A good TV show can go on for nine or ten seasons (sometimes more). This allows us to spend literally hundreds of hours with our favorite characters, cheerfully watching them grow from the pilot to the series finale.
It’s hard to believe that a lot of our most beloved characters almost didn’t exist. If you go back and watch the pilot for some of your favorite shows you’ll find that your favorite stars are almost unrecognizable. If you go even further, you can see that sometimes the character wasn’t in the show at all!
Pilot episodes are all about selling the show to a network; they show the basic premise of the story but without any of the polish or full-realized story arcs that come along with a finished show. This can lead to some major differences between the original conception and the show’s final product. Often times these first pieces of television history are such a far cry from their iconic show that they never see the light of day, never to be aired.
For this article we’ve dug up some of the most different and bizarre pilots to ever exist. Here are 15 Unseen Pilots for Hit TV Shows!
15. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
It’s Morphin’ Time! The Power Rangers series is one of the most lucrative franchises of all time. Starting in 1993, the action show using recycled Super Sentai footage hit the airwaves and launched a worldwide phenomenon; twenty-two seasons and two films later, the series shows no sign of stopping. A big-budget reboot hits theaters this March with the hope to capture the original season’s fun tone, jaw-dropping action, and cast chemistry. Just about any child of the ’90s could recite the show’s first episode, “Day of the Dumpster,” by memory after watching it on VHS so many times.
In its original incarnation, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers would have gotten started on a different foot. The unaired pilot saw a few unfamiliar faces and places. Both Trini and Skull were played by completely different actors. Instead of Ernie’s Juice Bar, the gang hang out at a bowling alley. At one point in the episode, they engage in a fight that’s pretty brutal for a kid’s show.
Even the terminology of the series and character designs were nothing like what we ended up with. Zordon was named “Zoltar,” Alpha 5 had a different design, the morphers were called “transmorphers,” and the Zords were called “Droids.” This is an alternate reality we don’t think we want to live in!
The smart and quirky Sherlock was responsible for Benedict Cumberbatch’s rise to prominence in recent years. And for good reason! Joined by the lovable Martin Freeman as Watson, Cumberbatch brilliantly portrays a modern-day version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective in this hit BBC series. The show has gotten four seasons (er, series as Brits call them), all of which have been met with critical acclaim. Episodes usually run around ninety minutes and feature the pair as they solve mysteries in London.
The biggest change of the unaired 2009 pilot was the fact that it was only sixty minutes in length. Though it shared a plot with the show’s real first episode, almost every single scene was different! Sherlock ends up getting drugged by the killer they are looking for, he and Watson engage in a lengthy rooftop chase sequence, the character of Angelo was played by a different actor, and there is an extended scene in which Sherlock refused to eat (much to the dismay of Watson).
Even the more subtle details are different; the pills are a different color, the shop signs outside of 221b read different, and the titular character’s study is much more organized and tidy than it appears in the show we all know and love. While the original pilot will still seem familiar to fans of the show, there’s something about it that will always seem a little off.
13. Married… With Children
Back in the ’80s Married… With Children was bashed as one of the most distasteful and trashy shows on the air. While it may seem tame by today’s standards, the show shocked audiences with its crass humor and the seemingly unhappy dynamics of the Bundy family. The characters weren’t likable: Ed was a borish man who was rude to everyone around him and Peggy was selfish and lazy. The kids were the stereotypical “dumb blonde” and “loser slacker” children. Audiences loved it!
A large part of the success of Married… With Children came from the cast itself, with Ed O’Neil, Katey Sagal, Christina Applegate, and David Faustino playing off of each other with perfect comedic timing. But in the beginning, the characters of Bud and Kelly Bundy were played by completely different actors.
The show got as far as filming the pilot and getting a series order before O’Neil realized that the chemistry just wasn’t there between the parents and the kids. As a result, there exists a Married… With Children episode that is exactly identical to the show’s first; the only exception is that the Bundy children are played by entirely different people.
12. Avatar: The Last Airbender
Avatar: The Last Airbender has become something of a cult phenomenon of the years. The characters, overarching story, anime-like nature, and creative premise all helped make Avatar one of the greatest fantasy shows ever made. In 2012 it spawned a sequel series, The Legend of Korra, which was set seventy years after the original show.
(Sadly, there has never been a big budget, live-action version of the beloved show. Besides, they probably would have gotten someone like M. Night Shyamalan to direct it and completely change the story and whitewash most of the characters. Thank God that didn’t happen!)
Okay, so we may still be in denial about The Last Airbender, but that wasn’t the only interpretation of the series that was a departure from its original show. The pilot for Avatar offered a completely different story than what we got in the final product. At the beginning of the pilot Aang was already unfrozen and he and his friends were already on the run from the Fire Nation. While it still offered some backstory into the lore of the series, this episode had nothing on the world building and intricate backstory that we got in the show’s real first episode.
The pilot also culminated with a confrontation between Aang and Prince Zuko, whereas fans had to wait a little bit longer for the two enemies to come to blows in the actual show. Also, the supporting character Katara was originally named “Kya.”
On the subject of “cults,” let’s switch gears over to a story about witches! Charmed was a hit late ’90s/early 2000’s WB show about three sisters who discover that they are the “Charmed Ones”; a group of good witches who are meant to protect innocent people from evil magic users. It was Alyssa Milano’s breakout role, and season four introduced Rose McGowan to TV audiences. Fans loved the series for its unique charm and the sister-like chemistry between the lead actors.
Originally, things looked a little different for the Charmed Ones. Milano was nowhere to be found in the pilot. Instead, Phoebe Halliwell was portrayed by actress Lori Rom. The character of Andy was played by a different actor, as well.
Aside from these casting changes the pilot and the first episode are very similar in plot points and scenes. However, fans will also notice that the episode’s music takes on a more serious tone than the actual show. Apparently it was also shot inside of an actual house (the show was shot completely on a sound stage), which added to the episode’s overall atmosphere.
10. Gilligan’s Island
Gilligan’s Island is arguably one of the biggest sitcoms in TV history. Premiering in 1964 and running for three solid seasons, the show continued to grow in popularity through the ’70s and ’80s thanks to syndication. It spawned three different made for TV movies across the decades and rumor has it that a big-screen remake is in the works. The show’s theme song has gone down as one of the greatest in television history, with anyone being able to sing along after they hear the famous, “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…” Even the characters themselves are as iconic now as they were back in the ’60s!
If you watch Gilligan’s Island‘s pilot, however, almost none of the above elements are present. Mary Ann don’t even exist in this version; instead the passengers of the S.S. Minnow are joined by two secretaries named Bunny and Ginger (although Ginger has little resemblance to the character who actually appeared on the show). The Professor was played by a different actor, as well.
9. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
What can we say about Buffy the Vampire Slayer that hasn’t been said already? The show is a cultural icon; it launched Sarah Michelle Gellar’s career as well as elevated Joss Whedon to legendary geek status. For the few who are unaware, the show follows Buffy Summers and her friends (referred to as the “Scooby Gang”) as they come of age while fighting demons, monsters, and world-ending threats. You know, the norm. The series lasted 144 episodes, with several spinoffs in the form of other TV shows, comic books, video games, and novels. In short, it has become a cultural phenomenon.
Interestingly enough there was a time when networks were unsure if Buffy the Vampire Slayer was going to work. The pilot episode, which Joss Whedon has claimed will never see an official release “…while there’s still strength in these bones,” had a similar premise to the show but with a few major changes.
The biggest of these differences comes in fan-favorite Willow. Alyson Hannigan famously embodied the role of the character throughout the show’s lifespan, and it is arguably still the actress’s most famous role (though many will always know her as Lily from How I Met Your Mother). In the pilot, Willow is played by Riff Regan; but it just feels so strange to see someone else playing such a iconic role.
8. The Munsters
When ABC showed that they had a hit on their hands with the creepy and kooky Addams Family, rival CBS jumped at the opportunity to capitalize on this wave of macabre humor. Their answer was The Munsters, a show that had a similar style to ABC’s show but with enough differences to prevent any sort of lawsuit. The Frankenstein monster was now the main character instead of a lowly doorman. The wife’s weirdness was explained away as her being a real vampire. The zany, over-the-top character was now an elderly vampire, rather than whatever Uncle Fester was supposed to be. The show ran for three seasons before its cancellation and it became a hit in syndication.
The originally-unaired pilot (of which all but 13 minutes have been lost) shows what the program could have been. Originally there was a completely different actress in the role of Phoebe Munster; she was replaced when the showrunners felt that she was a little too much like Morticia Addams for their liking. Similarly, Herman Munster was played by Happy Derman rather than Fred Gwynne.
The most striking difference, however, is the fact that the episode is entirely in color. The show was known for its black and white style, which matched the gothic horror style of the Universal Monster Movies that they were trying to emulate. Seeing The Munsters in color is definitely something to behold.
7. All in the Family
Here’s a show that actually has multiple unseen pilot episodes. All in the Family was the first hit television show that showed us it was okay to be bad. Archie Bunker was about as unlikable as you could get; he was rude, selfish, cocky, and constantly refused to “get with the times.” However, the show was a massive success, as it was one of the few that would tackle serious social issues of the time in a serious manner. It was hilarious to boot!
Before it got picked up by CBS in 1971, the show went through a few different iterations. The first, entitled And Justice for All, had the familiar actors playing Archie and Edith, but their last name was Justice rather than Bunker. The actors playing Gloria and Michael were completely different, as well.
When this pilot got rejected, the showrunner tried again. He re-titled the show Those Were the Days and recast Gloria and Michael with two different actors who still weren’t Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner. Though similar in tone to the final product these episodes featured a “intended for mature audiences only” warning before they started.
6. Family Guy
Still going strong eighteen years later, Seth MacFarland’s Family Guy has been a legend of animated sitcoms. When it first aired in 1999 people loved how different it was. while some claimed it was just a rip off of The Simpsons, others applauded its random cutaway gags and wacky plotlines. The show was cancelled after three seasons and less-than-stellar ratings, but was then revived when DVD sales and fan outcry went through the roof. Due to its longevity it can be jarring for even the most die hard of fans to go back and watch the earlier episodes, when the animation was crude and characters’ voices sounded completely different.
Then there was the unaired pilot episode. Though it was created as a general “pitch” for the show (only running seven minutes in length) it feels very different from even the earliest episodes of the series. Lois is blonde, Chris has a deeper voice, there aren’t any jokes about Meg’s appearance, Quagmire is nowhere to be seen, and all of the characters are wearing the wrong color clothes! Even the animation is much more crude than it was during the show, with characters jumping around and making only the most basic of movements. It’s a bizarre sight for anyone who’s familiar with the show.
5. Full House
It’s hard to imagine Full House without its colorful cast of characters. The antics of widower Danny Tanner, Uncle Jesse, Joey, and D.J grew to be one of the most popular family sitcoms of the ’90s. Though the writing and plots were incredibly cheesy, the characters are what truly made the show. When the series was given a sequel as Fuller House, fans felt that the biggest drawback was its lack of the original cast, in particular Bob Saget as Danny Tanner and the complete lack of Olsen Twins.
But imagine a world where Danny wasn’t played by Saget at all? In the original pilot for Full House, which was shot when the actor was completely unavailable to play the role, Tanner is played by John Posey. You may ask- Who is John Posey? So does the rest of the world! Watching this original unaired episode makes it quite clear that Saget was meant for the role; it just doesn’t feel the same without him. The pilot is literally shot-for-shot the same as the show’s first episode. In fact, they didn’t even have to shoot the first episode; it was a combination of footage from the original pilot with some reshot scenes of Bob Saget spliced in.
4. 30 Rock
Remember that golden time in comedy history, when NBC featured a Thursday night lineup of The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Community? Those were the days…
The brainchild of Tina Fey, 30 Rock followed the exploits of Liz Lemon, the head writer of an SNL-like show as she tried to manage the egos of actors Tracy Jordan and Jenna Maroney as well as please her boss, Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin). This series captured life in New York City down to a tee– and captured the hearts of audiences around the world.
Jenna Maroney, portrayed by Jane Krakowski, brings a certain energy to the show as its premiere “diva” character. An actress who’s always used to being the star of the show, she is constantly at odds with Tracy, who was brought on to replace her as a headliner. Krakowski plays the character as an unintelligent egomaniac who wants to do well but never has her head in the right place.
In the original pilot for the series, Jenna was played by Rachel Dratch. Although hilarious in her own right, Dratch never felt quite right in the role; her comedic chops were based in characters like Debbie Downer or Lynn Bershad, who were more subdued and “weird.” Krakowski replaced Dratch right before the show was set to air, and the “original Jenna” went on to have multiple bit parts in the show.
3. The Big Bang Theory
You want to talk about pilots that are different? The original episode of The Big Bang Theory is almost unrecognizable from the one that’s on the air today! Currently on its tenth season, the show stars Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons, and Kaley Cuoco as two lovable nerds and their attractive neighbor/love interest, not to mention the memorable characters supporting characters such as Raj, Howard, Bernadette, and Amy Farah Fowler. Love it or hate it, there is no denying that this show is one of the most successful sitcoms of all time.
Which makes it really weird to watch the original pilot. None of our beloved cast exists in this version of the show, save Leonard and Sheldon. Even then, the characters have very different personalities; Sheldon, who is famously asexual in the show, starts off the episode by donating to a… *ahem* clinic. Katie, the earlier version of Penny, is much rougher around the edges and more manipulative than the final version of the character.
The premise of the show is different, as well. Leonard and Sheldon find Katie on the street, homeless after getting kicked out by her boyfriend. After some shenanigans, the two offer to let her crash at their place for awhile. Howard and Raj don’t exist in this incarnation, either; instead the two nerds are shown to be best friends with a female geek named Gilda. Though this version of the show sounds somewhat interesting, fans everywhere are glad that this wasn’t the version we received.
2. Star Trek (The Original Series)
What is the classic Star Trek without Captain James Tiberius Kirk!? The original series is arguably the most revolutionary Sci-Fi show ever made, setting the bar for any and all that came after it. It spawned a huge movie franchise, a rebooted movie series, numerous in-universe sequel series, and merchandise galore. Even the most casual of Star Trek fans can name the original crew: Captain Kirk, Spock, Mr. Sulu, McCoy, Uhura, and Scotty pilot the USS Enterprise as it boldly goes where no one has gone before.
When NBC ordered the show’s first pilot back in 1964, Mr. Spock was the only familiar character present. Even then he had a different personality, showing much more childlike wonder at the prospect of new discoveries and adventures rather than the stoic and calm demeanor the character is associated with. The Enterprise was piloted by Captain Christopher Pike and his first officer, who was only referred to as “Number One” in the episode.
NBC felt that this version of the show “didn’t have enough action,” and passed on it. Luckily, Lucille Ball (of I Love Lucy fame) was able to convince the network to give it a second chance. A second pilot of Star Trek was ordered with William Shatner as the lead, and sci-fi history was made.
1. Game of Thrones
Have you ever noticed how, if you watch the first episode of Game of Thrones, there are some inconsistencies with the character designs? The usually gruff brothers John Snow and Robb Stark appear clean shaven throughout half the episode, and Peter Dinklage is wearing a painfully obvious wig in many scenes. This was because the show had to re-shoot about “90%” of its pilot, according to its producers. This is an episode that will most likely remain unseen until the show is long over, as the producers claim it really is that bad.
Apparently test audiences didn’t understand the complex relationships between the main characters, not even realizing that Jaime and Cersei were brother and sister or that Tyrion was a Lannister at all! Daenerys Targaryan and Cat Stark were portrayed by completely different actresses– something that is completely unimaginable for any GoT fan. Also, Theon Greyjoy was depicted with a blonde wig rather than the dark hair he has in the book.
Scenes were also filmed showing clips from Robert’s Rebellion, including one in which Ned Stark’s brother strangles himself to death trying to save his father from being burned alive. As cool as that sounds, we’re glad this one ended up on the cutting room floor.
Have you watched any of these unaired pilots before? What did you think of them? Let us know in the comments!