Pilot Error: When CBS Passed on Cop Drama ‘Protect and Serve’ Despite Its Great Ensemble Cast

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ABC
ABC

If the current TV season has taught us anything, it’s that having an ensemble cast filled with familiar and talented faces doesn’t guarantee a creatively successful series. (That’s right, We Are Men, I’m looking at you.) Similarly, having a pilot filled with with familiar and talented faces doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get picked up, and that’s whether you’re any good or not.

I can’t personally speak to whether or not the cop drama Protect and Serve truly deserved to have been picked up by CBS for the 2007 – 2008 TV Season, because all I know about it is the facts I’ve read and the opinions of other people, but it sure had some good folks in it: The cops were played by Eric Balfour (Haven), Dean Cain (the man who put the “Clark” in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), Steve Harris (The Practice), and Thad Luckinbill (The Young and the Restless), and their significant others…well, from what I can tell, Balfour didn’t have one, but Cain’s character was married to Monica Potter (Parenthood), Harris’s to Tamala Jones (Castle), and Luckinbill, the lucky bastard, he was newly married to Jessica Pare (Mad Men). And don’t you think he’s forgotten it.

I came up with the  idea of doing a piece on Protect and Serve when I was pitched an interview with Jones for Bullz-Eye – look for that to turn up next week – and then started reaching out to others involved in the series. By the time all was said and done, I’d managed to chat with Jones, Luckinbill, and the men who created the pilot, Mark Gibson and Philip Halprin, all of whom did their best to offer insight into the premise of the pilot, the experience of making it, and, inevitably, the disappointment over its failure to make it onto the schedule.

Mark Gibson and Philip Halprin

Antenna Free TV: So what were the origins of Protect and Serve?

Philip Halprin: Well, first of all, we have the advantage of being writing partners who also ride into work together, so we often talk through ideas in the car. On one occasion, we saw a police officer coming out of a Baskin Robbins with two ice cream cones – there was a cop car parked out front of the place – and that just really got us thinking. We’re, like, “This is one of the weirdest things we’ve ever seen. What are these guys doing?” So we started thinking about the private lives of cops…and that led to the idea of the show.

Mark Gibson: Yeah, we looked into it, and…well, we’re both on the east coast, but cops tend to cluster together. They work together, and then they actually buy homes in the same area. If you’re New York, all the cops live in Staten Island. Or they did. Maybe now they actually live farther out! But that’s the same thing in L.A., and we thought, “Well, that’s kind of an ideal situation for a drama: you go work with these guys.” They’re cops on the beat, so whenever you want drama, you can create it, and then you see how it affects their lives at home, because when we started to get into this… There’s all of these websites – Cop Wives, How to Live with Your Cop Husband – and all of this stuff about suicide among cops and domestic abuse and so on. The job really takes its toll. So we thought, “Well, this is a good world for a series.”

AFT: In the process of setting it up, what sort of research did you do?

MG: We went to the Short Stop, a cop bar in L.A. [Laughs.] Well, it used to be a cop bar. Now it’s a hipster bar. It’s owned by the Afghan Whigs guy. Greg Dulli.

PH: But back a few years ago… I don’t know if you’ve ever walked into a cop bar, but there is nothing more intimidating than a room full of drunk cops. [Laughs.] And they make it very clear that you are an outsider and you are not welcome. But then once we kind of got past that, everybody just had a million stories. A lot of it is about the dramatic question, “How do you pull a dead baby out of a river and then go home and help your third-grader with their homework?”

AFT: Given how many cop shows have been on the air, surely it was intimidating to put a unique stamp on this one. Was there something in particular with Protect and Serve where you could say, “This is what makes ours stand out”?

MG: Well, you know, Southland didn’t come on ‘til after we died, so when we were there… You know, there’s only a couple of terrains: there’s law, there’s medicine, and then there’s cops. [Laughs.] But before Protect and Serve, everything was very procedural, and it was very solving-the-crime. And ours wasn’t about the crime. It was about the job. So it goes back to something as simple as Adam-12, which was two guys driving around in a car, and then they get the call and they rush to the thing. You want drama? The radio goes off, you rush to the domestic abuse call, you rush to the bank robbery. For our show… When we got into production, had we gone forward with the series, the people who were really the standouts were Monica Potter and Jessica Pare. Like, the storylines that we could’ve done with the wives were sort of… Well, even with the process of the pilot, they were beginning to gain as much weight as the storylines as the husbands on the job. So I think that would’ve really become a 50/50 part of the show.

AFT: It has to feel at least somewhat redemptive that, even though the show didn’t take off, the actresses who played the wives did.

MG: Yeah. I mean, Monica was great. She was fantastic. She’s sort of like Lucille Ball. She could do a half-hour comedy by herself. But then, of course, Parenthood also fits her really well. And Jessica… I think she was the last person we cast…

PH: Yeah, that’s right.

MG: …and then, of course, she went into Mad Men, with her little French song, and took over the world. [Laughs.] I think she’s perfect for that show. For our show, she did a great job, but…she’s a little sophisticated for a cop’s wife.

AFT: Protect and Serve went into production right around the time that NYPD Blue was going off the air, which I’ve heard resulted in a fair amount of other cop-show pilots, too. An attempt to kind of fill that void, such as it was.

MG: Well, I don’t know if you know the shows that got picked up by CBS that year, but… [Hesitates.] We had a great experience with CBS. Let me just say that right away. They were extremely helpful. They bought the pitch in the room, they liked our take on it, and we had producer Gary Scott Thompson, who we worked with and did a great job of making everything just happen faster. They went with almost all the casting we could do…and I’m sure you know about all the craziness of pilot casting. It’s, like, everybody’s in a stable and you’ve got to go and quickly grab one, and if you don’t get the one you want, then you just grab the one next to ‘em. So that’s kind of crazy. But, anyway, that was the year that CBS picked up Kid Nation. And Viva Laughlin, with Hugh Jackman.

PH: Viva Laughlin and Swingtown. It was just not the right season for us. [Laughs.]

AFT: So all things being equal, they really should’ve gone with Protect and Serve.

MG: Well, I think so. [Laughs.] And it was difficult, because it did feel like… You know, this is an interesting thing you’re doing, because there are obviously so many people who’ve created some really interesting shows, and I’ll hear about ‘em or sometimes someone will send me a DVD or some people are even posting ‘em online now. But the sad thing is, some of these guys go on to be Vince Gilligan or whatever, their big show comes later, and they look back and go, “Oh, yeah, that was a good show, too.” But once it’s dead, it’s dead. There are no zombies in pilots. You can’t go backwards. So it is kind of interesting to sort of analyze it afterward and see why it didn’t go forward and see where those people landed.

AFT: I haven’t actually seen the pilot, but my understanding is that it had a visual element to it that was somewhat unique. It was…not quite Google Maps, but there was going to be an overlay of L.A. on the screen.

MG: Yeah.

PH: Yeah, we actually did quite a bit of special effects. With L.A., there’s always the police choppers, so when we’d have a call come in, you’d kind of zip to the chopper and then zip to the overlay satellite map, you’d zoom in on that corner where the event’s taking place, and then the cop car would pull up.

MG: In the script, we just called it a “whoosh,” which was this thing where you could whoosh into the GPS. Because, you know, a police car today is pretty state of the art as far as all of their technology. They have computers in the car.

PH: It was sort of… CSI had already been on, so CSI did this thing where, y’know, the bullet goes into the body and you kind of go with it. Since we were doing cops on the street, we wanted to give the audience an idea of what it’s like to know L.A., to sort of see all the different parts of it. What we were trying to get people to understand was what it’s like being a cop, how far you’ve got to drive when you get that call, where is it, and that kind of stuff.

AFT: The pilot was directed by Sergio Mimmio-Gazzan. Given his credits, I have to believe he must’ve brought somewhat of a cinematic quality to the proceedings.

MG: Yeah. He was great!

PH: That guy is very, very talented, yeah.

MG: But he was also really good with the actors, I have to say. I think they brought him on specifically because he did have this sort of kinetic, cinematic quality to some of the stuff he’d done before, but he spent a lot of time with the actors and shot some stuff that… You know, he’d clear the room so that the whole crew wasn’t there, so that he could get a little bit more intimate with the performances. I thought he did a really good job. Eric Balfour did a really great job on the show, by the way. I kind of was expecting him to jump off the show into something else as well.

AFT: Well, he certainly hasn’t been without work, that’s for sure.

MG: No, that’s true! [Laughs.]

AFT: When pilots don’t get picked up, there’s a tendency, obviously, for people to just say, “Eh, it’s the luck of the draw.”

MG: Well, it is the luck of the draw in a lot of ways, because, you know, to be fair to the networks, they’re not just saying, “Oh, well, your show’s no good.” They’re saying, “We have this many slots and we have to support the shows that we already have on the air.” So, like you were saying, they might go, “We have too many cop shows already, so we need something different.” Or maybe, “This isn’t ‘male’ enough.” They’ve got to make their family work. And sometimes that means it’s the wrong year for you, or you sold to the wrong network…

PH: There are great pilots that don’t get picked up, there are pilots that get picked up that everyone’s scratching their heads about, and once in awhile one of those succeeds. You never know what’s gonna happen.

AFT: So when you got word that they’d passed on Protect and Serve, were you surprised?

PH: We were, actually. We were very surprised that it didn’t get picked up. We had a lot of people saying, “We’re hearing that you guys are going to air.” But, you know, that happens. Now that I’ve sort of been doing it a little bit more since then, you hear that from a lot of people. But we were really getting the tap. Like, “Oh, you guys have a really great shot at this! It’s a CBS show, and you guys are going to go to air, ‘cause everybody loves what they’re seeing.” And then it was, “Uh, no.”

MG: Yeah. So you’ve got to just every day act as if the thing is going to be going forward.

PH: Disappointment is part of the job. [Laughs.]

AFT: Do any other anecdotes leap to mind about the experience of making Protect and Serve?

MG: No, y’know, just that…it’s pilot season. It’s crazy. They throw a lot of money into making these little movies, and some of ‘em are great, it’s a great experience, and then the movies are, uh, shown to your parents. [Laughs.]

PH: Yeah, I’d just say that we had a terrific time writing it, we had a great time making the pilot, but…there’s just an element of luck.

MG: And we’re back doing it again. Every season, hope springs anew! [Laughs.]

ABC
ABC

Tamala Jones

Antenna Free TV: So how did you find your way into Protect and Serve? Was it a standard audition situation?

Tamala Jones: Yeah! I was the sassiest out of all the wives…of course! [Laughs.] And I just worked with so many great actors there.

AFT: It’s a pretty impressive ensemble.

TJ: I was surprised we didn’t get picked up, y’know?

AFT: So were they!

TJ: Well, you know, while we were making it, something happened and…we didn’t realize how important it was. One day we were shooting this very detailed scene about the wives at home – one of the characters was a rookie, and he lost his gun, and he couldn’t tell anyone – and we’re doing all this, and…I guess when you’re working near an Indian burial ground, there’s a prayer you should do before you start shooting, or you’re supposed to have an Indian come and bless you. And, uh, we didn’t do that. [Laughs.]

And it starting raining… I mean, the sun was shining earlier, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and then it just started raining and raining and raining, and it just would not stop. It finally reached a point where we just had to come out of the houses and just shoot with the sprinkles that were going on. And, basically, everybody felt like we fucked up. [Laughs.] Excuse my language! But it was, like, “We didn’t have the land blessed before we started shooting here, and they’re pissed, and now we’re not gonna get picked up!”

AFT: And lo and behold…

TJ: And lo and behold, yes, that’s what happened! [Laughs.] Or that’s what we feel happened, anyway.

AFT: Steve Harris played your spouse on the show.

TJ: Yes! And I just ran into him about a month ago, and we were cracking up about it. [Laughs.] We were, like, “Man, that would’ve been really great if that show had’ve gone…” Because, I mean, it was well-written, well-cast, and we had a synergy that was unbelievable.

AFT: Yeah, Mark and Philip were talking about how great the wives on the show were.

TJ: Well, I’ll tell you: Monica Potter was incredible. And if you ask me, she’s the one who kept everyone in synch. She was the matriarch of the entire pilot.

AFT: That answers a question I wasn’t sure about, since I didn’t actually see the pilot. So the wives did have scenes together, then?

TJ: Oh, yeah! The energy that we had to have was, like, basketball wives – some kind of sports wives, anyway – or officers’ wives. And there was a rookie with a new wife, and she knew that her husband had lost the gun and, y’know, didn’t say anything. And we kind of knew something was up, and we were, like, “Honey, you’ve got to get it together.” [Laughs.] “All these little tantrums you’re having…” And finally the truth came out: “My husband lost the gun, and he doesn’t know what to say!” “Well, he’s got to say something, or it’s going to get worse!” And the scene running with Monica…oh, my God. She brought it to a level where there was compassion, there wasn’t just snarling and lips turned up. It was, like, “Okay, we’re gonna embrace her at some point, so we’ve got to have it at this level in the first scene, and then…” And us getting together at lunchtime… It was really special. It really was.

CBS
CBS

Thad Luckinbill

AFT: So I expect this is a bizarrely unexpected flashback, but…

Thad Luckinbill: [Laughs.] Yeah! You know, it’s funny, they forwarded that to me from the agency, and it brought back a lot of memories of doing the show…and, unfortunately, of not getting picked up!

AFT: It seems like most people involved in the show came aboard via the standard audition process. Was that the case for you as well?

TL: Yeah. I remember specifically going in and reading for them kind of on a whim, but then they called and said they were really interested, so I ended up going in and testing for it. I didn’t think I got it, to be honest with you, but then they called. That’s the way it always goes. I remember walking out of the CBS audition room, going, “Oh, man, I don’t think this is mine.” But then I ended up getting it. Go figure.

AFT: Given the number of cop shows, what was it about Protect and Serve that stood out for you? I understand there was a unique graphic element, as far as the onscreen maps.

TL: Yeah, visually, the way they zoomed in with the maps, I thought that was pretty cool for the audience, to be able to follow location-wise. But you know what? What I loved about it was the relationships. A lot of procedurals, you’re really hard pressed to get… Sometimes they put a lot of tongue in cheek with a lot of these procedurals, and you’re hard pressed to get true relationships. But I thought they really had that. Not only with the husbands and wives, but they also had it with the characters. The guys, they really cared about each other. It was really real. It felt a bit like a cable show, to an extent. Before some of those cable shows were big. It felt like it could’ve easily slid into that kind of program. That’s what stood out to me. It wasn’t just a crime-solving show. It really was more about the lives, the characters, getting into the heads of these characters and following them around. That’s what I loved about it. Because I love things that are real and true, and it’s easy for actors to get into that kind of stuff. This would’ve just been a great platform for that.

AFT: With the caveat that I haven’t be able to see it, it sounds like it was at least heading in a vaguely similar direction to where Southland ended up.

TL: Yeah, I think that’s fair. Southland came about, what, the next year, the year after that? Yeah, I think there’s a lot of similarities between Southland and Protect and Serve. A lot. Which made it even tougher. [Laughs.] It’s rough when you see a show that’s successful that’s similar to what you were trying to do.

AFT: Did you do any research in advance of the pilot?

TL: Yeah, actually, which was great. It happened that one of the deputy mayors at the time was a friend of my brother’s, so I did a ride-along down in… [Hesitates.] If I try to say it the right way, I’ll get it wrong, but it’s basically South Central, more or less. But I rode around with one of the gang units for a night, and… [Starts to laugh.] We got into some stuff. It was not uneventful, let me just say it that way. We found ourselves in pursuit of one guy with a gun, another time there were two cars shooting each other down the freeway. We were, of course, only one of, like, 30 police cars chasing them, but, uh, let me say, I got my research in that night! It was a lot of fun.

AFT: What do you remember about your character on the show?

TL: You know, it was a fun character for me, because he was a rookie cop. I’m still familiar with it because I actually looked at it recently. My character’s name was Tim, but they called me “Cookie” because my last name was Cook. He was the rookie cop who was trying to prove himself, and he was working with more experienced cops, played by Dean Cain, Steve Harris, and Eric Balfour, so he was the young buck in the group and had a lot of mishaps throughout the episode and was kind of struggling, both trying to fit in as a cop and do the right thing but also trying to fit into his role as a new husband. It was kind of fun, actually. There was a lot to play for my character in that episode. Unfortunately, it was just that one episode… [Laughs.] But there was a lot on the page as well as a lot that wasn’t on the page that we got to have a lot of fun with. There were a lot of good scenes. And it was a good group. I felt like the guys played really well off of each other, and I still see Steve Harris and Dean Cain occasionally. We play in a basketball league together, and we always talk about what could’ve been.

AFT: That’s funny: Tamala Jones said she just saw Steve recently, and they discussed the might’ve-beens as well.

TL: Yeah, that was a shocker. I’ve done several pilots over the years…well, a handful, anyway…and there’s probably two where I was shocked that they didn’t get picked up, and this was top of the list. But you just never know. You never know what networks want or what they’re looking for that particular year.

AFT: I’ve got to ask: what was the other pilot?

TL: Oh, it was an ABC show called Bobby Cannon. It starred Kevin Sorbo – who’s actually a really funny guy – and it had Rocky Carroll in it and Kate Walsh. It was an ABC show and it was an ABC Studios production, so it was kind of a double whammy there. I don’t know why it didn’t get picked up. Sorbo was the lead, he brought the right beats and was perfect for it, and it had a great cast with a couple of great character actors in there, too. Kevin Michael Richardson was fantastic. He was funny, he fit the role perfectly. He played the ex-lineman who not only had Kevin Sorbo’s back on the field but in life as well. He was just really funny. Yeah, that was a good show. Sorbo’s another one I see once in awhile. He’s still mad about that one. [Laughs.] So, yeah, it was well-acted and well-performed and…well, that’s why I just went, “Really? Okay…”

AFT: Mark and Philip said that lots of people were telling them how sure they were that it was going to be picked up.

TL: Oh, yeah, absolutely! I remember Jessica Pare, who’s on fire right now, she played my wife on the show, and she was fabulous. I know that storyline was well-received, and I think, like any pilot, you take what works and then you kind of massage it into the season. But those guys were great. I think in general the whole show was great. And I was led to believe that it was going to be picked up until right up to the very end. You know, when you get the bad phone call. [Laughs.]

But like I said, you never know what the networks are looking for that year. That year, I think CBS was trying to get outside the box. They had so many procedurals, and I think they were trying to do something else, so…I think that was the year they picked up a vampire show (Moonlight), and then Jimmy Smits had a show that year (Cane). And then Viva Laughlin and Swingtown… I think it was just a year where they were trying to do some different things, and I think that worked against us. Which was unfortunate. If they’d picked it up…I mean, I’d love to still be doing that show.

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