TV Discussion

The Big Bang Theory – Pilot Error!

Every year, of the dozens of pilot episodes that are made for TV, some don’t get picked up, while others are changed significantly or even remade when they become a full series. Our new series Pilot Error! takes a look at some of them, including the ones that got away.

“Do you realise in the last 24 hours, you’ve ruined masturbation, cowboys and Star Trek?”

It all started not so much with a Big Bang, more of a damp squib.

With The Big Bang Theory coming to an end after a dozen seasons on air, it’s worth taking a look at how very different the show could have been. Had the series been picked up after its original pilot episode, we would’ve had no Raj, no Howard, no Penny, no Barenaked Ladies theme, and a Sheldon who’s had sex. And that’s definitely not a Bazinga.

Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady’s first attempt at bringing the series to our screens was a mooted premiere produced for the 2006-2007 season. Both Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons are already in place as Leonard and Sheldon, but a great deal of the rest in the pilot is unfamiliar territory. We don’t get a full opening credits sequence, and the theme song used is Thomas Dolby’s ‘She Blinded Me With Science’, snippets of which turn up throughout the episode, to segue between scene changes.

There are a few elements which do get carried across into the transmitted pilot, including large sections of dialogue, such as Leonard’s explanation of why eating curry can be beneficial, and a description of Sheldon being “one of those Beautiful Mind genius guys”. The opening scene is also set in a high IQ sperm bank, with the same actress (Vernee Watson) playing the receptionist in both versions; however, in the transmitted pilot, both Sheldon and Leonard chicken out and leave, whereas here Sheldon has already done his part (so to speak), and is waiting for payment.

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Yes, a sexually active Sheldon Cooper: in the series, we had to wait until Season 9 for any hint of this, yet here we see him not only happy to donate his sperm, but also finding out he’s seen a total of seven women naked. Oh, and that he’s an ass man. Yep, Sheldon likes big booties, and I cannot lie: that’s as much of a culture shock as anything else featured here. It does come across in the performance by Jim Parsons that this isn’t a fully formed Sheldon as we know him, as he seems far less uptight in some ways. Except that he still has a spot. But it isn’t in their apartment: instead, it’s at a table in The Bombay Palace restaurant. Plus ça change.

At this stage, Leonard and Sheldon’s social group is somewhat different, as there isn’t a Howard or Raj (let alone a Bernadette or Amy, both of whom came much later on); the only friend that we get to meet here is Gilda (Iris Bahr), who’s somewhat similar to Leslie Winkle (Sara Gilbert), in that she has some interest in Leonard; however, a major contrast between the characters is that Gilda admits to Leonard she’s slept with Sheldon. Yes, Dr. Cooper has done the coitus. Firmly putting the ‘Big Bang’ in the series’ title, it seems.

One marked absence from this unaired pilot is Penny (Kaley Cuoco); in her place, we get Katie (Amanda Walsh). Instead of her being their new neighbour, Leonard and Sheldon happen across Katie on the way back home from the sperm bank, as she’s sat distraught on the kerb, and they find out she’s just become homeless after breaking up with her boyfriend. Leonard is attracted to her, and he tells her over dinner they have a spare room available, saying that she can stay there temporarily while she sorts herself out.

It does create a very different dynamic to that which existed between Leonard and Penny, who took several seasons to move in together, and it would have potentially sent the show in a very different direction had Katie been living in from the start, as opposed to being across the hall. It might have also made Leonard seem more than a little predatory and creepy, by trying to take advantage of her vulnerability, due to his interest in her. It does seem a lot less innocent and charming than the ongoing courtship we ultimately got between him and Penny.

One thing is evident from the pilot which was apparently borne out in test audience feedback: Katie just isn’t very likeable as a character. Although Katie and Penny both share the trait of having had many sexual partners, Katie comes over as being more promiscuous, as she happily tells Leonard that she fell out with her mother after she found out that Katie had in fact slept on several occasions with the man who was now her new husband. It’s not exactly an endearing characteristic, and things aren’t helped by Walsh’s portrayal being harsher and less appealing than Cuoco’s innocent and engaging corn fed naiveté. Katie also indicates she’d use Leonard’s lightsaber as a vibrator, so just that one joke pretty much tells you everything you need to know about her character.

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The first pilot garnered such a negative reaction – particularly Katie, who’d been seen as being too mean to Sheldon and Leonard – that the series was almost not picked up. However, Lorre and Prady did manage to get a second chance, and this version – the imaginatively titled ‘Pilot’ – was much more warmly received, ending up with The Big Bang Theory becoming one of the highest-rated series in the US during its twelve year run on CBS. The abortive first run, however, does give us a fascinating glimpse into a show which would most likely have failed to reach the same stratospheric heights as what ended up on our screens.

We also wouldn’t have got a Belarusian rip-off called The Theorists, featuring Sheldon, Leo, Hovard, Raj and Natasha. But that’s for another article.

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