Ray Richmond, who is contributing to Deadline TV coverage, is taking an analytical and irreverent look at the recurring themes in these year’s crop of broadcast pilots.
In assessing the 79 series pilots that are competing for primetime slots at the five broadcast networks during the 2011-2012 season, a few trends quickly emerge, namely: manhood is under siege, parents are obsessed with meddling, zombies are alive and well (relatively speaking), opposites attract, and just about everybody seems to be on some sort of rebound. Moreover, pretty much every permutation of domestic life and dysfunction is being trotted out for a once-over as the networks seek to uncover the next Modern Family or Two and a Half Men. And the popularity of Glee has helped to inspire a musical bent for three pilots.
Multicamera comedy is making a strong showing beyond its usual singular home of CBS. Too, high-concept drama is having a modest resurgence – and both period soaps (ABC’s Pan Am, NBC’s Playboy) and reboots of past classics (NBC’s Wonder Woman from David E. Kelley, ABC’s Charlie’s Angels) are again in vogue, at least in the pilot world. Another hour (ABC’s Grace, from writer-exec producer Krista Vernoff) sounds remarkably like the plotline for the 1979 Bob Fosse film classic All That Jazz, with this one starring Eric Roberts in the lead as a famed choreographer who sleeps with his dancers and has three daughters with different mothers.
Besides Grace, those tuneful contenders seeking to cash in on the trail blazed by Glee include the NBC hour Smash from an all-star production team that includes Steven Spielberg, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. The drama “follows a cross-section of characters who come together to put on a Marilyn Monroe musical on Broadway,” with Debra Messing as the female lead. There’s also ABC’s Hallelujah, written and exec produced by Desperate Housewives guru Marc Cherry. Its storyline follows a drifter (Jesse L. Martin) who stands between good and evil in a small Tennessee town, the action enhanced by songs from a gospel choir.
Cop shows and procedurals never really go out of style, and they’re in ample evidence on this year’s pilots list as well. They run the gamut from cops who fight identity-related crime (ABC’s Identity) to NYPD rookies who struggle to balance their lives (CBS’s Rookies) to cops with an uncanny ability to remember everything (untitled CBS drama from writer-producers Ed Redlich and John Bellucci) to cops who live in two different realities, Inception-style (NBC’s REM). There’s also ABC’s Partners, the latest from writer-exec producer Ed Bernero about police detectives who are also secretly half-sisters.
But the characters in the latest batch of drama pilots aren’t restricted to the living. Zombies are around to demonstrate that AMC’s The Walking Dead hasn’t completely cornered the market on the living dead just yet. That would be Awakening, a CW drama from writer-producer William Laurin. It’s described as the tale of two sisters who come of age and face off against one another amidst the beginning of a zombie uprising, “with the older one a public defender.” This naturally begs the question: How does one defend a zombie in court? Answer: In a suit of armor.
Several other hours are driven by similarly fantastical/supernatural elements. Among those are the NBC sci-fi drama 17th Precinct, from Battlestar Galactica developer Ron Moore, that’s set in a town where magic and the supernatural “rule over science.” Grimm is another NBC hour that follows cops traversing a world of Grimm’s Fairy Tale characters. There’s also Fox’s Alcatraz, from writer-exec producer Liz Sarnoff and J.J. Abrams, which follows the mysterious past disappearance of inmates from the notorious prison.
By contrast, there aren’t quite as many would-be Grey’s Anatomy clones looking to do business this year, with those medical dramas in the running aiming well away from the young-doctors-in-heat arena. They include the CBS drama The Doctor starring Christine Lahti as a mother who reconnects with her adult children by joining the family medical practice; the CW hour Hart of Dixie that stars Rachel Bilson as a young NYC doc who inherits a medical practice in a small Southern town filled with quirky characters and is fairly begging to be called Southern Exposure; the untitled hour from writer-producer Susannah Grant about a surgeon (Patrick Wilson) whose ex-wife teaches him how to live his life from the hereafter – a nightmare sure to resonate with divorced men everywhere; and Weekends at Bellevue, a Fox drama based on a memoir from Dr. Julie Holland about life on the weekend shift in a psychiatric unit. Let’s call it Crazed Anatomy. Or Grey Matter Anatomy.
With regard to comedies, the over-analysis of masculinity is a growth category among the pilot half-hours. Specifically, there’s the pair at ABC: the ABC Studios single-camera Man Up written by and starring Chris Moynihan that looks at “what it takes to survive as a modern man as told through the eyes of three best friends and the women in their lives.” The other one is the untitled multi-cam entry from Emmy-winning 30 Rock writer-producer Jack Burditt starring Tim Allen as a man increasingly forced to fight for his manhood in a world dominated by women.
In that same vein, CBS also has How to Be a Gentleman, written by and starring It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s David Hornsby as a guy who writes a column on being a gentleman. CBS also has another couple of comedies with a sports theme, one inspired by ESPN personality Colin Cowherd’s radio talk show and another loosely based on the experiences of former NFL star Mark Schlereth that stars Rob Riggle (Home Game). And there’s Fox’s The Council of Dads from writer-exec producer Peter Tolan, telling the story of a group of five men called together by the widow of a close friend to help raise the two young tots he left behind.
We further see plenty of offbeat family comedy pilots vying for the Modern Family-inspired mantle, including three that sound literally identical: The loglines: “The lives of two young parents change after they have a baby and they’re descended upon by four grandparents from diverse cultural backgrounds.” (ABC’ single-camera My Freakin’ Family); “A young couple with a baby find themselves smothered by their two very different sets of parents.” (ABC‘s multi-cam Smothered); and “A group of adults become unlikely friends due to the connection between their kids.” (the single-camera Fox entry Little in Common).
Indeed, there is no dearth this year of would-be series centering on parents, including mothers raising daughters who are identical to the girls who gave them hell in high school (Fox’s multi-camera I Hate My Teenage Daughter), mothers bringing home the bread (NBC’s untitled project from writer-producer Emily Spivey), parents with a grown kid and mother living under the same roof with them (CBS’s Home Grown), and parents who don’t even know they’re parents (ABC’s multi-camera Lost and Found).
As far as romantic-themed half-hours, despite the glut of new comedy series in the genre this season, none of which has broken out, there are popular again this year. Among those are NBC’s multi-camera Lovelives from writer-exec producer Chris Sheridan, about a couple who explore how best to cheat on one another. Call that one an un-romantic comedy. Another is NBC’s single-camera Bent, which stars Amanda Peet as a recently-divorced Type A single mother who struggles not to fall for the sexy surfer dude contractor she’s hired to renovate her kitchen. Fox also has the single-camera Iceland from writer-exec producer Andy Bobrow, which follows a group of friends as they work to move past losing a loved one.
And finally, there’s the comedy most likely to have to change its name if it gets picked up to series. That would be the ABC TV single-camera entry Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apt. 23.