilot was "one of the most experiences" of his life.

The pilot of The Wire was a little weak

Known as one of the best television shows ever made, HBO's The Wire chronicled the drug trade in central Baltimore, providing a gritty look at the city's seedy underbelly, and how the worlds of politics, education, and drug dealing were all intermingled. Ostensibly a crime drama, The Wire never spared its audiences from the real, emotional stories of its characters, earning it a place in the annals of television greatness. Even with all of these accolades, it didn't get off to a particularly great start.

That's not to say The Wire's pilot was necessarily a bad episode of television. Still, it pales in comparison to the rest of the series. Granted, the show never trafficked in particularly fast pacing, but the pilot was fairly slow as it built the world and introduced its most essential characters. Plus, the pilot throws in a few odd choices like an unnecessary flashback that even showrunner David Simon hated. 

So while the show is hailed as a masterpiece today, some critics at the time were concerned viewers would give up on The Wire thanks to the pilot's pacing, its awkward attempts at realistic dialogue, and the clichéd focus on the detectives' personal lives. Fortunately, the series survived due to the strength of the episodes after the pilot, and soon, The Wire would become a synonym for "best TV show ever."

The Seinfeld pilot was missing a key character

The infamous "show about nothing," NBC's prize sitcom Seinfeld has impacted pop culture in a huge way thanks to its most quotable moments, completely unforgettable scenes, and perfect performances. The core cast — made up of Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Richards, Jason Alexander, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus — left audiences howling with laughter, and the show gifted us with holidays like Festivus, terms like "spongeworthy" and "yadda yadda yadda," and memorable phrases like "no soup for you!" That being said, if you started Seinfeld from the very beginning, you might not even recognize the show we all came to know and love.

First off, the pilot was pretty universally disliked among studio executives, who described it as "too New York" and assumed it would never appeal to non-East Coast audiences. But the biggest thing that held Seinfeld's pilot back from greatness was its casting. Originally, actress Lee Garlington was supposed to provide the series with a female perspective as Claire the waitress. However, once the show was picked up for a full first season, Louis-Dreyfus was added to the cast as Elaine, which proved to be her career-defining role. And without Louis-Dreyfus, it's hard to imagine Seinfeld becoming such a monumental success.

The Happy Endings pilot was really just meh

When Happy Endings premiered in 2011, it probably looked like yet another Friends knockoff, especially considering it featured a group of three men and three women in various romantic situations (only this time, they were in Los Angeles instead of Manhattan). Created by David Caspe and Jonathan Groff (not the Tony Award-nominated star of Mindhunter, but a producer who had previously worked on Scrubs), the show let its characters reach weirder and weirder heights throughout its short run, but ABC essentially allowed the show to die an early death, leaving fans absolutely heartbroken.

Based on the pilot alone, however, it would make sense that critics and audiences might not think the show was worth a full season order, let alone three full seasons. During the first episode, which features Dave (Zachary Knighton) and Alex's (Elisha Cuthbert) wedding, Alex leaves Dave at the altar, creating friction between the friend group. While this seems like a decent shake-up, the pilot never let any of the characters move beyond obvious stereotypes, with critics calling it a middling sitcom without much merit. The show moved beyond these original reviews, but unfortunately, it suffered a typical network fate. Still, fans are still hoping for an eventual reunion down the line.