It's easy to proclaim that we live in era where every show or movie ever produced is available at the push of button, but that's not always the case. Licensing agreements can keep even recent seasons of popular shows like Better Call Saul and Glee off streaming for months, while music rights have kept entire series and large swaths of the SNL catalogue offline.
Even more infamous are the completed projects that have never seen the light of day — films like Jerry Lewis’ ill-conceived Holocaust comedy The Day the Clown Cried and Louis C.K.'s film I Love You Daddy, which premiered at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival but was pulled from theatrical release a week before it was to open after sexual misconduct accusations against C.K. were published in the New York Times. Recent weeks have seen a new title added to that list, albeit for different reasons: Batgirl, the $90 million superhero movie that was to have been released on HBO Max later this year. According to reports, Warner Bros. Discovery pulled the plug on the film so that it could used as a tax write-off after it performed poorly for test audiences.
While Batgirl may be highest profile project in recent memory to be shelved, it's not the first time the parent company of HBO and HBO Max has pulled a star-studded, expensive project from release. Remember the 2008 series 12 Miles of Bad Road? If you answered no, it's probably because despite a reported price tag of $25 million and six completed episodes, HBO never aired a single one.
Created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (Designing Women, Evening Shade), the hour-long dramedy starred Lily Tomlin and Mary Kay Place as the Shakespeare sisters, Texas real estate royalty whose family lives are as dysfunctional as their business is booming. Also along for the Dallas-meets-Arrested Development ride were Leslie Jordan, Eliza Coupe (before her big break on Happy Endings), Gary Cole, Katherine LaNasa, and Kim Dickens.
Six of the 10 episodes had been completed when there was an abrupt regime change at HBO. The series’ champion at the network, Chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht, was removed from his position after an incident where he allegedly struck his girlfriend in a Las Vegas parking lot. After some internal shuffling, the suits announced they wouldn’t be moving forward with 12 Miles of Bad Road. In response, Bloodworth-Thomason and her husband and partner Howard Thomason mailed screeners of episodes to TV critics in hopes that critical hosannas would change HBO’s mind. No dice.
But office politics were just part of a perfect storm for a series that found itself at the wrong network at the wrong time. Even before the drama played out in trade publications, the series had had its season order shortened due to the 2007 writers’ strike. Plus, it was produced just as the network was struggling to find its next Sex and the City or The Sopranos. Around this time, Lucky Louie, Tell Me You Love Me, and John From Cincinnati all premiered to less-than-stellar reviews and low viewership, which no doubt exacerbated nervous execs’ concerns about 12 Miles of Bad Road.
HBO never got around to explaining why it ate the show's $25 million price tag, although at least one critic wrote that they found the series too broad and borderline offensive. There were also complaints that it was written to the phantom metronome beat of a laugh track. (Maybe sending those screeners was a bad idea.) At least the actors got praise, with Coupe singled out for her performance as the horny black sheep daughter.
Many have discussed the mighta-been show over the years, but none as bluntly as Leslie Jordan. Even two years later, he was still lashing out about its cancellation, which he felt was driven by his own character’s unapologetic sexuality. As he told The New York Times, “I thought, ‘Why can’t you have a gay character that likes hustlers? I stood in that room with HBO and said: ‘What is the problem? Just because he’s not muscle-bound and adopting a Chinese baby?’”
The show now lives in the unavailable hall of fame; even with those screeners, all that's available to watch online is a never aired trailer and the 44-second clip above. But the legacy of the orphaned series may be in both its impeccable cast and in the hard lessons learned. As Coupe later said, “It was written up as a ‘Great New Show on HBO,' and then the whole thing was canned. Gone. Disappeared. That's when I realized anything can happen in this business.”
Coupe’s eventual breakthrough may be a comfort for Batgirl star Leslie Grace. Even when a studio disappears your big break, you can still get it somewhere else.
Mark Peikert has served as editor-in-chief of Playbill, Backstage, and New York Press, and has written for Rolling Stone, Town & Country, and Out Magazine, among others. Read more of his writing at markpeikert.com.