There are two types of shows that last for a single episode — the ones that are immediately canned, and those that never get picked up in the first place.
The former category should be easy to explain — if a show gets extremely negative reviews, poor ratings, or contains controversial content without enough redeeming value to be worth dealing with the media watchdogs, it's likely it'll die a quick death without anyone caring...it's a wonder anyone thought the idea would work in the first place.
However, the second is intriguing — television pilots that never got sold. Now, certainly, many of them are poor to middling in quality, and this is to be expected. Still, there are those that slip through the cracks with an awesome premise, superb casting, and overall excellent execution to the point where you're wondering why it didn't get picked up. They're Screwed by the Network before they even get a chance to shine.
Until the internet, occasional anthology series would be the only place for these quirky bits of production history to be showcased.
See also Backdoor Pilot and Audience-Alienating Premise; compare to Stillborn Serial. Not to be confused with One-Scene Wonder. For characters who appear in only one episode of a series, see One-Shot Character. The Other Wiki has a pair of articles on the subject (one covering shows cancelled after one episode, and another covering shows canceled before even having one airing).
Examples (more-or-less in alphabetical order):
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Real Life One Episode Wonders
17th Precinct was a show pitched to NBC by Ron Moore (featuring both Jamie Bamber & Tricia Helfer, who had both starred in Moore's Batttlestar Galactica reboot) following a police department in a world where magic took the place of technology. A pilot was produced but not picked up, though it was leaked onto Vimeo for a brief while in December 2011.
Bamber left his role on Law & Order UK to work on this pilot. Whoops.
In early 2010, 1000 Ways to Die aired a spinoff named 1000 Ways To Lie, based around common scams. Spike TV actually had 13 episodes filmed but chose not to air them after the pilot was so poorly received.
The Adventures of Superpup: At the end of the fifth season of The Adventures of Superman, star George Reeves was found dead. The producers of the show handled the situation in the classiest way possible... by filming an After Show pilot on the same sets with little people wearing giant dog masks, using character names such as "Bark Bent" and "Puppy Bite".
Alexander The Great, a TV show about the legendary Greek warlord starring William Shatner and Adam West. The pilot was so bad that the network didn't put it on the air until several years after filming it, and then only because they were hoping to cash in on the fame the leads had gathered from their recently cancelled shows, Star Trek and Batman. It didn't work.
The Amazing Screw-On Head: 2006 animated pilot based on a one-off comic by Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy. Featured Paul Giamatti as a Steam Punk cyborg who fights paranormal forces at the behest of the Lincoln administration, with David Hyde-Pierce as his arch nemesis, Emperor Zombie. The Sci-Fi Channel actually had an online poll to gauge interest, but despite being very well-received it somehow never made it, possibly due to low numbers (ignoring how hard it is to promote a one-off pilot or attract word-of-mouth).
Anchorwoman: A reality show in which Lauren Jones, best known for her role as a WWE diva, gets a role on a local TV news station, acts like an airhead, and competes with an equally pretentious rival. Hilarity Ensues.
Angora Napkin: An animated pilot about a Cloud Cuckoolander girl band, made in 2009 for Teletoon's late night program "Teletoon at Night". It was Canadian comic artist Troy Little's attempt to turn his comic into an adult-oriented Widget Series. When it failed, Little continued to make Angora Napkin as a Web Comic and a series of graphic novels.
Aquaman: 2006 superhero show from Smallville creators Al Gouch and Miles Millar, though not intended as a spin-off. Was called Mercy Reef in the development phase. The pilot is available for purchase on iTunes.
Australia's Naughtiest Home Videos: 1992 Australian comedy series featuring videos of sexual situations and other explicit content (aka Animals Having Sex). Canceled a third of the way through its broadcast by Kerry Packer, executive of the broadcasting Nine Network, phoning the studio operators to order them to "Get that shit off the air!", and replaced with a Cheers re-run.
Babylon Fields: 2007 zombie drama. Rather than being portrayed as malevolent monsters, however, the recently deceased return to their homes and attempt to pick up their lives.
Battletoads, an animated pilot based on the video game which aired in 1993.
Bubsy, which nobody would've ever seen if not for the fact that it was packaged with the Windows version of one of the Bubsy games. Rob Paulsen leaves it off his résumé nowadays...
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Animated Series. It never even made it to the full pilot stage, but the link is to the 4-minute promo on YouTube. It features almost the entire original cast (except Sarah Michelle Gellar; they got Buffy's voice from the video game instead).
Co-Ed Fever: 1979 CBS sitcom set at an all-female college that had just started to admit male students made on the heels of Animal House's success.
Constant Payne: 2001 animated pilot for Nickelodeon. Similar in concept to Jonny Quest, it followed the Payne family, consisting of an adventurous super-inventor and his daughter. There are several reasons why it didn't get aired, most notably the unfortunate timing of the September 11th terrorist attacks and the general fact that it was too violent for Nickelodeon.
Charlie Brooker's Gameswipe, a 2009 show about video games hosted by Charlie Brooker.
Dear Diary: Dreamworks production that eventually went on to win the 1996 Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film.
British "Nothing but Phone-inGame Shows" channel ITV Play had a very awkward one in 2007 with "The Debbie King Show"; hosted by Debbie King of Quizmania fame, which was part call-in news/talk show, part call-in quiz show. However, in response to a major scandal and investigation surrounding premium rate quiz shows, ITV had announced earlier on premiere day that ITV Play would be discontinued that same day. Somehow, they still went on with the show.
Defenders of Dynatron City was a tie-in to an NES game and a comic book series in an effort to make a new superhero franchise. Despite the ambition, the show went nowhere beyond the pilot, the comic only lasted six issues, and the NES game tanked commercially and critically.
Dragon's Heaven was one single OVA based on an old, highly obscure manga, but with some of the coolest mechs ever and an awesomesoundtrack, it's a crying shame that nothing more ever came of it.
Emilys Reasons Why Not: A comedy starring Heather Graham, based on a novel of the same name. It was intended to be the anchor of ABC's post-football-season Monday night lineup in 2006, and failed miserably, getting cancelled after its only airing in January despite heavy promotion during the fall of 2005. It was said ABC bought the series without seeing a script. It was cancelled so quickly that magazines that came out the next week were stuck running feature stories promoting a show that was no longer on the air because their press deadlines came before the airing of the one episode.
Fearless was officially placed on the 2003 Fall schedule by The WB, but later delayed to midseason (One Tree Hill appeared in its place) and then canceled without ever being broadcast. If you're curious, the pilot can be seen on YouTube in its entirety.
Ford Nation: Against the backdrop of Toronto mayor Rob Ford's crack cocaine scandal, conservative cable news network Sun News gave him and his brother Doug an hour-long current events show to replace their recently cancelled radio show. While its premiere got high ratings, it took five hours to record and eight to edit, due to Ford's inexperience with TV - and it was supposed to be a daily show. At which point, Sun decided to cut their losses, as it would be too expensive to get the episodes turned around.
In 2000, PAX aired a "sneak preview" of a Bible-based quiz show called Genesis, hosted by Jim McKrell, which never got picked up. More info, and a link to the entire episode, can be found here.
The Groovenians: A 2002 half-hour CGI television special by Kenny Scharf that was nominated for an Annie Award for Best Animated Short Subject.
Head of the Family: a pilot that featured Carl Reiner as the Head Comedy Writer for "The Alan Sturdy Show", and showed both his home and work life. The pilot was rejected by CBS and burned off as a one time "comedy special". Producer Sheldon Leonard saw it, completely recast it, changed 'Alan Sturdy' to 'Alan Brady', and created a five year hit known as The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Heat Vision and Jack: 1999 comedy/sci-fi show starring Jack Black as Jack Austin, a former astronaut exposed to inappropriate levels of solar radiation, granting him super-intelligence whenever the sun is out. Since NASA wishes to take out his brain, he's on the run with his friend Heat Vision, a friend who has been hit by a laser beam and turned into a talking motorcycle (Voiced by Owen Wilson). They travel the countryside chased by NASA mercenary Ron Silver (as himself), blocked at every turn...by adventure! Directed by Ben Stiller.
Created by Dan Harmon who gave the leads (Black and Wilson) a guest appearance on a show of his that did get picked up.
Heil Honey, I'm Home!: A 1990 British comedy starring caricatures of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun who live in matrimonial bliss until they become neighbors to a Jewish couple... Let's just say it's no Hogan's Heroes.
K-9 And Company: Doctor Who spinoff. Aired as a Christmas special in 1981 and starred former Doctor Who regular Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, the pilot featured a silly plot involving a local coven. It probably would've gone to series at the time, but then-recently appointed BBC One controller Alan Hart opposed the concept. 26 years later, Sarah Jane returned in her own spinoff series, The Sarah Jane Adventures, which fared much better.
Korgoth of Barbaria: 2006 animated pilot for a ridiculously over-the-top parody of Conan the Barbarian and other such barbarian fantasy novels/movies, created by Aaron Springer. Originally said to have been picked up by the [adult swim] lineup in 2007, but later said to be canceled with nary an episode other than the pilot.
Me and Lee? was a pilot for a proposed 2007 show featuring Jamie Kennedy as a man who gets his injured back fixed up by none other than Lee Majors who has researched bionics since he was in The Six Million Dollar Man and, apparently, also become somewhat creepy if not evil. Looking at the linked portion, one can probably see why it never actually saw the light of day.
Lawless: 1997 FOX action series starring NFL star Brian Bosworth as a private detective.
Locke & Key had a pilot filmed in 2011 for Fox, but it wasn't picked up to series.
Lookwell: 1991 detective comedy series written and produced by Conan O'Brien and Robert Smigel. Stars Adam West as a washed-up TV action star who, after being legally deputized at the peak of his career, decides to fight crime, which he does ineptly. The two writers were reportedly happy they didn't get picked up, feeling they had exhausted all good material on the pilot and no idea what to do for further stories.
The Long Hunt of April Savage, which was about a homesteader whose wife, daughter and son are killed by a band of renegades in 1871. Savage has vowed to track down the eight men responsible, one of whom is his own brother, even though he knows they have fled to the ends of the Earth.
The pilot was produced by Gene Roddenberry while he and Desilu Studios were waiting for NBC to decide the fate of their other series: a little thing called Star Trek.
MTV Ultimate Mash-Ups: Originally intended to be a series bringing artists together for collaborations, the first mash-up, between Jay-Z and Linkin Park, was a huge success, yet MTV never created another one. Ludacris and Sum 41 were rumored to be the next collab at one point.
Pauly Shore has a habit of pumping these sort of shows out. His first series, simply titled Pauly, was actually canceled halfway through the airing with only five episodes produced, with the footage replaced by an apology from the network.
Pryde of the X-Men: Surreal 1989 Kitty Pryde-based animated X-Men adaptation, which laid the ground work for the later series, after a much needed retool. Stan Lee's hyperactive narration takes it to the next level. The inclusion of Dazzler in the main cast and the fact that the historically Canadian Wolverine has an Australian accent probably didn't help either.
Nowadays, most fans would recognize the show's character designs as those used in Konami's X-Men arcade game.
Rewind starred Scott Baio as someone in his 40s having flashbacks to his college days, and was on Fox's announced schedule at one point, but after Fox saw the pilot, the show was pulled before airing (and Living Single pulled out of an announced hiatus to fill the time slot).
The American version of Red Dwarf didn't survive past a single pilot episode that never made it to air. Notable for casting Terry Farrell (of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fame) as a female version of Cat, a pre-FrasierJane Leeves as the computer Holly and Robert Llewellyn reprising his role of Kryten from the original British series. Because of Executive Meddling late in the production, multiple actor recastings and other problems, British series footage had to be used to fill in the holes in the episode. A brand-new higher-quality Kryten suit was made for the pilot which Llewellyn was allowed to keep and re-use in further British seasons following the American cancellation.
There were actually two "Red Dwarf USA" pilots. The first was a full pilot, with Hinton Battle as Cat; the second was more of a five-minute promo reel which mixed scenes from the UK version, the first USA pilot, and some new material (the only appearance of Terry Farrell as Cat is one of these).
Rex Is Not Your Lawyer was a pilot from NBC featuring David Tennant in the lead role. The show had tremendous buzz as it was Tennant's first series after recently leaving Doctor Who. Despite being co-written by British novelist David Lampson, and a cast including comedy vets such as Saturday Night Live's Jane Curtin & Arrested Development's Jeffrey Tambor, the pilot never made it to series.
The Robinsons: A 2003 Lost In Space remake pilot commissioned by the WB Television Network. The pilot was directed by John Woo (of Hard-Boiled and Face-Off fame), and featured multiple changes from the original, such as: the Jupiter 2 being a landing pod instead of a full-fledged ship, one of the Robinsons' sons dying in an attack by aliens, and much younger actors playing Judy and Don Robinson. The show was never picked up, but the sets of the Jupiter 2 were bought for use on the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, as the Battlestar Pegasus' command center.
Ronna and Beverly: 2009 Showtime sitcom based on a live sketch comedy show about two middle aged Jewish women who write a bestselling self-help book. The pilot was written by Jenji Kohan, whom you might know better as the creator of Weeds. When the pilot wasn't picked up, fans of the duo petitioned Showtime to air it, which they did in the dead of a cold December night.
This isn't the only Jenji Kohan series to have never gone past the pilot stage. One year later, Epix decided to pass on picking up her pilot Tough Trade due to budget and the company not liking the pilot. It has yet to be leaked.
Rosie Live: O'Donnell's 2008 attempt to revive the Variety Show format.
Secret Talents of the Stars: Hosted by John O'Hurley, it had George Takei singing country. You just can't say anything more than that.
Except for the not-so-secret talent Mya went with.
McG's American version of Spaced had a pilot filmed, but it never got picked up.
Steel Justice was a bizarre sci-fi action series about a cop in a dystopian future who fights evil with the help of a toy belonging to his dead son, which he turns into monster truck show icon Robosaurus. Only a 90-minute pilot movie made it to air.
Superboy 1961: A planned prequel series (or possible reboot) to the George Reeves series, The Adventures of Superman, the pilot followed a young Clark Kent as he attempts to thwart a gang of jewel thieves.
Surviving Urban Disasters: Documentary show starring Les Stroud of Survivorman fame, showing techniques for how to stay safe during disasters and interviews with survivors.
Tag Team: Jessie Ventura and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper play wrestlers drummed out of the business for refusing to take a dive. They then go on to become police officers. They Fight Crime.
Turn-On: A 1969 ripoff of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In slated to be a more sexually-charged, political version of Laugh-In, set to synthesizer music and set up as a computer showing bizarre scenes and set pieces to an unsuspecting audience. It was considered of the most notorious flops in ABC's history. The Denver and Cleveland affiliates failed to return to the show after the first commercial break, replacing it with a documentary on gun safety, while other affiliates either banned the episode from airing, or aired the entire episode and never reran it.
The TV Wheel: Another experimental sketch-comedy show, this time, created by and starring MST3K's Joel Hodgson. Heavy on the "experimental", but worth a look. It was originally developed for HBO and known as "The X-Box"... No relation to the video game console.
Virtuality, which aired on FOX. Written by Battlestar Galactica's Ron Moore, was originally intended as a pilot, but was canned preemptively, and the aborted series' pilot aired as a TV movie. The lead of the show, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, got a plum role a couple of years later.
Welcome to Eltingville, an animated adaptation of Evan Dorkin's comic book Dork! about a group of fanboys on Staten Island. [adult swim] occasionally re-airs the pilot along with other Wonders. Presumably to taunt us (as if the actual episode didn't do it).
Which Way to the War?, an ITV sitcom (with all that implies) pilot clearly intended for a full series which was broadcast in the 1990s. It featured a range of stereotypical WWII soldiers of various nationalities (the trailer showed a camp Scotsman saying "I'm not Scotch. I'm Scottish", this apparently being the joke they hoped would reel in interested viewers) along with 1970s-style writing and production values. Never heard from again.
Who's Your Daddy: 2005 FOX reality show involving an adopted woman attempting to pick her real father from a group of impostors. The Raleigh affiliate, WRAZ, pre-empted the show due to the owners considering the show "anti-family". Technically aired as a "special", but was so quite clearly a pilot that it's worth mentioning.
The Will: 2005 CBS reality show. It centered on the "Benefactor", a multi-millionaire from Arizona named Bill Long. Ten of his friends and relatives competed in a series of challenges to win the right to inherit his "prized possession", a huge Kansas ranch. The series eventually aired in its entirety on FOX Reality Channel.
You're in the Picture: 1961 CBS game show hosted by Jackie Gleason where the celebrity panel put their heads in cut-outs of painting reproductions,and had to guess the scene depicted. It was slaughtered by critics so much that in its timeslot the following week was Gleason delivering a hilarious ranting apologyfor the previous week's show (which wound up leading into Gleason's famous talk show The Jackie Gleason Show). Gleason's half-hour apology is considered one of the premier mea culpas of the television age.
NBC's Wonder Woman 2011 Pilot, which was quietly canned after receiving massively negative feedback from test audiences. The incomplete pilot was eventually leaked onto the Internet, which allowed fans to see precisely why it was savaged: Wonder Woman is a violent vigilante who thumbs her nose at the law and tortures a crook for information so she can slander Elizabeth Hurley, and then goes home to curl up on the couch with her cat, eating ice cream from the tub, watching The Notebook (really) — in other words, not Wonder Woman at all.
The Three Stooges were going to have a television show in 1949 but it never made it past the pilot (due to Columbia Pictures finding out about it and pulling the plug on it due to the "anti-television" clause in their contracts), and has since fallen into the Public Domain.
In general, many OVAs produced during the 1990s anime boom wound up as this. Amusingly enough, a good number of them were licensed in the west by ADV Films and/or Media Blasters, most of which are considered cult classics by people who got into anime at that time.
Big Shamus, Little Shamus, which drew few viewers to CBS from The Love Boat
Clerks: The Animated Series. Although six episodes were produced, only two were shown on the network that commissioned the show (episodes 4 and 2, in that order).
Do No Harm, a modern-day Jekyll & Hyde tale centered around a brain surgeon. It saw the lowest ratings ever for a series premiere on one of the Big Four networks, and was killed the week after that. The remaining episodes are being burned off, airing on the plum spot of 10pm on Saturday nights.
Dragon Half. Legend has it the OAVs were cancelled after the mangaka was busted for drug possession.
Elf Princess Rane only lasted two episodes before the creators "ran out of budget". This is highlighted by a close-up of one of the characters begging the viewing audience for more money so they can continue the series.
Girls Club, a 2002 David E. Kelley-created show about a trio of young female lawyers, had six episodes produced but only two aired.
ABC dumped The Great American Dream, a modern equivalent of Queen for a Day in which female contestants got to see their dreams come true. It was hosted by Donny Osmond. Five episodes were taped, but only two aired.
Hank Azaria's attempt to get a career beyond The Simpsons, Imagine That, was cancelled after two episodes aired.
The 2013 reality competition show The Job was canned by CBS after 2 episodes and many negative reviews, even though several more episodes had been filmed. Even the trailer seemed like they weren't sure whether to sell it as a serious reality show or So Bad, It's Good. In the end, it was just plain bad, and not bad enough to be So Bad, It's Good.
FOX drama Lone Star is a bit of an odd example because it was supposed to be the network's big show for 2010; however, it was canned after two episodes due to abysmal ratings.
Made In Jersey was cancelled after its second episode, though CBS was nice enough to air the rest of the already-shot episodes. On Saturday nights.
Mighty Space Miners
And yet another FOX example: the 2007 reality series Nashville, which featured up and coming country music stars, including Jamey Johnson, Chuck Wicks (later a Dancing with the Stars finalist) and Terry Bradshaw's daughter Rachel. Six taped, two aired.
The Paul Reiser Show aired on NBC in 2011 for two weeks, then was cancelled due to very poor ratings. NBC was not doing very well at the time, so the show had to have been doing pretty poorly to be cancelled so quickly.
The episodes that did air were the ones with the biggest-name celebrity guests meaning they had very in-industry storylines and didn't properly introduce the characters. We only saw his character's wife once and never saw his kids, which wasn't the intention...
Viva Laughlin, an attempt at bringing the British musical murder mystery miniseries Blackpool to American shores. Despite being executive produced by Hugh Jackman (who had a recurring part!), it met with critical venom, lost viewers at a precipitous rate and was dead within a week.
ABC Disguised in Drag comedy Work It was cancelled after two episodes due to low ratings and protests from the GLBT community.
Another episodic game example: Telltale Games' Bone. We can assume they were going to go through all 9 chapters of the series, but they only got to the second chapter, "The Great Cow Race", and then dropped it. Although it's still available to purchase from their site, and nothing has said they'll never come back to it...
Hey, It Worked for Mash : Movie to TV Attempts
Black Bart: A half hour sitcom version of Blazing Saddles which can now be found as an extra on the movie's 40th Anniversary DVD and can be easily summarized as just like the movie, only without Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, or jokes.
Diner: In 1983 Barry Levinson wrote and produced a half hour sitcom version of his movie of the same name, with Paul Reiser reviving his original role.
The Sunshine Boys: Neil Simon ... possibly encouraged by the success of the sitcom version of his play The Odd Couple (of which he had no part in the adaption process) ... created a pilot based on the movie/play in which Vauldvillian Partners Al Lewis and Willie Clark stir up trouble in the Actor's retirement home they are sent to.
My Big Fat Greek Life, the television version of the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
In May 2004, PAX debuted a Game Show called On The Cover, which aired for two episodes before abruptly stopping. It came back later in the year with some (mostly cosmetic) changes, but was gone again after its first "real" season.
And subverted again with another game show, The Rich List. One of countless one-episode wonders from FOX (2006 in this case), it was Re Tooled two-and-a-half years later as The Money List, which aired on GSN...for nine episodes.
G4's Proving Ground, an Experiment Show focusing on recreating things from video games, movies, and TV shows, was pulled off G4's schedule after co-host RyanDunndied in a car accident after only one episode had aired. The remaining eight episodes were eventually quietly run off later in the summer. No statement has been made on the show's continuation with a new co-host.
An interesting case involves The Miraculous Year, an HBO pilot written by JohnLogan and directed by KathrynBigelow (her first directing job after winning an Academy Award) and featuring an All-Star Cast including Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, Lee Pace, Hope Davis, Linus Roache, and Eddie Redmayne about the dysfunctions of a family of people who work in and around Broadway. Despite the pedigree of the cast and crew, the project was dropped by HBO before the pilot even aired, allegedly because the network was worried it was an Audience-Alienating Premise.
There have also been cases of shows cancelled after one or two episodes going on to longer runs elsewhere. An example being the aforementioned series The Will, which was cancelled almost immediately by its host network, but later played in full on a cable channel.
In-universe One-Episode Wonders and Parodies
Class Holes!: An in-universe sitcom in Family Guy created by Brian Griffin after CBS rewrites the script starring James Woods attending college with his daughter. It only aired one episode due to very low ratings. The script was intended to be a drama called What I Learned on Jefferson Street which is about a single father played by Elijah Wood returning to college to give him and his 4-year-old daughter a better life.
Also in-universe, Peter had a show he made called "Handiquacks", the first episode aired when the CEO wanted to make a very, very minor change to one of the characters, Peter said no and left, then wound up kicking himself later when he realizes his idiotic pride just prevented him from getting several thousand dollars.
The Dana Carvey Show: Had a fake newscast during the end credits of its premiere declaring that it had been canceled 15 minutes into its first episode. It did get a few more episodes than that...
Futurella, the new sci-fi animated show that Matt Groening's head shows a teaser trailer of to the 3010 Comicon audience in Futurama...and which FOX cancelsthree seconds in, prompting Groening to admit that the process has been streamlined.
Jerry: In-universe TV show that Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza were continually trying to make. Lasted only one episode, in part because the only executive on their side ran away to join Greenpeace for all the wrong reasons. They very nearly got it on the air, but then they were thrown in jail.
Limozeen: But They're In Space!: Animated television series in the Homestar Runner universe (and according to Strong Bad, the greatest thing he's ever "seen, done, or eaten") starring the Fake Band Limozeen and their fantastic adventuresin space. The show was canceled during the airing of its pilot, and the characters themselves halt the episode halfway through to inform the viewers to watch their future adventures in syndication or on DVD. The "end credits photo montage" of the email "Montage" mentions that "Strong Bad went on to host some show on Animal Planet. It was canceled before the first commercial break."