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'll walk you through the network's pilot slates, offer a bit of analysis on their present schedules and provide 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.]
ABC did fairly well this past year, having the only two new broadcast dramas that could be considered success stories -- "Revenge" and "Once Upon A Time." Based on the scripts that they picked up to pilot, it seems they want more of what's already working.
Three of their projects hew very close to the ensemble soapiness of "Revenge": "Americana," about a New York fashion dynasty (a secret illegitimate daughter! attempted murder! bitchy ex-mistresses!); "Nashville," basically "Country Strong: The Series," except this time the ingénue is the one coming unglued (a scheming up-and-comer! a fading star! daddy issues!); and "Scruples," another fashion-based soap, set in '70s Beverly Hills and centered around what was to become the famed Rodeo Drive (underage models! celebrity journalism! secret gays!). Of these, "Scruples" has the most compelling plot and, despite it's period trappings, feels the freshest -- but given ABC's disappointing experience with "Pan-Am," it still feels like a gamble.
This may explain why another attempt set in less-than-modern times seems to be cobbled together from other successful projects. "Gilded Lilys," produced by "Grey's Anatomy" creator Shonda Rhimes, focuses on a grand hotel in the late 1800s, and appears to have lifted elements directly from a certain popular British soap: a prickly matriarch, a ladies' maid BFF, a gotta-find-a-husband plot line, and even a hotel guest turning up dead. "Lilys" draws not only on "Downton Abbey," but also "Titanic" (a third of the pilot takes place on a steamship bound for New York): The main character's chief love interest is a "lower class" "adventurous romantic" who rides steerage. Derivative, yes, but provided ABC has learned from other networks' similar attempts -- such as last fall's "Mad Men"-aping "The Playboy Club" -- it could prove to be a success.
Perhaps the most obvious move to capitalize on past success comes in the form of "Devious Maids," from king of "Adjective Plural-Noun" television Marc Cherry. Very similar to the his last series with ABC, "Devious Maids" asks "what if the 'Desperate Housewives' were richer and had hired help?" It's a modern twist on an upstairs/downstairs story, but the "big mystery" element -- a murder -- feels tacked-on, and Cherry's track record in that department isn't very good.
Then there's "666 Park Ave," based on the book series of the same name. This marks Alloy Entertainment's first project on broadcast television outside of The CW, for whom they produce "The Secret Circle," "The Vampire Diaries" and "Gossip Girl." The otherworldly soap centers on a young couple who become the managers for an apartment building in New York that just might be owned by Satan. It's compelling enough, but ABC's previous forays into the supernatural ("The Gates," a forgettable summer series, and, more recently, "The River") haven't had much in the way of staying power.
Murder is also at the center of "Penoza," which is adapted from a Dutch series about a woman whose small-time criminal husband is killed, leaving her to take his place in the business. This was a refreshing read in that, pretty much from page one, each character -- even down to the kids -- felt distinct and substantive. Provided that everything comes together onscreen, this is the kind of show that ABC may have been aiming for with "Missing."
On the fantasy front, ABC picked up two projects that would pair very well with "Once Upon A Time." The first is a "Beauty & The Beast" adaptation (one of two this development cycle, the other being at The CW), which is a twist on the original fairy tale with a dash of "Game Of Thrones." The script is strong, but the key will be making this fantasy world (which relies heavily on otherworldly creatures, beast included) feel realistic on a non-premium-cable budget. The other project, "Gotham," doesn't rely as heavily on special effects, which could give it a slight edge on Beauty if it comes down to one over the other. It's a combo of "Once Upon A Time" and NBC's "Grimm," wherein an NYPD detective discovers that what makes New York City feel like a "magical" place is -- quite literally -- magic, and that it's up to her to keep it safe.
ABC's slate tends to typically skew towards soaps or family programming; but this year, it looks as though they want to expand into the kind of show that might be at home on a more action-oriented network like Fox. Up first is "Zero Hour," a fictionalized biblical-end times thriller on the same wavelength as "The Da Vinci Code" and "Indiana Jones" -- no joke: the bad guys are Nazis. It's not particularly substantive, but it could turn out to be a fun, "National Treasure"-esque adventure romp.
In a similar vein, but neither as effective or as fun, is Roland Emmerich's "Antichrist." I'm sad to say, given how mindlessly enjoyable his movies can be (like "Independence Day," "2012"), this turned out to be a pseudo-religious mess. The log line bills it as an apocalyptic political thriller, but the few political elements are completely overshadowed by murky mythology and out-of-left-field plot points. (A chauffeur who also moonlights as a leather 'n whips go-go dancer? I mean...)
At the other end of the spectrum is "Last Resort," by Shawn Ryan ("The Shield"). It's a tense action-adventure that involves a renegade nuclear sub, a possible American coup, and violent mobsters on an island in the South Pacific. It's a page turner absolutely fraught with tension and certain elements remind me of what I loved about the early seasons of "24."If ABC is looking to pull in more of a male demographic, this one is sure to do it.
As for comedy, ABC is again playing to its strengths by picking up 13 scripts that are, at their cores, family-centric -- whether they're about the workplace, a group of friends, or an actual family. As a matter of pure coincidence, the best of the crop were all purchased with their lead actresses attached: "American Judy," about a new stepmother (Judy Greer) who has to put up with a withholding mother-in-law, the town sheriff -- who happens to be her husband's hot ex-wife -- and step kids she's trying too hard to connect with; "Malibu Country," about the wife (Reba McEntire) of a country superstar who discovers her husband has cheated on her and moves her kids and mother from Nashville to Malibu, where she tries to get her life (and her own music career) back on track; "The Family Trap," about a young woman (Mandy Moore) who moves, along with her husband, closer to her insane family; and "The Smart One,: about an overachieving, type-A woman (Portia De Rossi) who winds up working for her less impressive, but more popular sister.
Looking at the state of ABC's present schedule, the network could pick up two to five hours of new programming, depending on how many current shows don't come back next year. Right now, things aren't looking good for "The River" or "Body of Proof." Plus, "Desperate Housewives" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" have already been served their pink slips, and things are too early to tell for "GCB" or "Missing." Even the fantastic, but low-rated "Cougar Town" could wind up getting the axe in favor of another project that looks like it could bring in a larger audience.
Unfortunately, sometimes a better script can be passed over in favor of another that seems like it might have broader appeal -- TV is a business and as much as we'd love to put or keep certain projects on the air, there is a bottom line to consider. That said, a good script does not always guarantee a good pilot; plenty can change in the translation from page to screen. At the same time, it's also possible for a mediocre script to be elevated by a great director or a fantastic cast (as I expect "Gilded Lilys" will be).
Taking all variables into account, below are my predictions for ABC's fall schedule, 2012.
In the last decade, ABC has been the home of family comedies, light procedurals and ensemble soaps. These series candidates -- the most of any network -- continue to build upon that brand, while expanding into a potential new wheelhouse of fantasy-tinged programming and the realm of action/adventure. If things go according to plan, next season could be very good for ABC.
Coming up tomorrow: A look at CBS -- home of the law enforcement procedural.
Editor's note: A previous version of this post did not include "Penoza." It has since been added.