I enjoy "dark" shows like The Game of Breaking Wire as much as the next guy, but at the same time, I acknowledge the need for more uplifting programming to balance it all out. Silly cartoons, wacky comedies, movies that always have a happy ending -- if we didn't have those to help cheer us the fuck up, we'd never stop wallowing in a pit of our own misery and microwaved hot dogs with no mustard.
And yet, it turns out that "not depressing the audience" is actually sort of a revolutionary thought among Hollywood executives, who at various points seriously considered turning a bunch of heartwarming movies and TV shows into festivals of sadness and horror. Just check out what almost happened to ...
The Movie You Know:
Despite featuring scenes of domicular manslaughter and murder for hire, the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz remains one of the most celebrated family movies of all time. If I had to guess why, I'd say it's because it takes place in a magical fantasy land where the rules and norms of the real world no longer apply. The way I see it, invoking magic in movies is like setting up a safe word for the part of your brain responsible for calling bullshit on stuff you'd normally find absurdly unnerving (like flying monkeys, living scarecrows, and enchanted cyborgs), and that's fundamentally what the movie is all about: magic.
What We Almost Got Instead:
According to the initial proposal for The Wizard of Oz, the movie we almost got would have eliminated all references to magic and given everything in the story a rational/depressing explanation.
Wicked Witch? Bad case of gangrene. Flying monkeys? Results of a drunken orgy at the zoo.
Originally, Mervyn LeRoy and William Cannon wanted to do a dark, "realistic" retelling of the Oz tale, inventing the gritty reboot 65 years before Batman Begins, only with an even more disturbing Scarecrow. In their version, the Oz Scarecrow would no longer be a literal dummy filled with straw who needed to believe more in his own intelligence, but a flesh-and-bone human who was so stupid that he could only get a job standing in a field and chasing off birds.
And dreaming about the rabbits.
That already paints this proposed land of Oz as some miserable hellhole where desperate people take jobs previously reserved for inanimate objects. What then takes it into full-on dystopian territory is Oz's cruel and unusual punishment of criminals like the Tin Man, who in LeRoy and Cannon's draft was described as a "heartless" man sentenced to be locked in a tin suit of armor for all eternity. Dorothy was only supposed to meet him many years into his sentence, after he had softened and become kind, or in other words, had his will completely broken by years of being isolated from society for his unspecified crime.
"I stole a loaf of bread. My sister's child was close to death, and we were starving ..."
Thankfully, The Wizard of Oz ended up going through more rewrites than a suicide note composed by a guy with multiple personalities, which is how we ultimately got the movie we all know and love, where the Tin Man's living nightmare of an existence is merely hinted at.
The Show You Know:
In 1994, CBS rolled out their supernatural drama series Touched by an Angel, which centered on how much God totally loves you -- which, as it turns out, is a lot. Apparently, God loves you so much that if it wasn't against some internal bureaucracy bullshit, he would make bacon appear in your mouth every time you saw a puppy. But for now, the best he can do is send angels like Tess and Monica down to Earth to help us humans deal with all sorts of problems, like a terminal illness or the loss of a loved one.
"They're in a better place now. No, seriously, have you seen heaven? They've
got all six seasons of Firefly up there."
Those were admittedly some pretty serious themes, but they never distracted from the show's uplifting message that no matter how alone you feel, God is always there looking out for you, caring about you, trying to figure out the whole bacon and puppies thing.
What We Almost Got Instead:
Unlike the heartwarming series that eventually aired, the original pilot of Touched by an Angel, produced by John Masius, more resembled a PR smear campaign against Jesus' dad. The pilot reportedly opened with Monica (the younger, less-experienced angel) flying over the Pacific Ocean, and then suddenly crashing violently into it after God momentarily switched off her flying powers. Why? Because Masius wanted the show's God to be a bit of a "practical joker" who enjoyed tossing his servants into the ocean for shits and giggles.
And constantly making them smell slightly spoiled cheese, it appears.
The entire series was meant to focus exclusively on human suffering, and how it exists in our world because God gets bored easily and needs something to amuse him. So according to Masius, the reason why people get hit by hot-dog-shaped trucks, fall down wells, etc., is to help God get through another long day at the office. And the worst part is that in Masius' universe, not even death frees you from God's tyrannical grasp, because as his pilot explains, angels like Monica and Tess are humans who had died and gotten a life sentence of taking orders/wedgies directly from the great clown in the sky.
The only upside was that angels were also given the power over life and death, which was demonstrated in the pilot when Monica brought a dog back from the dead. CBS fired Masius and completely retooled the show after realizing that he'd basically sold them some bizarre crossover between Milton's Paradise Lost and Pet Sematary.
The Show You Know:
Hey Arnold! was Nickelodeon's 1996-2004 animated series about a fourth grader named Arnold living in the big city and being constantly accused of wearing a skirt by the Internet.
Come on, guys. It's clearly his shirt. Look at the fucking collar.
The show mainly focused on Arnold and his friends dealing with typical kid stuff, like unrequited crushes, urban legends ...
What We Almost Got Instead:
... creepy sexual predato- waaaaait, what?
So yeah, it seems that when Craig Bartlett was first developing the show, he wanted one of Arnold's neighbors to be a lawyer named Lana Vail who totally wanted to commit a bunch of penal offenses on Arnold's bathing suit area. She ... she wanted to fuck him, is what I'm getting at.
"What can I say? Macrocephaly gets me hot."
But of course, that's not how Bartlett described it. He claims he merely wanted to get some laughs out of the adult Vail having a crush on the 10-year-old Arnold and trying to get time alone with the boy by constantly asking him to do a bunch of favors for her. The comedy was supposed to come from how uncomfortable the entire situation made Arnold feel, which was also the reaction of Nickelodeon's executives, who respectfully turned down this proposal by, I assume, quietly staring at Bartlett until he left the room in shame.
Now, I'll be the first person to admit that Hey Arnold! doesn't get enough credit for tackling many adult issues, like when it was revealed that another one of Arnold's neighbors, Mr. Hyunh, was separated from his daughter during the Vietnam War and hadn't seen her in over 20 years. Also, I'm pretty sure that Arnold's best friend Gerald is in fact the result of an affair Marge Simpson had with Carl Carlson:
But none of those issues could ever be considered "unspeakably creepy," which is exactly what Lana Vail's character would bring to the table. Because as Bartlett himself finally figured out, an unhealthy obsession with a small boy is only funny when he and his stalker are roughly the same age.
"I want to die giving birth to your freak-headed baby."