HBO has hit a few creative bumps in the road over the years. In the past year alone, the network halted production on David Fincher’s Videosyncrasy and passed on Utopia, his series collaboration with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn; the J.J. Abrams-produced Westworld series recently resumed production after taking a hiatus to reportedly retool some scripts; Togetherness was heartbreakingly canceled after just two seasons; and Vinyl showrunner Terence Winter was fired despite Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger’s music drama receiving a second season renewal – and the fact that Winter’s shows typically don’t find their footing or resonate with audiences until at least the second season.
It’s nothing new for HBO, which has experienced the failure of not one, but two series from Deadwood creator/genius David Milch, and whose roster of “shows that could have been” include everything from Noah Baumbach’s series adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections to a drama featuring Kevin Spacey as a cult leader (would watch).
With Everybody Wants Some!! currently in theaters, there’s one failed pilot in particular that’s worth revisiting: Richard Linklater’s $5.15/hr, a half-hour comedy series filmed in and around Austin (obviously) back in 2004. The pilot centered on the minimum wage employees sentenced to the graveyard shift of fictional fast food chain Grammaw’s Home Cookin’, and in typical Linklater fashion, the characters are a collection of directionless, idiosyncratic Average Joes who have the filmmaker’s usual laid-back, overly-familiar specificity. The only real name actor among the cast is America Ferrera.
The pilot for $5.15/hr surfaced online last year, just a couple of years after screening at the ATX Television Fest, where Ferrera participated in a Q&A. Unfortunately, the pilot is no longer online, but you can watch a collection of promotional clips, which satirize those low-budget, laughably terrible restaurant employee training videos – there’s the obligatory acronym (KEEPers!), instructions on hand-washing for the common sense-impaired, and a corny mission statement from what appears to be the restaurant’s founder, a vaguely creepy middle-aged dude who would make for a great guest on Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule.
From the suggestive opening shot of apples and pies, there’s this uncanny quality to the promos that definitely would have appealed to a certain contingency of viewers – the kind that love Mike Judge or Tim & Eric, maybe. As for the pilot itself, which has vanished into that blessedly vast internet abyss, it’s hard to say if $5.15/hr would have been a hit, though it may have played well to a younger demographic.
Unfortunately, HBO passed on the pilot in favor of greenlighting Mark Wahlberg and Doug Ellin’s Entourage, a series loosely based on the former Marky Mark’s own experiences as an up-and-coming actor. I do not have to tell you that HBO certainly made a Choice there, though your eyebrow-raising mileage on that one may vary. Linklater is arguably the sort of director who has occasionally made great films but whose filmography is largely filled with movies that are well-acted and watchable, but ultimately just okay – charming at best. With more and more acclaimed directors flocking to (and emerging from) television, it’s strange that Linklater hasn’t made a TV show, particularly given his proclivity for working on a smaller budget than most. The medium could have worked for Linklater, bringing out a different side of the filmmaker by challenging him to adapt to a different narrative format and approach. Imagine Boyhood as an annual TV series or miniseries event on HBO or Showtime. While Linklater’s decade-plus project ultimately yielded a very good film, it’s easy to picture a television version that could have been more complex – what if Linklater had released, say, three or four episodes a year, BBC-style?
Ultimately, it would be great to see Linklater adapt to serialized storytelling on a small screen, and though $5.15/hr hardly seems like it would have been a masterpiece or some great revelatory television moment, it would have been vastly superior to having to listen to Entourage’s aggressively douchey opening theme song every week because you forgot to turn off the TV after watching the latest episode of Deadwood or Big Love.
HBO often takes risks, but those risks come with some questionable programming calls – at least from a creative-driven standpoint. Sure, Entourage was a massive hit and undoubtedly inspired thousands of Planet Fitness memberships and failed, delusional, half-baked attempts at acting careers and hundreds of pirated downloads of Final Draft. But it’s also the reason why we never had the chance to see what Linklater might have done on TV, and given the choice between the director of Dazed and Confused and a show about a bunch of bro-headed morons chasing fame while Jeremy Piven screams a lot, I (and most of you) would have opted for the former.
Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that America Ferrera appeared in Fast Food Nation.