Pilot Error: ‘Killer App’

Amazon
Amazon

Why is this man smiling? Oh, wait, sorry, he’s actually not smiling. Garry Trudeau, on the other hand, is probably jumping for joy right about now, what with Amazon having decided to give his pilot, Alpha House, a series pick-up. As is becoming — and will continue to be — a recurring theme within this column, however, the Doonesbury creator hasn’t always been as fortunate with his TV endeavors, though he does seem to have lucked out when it comes to people dwelling on the one we’re discussing today.

Back in 2009, I interviewed Stephen Lang, who at the time was doing a round of press to help build excitement about the soon-to-be-released Avatar, but — as with more or less every interview I’ve ever done — I spent as much time talking with him about his past projects as I did the topic that brought us into contact in the first place. Although we inevitably chatted about things like Manhunter, Gods and Generals, and The Men Who Stare at Goats, the topic that I found most fascinating was his answer to my question about his favorite project that he’d worked on over the years that didn’t get the love he thought it deserved.

“Well, I did a picture with Bob Altman called Killer App, which was a pilot for a TV show, and it was a great role, and it was a really cool thing. And it never aired. I think it had a lot to do with…well, Garry Trudeau wrote it, Bob produced and directed it, and Bob was, y’know, very tough with the network, as I recall. And it never got on. And that was a real blow, because that was a role I could’ve played for a long time. I loved working with Bob. It was about the computer world. It was set up in Seattle, with computers happening, and I played Jann something, who was the head of Voratech, which is, like, this huge company. And then there’s these other guys who have a company called SpriteCom, and they’re kind of the cool techies, and there’s a battle between them and I’m me. I’m going to eat them alive, that was the idea. And Sally Kellerman was the voice of the computer!”

As you might have begun to suspect from the previous two installments of this feature, I’m endlessly intrigued about pilots that never made it to series, particularly when they involve names either in front of or behind the camera that would seem to make them slam dunks for pick-up. Now, I don’t know about you, but to my way of thinking, something created by Messrs, Altman and Trudeau would seem to qualify for that category.

MGM
MGM

Even weirder than the fact that Killer App wasn’t picked up, though, is just how deeply it’s fallen into obscurity. I mean, we’re talking not-even-on-IMDb obscure, which is almost unheard of for a pilot that was actually filmed, especially when you consider that there are projects that haven’t even gotten beyond the discussion stage that already have IMDb pages. Fortunately, there are still plenty of references to the project online, and when you put them all together … well, it still doesn’t really explain why the pilot wasn’t picked up, but it does at least give you a little more insight into what it was all about.

First of all, for those who aren’t aware of how the Altman/Trudeau collaboration got started, it stretches back to an HBO mockumentary miniseries called Tanner ’88, which starred Michael Murphy as a Michigan politician on a quest to score the nod to be the Democratic candidate for President. Critics loved it, but viewers didn’t glom onto it quite as readily, so HBO didn’t green-light a continuation of Jack Tanner’s story, but Altman and Trudeau managed to reunite with Murphy in 2004 and do a four-episode sequel for the Sundance Channel entitled Tanner on Tanner.

In between the Tanners lies — you guessed it — Killer App.

It’s odd to watch a pilot with so much buzz and such a tremendous shot at success slowly but surely go down the tubes without ever making it to series, but anyone studying the Hollywood trade publications and tech-friendly magazines and websites got a heck of a rollercoaster ride as they watched the saga of Killer App, a drama — or, as Computer Business Review called it, a soap opera — which would have revolved around an Internet start-up company trying to get off the ground.

The project was produced by Donald Kushner and Peter Locke, whose company’s website described Altman and Trudeau as having “joined forces to develop a one-hour pilot soap, Silicon Valley, produced through Kushner-Locke for ABC,” then said that “the pilot led to a series entitled Killer App.” I’m sure the company knows what was produced for whom, but in the end, it was actually Fox who picked up the ball and ran with the development of the show. Sandy Grushow, then the president of Fox Television, described the show’s creators as being “each among our country’s most insightful provocateurs,” adding, “We’re very excited to work with them as they turn their sights toward Silicon Valley.” Unsurprisingly, Wired seemed the most ecstatic about the show’s possibilities. “It will bring the self-absorbed crowd targeted by Robert X. Cringely’s Triumph of the Nerds to the precocious demographic that favors FOX’s animated sitcoms,” the magazine gushed. “If done right, it’ll be more Charles Addams than Scott Adams.” (In the same piece, there’s a quote from writer Brent Schlender, who provided the treatment for the series, saying that Killer App would “humanize dweebs and high tech’s already mythical figures.” So, basically, it would’ve beaten The Big Bang Theory to the punch by almost a decade!)

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You can’t say Altman and Trudeau didn’t do their research: they apparently spent a considerable amount of time touring Silicon Valley, including “a visit with Apple Computer’s once-and-future CEO Steve Jobs — who agreed to lend the production computers and software — Macintosh computer designer Andy Hertzfeld, and a visit to Xerox Parc.” And it paid off, too: as of 1998, Variety, which reported that FOX had ordered not only a pilot but also six additional scripts, was assuring its readers that Killer App’s “pickup chances are high” for midseason.

That, presumably, was before FOX actually saw the pilot, which they rejected. They did, at least, request that Trudeau take another shot at it. Sadly, in an August 2000 Wired interview with Trudeau, Killer App is referenced as “having recently been killed by Fox for the second time,” though it’s optimistically described as “being shopped to HBO, among others.”

What makes the Wired piece particularly notable, however, is its revelation that the second iteration of the pilot — which was both recast and retooled, with one change apparently being that its setting was shifted from Silicon Valley to Seattle — was also done without Altman, instead moving forward with Tom Fontana, late of Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz, at the helm. As of that writing, Trudeau and Fontana were reportedly hard at work “honing” the pilot, with Trudeau putting a positive spin on the FOX fiasco, explaining, “”We were disappointed for about 5 minutes. We saw all winter how hard they pushed to make it more of a FOX show, with pretty kids jumping into bed with each other. We now feel less pressure to do the kind of show that FOX feels comfortable with.” This time, the setting of the pilot jumped from Seattle to Manhattan, but however it may have ended up under Fontana’s watchful eye, HBO wasn’t interested.

There’s no word on why Altman parted ways with the project after the first FOX pilot, but whatever the reason, there clearly were no hard feelings between director and writer, since history shows us that they reunited for that aforementioned Tanner miniseries for the Sundance Channel. But what happened to their Killer App pilot? Or any of the Killer App pilots, for that matter? To my knowledge, there’s only one clip of the project that’s ever turned up online, and it’s not even a clip, really. It’s just the opening credits.

A few years ago, I interviewed Jamie Marsh, who appeared in the pilot, who was clearly still bummed about the experience on several levels.

“It was one of those disappointments you deal with as an actor, (but) the worst thing about it was not getting to work with Bob Altman as much as we expected,” said Marsh. “I’ve been trying to get a VHS copy I had of it posted on YouTube, as Kathryn Altman gave me permission.  Unfortunately, Bob showed it to FOX before it was color corrected and totally finished, so we never even got to see the final finished version.  But we all thought we were going to be on a hit show for a couple of weeks at the end of 1998. And it did deserve to have a chance.  That’s Hollywood.”

Post-Script: Actually, as I was wrapping up this piece, I discovered much more of my interview with Mr. Marsh…too much, in fact, to include here. This may warrant a sequel on the saga of Killer App. Stay tuned!

Will Harris is a current contributor to the Onion AV Club, the websites Bullz-Eye.com and Popdose.com, and TV Week Magazine in Vancouver, BC, and he has also written pieces for Vulture and The New York Post. In addition, he is a freelancer for The Virginian-Pilot, the daily newspaper in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, where he currently resides with his wife, daughter, dog, guinea pig, and turtle…and, yes, with all those animals, it is a wonder he gets any writing done at all.

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