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11 Ill-Conceived TV Spinoffs That Almost Happened

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NBC

Not too long ago entertainment gossip rags were abuzz discussing the pros and cons of a Dwight Schrute spinoff series (that didn't end up happening). But Dwight is far from the first popular character who almost got his own show. Here are 11 other spinoff ideas that barely made it past the drawing board.

1. W*A*L*T*E*R (M*A*S*H)

This M*A*S*H spinoff had as complicated a broadcast history as plot backstory. Gary Burghoff, who’d played the loveable Cpl. Radar O’Reilly at the 4077, provided a bit of background for his upcoming solo series during a special guest appearance on an episode of yet another ill-fated spinoff, AfterM*A*S*H. There we learned that Radar’s (oops – he made it clear in the pilot that his name was “Walter”) farm had failed and he’d shipped his mom off to live with an aunt. He’d married a woman named Sandy who left him for another man during their honeymoon. He now lived in St. Louis with his cousin and was a rookie cop on the local police force. The first episode showed hapless, naïve Walter exhibiting typical Radar-like behavior, such as getting embarrassed when breaking up a fight at a strip club, and buying a soda for a kid he falsely accused of committing a crime. The pilot episode of W*A*L*T*E*R aired just once (on July 17th, 1984; the series was not picked up), and only in the Eastern and Central time zones thanks to CBS affiliates cutting to live coverage of the 1984 Democratic National Convention at 9:00pm.

2. Facts of Life: Next Generation

The proposed Facts of Life spinoff had several working titles but never made it past the two-part Facts of Life finale entitled “The Beginning of the Beginning.” It was to be a vehicle for Lisa Whelchel, whose snooty Blair Warner character would buy the financially troubled Eastland School and become its new headmistress.

3. The Art of Being Nick (Family Ties)

Scott Valentine was introduced as Nick Moore, Mallory’s love interest on Family Ties, during the series’ fourth season. Nick was a retro-hippie “environmental” artist who made sculptures out of garbage and whose grungy appearance and lack of scholastic ambition was a sore point with Steven, Elyse and Alex. Audience reaction to Nick was so positive that not one but three different pilots for a spinoff series were filmed in 1986. The one that made it to the air in 1987 was The Art of Being Nick and co-starred a pre-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Even though the ratings were encouraging, NBC honcho Brandon Tartikoff nixed the series, preferring to keep the Nick character as a semi-regular on Family Ties.

4. Karen (Will and Grace)

This proposed Will and Grace spinoff didn’t get as far as the pilot stage, but it was all mapped out on paper. Megan Mullally would star as Karen Walker in her mansion and most of the comedy would be the interaction between her and her servants (one of which was slated to be a butler played by Martin Short). NBC got cold feet, though, after the lackluster ratings for Joey and gave Mullally a talk show instead of a sitcom.

5. After the Honeymoon (My Three Sons)

During the 11th season of My Three Sons there was an attempt to spin off eldest son, Robbie (played by Don Grady), his wife Katie (Tina Cole) and their triplet boys onto their own series. In the pilot episode, Robbie was laid off from work and moved his family to San Francisco to accept a new job. After the Honeymoon wasn’t picked up, and Grady didn't return to My Three Sons for the 12th and final season. Tina Cole did return to the bosom of the Douglas family, and her husband’s absence was explained by having him transferred to Peru to oversee a construction job.

6. Another Man’s Shoes (One Day at a Time)

The original premise of One Day at a Time – a divorcée struggling to raise two daughters as a single mom – was all but forgotten by Season Nine. Ann Romano had remarried and moved to London and both her daughters had grown up and gotten married. Who was left to spin off into their own series? Schneider, the building superintendent, of course. In the pilot, Schneider finds out that his brother has passed away and he flies to Florida to care for his now-orphaned niece and nephew (a young Corey Feldman). The children live in an apartment over an arcade that was frequented by an assortment of wacky regulars, and it just so happened the arcade owner was looking to hire a handyman. All the elements were in place for Dwayne Schneider to start life anew in Daytona Beach, but, alas, the series was not picked up.

7. Jackee (227)

Relations between Marla Gibbs and Jackie Harry were rather tense by the fourth season of 227, mainly because Jackee’s character, Sandra, had become the breakout star of the series. Harry filmed a pilot which aired in 1989 in which Sandra moved to New York to accept a job at a film studio. When it turned out that the studio in question made adult films, she instead took a job at a spa. The pilot had a plum slot right after The Cosby Show and finished fifth in the ratings, but NBC still declined to pick it up.

8. Horshack (Welcome Back, Kotter)

Ooh! Ooh! Guess which Sweathog almost graduated from Mr. Kotter’s class to his own series? The episode of Welcome Back Kotter entitled “There Goes Number 5” was the pilot for an Arnold Horshack series in which the geeky student becomes a surrogate father to his younger siblings after his mother’s fifth husband dies. ABC ultimately decided to green light the Barney Miller spinoff Fish instead.

9. Goober and the Trucker’s Paradise (The Andy Griffith Show)

A proposed spinoff of The Andy Griffith Show featured Gomer’s cousin Goober moving from Mayberry to Atlanta with his sister, Pearl, to open a truck stop café. The network passed on it, so Goob stayed on at Wally’s Filling Station all the way through Mayberry RFD.

10. Mona (Who's the Boss?)

A two-part episode of Who’s The Boss? was a pilot for a proposed series starring Katherine Helmond. Mona goes to visit her never-before-mentioned brother Cornelius at a hotel he’s recently purchased. Even though the place turned out to be a decrepit money pit, Mona decided to stay on and co-manage it with him. That is, until ABC gave it the thumbs-down, whereupon she returned to living over Angela’s garage.

11. Kick It with the Fly Girls (In Living Color)

In early 1991 it was announced that the dance troupe from Fox’s In Living Color would host their own hour-long show. Kick It with the Fly Girls was to be emceed by Shawn Wayans and would feature “top performing rap and hip-hop artists and new acts.” The proposed series only got as far as holding auditions for dancers in New York and Los Angeles.

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Think the networks pulled the plug too early? Would you have watched any of these? Which current supporting characters should get their own show?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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