At ABC, it feels a lot like 2004 this pilot season. Seven years ago, ABC had one of those lighting-in-a-bottle development cycle that resulted in the launch of 3 mega-hit new series in a single season – Marc Cherry’s Desperate Housewives, Shonda Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy and J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof’s Lost.
In a twist of a development fate, ABC’s drama pilot slate this year is highlighted by Cherry and Rhimes’s first creations since Housewives and Grey’s/spinoff Private Practice, respectively: Cherry has the small town drama pilot Hallelujah, and Rhimes penned an untitled drama pilot about a professional fixer. (Rhimes has exec produced other projects since, including series Off the Map and pilot Inside the Box, but this is the first script she has written.) Additionally, Lindelof was involved in the development of another ABC drama pilot this season, Once Upon a Time, from Lost executive producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz.
Can lightning strike twice?
ABC can sure use 3 new hit dramas even though it is not in as dire straits as it was in the spring of 2004, in large part because two of the 2 breakout series of the 2004-05 season, Desperate Housewives and Grey’s, along with Grey’s spinoff Private Practice, are still doing solid business. (Grey’s and Practice have already been picked up for next season, while the renewal of Housewives is contingent on re-signing the four stars, which is expected.) And unlike ABC’s first huge reality hit, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which exploded in 1999 and fizzled by 2002, ABC now has a big reality show with a proven staying power in Dancing with the Stars.
There is another similarity between ABC’s current state and the way things transpired in 2004. Back then, the scripted comeback fueled by Desperate Housewives, Lost and Grey’s started a season earlier on the half-hour side with a domestic comedy, 8 Simple Rules. Unfortunately, the untimely death of star John Ritter in the fall of 2003 cut the run of the show short and led to the collapse of the network’s promising Tuesday comedy block. Since the 2004-05 season, ABC once again had gone through a drought until last season when it finally got a major hit with another domestic comedy, Modern Family. Will the comedy breakthrough be followed by big new dramas next season? ABC has a number of high-profile drama pilots, some of them rather unconventional, including a contemporary female Count of Monte Cristo, 1960s drama Pan Am, 1840s P.I. drama Poe, a Charlie’s Angels reboot, Paranormal Activity-style horror drama The River and the fairy tales-themed Once Upon a Time.
But understandably, the attention will be focused on Cherry and Rhimes’ sophomore efforts. Like the first time with Housewives, Cherry’s new project has had a title from the get-go, while Rhimes’ is untitled. (Grey’s stayed untitled until the last minute and was being referred to by several names, including Sex and the Surgery) But in 2004, Cherry, Rhimes and Lindelof were largely unknown. Now they are star showrunners, which puts additional pressure on their new projects. Fox example, as far as I can remember, Grey’s was the last drama pilot picked up by ABC and had to rush through production, signing some of the actors, including Katherine Heigl, off a tape. This time around, Rhimes’ pilot was the first one picked up by ABC.
Just like in 2004, a new ABC programming chief, Paul Lee, will be making the series pickup decisions in May (though the executive shakeup 7 years ago happened much later in the development cycle than this time.) It will be interesting to see if he goes with lesser known creators or will try to recreate the magic of the 2004-05 season with the producers responsible for it.