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‘Hieroglyph’ Pilot Joins Fox Tradition of Aborted Takeoffs

Fox’s “Hieroglyph” will never get a chance to decipher the riddle of success in primetime. And while pulling the plug on the show before it ever airs might sound surprising – all that research and money for this? – it joins a rather long if not necessarily distinguished roster of shows, particularly on Fox, which have shared a similar fate.

For a time, in fact, it was virtually an annual tradition that Fox would order at least one show that never saw the light of day, resulting in a sort of morbid death watch for each new rookie class. The roster – and my memory needed some help from TV.com to put it together – included such titles as “Hollyweird,” “Still Life,” “The Grubbs,” “The Ortegas,” “Rewind,” “Septuplets,” “Schimmel” and “Manchester Prep.” And that doesn’t even count the Frankenstein-like monstrosities concocted by former Fox reality guru Mike Darnell that weren’t allowed to escape the lab.

Not all of these series were bad, and some of them had casts who either brought considerable recognition to the party or went on to much better things. “Rewind,” for example, starred Scott Baio, and “Manchester Prep” – a teen soap inspired by “Cruel Intentions” – featured Amy Adams as its femme fatale.

So how does this happen? The reasons are varied, but the fate of “Hieroglyph” – a show whose cut-down during the network’s upfront presentation looked utterly confusing – contains a number of factors that have inspired networks to abort such flights in the past. They include, but are not limited to, an executive change (the departure of Fox Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly), a claim the scripts were disappointing and an expensive show that made network honcho’s weather-sensitive feet even colder than usual.

In that regard, the fact the series is produced by corporate sibling 20th Century Fox Television – and would have thus doubled the pain in failure – was probably more of a detriment than a synergistic asset.

The move to torpedo the show also provides several timely reminders, what with the TV Critics Assn. tour just around the corner. For starters, the sped-up, traffic-driven nature of press coverage creates an environment that pressures the media to cover shows early, despite the historic vagaries of the development process. Studios and networks have further cultivated this atmosphere by using venues like Comic-Con to screen pilots – thus hoping to enlist the fanboy masses as part of their marketing machinery – only to see roles recast and changes made as they go about the task of birthing new series.

Similarly, as critic Alan Sepinwall noted a few years back, it’s worth taking midseason scheduling fanfare announced in May with a grain of salt. Like a boxing match, networks might have a great scheme in mind until they get punched in the jaw, at which point it’s not unusual for their game plans to go out the window.

Finally, Fox’s action merely underscores that for all the talk about changing TV development – including the push for more direct-to-series orders, eschewing prototypes – this remains an imperfect science and work in progress, to say the least.

In that respect, “Hieroglyph” simply joins a long line of shows that fleetingly tasted the thrill of victory during the upfront announcements only to have the rug rather unceremoniously pulled out from under them – denying them the chance, fairly or not, to try cracking the primetime code.

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