Every year, the five major broadcast networks 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. Last week, I walked you through the pilot slates for ABC, CBS, The CW and Fox, 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.) Below is the final frontier: NBC.
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.]
NBC is a bit of an enigma. It feels like it's been in transition for several years now, attempting to pull itself out of fourth place. Last year "The Voice" proved to be a success, and now the just-renewed "Smash" is performing solidly. If the network can manage to maintain -- and build upon -- this momentum, things could finally turn around. First, though, some fat needs to be trimmed from the schedule. Likely to get the axe are "Harry's Law," "Whitney," "Are You There Vodka, It's Me Chelsea?" and "Rock Center With Brian Williams." The verdict is still out on "Awake," but the numbers have been soft, so it wouldn't shock if the network decided to try something else.
They certainly have a variety of things to choose from. From prison to doctors, firemen to cult leaders, and robots to Mr. Hyde -- NBC covers a lot of ground. Almost as much as settlers did in the mid 1800s on the Oregon Trail (see what I did there?), which is the focus of "The Frontier." It begins as what could be an interesting period ensemble western, but devolves into a murky supernatural drama. The show appears to be working towards the goal of getting these people to their intended destination -- in one piece, fingers crossed -- but throwing in a mysterious figure wearing a coat of the scalps of blonde women and a child having visions of rivers running red with blood just makes it seem like the creators didn't know when to pull back.
In contrast, "Bad Girls" revels in its excesses. An adaptation of a British series of the same name, "Bad Girls" is a "Dynasty"-level drama about the inmates of a women's correctional facility. Each has her own struggle with the law: a bored housewife committing petty larceny, a pop star dealing drugs, a little white collar crime, etc. With something for everyone and a talented, eclectic ensemble to back it up (Jaime Pressley, Jurnee Smollett, Tracee Ellis Ross and Amy Smart, to name a few), this could prove to be a totally guilty pleasure.
As could "Notorious," created by Liz Heldens ("Mercy," "Friday Night Lights"). The pilot centers around a detective who discovers that her childhood best friend, a notorious heiress, was murdered and she must infiltrate the wealthy family she's known since her time in their house as the maid's daughter in order to discover the truth. It's likely that the popularity of ABC's "Revenge" played a role in the decision to give "Notorious" a shot -- especially given that this show was in contention last year, but wasn't given a pilot order. If it lives up to the promise of the script, this could very well make it to air.
Also showing great potential is "Beautiful People," written by actor Michael McDonald ("Mad TV," "Cougar Town"). In a not too distant future where lifelike robots serve mankind, these "mechanicals" slowly start to "wake up." It's not a typical sci-fi show, but is more of a smart, nuanced soap about what it means to be human. Another project involving a kind of "programming" (Obviously, I'm on a roll today) is "Midnight Sun," based on an Israeli show, about an FBI agent who travels to Alaska to investigate a possibly violent cult that mysteriously disappears. An interesting premise, but it'll really depend upon how well it's executed.
"County" faces a similar issue, in my opinion. I am, of course, very excited at the prospect of having more Jason Katims on television ("Friday Night Lights" is revelatory and "Parenthood" continues to be one of the best shows on NBC), but the script for "County" was soapier and more saccharin (and far more "Grey's Anatomy") than I would expect from Katims. That said, his proven track record gives me faith that this will wind up being far more than your average medical soap.
Another atypical show about doctors comes in the form of "Do No Harm": a medical procedural wherein every night at the same time, a Boston surgeon becomes -- quite literally -- a different person. For years he has been self medicating to keep his unstable alter ego at bay, but when his quick-fix stops working, the doctor must make a deal with himself in order the keep the peace -- but his dark side has other ideas. It's not the first time that a Jekkyl/Hyde-type story has been adapted for US audiences, but it is by far the most effective attempt.
Bad Robot is also trying again on NBC (their last venture being the quickly-cancelled "Undercovers" in 2010), this time hopping onto the in-vogue post-apocalyptic trend with a high concept series about a world in which electricity no longer exists. It's been 15 years since the power went out and society has reverted to something resembling frontier-times, replete with roving bandits and tyrannical militia. The series focuses on a father (who may know more than he lets on about the cause of the worldwide blackout) and his children, trying to survive in this new world. His daughter Charlie longs for more and winds up getting it when events send her on a dangerous mission to Chicago, searching for her mysterious uncle. It's a pretty fun ride and with hints of "The Hunger Games" to it (strong, young female lead), it could prove successful for the network.
Also set in the Windy City is the aptly titled "Chicago Fire," about -- surprise -- the Chicago Fire Department. This feels similar to another ensemble workplace drama that did very well for NBC -- that being the long-running "E.R." It remains to be seen whether or not this show has the same pull, but all the elements are in place -- compelling relationships, action, believable characters, life and death stakes -- for this to potentially fill that slot on the network's schedule. Not a bad way to round out this year's drama contenders.
Every comedy that NBC currently has on the air, save for "Whitney" and "Chelsea", could be described as a quirky ensemble show -- for the sake of argument, "Up All Night" can also be shoehorned in -- and the best of this year's crop continues that trend. "Go On" centers on a sports radio personality (Matthew Perry) who, after his wife dies, finds himself in support group full of eccentric people, each dealing with their own trauma (to greater or lesser extents). This leads to a particularly inspired scene wherein he creates a NCAA-style bracket for everyone's personal problems ("March Sadness!"). It's hilarious, sweet and definitely fits the NBC mold.
Also in that same ballpark is "Happy Valley," written by Hilary Winston ("Happy Endings", "Community"), about Agnes, a frumpy type-A woman who has to bounce back after her fiancé dumps her. Fortunately, her co-workers -- a team of brilliant misfits at a pharmaceutical company -- are there to help her life get back on track. The script is charming and in the capable hands of its cast (Sarah Wright, Mena Suvari, and Freddie Prinze Jr. as the ex-fiancé) and director (Adam Shankman), it is certain to translate well to screen.
The last of the best ensemble comedies that NBC has to offer is also a family comedy -- specifically, the first family. "1600 Penn" takes a look inside a fictional White House as the President (Bill Pullman) tries to rein in his over-enthusiastic son (Josh Gad, of "Book Of Mormon," who also co-wrote the script) who has just moved home. The rest of the cast is strong (Jenna Elfman, Brittany Snow) and the presidential twist on the typical sitcom setup could prove to be fun for the whole family.
NBC has some pretty strong pilots, but given the current state of their schedule and no clear needs for any specific type of programming, the network could literally wind up going anywhere. To that end, I'm going to dispense with my usual "Sure Things"-style prognostication. Whichever shows wind up getting the series pickup, there is solace in knowing that their slate this year is significantly stronger than last year's candidates were. They're headed in the right direction.