Wednesday, March 28, 2012

2012 Most Interesting Pilots - Drama

Another year, another crazy pilot season, another chance for the broadcast studios to get it right. This pilot season sees a host of large ensemble dramas with incredibly diverse casts, with many based on novels or foreign series.

1. 666 Park Avenue (ABC)

Loosely based on the novel of the same name by Gabriella Pierce, 666 Park Avenue is about a couple who take on the management responsibilities of an historic apartment building in Manhattan where strange, supernatural things start happening. It's from much of the same crew as Fox's Fringe and its cast includes the return to a regular series gig for Lost Emmy nominee Terry O'Quinn and Vanessa Williams in a quick turnaround after the end of Desperate Housewives. I'm always on board for a good supernatural drama.

2. The Gilded Lilys (ABC)

A period drama set just before the turn of the twentieth century, The Gilded Lilys revolves around the Lily family, the owners of New York's first luxury hotel, and their staff and clientele. It's being produced and written by ABC's golden child Shonda Rhimes (I know, I'm kind of over her too), but the cast is stellar: Blythe Danner, John Barrowman, Brian F. O'Byrne, Matt Long, Madeline Zima, and others. I'd show up for these folks any day; add in some luscious period costumes and sets, and I'm sold.

3. Last Resort (ABC)

After refusing to detonate a nuclear weapon under strange circumstances, a submarine goes on the run and declares itself the world's smallest sovereign nation. They face the challenges of creating a new society while cautiously maneuvering the world's hostile militaries. It's a fascinating concept, though one that may be too risky for network television, from the dark writer/creator of The Shield and The Chicago Code. The cast is huge and impressive, including Andre Braugher, Dichen Lachman, Autumn Reeser, Max Adler, Sahr Ngaujah, and many others. This is one of the few pilots out there this season which could likely succeed on the strength of its concept alone.

4. Untitled Kevin Williamson Project (Fox)

I'll be honest: I don't even care what this show is about. Anytime Kevin Williamson (Dawson's Creek, The Vampire Diaries, Scream) attaches himself to a pilot, I want it. The fact that the plot and cast are awesome is really just the icing on the cake. The project will follow a serial killer who uses technology and social media to create a cult of killers, and the FBI agent who finds himself in the middle of the investigation of it all. The pilot is full of stars, including Rome's James Purefoy as the killer; Kevin Bacon (!!!) as the FBI agent; Shawn Ashmore (X-Men); Maggie Grace (Lost); Natalie Zea (Justified); and others. Plus it's being directed by Marcos Siega (The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, Dexter), so it will be appropriately gritty. Sign me UP!

5. The Frontier (NBC)

The Frontier is a period drama (and a Western at that!) that follows a group of people on their journey from Missouri to Oregon in the mid-1800s. Ok, seriously... who didn't love playing The Oregon Trail in elementary school? This pilot is basically that game brought to life, starring Ethan Embry (That Thing You Do!) and a diverse ensemble cast. The pilot is being directed by 9-time Emmy winner Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing, ER) and promises to be unlike anything seen on broadcast television in decades.

6. Beautiful People (NBC)

Set "10 minutes in the future," Beautiful People is a large ensemble drama where mechanical human beings exist for the sole purpose of serving the living population. Obviously, some of the mechanical people begin to "awaken." It's not the most original concept (see: AI: Artificial Intelligence and many others), but sometimes a great retread of a good concept can work wonders. The ensemble is led by Frances Conroy, Ernie Hudson and Tovah Feldshuh. If done right, Beautiful People has the potential to be touching, thrilling and affective.

7. The Selection (CW)

With The Hunger Games blowing up the global box office, it's only appropriate that a very similarly themed series be in contention at the youth-oriented CW. Set in a dystopian future where people are divided by class systems they cannot cross, a poor woman is chosen to compete in a lottery to become the next queen of a war-torn nation. There likely won't be any fights to the death in The Selection (also based on a young adult novel coming out this summer), but it will probably be more heavy on the romance and drama. The pilot is from the very talented producing team of Sarah Fain & Elizabeth Craft (The Secret Circle, Dollhouse, Lie to Me, Angel) and is being directed by the extremely versatile Mark Piznarski (Everwood, Gossip Girl, Veronica Mars, NYPD Blue). The cast is also universally appealing, led by Friday Night Lights star Aimee Teegarden in the central female role. Of all the pilots currently in development, I think this one has the most potential and intrigues me most.

8. Joey Dakota (CW)

Based on an Israeli format, Joey Dakota is a musical dramedy about a young filmmaker who travels back in time to the early 90's in order to prevent the death of her favorite musical idol, Joey Dakota. It sounds horribly campy, but that's what I love about it. The script is from the utterly hilarious Bert V. Royal (Easy A) and will feature a talented up-and-coming cast, including Australian actor Craig Horner (Legend of the Seeker) as rocker Dakota and Amber Stevens (Greek) as the filmmaker Maya, plus Party of Five's Scott Wolf is on board as well. I'm a sucker for musicals and cheesy 90's movies, and Joey Dakota seems like an intriguing blend of both.

9. Arrow (CW)

 Arrow is a retelling of the DC Comics character Green Arrow, an archer who invents tricks arrows on his mission to clean up his city. His alter ego is Oliver Queen, a spoiled rich kid whose life is changed when he is rescued from a shipwreck and returns stronger than he was before. Green Arrow is one of the lesser known (and less interesting, to be honest...) comic book superheroes, though the character made a memorable appearance on another CW show, Smallville (this series, however, is not a spin-off). It's being brought to the small screen by Greg Berlanti, who had moderate success with another green superhero last summer in Green Lantern, and Eli Stone's Andrew Kreisberg. Direction is by Emmy winner David Nutter (Band of Brothers, Smallville, Supernatural), and the cast is led by Stephen Amell as Oliver/Green Arrow and CW favorite Katie Cassidy (Gossip Girl, Melrose Place, Supernatural) as his love interest. It's about time we got a new superhero series on television, and I have faith in this group to pull through with something interesting.

10. Elementary (CBS)

ABC tried and failed to bring an updated version of Edgar Allen Poe (as a crime solver, no less) to the airwaves last pilot season, and this year CBS tried to update the more accessible literary figure Sherlock Holmes for broadcast television. Baking on the success of the recent Sherlock movies starring Robert Downey Jr., creator Robert Doherty places the timeless sleuth in contemporary New York as a former Scotland Yard consultant working for the NYPD. It's an interesting enough twist on CBS's standard police procedural, and I love the three leads: Jonny Lee Miller (Eli Stone) as Holmes, Lucy Liu (Southland, Charlie's Angels films) as his assistant Joan Watson, and Aidan Quinn (The Book of Daniel, Prime Suspect) as their boss.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Pilot Review: Best Friends Forever

Best Friends Forever (Wednesdays at 8:30 on NBC; premieres April 4)

An unusual addition to NBC's midseason lineup, Best Friends Forever is The Little Pilot That Could. Filmed on a shoestring budget last year and at one time a longshot for pickup, it's a surprisingly funny little show in the vain of Curb Your Enthusiasm that could potentially push the boundaries of what a broadcat sitcom can be.

Jessica (Jessica St. Clair) has just separated from her husband, so she flees the broken relationship and returns home to the comfort of her best friend Lennon (Lennon Parham). Jessica expects to pick up where the two left off years ago, spending days at a time watching Steel Magnolias and bashing men. But there's a little complication: Lennon's boyfriend Joe (Luka Jones) has just moved in. Joe sacrifices his office so that Jessica has a place to stay, but it soon becomes clear that he will be sacrificing a lot more for his girlfriend's best friend... namely, his sanity.

Best Friends Forever has about as generic a plot as could be expected (it's a wonder how many comedies there are about divorce out there... who knew it was such a laughing matter?), but it succeeds in an offbeat way. The script is based on transcriptions of improv sessions held by writers/creators/stars St. Clair and Parham; the result is outrageous. The banter between the two leading females is completely natural but still very funny; it truly feels like we're watching two particularly funny women who all but speak their own language of pop culture references, insults and double entendres (much like the female buddy comedy Bridesmaids, especially the relationship between Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig's characters). The feeling is akin to Larry David's hit HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, although without the profanity and shouting and total awkwardness. There is still a heavy dose of awkward humor, but it's not the type of awkward humor that makes the viewer uncomfortable (for an example of this type of comedy, see The Office).

St. Clair and Parham (both former members of the Upright Citizens Brigade) are clearly the standouts here. The characters are obviously based closely on themselves, so they are played to perfection. Jessica is neurotic, temperamental and impulsive; Lennon is the one who holds everyone around her together. The pilot's highlight comes in a scene between the two of them and a precocious young neighbor named Queenetta (Daija Owens), where Jessica gets into a screaming match with the child and has to literally be carried off by Lennon. Luka Jones (whose only other credit is as a guest star on How I Met Your Mother) is doing his best to break through the chemistry of the two leading ladies, but he's not yet up to the task. The role was originally cast with Adam Pally of Happy Endings, and I think he would've brought a more interesting dynamic and presence to the cast. On the flip side of the camera, Fred Savage is finally stepping away from his lackluster days of directing tepid family fare and moving toward some decent work here, though he has done better in the past and doesn't bring much flare to the proceedings.

I went in expecting the worst but came away pleasantly surprised by how cute the whole thing is. Best Friends Forever succeeds on the humor of St. Clair and Parham and their ability to always play well off one another. They have the undeniable chemistry of two best friends. Unfortunately it's just an unremarkable pilot, pleasant and amusing as it is. It's different from anything else currently on any of the broadcast networks, so it will be interesting to see how it's received. I found it enjoyable and admirable, but I can see where others may find it bland and strange.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Pilot Review: Bent

Bent (Wednesdays at 9:00 and 9:30 on NBC)

Well, color me pleasantly surprised. No one could have expected much from a series that was ordered almost a year ago and is finishing its entire run in a quick three-week burnoff. But Bent somehow manages to be better than that.

Following a messy divorce, lawyer Alex (Amanda Peet) moves into a new home with her young daughter Charlie (Joey King). The kitchen is a disaster, so she hires a contracter to renovate. The guy who gets the job is Pete (David Walton), a slacker surfer who still lives with his father (Jeffrey Tambor). Pete is a womanizer, and he has a reputation about town for losing contracting jobs after sleeping with the clients (or the clinents' wives). Alex will have none of that; she's too bitter about her divorce, not to mention that her ex is now in prison for insider trading. And Pete, a recovering gambler and former stoner, is far from her type.

Bent feels almost entirely different from any other sitcom currently on the air. It has the feeling of a romantic comedy, and it generally works in the show's favor. It has plenty of cheesy moments that are rom-com cliches, but they somehow work because it's not a shallow 90-minute affair. Maybe this could be a lesson to romantic comedy film writers: if you develop your characters a little more and make your supporting players more than stock characters you won't come across as tired cliches. I digress. Bent succeeds on this premise of bringing the romantic comedy to the small screen. It's a cute little show, particularly the moments between Charlie and Pete. He becomes an unlikely and initially unwilling mentor to Alex's daughter in one of the pilot's more touching moments.

That's not to say that Bent isn't funny, because it is. The banter garners several laugh-out-loud moments, and the performances are universally amusing. David Walton walks away with the show. His Pete is charming, ridiculous, occassionally offensive, and ultimately endearing. He has wonderful chemistry with everyone around him (especially the females), and he plays both the funny and the heartwarming moments perfectly. Amanda Peet's character is strangely underdeveloped so far, though her chemistry with Walton is the strongest part of the entire series so far. Jeffrey Tambor and Margo Harshman have very amusing supporting turns as Pete's struggling actor father and Alex's flirty sister Screwsie (best name ever), respectively.

The real strength of the show is that creator and writer Tad Quill (Scrubs) has managed to take a concept that is in no way new and made it feel fresh. We've seen this conceit of a love triangle, a "will-they-or-won't-they" back and forth romance, but Bent is so well-executed that we forget about it. And the central plot of Alex's house needing repairs just as much as her life does, and the most unlikely repairman coming in to help her rebuild, is an adorable little metaphor. Like the house, these characters are "bent, not broken." Fortunately for us the series is neither bent nor broken, but built on a strong foundation.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Pilot Review: Missing

Missing (Thursdays at 8:00 on ABC)

Once a promiseless, 10-episode blind commitment, summer schedule filler ABC was putting together on the cheap, Missing blossomed into a full-blown midseason replacement with a couple of big-name actors shooting on location across Europe. Unfortunately, the actors and the budget can't save a dull script and an uninspired storyline.

Rebecca Winstone (Ashley Judd) had her life turned upside down ten years ago when her husband (Sean Bean) was killed in a car bomb in Vienna while her young son watched. Now her son (Nick Eversman) is going off to college in Rome, so Becca must cut the chord and let him go. A few weeks later, however, Becca hasn't heard from him; she learns he hasn't showed up to classes and has been kicked out of his program, so she drops by to check in, only to find an Italian assassin waiting for her. But we soon learn that Becca is ex-CIA, so she makes quick work of the assassin and sets out across Europe, with the help of a past flame (Adriano Giannini), to find her missing son.

Missing has all the makings of a Lifetime movie-of-the-week, from its entirely cliche and overly sappy opening to its brazen and groan-inducing one-liners ("I am not CIA, I am a mother looking for her son!"). Gregory Poirier's script is lifeless, particularly the stilted dialogue in the eyeroll-worthy opening segment where Becca chats with her husband about having more children, seconds before he is blown up. This shouldn't come as a surprise considering Poirier's past credits are terrible films: A Sound of Thunder, The Spy Next Door, Tomcats, See Spot Run, Gossip, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, etc. He essentially is taking a plot that needs no more than 90 minutes to wrap up and belaboring it for ten 40 minute installments. To fill the unnecessary time alottment, we get about a dozen scenes of Ashley Judd beating up men with guns using just her bare hands, car chases, shoot-outs, kidnappings, escapes, and every other action movie cliche you could think of. It's a predictable, wholly unbelievable, sloppy mess of a script.

Speaking of Ashley Judd, while she lends a bit of credibility to the project, she's not up to the task of saving Missing. Her character is so one-note that Judd isn't able to do much but look upset and grunt. And Becca Winstone is basically an amalgamation of several roles Judd has played previously in Double Jeopardy, Eye of the Beholder and Twisted. Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) has about 60 seconds of screen time, but I'd be willing to bet that he'll be back; I mean, you don't cast Sean Bean in your television show and kill him off for good after a minute of the pilot... which makes the rest of the proceedings even more predictable. Judd is surrounded by a bunch of one-note actors playing stock roles (hard-assed CIA agent, former lover, young man waiting to be away from his smothering mother, scorned girlfriend, blah blah). The best thing about Missing is the beautiful cinematography; shooting a show about a trek across Europe on location was a necessity, and it pays off as a fantastic backdrop. Unfortunately even the cinematography undercuts itself; for every gorgeous shot of a European city, there is a scene in which we aren't sure what exactly is happening because it's so dark and heavily edited that it just looks like shadows fighting each other.

All in all, there's the genesis of something entertaining and fun in Missing. But it's bogged down by awful writing, mediocre acting, endless action scenes that don't advance the plot, and sloppy editing. ABC should've stuck with this as low-budget summer fare; at least then it might have had a fun camp quality about it to help the viewer through all the heavy-handedness.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Pilot Review: GCB

GCB (Sundays at 10:00 on ABC)

Whenever someone protests a series, you can bet easy money that the outrage is unwarranted. It happened once already this season with The Playboy Club on NBC, which turned out to be nothing but a semi-dull mafia show with less bare skin than most commercials. Now you have the overly sensitive fundamental Christians who were offended by this show's original title, Good Christian Bitches (which, by the way, is the title of the book on which this series is based); so the title was shortened to the horrendous GCB. But apparently there are still large groups of Southern Christians boycotting GCB, despite its title change, because it portrays Christians in a negative light. But if you're offended by the content of this show, it's likely because it applies to you. At its heart, GCB is a commentary on hypocrisy and the ability (or inability) of people to change, whether it be for better or worse.

Amanda Vaughn (Leslie Bibb) has recently become a widow after her husband drove his car over a cliff while cheating on her. She is left penniless following her husband's demise, so Amanda has no choice but to move herself and her two children back home to a suburb of Dallas to stay with her mother, Gigi (Annie Potts). In no time at all, memories of Amanda's past as a "mean girl" in high school start flooding back as the girls whom she tormented back then reappear in her life: Heather (Marisol Nichols), a single real estate agent; Sharon (Jennifer Aspen), an overweight former beauty queen whose current husband (Brad Beyer) always loved Amanda; Cricket (Miriam Shor), a business woman whose husband (Mark Deklin) is secretly gay; and the queen bee, Carlene (Kristin Chenoweth), a devout Christian who has had a complete plastic surgery makeover since high school. With Amanda back in town, the other women revert to high school behavior in trying to make her pay for what she did all those years ago.

The charm of GCB comes from its utterly hysterical one-liners, written by Robert Harling (Steel Magnolias, The First Wives Club), and the catty-but-perfect performances from the entire cast, particularly Chenoweth and Aspen. But the script alone is enough to keep viewers in stitches while at the same time caring about these people. Thus far, no one is totally unlikeable and every character has definition. The success of this can be shared by the actresses. Chenoweth (Pushing Daisies) leads the ensemble in a deliciously over-the-top performance as a hypocritical Christian, one moment spouting "love thy neighbor" and the next spying on her through a telescope and publicly humiliating her. Her Carlene, as the primary antagonist, sets the stage for how the series will shake out, and it could not have come across better. Aspen (Glee) has some great physical moments, including one of the pilot's scene-stealers at Neiman Marcus. Annie Potts has a quick tongue and a biting wit, as well as some of the best one-liners of the entire episode. The only weak link in the cast is Bibb (Popular) as the protagonist. Her character is a bit more reserved, having spent many years away from her Dallas roots, so she doesn't get to be as outrageous as the other ladies do. It comes across as flat and boring next to her castmates. Her final scene, however, is well played and very funny, so hopefully she will get a chance to stretch a little bit in the coming episodes.

Overall, GCB is just funny. Gigi has twin dogs named "Tony" and "Romo;" Carlene gets John 3:16 put on the trunk of her car as a decal; Amanda gets a job at a Hooters-like restaurant called Boobylicious. The quick-witted quips are fired back-and-forth in a repartee the likes of which I haven't seen since Will & Grace went off the air six years ago. But it does actually have something to say as well about societal hypocrisy. Carlene claims to be a Christian but altered her image drastically through plastic surgery, plots the downfall of her neighbor, and pretends to be Amanda's friend while scheming behind her back. Despite her devotion to church-going and ability to quote the Bible, that doesn't sound very Christian to me. Amanda even points this out in the last minutes of the pilot by stating, "There are more churches per capita in Dallas than anywhere else in the country. There are also more strip clubs per capita in Dallas than anywhere else in the country." GCB seems determined to expose this hypocrisy, and I'm all for it if it's going to be done as humorously as it was in this first episode. There's also the question raised of how much people can change; are we all inherently the same as we were in high school? Despite how much Amanda has changed since marrying, having children, becoming a widow, and moving back home, she easily slips back into the role of "mean girl" at the pilot's end. Carlene may have become more physically attractive, but she doesn't have the purest intentions. Sharon may have married her high school sweetheart, but she still struggles with insecurity. And everyone is willing to fall back into the high school mindset of petty revenge and practical jokes at the drop of a hat (the hat being Amanda's return).

GCB has the makings of a cult classic. It's very much in the vain of Harling's successful play and film Steel Magnolias, with the same type of quick witted one-liners and memorable female characters. It may not be terribly deep at the moment, aside from some subtle musings I mentioned in the previous paragraph, but it's a ton of fun and left me wanting more. You can't really ask for much more from a pilot than to make you laugh and crave another episode immediately.