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Most Unrecognizable Pilots From Hit TV Shows

Often, the shows we love were very different when they started out. Occasionally, their pilot episodes end up going unaired and prompting a complete retooling before the series makes its debut; other times, they're simply almost unrecognizable from the show in its later glory. These pilot episodes presented shows that ended up looking very different when they finally hit their stride on the airwaves.

The X-Files

Looking back, it's amazing that X-Files became as successful as it did. On paper, the show is something of a dud, with a lonely man and detached woman chasing down every campfire tale and spooky story they can find; however, the onscreen chemistry between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson was undeniable, and they made chasing down gray-skinned aliens and running from black-suited government officials look cool. Most of the series retained the elements that made the show such a hit. The pilot episode, however, is something that even the most unflappable FBI agent would find downright alien.

To start with, the episode doesn't have the usual opening credits, nor the haunting theme by Mark Snow. In its place, the show had a disclaimer saying it was based on real events. Also, while the pilot features many of our familiar supporting characters such as the Cigarette Smoking Man, there was no Walter Skinner; in his place, we had Division Chief Blevins, a character who'd soon be replaced by Skinner and only brought back later for a dramatic reveal about a governmental conspiracy.

There was also a surprising amount of intimacy in the pilot: while the series spent a lot of effort keeping its central characters romantically separated and only teasing at their relationship until close to the end of its long run, this episode features Scully in her skivvies being examined by Mulder—and she also refers to him by his first name, Fox, whereas the rest of the series mostly had the two referring to each other by last name.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

It's tough to fully gauge just how deeply Buffy the Vampire Slayer has pierced pop culture. The show proved it was possible to do longer-form storytelling via major arcs (a break from the highly episodic structure that was the '90s norm) as well as making it cool to focus seasons around major villains. For better or for worse, the show helped bring vampires back into the pop culture vogue—and of course, Buffy made Joss Whedon a household name before he went on to permanently change comic book movies with The Avengers. All of which makes it that much more surprising to look back on Buffy's pilot episode.

One quickly noticeable difference is that the show doesn't have the rollicking opening theme by Nerf Herder; in fact, it has no theme at all. The logo for the show is in an entirely different font, and the show itself is shorter, coming in around half the runtime of the later episodes. There are some other minor differences, such as the high school having a different name (Berryman instead of Sunnydale), and if you squint, you'll notice the dusting effect on vampires is different from what would later be used.

You don't have to squint to notice the two biggest differences, though. Buffy sports brunette hair instead of her familiar blonde—and she's still more recognizable than Willow, as our favorite future wizard is played by Riff Regan rather than the unforgettable Alyson Hannigan.

Big Bang Theory

The Big Bang Theory just won't die. It regularly gets renewed for multiple seasons at a time, and the announcement of a spinoff show focusing on the young life of main character Sheldon makes it look like an honest-to-God Big Bang universe is being created. Part of what makes the series so popular is the unique cast and their solidly established characters, but the show was once very different: in Big Bang Theory's unaired pilot episode, only a couple of our familiar characters appeared, and they'd would be downright unrecognizable to later fans of the series.

The pilot episode didn't include fan favorites Raj or Howard at all. More importantly, there was no Penny. Instead, the main female character is Katie, played by Amanda Walsh instead of Kaley Cuoco. A bad breakup has left her character homeless, so Leonard and Sheldon (our only familiar characters or actors in the entire pilot) invite her to live with them. Another major difference is Sheldon: while the Leonard of the pilot is very similar to the character we came to know later, Sheldon is introduced after he's made a deposit at the sperm bank, where he was assisted by a magazine featuring women with big butts (a fetish of his). It's almost impossible to imagine the nearly-sexless germophobe Sheldon of the regular series visiting a sperm bank, let alone actively lusting after women.

Star Trek: The Original Series

Having recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, Star Trek is a franchise that seems like it'll never die. It's been relaunched and re-imagined several different ways over the years, but everyone remembers the original series that started it all—the show that turned Captain Kirk, Commander Spock, and Dr. McCoy into household names and forever changed the sci-fi landscape. But the world's first glimpse of Star Trek would be nearly unrecognizable to later fans, as it had an almost completely different cast.

Instead of Captain Kirk, the Enterprise in the Trek pilot is commanded by the serious and straightforward Captain Pike (a character reinvented with the 2009 Star Trek reboot). Dr. McCoy is nowhere to be seen; in his place is Dr. Boyce, who's as likely to serve the crew a drink as he is to give them a hypospray. Spock is actually around in the pilot, but he's a bit more emotional than usual, openly smiling as he goes about his work. And he's also not the first officer—that honor falls to a woman known only as Number One, and played by George Roddenberry's wife, Majel Barrett Roddenberry. In addition to all of these crew differences, there are some minor tech differences, too, with the crew wielding lasers instead of their familiar phasers.

Unlike some other shows that went through significant changes after the pilot, Trek didn't make a big deal out of hiding its roots: the original series two-part episode "The Menagerie" actually reused footage from the pilot, dropping that episode into a quasi-canonical status that fans still argue about.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Compared to the first episode filmed for the original series, the next generation of Trek has a much more recognizable pilot. All of the major crew members are present, each character has the name they'll use later, and the pilot follows the general (if not terribly original) premise of boldly going where no one has gone before. At the same time, the pilot episode is basically Exhibit A in the case of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation being wildly different from the version of the show most fans remember.

First up is the Worf of things. Worf is still in the show, serving as a visual reminder of the attempt that Starfleet has made to move on from their previous conflicts with the Klingon Empire. At the same time, he's little more than a lackey to Tasha Yar, the Security Chief played by Denise Crosby. Geordi is also in a very different role, serving as the helmsman of the ship. And while the gag of having the blind dude driving the Enterprise is pretty funny, it's weird to see Geordi, like Worf, in red instead of yellow and far away from his beloved warp engines.

There are some more minor changes, too, including Data using contractions and the show starting with the opening credits rather than the traditional cold open. Troi is seemingly presented as a full telepath in this episode, though she's later demoted to only empathic. Finally, the tone of the episode is overall strange: Picard risks the entire crew getting Riker to manually rejoin the ship to its saucer section, and the Enterprise casually fires on a planet to give some energy to a dormant alien, presumably risking countless lives. Throw in a serious and belligerent Q (very out of step with most of his whimsical later appearances), and much of this is downright unrecognizable to longtime fans.

30 Rock

A beloved cult classic during its run on NBC, 30 Rock boasted an incredibly talented cast, but much of the show's humor revolved around the relationship between Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski). However, in the show's unaired pilot, Krakowski is nowhere to be found.

Liz Lemon is here, already navigating her weird personal and professional relationship with boss Jack Donaghy. Even the hapless page Kenneth puts in an appearance. However, in place of Krakowski's character is Jenna DeCarlo, played by Rachel Dratch. Dratch's Jenna is very different from the one we'd eventually get—she's a gruff brunette who can't quite believe her own success (as opposed to Jenna Maroney, who basically believes she's owed the world). Krakowski was substituted in for the actual show, but this didn't stop Fey from using Dratch in a number of 30 Rock cameo roles over the years.

Saved By the Bell

Following the breakout success of the original show, Saved By the Bell spawned a slew of offshoots, including Saved By the Bell: The College Years, which followed our familiar cast of characters as they conveniently attended the same college following their high school graduation. There was also Saved By the Bell: The New Class, which brought back Mr. Belding and Screech to help shepherd in a new generation of teens. In between were some made-for-TV movies that sent the cast to Hawaii and marked the marriage of Zack and Kelly. In retrospect, it's easy to be jaded about all this Saved By the Bell media—but the truth is, even the original Saved By the Bell was a spinoff of sorts.

Before it all, there was Good Morning, Miss Bliss, which focused on the titular teacher (played by Hayley Mills) and lacked familiar faces like Kelly, Slater, or Zack. Interestingly, the pilot featured a collection of future stars, including Seaquest DSV star Jonathan Brandis, Beverly Hills 90210's Brian Austin Green, and even Steve Urkel himself, Jaleel White. Along with a different Mr. Belding (played by Oliver Clark), Miss Bliss and its pilot navigate some pretty heavy stuff, including the discovery that Jonathan Brandis' character has a dying brother.

The show changed quickly after that episode, leading to a season of Good Morning, Miss Bliss that brought in characters like Zack, Lisa, and Screech instead of the students seen in the pilot. Unhappy with the ratings, NBC reinvented the series yet again as—you guessed it—Saved By the Bell, complete with the cast fans would come to know and love.

New Girl

Everybody's familiar with New Girl, right? It's the story of Zooey Deschanel's Jess and her friends Nick, Schmidt, and Bishop. Their dynamic is crystallized pretty early on, which is part of what makes the pilot episode so weird. While most of these characters and elements are already present in the plot, Bishop is absent. In his place is the character of Coach, played by Damon Wayans, Jr.

Wayans, as it turns out, was cast because he assumed that his other show, Happy Endings, would be canceled—and when it was renewed, he needed to leave, making way for Lamorne Morris to replace him. Interestingly, the show didn't say goodbye to Coach, bringing him back for the occasional cameo and an entire later season. He always seems to have one foot out the door as a character, though, even though the pilot made it look like we we'd be seeing Coach's interactions with these characters for the entirety of the show's run.

Three's Company

Like All in the Family, perennial '70s hit Three's Company had not one, not two, but a whopping three different pilot episodes. John Ritter was still in the first episode, but he went by the name of David Bell rather than Jack Tripper. Instead of moving in with Janet and Chrissy, he lives with Jenny and Samantha. But the studio didn't love the chemistry of the cast, so they reshuffled the deck around Ritter and shot a second pilot. That episode was close, but no cigar: Ritter was now paired with second-pilot survivor Joyce DeWitt, but the producers wanted someone else for the character of Chrissy. The third time was the charm for Three's Company, with Suzanne Somers filling out the original (yet also rather short-lived) cast of a show that would last for eight seasons and help redefine the future of TV sitcoms.

All in the Family

For TV viewers of a certain age, All in the Family remains an utterly unforgettable show. Airing throughout most of the '70s and lingering in slightly altered form into the early '80s, this classic sitcom introduced us to Archie Bunker, an aging and angry patriarch who often clashes with the progressive values of his daughter and her boyfriend. It may seem quaint now, but the show perfectly symbolized the disparity between the culture and values of two very different generations, and the show stayed topical by boldly addressing everything from Vietnam to rape—not the typical fodder for a situational comedy. However, it took several attempts before the show struck its now-familiar balance, and the early pilots (all three of them) were sometimes very different from the eventual final product.

The original iteration had an entirely different name: Justice for All (per Vulture). Certain elements would be familiar to later fans, such as the character of Archie, but he had the name Archie Justice instead. This early version still had the original actors for Archie and his wife Edith (Carol O'Connor and Jean Stapleton, respectively), but they didn't exactly spark with their onscreen daughter and son-in-law, so they tried again with a new pilot called Those Were the Days, which kept the older actors but replaced the younger ones, keeping the script largely as it was. ABC ultimately passed on the show, and it landed at CBS, where it was retitled All in the Family. The younger actors were recast for the final time, with Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers stepping in, and the rest was television history.