Every year, the five major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX and NBC) order pilots to be considered for the fall season. A pilot, as you may know, is the first episode of a TV series and the final step in a long development process from idea to screen.
From the 87 drama and comedy pilots ordered this year, a new crop of television shows will be selected -- and I read the scripts for each and every one of them. Over the course of this week, I'm walking you through the network's pilot slates, offering a bit of analysis on their present schedules and providing you with a rundown of the drama contenders. (Plus, a little bit of info about the comedies, too.) Of course, not all of these shows will find their way to your TV set -- in fact, most of them you may never hear of again.
[NOTE: The versions of the scripts that I am commenting on were not necessarily final drafts and therefore could have changed in both content or title between my having read them and production -- though, drastic changes are unlikely.]
Two weeks ago, CBS renewed 18 of its shows, leaving only a handful up in the air. It wasn't a terribly surprising move, given that CBS has one of the more stable schedules on television. While their audience may skew older, what they lack in the more desirable demographics, they make up for in total viewers. Basically, CBS' programming is easy-to-digest and relies heavily on legal and law enforcement procedurals.
At present, CBS has two franchises, "NCIS" and "CSI," contributing to almost a third of their lineup. But neither "CSI" spinoff (New York or Miami) received an early renewal and could be canceled to make room for new blood. Also on the chopping block are freshman series "Unforgettable" and "A Gifted Man," the latter of which is as good as gone. "Rules Of Engagement," "Rob" and "Two And A Half Men" are the comedies in danger of being given the boot; but "Men" is only included because star Ashton Kutcher has yet to sign on for a second season. All this allows for as many as three, possibly four, hours of new programming.
What sort of material does CBS have to fill the soon-to-be-empty slots? More of the same. Of their seven drama pilots, all of them focus on various crime-solving protagonists, save for one: "Baby Big Shot." It's a legal procedural centered around a Long Island local girl making good at a fancy Manhattan law firm where her detractors constantly refer to her as a "townie," as if that's an actual thing people use as an insult in New York City. There are elements of the script that do work -- like a certain sassy sense of fun -- but ultimately it feels a little too unfocused to be a serious contender.
Also on the lighter side of things is "Applebaum," written by Ayelet Waldman and based upon her series of novels, "The Mommy-Track Mysteries." Title character Juliet Applebaum is a mother of three who moonlights as a PI alongside an ex-cop and parolee/office assistant, balancing carpool and soccer games while investigating murder in the 'burbs. The offbeat cast of characters and wry wit of the lead make this feel like a grown up "Veronica Mars" -- which is pretty high praise.
The pickup of "Applebaum," and two others, gives the impression that CBS is looking for a family-based procedural this fall. Take "Trooper" about a no nonsense single mom who works as a New York State Trooper while keeping her kids and drug addict sister in line. It feels a little a bit paint by numbers, but given how well it fits the CBS mold, it wouldn't be terribly surprising to see it on the schedule.
The "family" in the third family-centric show on CBS's roster is is far from traditional. "The Widow Detective" follows an LAPD detective who has the unfortunate luck of having his partners die in the line of duty. Following the deaths of these men, the titular detective takes it upon himself to make sure that their families are provided for -- and then, after a six month waiting period, he sleeps with their widows. Not even kidding. It starts to feel a little "Big Love," but without the religious convictions to justify it, everything just feels a little skeezy. Personally, I don't think it helps that they cast John Corbett.
However unpleasant that may seem, no one this development season is as off-putting as central character of "Golden Boy," produced by Greg Berlanti ("Everwood," "Brothers & Sisters"). "Golden Boy" charts the rise of a police officer who becomes the youngest Commissioner in the NYPD's history and it quickly becomes clear that he'll do whatever it takes to get ahead. There is no secondary, nobler reason to offset his ambition, which just serves to make him extremely unlikeable. Now, having a repellant lead is not necessarily a problem -- take Fox's "House," for example -- but the ends have to justify the means. There needs to be a driving force other than self-interest in order for the audience to root for his success, and unfortunately, "Golden Boy" just doesn't have it.
"Elementary," the latest take on Sherlock Holmes, is also saddled with arrogant and self-satisfied lead character. That said, his shortcomings are more palatable thanks to the fact that his rakishness is charming enough and his motivations are fueled by nothing more than a desire to solve the crime -- alongside his 'Personal Recovery Assistant,' Joan Watson. There has been some press concern that this is a ripoff of the fantastic modernized BBC show, also based on of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous novels. While there are similarities, they appear to be limited to the usual Sherlockian traits found in any adaptation, so quibbling over one versus the other seems like a waste of time. The British version only airs three episodes per season and the third series isn't due for well over a year; while we wait for that, we might as well indulge in CBS' interpretation, especially since it's one of the strongest pilots on their slate.
Far and away the best CBS contender is "Ralph Lamb," based on the true story of Las Vegas in the '60s and the cowboy-turned-sheriff who couldn't be bought. Nick Pileggi ("Casino," "Goodfellas") has written a great script that vividly paints a portrait of Sin City on the rise, deftly setting up Lamb and his brothers' inevitable clashes with the mobsters beginning to take over the gambling mecca. It's no wonder that this project was able to attract the likes of Dennis Quaid, Michael Chiklis and Carrie Anne Moss.
On the comedy side of things, what CBS lacks in casting star power, they make up for with solid material. The network is currently performing a dry run of what could very well become a permanent fixture this fall: a Thursday night sitcom block. By shuffling things around, a second hour of comedy could be added to a night anchored by "The Big Bang Theory." And, to name a few, there are several good options on deck: "Super Fun Night," written by and starring Rebel Wilson (who played Kristen Wiig's scene-stealing roommate in "Bridesmaids"), about the lives of a group of awkward girls on a mission to get more out of their Friday nights; an as yet untitled project from Louis C.K. and Spike Feresten about the young and underemployed; and another untitled show, this one written by Larry Dorf and Ben Falcone (husband of Melissa McCarthy, who is also a producer) about a man who lost everything when the housing market crashed and is forced to move back into his parents' house.
It is interesting to note that as much as the drama slate leans on older-audience-pleasing procedurals, a good number of CBS' comedies currently on the air focus on the trials and tribulations of young people. A couple of twentysomething women trying to make their way in the world ("2 Broke Girls"); a group of friends looking for love in New York City ("How I Met Your Mother); and, of course, a set emotionally-stunted roommates and their friends ("The Big Bang Theory," though, let's be honest, this could probably also apply to "Two And A Half Men"). Comedy can be notoriously difficult to prognosticate, but given the above, there seem to be clear frontrunners for the fall schedule.
- "Ralph Lamb" -- the strength of the script and the star power attached make this a no brainer.
- "Elementary" -- the manic energy and fun of the material combined with two great leads (Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu) tip the scales in this show's favor.
- "Super Fun Night" -- this nerdy comedy seems like the perfect companion to "The Big Bang Theory."
- "Trooper" -- if they're looking for a female-led procedural to fill the same creative void left by the likely-to-be-cancelled "Unforgettable," this would fit the bill. Plus, it doesn't hurt that the lead is an Oscar winner (Mira Sorvino).
The development game at CBS may not be the sexiest of the bunch, but they are home to some solid programming -- a trend which looks like it may very well continue.
Coming tomorrow: The CW may finally be ready to drop out of high school.