Thursday, March 17, 2011

2011 Most Interesting Pilots: Comedies

It's really hard to judge the potential success of a comedy pilot based on a concept; they're usually overly simple, and the material can always drag down a funny cast. So even more so than with drama pilots, there is room for the finished product to go awry. Having said that, there also aren't many big, exciting comedies in development this season. In fact, most of the offerings look pretty tame. But these are ones that jump out at me.

1. Are You There Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea (NBC)

Chelsea Handler will executive produce (and star in small role in the pilot) this series based on her bestselling memoir of the same name. I've read her book, and it's hysterical. I can also see the concept working as a series because the book is set up in short chapters, each with a different individually contained story. Unfortunately, what made the book funny was its vulgarities and inappropriate situations. And if Bleep My Dad Says taught us anything, it's that what's a good idea on paper can go horribly wrong in execution, especially when it becomes a matter of censoring the source material.

2. Suburgatory (ABC)

Even though the title is pretty awful and the plot is beyond cliche (a teenage girl moves from the big city to the suburbs), I can't help but think it's one of the better ideas of this comedy season... that should tell you the quality on display thus far. But the cast and crew is pretty great: Allie Grant (Weeds), Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Jeremy Sisto (Clueless), and Alan Tudyk (Firefly) will star while the director of last year's hit Raising Hope, Michael Fresco, will be behind the camera.

3. Iceland (FOX)

More along the lines of a romantic comedy than a sitcom, this series will follow a young woman who tries to move on after the death of her fiance. Early reviews have pegged it as one of the stronger scripts; the cast is not at all starry, but it features some solid talent in Krysta Rodriguez (who was the funniest thing about the Broadway musical The Addams Family), Kerry Bishe (Scrubs) and Zach Gilford (Off the Map).

Yeah, that's pretty much it. There are a lot of notable pilots out there, but none that interest me personally. Film star Zooey Deschanel is appearing in her first pilot (currently untitle, formerly known as Chicks & Dicks); Whitney Cummings is executive producing two different pilots (one for NBC, the other for CBS) and starring in one of them; Kelsey Grammar will direct a pilot produced by Conan O'Brien; and Tim Allen will return to the world of sitcomes with the ABC pilot The Last Days of Man. And while these people may be big stars and all that, I don't find any of them all that funny or the concepts of their new shows all that interesting. But then again, I'm not a big sitcom person. I much prefer hour-long dramas and guilty pleasure reality shows.

2011 Most Interesting Pilots: Drama

This season there seems to be a whole lot of really interesting development surrounding the hour-long drama pilots. A lot of the networks are thinking outside of the box and delivering ideas that aren't just "police procedural" or "medical drama." Those types of shows are certainly still being developed, but there are many more shows being developed with a twist on those archetypes and with more promising premises.

1. Poe (ABC)

A crime procedural that follows a young Edgar Allen Poe as he uses his mystery-writing experience to solve crimes in nineteenth century Boston. It sounds like Castle for the 1840s, but that's exactly why it could be great; Castle could be moved to a different night with this as a companion, and ABC could launch a new series out of Dancing with the Stars. Plus it just sounds awesome; everyone loves Poe, and there's plenty of opportunity for weirdness and creepiness within the procedural format. The only misstep so far is the relatively bland casting of Chris Egan (of the epic failure Kings) as Poe; here's to hoping the concept is still strong enough to overcome the blah-ness of the pilot cast and crew.

2. The River (ABC)

In one of the more interesting developments of the pilot season, ABC greenlit this one from Oren Peli, the director of 2009's horror hit Paranormal Activity. It follows a film crew who go deep in the Amazon in search of a famous adventurer/TV personality who has gone missing. It will likely have that gritty "found footage" feel of Peli's film, though it will be directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (who recently released Unknown with Liam Neeson). It all sounds kind of fascinating and extremely cinematic; it has elements of Lost meets The Blair Witch Project, and that's something I could get into.

3. Ringer (CBS)

This is the one pilot that I hope gets picked up more than any other. It features the return to television of Sarah Michelle Gellar, starring as a woman on the run from the mob who assumes the identity of her wealthy twin sister, only to find out her sister's life has a bounty on it as well. The specific details are being kept mum, though Gellar will star as both sisters; she's being joined by Lost's Nestor Carbonell, film star Ioan Gruffudd and Kristoffer Polaha (a personal favorite of mine, from Life Unexpected); and Emmy winner Richard Shephard is directing. I can't help but be intrigued.

4. Smash (NBC)

This is NBC's attempt to cash in on some of Glee's success. The new drama tells the behind-the-scenes story of the development of a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. The difference between this show and Glee is that this one has bonafide theatre successes working behind the scenes as well as on camera. It was created and written by playwright Theresa Rebeck and will feature original music by the Tony award winning composers of Hairspray, Marc Shaiman (also a five-time Oscar nominee) and Scott Wittman. The on camera talent features established Broadway stars (Christian Borle, Megan Hilty), singers (Katharine McPhee), and television stars (Debra Messing, Jack Davenport). Throw executive producer Steven Spielberg into the mix, and I don't understand how this show can't be great.

5. Playboy (NBC)

Reviews of the pilot script for Playboy have been very positive, and I can't say that surprises me. Even without the ample talents of Laura Benanti, David Krumholtz and Eddie Cibrian, the story itself is intriguing. The show will center around the lives of several women working as bunnies at the 1960s Chicago Playboy Club. It's reminiscent of AMC's Mad Men, though with a slightly more interesting central location. I'll just be on board for the weekly musical numbers from Benanti and the inevitable backstage gossip and catfights.

6. Grace (ABC)

I'm immensely enjoying the fact that dance is coming back to the forefront as an art in America. Just a few years ago it was a dying art, but it has been reinvigorated by shows like So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars (though quality is not exactly their forte), America's Best Dance Crew and Live to Dance; plus there was a smash hit film of last year all about ballet, Black Swan. So it's no wonder that ABC is looking to this new trend with a scripted show about a womanizing choreographer and his relationship to his three daughters and their three mothers. Dance legend Debbie Allen is set to make a recurring appearance, should it go to series, and the show's dance sequences will be overseen by multiple Emmy winner Mia Michaels. There's some serious talent on board, and early reviews of the script have compared it to the darkness and grittiness of the 1970s film All That Jazz.

7. Secret Circle (CW)

The CW is still searching for a suitable complement to its biggest series, The Vampire Diaries. Last season they developed Changelings, but that pilot failed; Nikita has not been a very successful pairing this year, so they're going back to a tried-and-true formula: a series based on a book by L.J. Smith and produced by Kevin Williamson. This time the story will follow a young girl (Britt Robertson, Life Unexpected) who moves across the country to New Salem, only to discover she's a witch. It's a fairly standard plot, but Williamson is doing good things with The Vampire Diaries, and he certainly knows how to do teen angst. Add onto that producers Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain (Reaper), and I'm sold.

8. Locke & Key (FOX)

The first review of the pilot script was ecstatic about the prospects of this show, based on the comic series of the same name. Following the death of their father, a group of siblings move into their family estate, where they discover doorways to other realms. There's some great potential here, though it would've been an easier sell to audiences as a film. But there's some power behind it, with creator Josh Friedman (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) executive producing alongside Steven Spielberg and visionary music video director Mark Romanek stepping behind the camera to helm his first pilot.

9. Alcatraz (FOX)

JJ Abrams had a rough go this past season when his newest pilot for NBC, Undercovers, was received poorly by audiences and canceled before finishing its initial order. On top of that, Fringe is looking more and more like it will be canceled as well after its current third season ends. So hopefully things will change with this promising new project that follows a group of missing Alcatraz prisoners and guards who reappear in present day. It sounds more in the vein of Lost than Abrams' previous series, and it even stars Lost's Jorge Garcia. This seems like one of the most obvious choices for a series pick-up, but there's still time for things to go wrong.

10. Susannah Grant Pilot (CBS)

This pilot currently does not have a title, but it does have a lot of star power behind it. Oscar nominee Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) is creator and executive producer; Oscar winner Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) will direct the pilot; and it will star Patrick Wilson in his first pilot alongside Julie Benz. The story follows a surgeon whose life is dramatically altered when his ex-wife dies and begins to teach him the true meaning of life. I'm a big fan of both stars, and I like the paranormal twist on the typical medical drama. But with all the talent working behind the scenes, I'm just really curious how it will all turn out.

Honorable Mention: Good Christian Bitches (ABC)

This one scores points for having the season's best title. It seems to be a Southern version of Desperate Housewives, set in Dallas and centering on a group of wealthy women who love gossip. But it also marks Emmy winner Kristin Chenoweth's return to television and to her Southern roots. It would be a good time, if not groundbreaking or even all that interesting.