TV pilots play for laughs
Networks don't seem to follow a particular path except the one to your funny bone.
By Maria Elena Fernandez
Times Staff Writer
April 10, 2007
WHAT do you get when you try to cross "Heroes" with "Ugly Betty"? A pilot season in which all the networks, it seems, are looking for a laugh. Even in dramas.
So long to the dark serialized sagas of the past season. The tribe of viewers spoke, and "Kidnapped," "Smith," "The Nine" and "Vanished," among others, quickly disappeared, giving way to close-ended dramas that manage to amuse as they titillate, and offbeat comedies with characters we haven't seen before.
Of course, this is all theoretical because the shows are still in production. Of the 112 pilots in the works, an estimated 40 will make it on the air next season, making the race to find the next "Heroes" or "Ugly Betty," the only two new shows that broke out this year, a near impossibility.
NBC President of Entertainment Kevin Reilly said: "The big headline was too much serialization, but then [NBC's] 'Heroes,' which is a highly serialized show, ends up being the biggest hit of the season. So you can't make those blanket statements."
Addressing advertisers last month, ABC Primetime President Steve McPherson promised "all dramas will be funny" at his network, but he might as well have been speaking for his competitors too. The five networks have come up with a drama slate of quirky people, unexplored topics and new places.
These include ABC's "Eli Stone," a lawyer (Jonny Lee Miller) who thinks he might be a spiritual prophet; "Viva Laughlin," CBS' version of the BBC musical drama "Viva Blackpool"; Fox's "New Amsterdam," the story of a New York homicide detective (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who is 417 years old; NBC's "Journeyman," about a man (Kevin McKidd) who travels back in time to change events in people's lives while trying to manage his own life in the past and present; and the CW's tentatively titled "Spellbound," about a young life coach (Laura Bittner) who happens to be a witch.
Suzanne Patmore-Gibbs, ABC's senior vice president of drama development, said "Ugly Betty" has inspired some risk-taking. "Because of the look [director] Richard Shepherd brought to 'Ugly Betty,' as well as the specific tone that [creator] Silvio Horta found, that show distinguishes itself from everything else on TV."
The "Heroes" effect also is in place, both in dramas and comedies. Although the networks did not return to the foreboding aliens that took over prime time two years ago, the NBC phenomenon has definitely triggered an interest in the supernatural and in death and the afterlife.
"I think it's due to the success of 'Heroes' and 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'-type lore of years ago," said Shari Anne Brill, director of programming at Carat USA, a New York-based ad firm. "The pendulum seems to be coming back to that."
NBC is remaking "The Bionic Woman" as a coming-of-age tale, starring Michelle Ryan. Fox is producing "The Sarah Connor Chronicles," based on the character in the "Terminator" movie franchise, and "Them" based on the graphic novel "Six," about agents who must retrieve extraterrestrial terrorists who can assume human form. On CBS, the dead are coming back to life on Long Island on "Babylon Fields," a psychologist performs exorcisms on "Demons" and a private investigator is also a vampire on "Twilight." ABC's "Pushing Daisies" is about a man (Lee Pace) who can bring dead people back to life just by touching them.
The CW has "Reaper," a drama about a 21-year-old slacker who becomes the devil's bounty hunter, retrieving souls escaped from hell, and "Hell on Earth," a comedy about a mean teenage girl who dies and gets a second chance. CBS also is producing a comedy, "I'm in Hell," about a wealthy guy (Jason Biggs) who gets sent back to Earth because hell is full.
"The best television shows come from a new place, and you've got to experiment with new places," said Tim Spengler, programming analyst for Initiative Media, an ad-buying firm. "Consistently ripping off what was new rarely wins. 'Lost' is a little bit strange. It showed it's OK to take chances."
To that end, there's a broad range of multi-camera, single-camera and hybrid comedies covering the gamut of genres, as the networks vie for the elusive comedy hit. This season, CBS' "Two and a Half Men" is the only comedy breaking the top 20 among total viewers. Among 18- to 49-year-olds, the demographic most desired by advertisers, there are no comedies in the top 20.
Of the 54 comedies in development, 16 are set in the workplace (à la "The Office" and "30 Rock"), and many are based on characters or ideas that seem fresh on the surface, at least, for the small screen. Think "Cavemen" on ABC (yes, based on the popular Geico ads); "I'm With Stupid," about disabled people, on NBC; a heart-warming relationship between an American child and a Pakistani exchange student on "Aliens in America" on the CW; three siblings best described as "The Beverly Hillbillies" meets "The Swan" on "Stumps of Hollywood" on CBS; and Lee Majors playing himself in Fox's "Me & Lee?" the single-camera tale of Majors' obsession with bionics since "The Six Million Dollar Man" went off the air.
"It's almost like the more diverse the breed, the stronger the cat," said Fox President of Entertainment Peter Liguori. "I'm hoping we're going to come out the other end with some very, very strong comedy work. What should be the common thread among all of them is that the shows are funny, the characters are strong and there's an emotional foundation to the pieces."
Fox got ahead of the pack by picking up one comedy to be a series before any footage was shot because the producing and acting teams behind it were coveted by all the networks, Liguori said. "Action News," starring Emmy winners Patricia Heaton ("Everybody Loves Raymond") and Kelsey Grammer ("Frasier"), is co-created by award-winning producers Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd.
"Kelsey and Patricia Heaton came across as totally electric when I saw them on stage at the Fox development meeting," Brill said.
Heaton and Grammer lead a roster of TV stars who will return to the small screen if their shows become series: Jimmy Smits, Peter Krause, Julianna Margulies, Brooke Shields, Kirstie Alley, Alyssa Milano, Lucy Liu, Bobby Cannavale, Dylan McDermott, Christina Applegate, Michael Vartan, Angie Harmon, Jean Smart, Lauren Ambrose, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Ricki Lake.
In case it's not all smiles — there is a threat of a writer and actor strike later in the year — the networks also are beefing up their reality fare. The CW, which marked its only first-year successes in that genre, with "America's Next Top Model," "Beauty and the Geek" and the debut of "The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll," has two unscripted pilots that appear to be unlike any other shows on television.
"CW Now" will be hosted by four roving hosts who will be the ultimate source of everything hot and hip for the network's 18-to-34-year-old target audience. The show evolved from the network's successful "content wraps," pop-oriented features created around advertiser messages that air during commercial breaks.
"Content wraps is an example of how we approach everything differently," said Dawn Ostroff, the CW's president of entertainment. "We really want to turn everything upside down. And we believe that we are the network that can try it…. It may not always work, but our young viewers even give us credit for trying."
Brill praises the CW for understanding the interactive nature of its audience but notes that the network needs to land a water-cooler series, such as "Buffy" or "Dawson's Creek," to really become a player.
Although ABC is currently King of Buzz, none of its powerhouse shows repeats well (an economic disaster), which isn't stopping it from potentially spinning off "Grey's Anatomy" into a series revolving around the character of Addison (Kate Walsh). But the network is looking to fill its repeat void with comedies and close-ended dramas.
Fox also is struggling in the comedy genre and is still looking for a way to end its September-to-December slump. CBS, the steadiest of all networks, has developed riskier fare than normal, but, with few holes to fill, the network will be challenged when it comes to scheduling. NBC needs a solid companion for "Heroes" and will face the tough decision of whether to renew the low-rated critical darling "Friday Night Lights."
Who will have the last laugh? See you next pilot season.