Top 10 Successful TV Show Scripts That Executives Rejected



Top 10 Successful TV Show Scripts That Executives Rejected

Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we're counting down our picks for the Top 10 Rejected Scripts/Shows That Became Successful. For this list, we'll be looking at acclaimed hit shows that were initially turned down by network executives before finding their way to the small screen. Our countdown includes "The Sopranos" (1999-2007), "South Park" (1997-), "Stranger Things" (2016-), "Breaking Bad" (2008-13), and more!

#10: “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (2000-15)

The American TV network, CBS, has become famous for its slew of police procedurals. And, it all began when they took a chance on a little forensic crime drama titled “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”. Although it had bigshot Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer attached to it, the pilot was turned down by ABC, NBC and Fox. They all figured that the investigative process and police jargon might be too much for audiences to follow. After it was developed at CBS, “CSI” became an international smash hit, earning the title of most watched show in the world six times over its fifteen-year run, and spawning four successful spin-off series. Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience!

#9: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003)

Despite its modest box office success, the 1992 comedy/horror film, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” left a bad taste in the mouths of critics and audiences alike. This included Joss Whedon, who wrote the screenplay. Dissatisfied with the film, Whedon was convinced by one of the producers to develop his original idea into a TV show. He shot an unaired pilot and shopped it around to networks, but faced rejection from executives at both Fox and NBC. Eventually, The WB, then a rookie network eager for new content, picked up the show. It quickly became one of the network’s most successful hits. In the years that followed, Buffy had a huge impact on pop culture and paved the way for female-led supernatural shows.

#8: “South Park” (1997-)

It’ll probably come as no surprise that “South Park” was met with stiff rejection in its journey to the small screen. What may be surprising, however, is that the now long-running animated sitcom wasn’t rejected for its notoriously foul-mouthed humor. Nope, turns out executives at Fox and MTV were skeptical of the child protagonists appealing to a more mature audience. This wasn’t a concern for Comedy Central, however, as the show was picked up for a series order soon after co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone gave their pitch. “South Park” became instantly successful and is largely credited with bringing Comedy Central to the forefront of cable TV. Way to go kids!

#7: “Mad Men” (2007-15)

For a show about advertising, network executives weren’t initially sold on “Mad Men’s” retro style and depiction of 1960s America. Creator Matthew Weiner initially pitched the series to HBO, but it was turned down after the network couldn’t get The Sopranos’ creator, and Weiner’s former boss, David Chase to executive produce. A second pitch, this time at Showtime, also proved unsuccessful. Luckily, executives at AMC, then a cable channel known mostly for theatrical movies, took a huge gamble on Weiner, commissioning the show as its first ever original drama series. “Mad Men” became a huge hit for AMC, garnering critical acclaim and earning four consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series. Not too shabby!

#6: “The Walking Dead” (2010-22)

This post-apocalyptic zombie survival show was surprisingly met with a cold reception by network executives from the “big 4” - ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX. Smaller cable channels like TNT and FX also passed. Most of the networks were instantly put off by the sheer amount of violence and gore depicted on the show. It also didn’t help that showrunner Frank Darabont needed quite a hefty budget to pull it all off. Then along came AMC, swooping in to save the day, yet again. The cable network was right to embrace the bloody violence, as it made for a terrific, long-running ratings smash that would go on to produce multiple spin-offs!

#5: “Stranger Things” (2016-)

It seems the more networks reject a show, the more likely it is to become a hit! While that may not always be true, this wildly successful sci-fi horror series sure makes a good case for it. Reportedly pitched by the Duffer Brothers to a whopping 15-20 networks, “Stranger Things” was turned down by all of them because executives were unsure about a cast of young teens leading the show. Many suggested it be centered around Chief Hopper’s investigation. Thankfully, the brother duo stood their ground and were able to clinch a meeting with Netflix who happily granted it a series order. “Stranger Things” went on to shatter viewing records on the streamer and gained a very devoted fanbase!

#4: “Breaking Bad” (2008-13)

The leadership at AMC deserve more than just a pat on the back for giving us some great TV programs, even when their counterparts passed them up. Series creator Vince Gilligan pitched what is now regarded as one of the greatest shows of all time to multiple networks, most notably HBO. The premium cable network passed on it, noting they already had antihero leads on their shows “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.” They would regret that decision, however, as Walter White manipulated his way into the hearts of audiences and critics alike.Of course, “Breaking Bad” had a highly successful run with record-breaking ratings. It also received a flurry of awards and a Guinness World Record as the most critically acclaimed show of all time. Your loss HBO.

#3: “The Sopranos” (1999-2007)

Although they may still regret turning down “Breaking Bad,” HBO made the decision of a lifetime when it picked up this hit crime drama about a menacing mob boss and his complicated familial relationships. “The Sopranos” marked a defining moment in pop culture, revitalizing the narrative structure of a TV show and subverting all expectations of what a series should look like. Its rise to the top wasn’t all rosy though, as the show was turned down by CBS execs. It wasn’t for the brutal depictions and profanity, but rather they didn’t quite like the idea of a terrifying gangster going to therapy. Good thing HBO didn’t mind, because we can’t imagine the show without the tense relationship between Tony and Dr. Melfi.

#2: “The Queen’s Gambit” (2020)

In what can only be described as a rookie move, “The Queen’s Gambit” was declined by several TV executives over the course of three decades. Series co-creator Allan Scott purchased the TV rights to the fictional chess drama novel in 1992, initially intending to adapt it into a movie. But, after those plans fell through, he expanded the story into a miniseries. He also unsuccessfully pitched it to multiple networks. In 2019, streaming giant Netflix made the smart decision of dragging the show out of development hell. The decision proved to be a checkmate to the other networks, as “The Queen’s Gambit” quickly became Netflix’s most-watched scripted miniseries!

#1: “Squid Game” (2021)

The creator of this insanely successful survivalist drama series, Hwang Dong-hyuk, was inspired by the personal hardships he faced early on in his career. That hardship led him to create a show that expertly tackled capitalism and class disparity. Writing the show was one thing, but getting it produced was another. Hwang underwent a tumultuous ten-year journey that involved several rejections from Korean production studios. Hwang eventually caught Netflix’s attention and the streamer smartly picked up the series. They expected it to be a success in Korea and other parts of Asia, but much to their surprise, the show went on to destroy global records. “Squid Game” stands as Netflix’s most-watched series ever and has generated around $900 million in value for the streaming platform. Game on!