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The 20 Most Exciting Pilots of the Upcoming TV Season

Photo: (L-R) Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Image, Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival, Michael Buckner/Getty Images, Jason Webber/Splash News
Photo: (L-R) Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Image, Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival, Michael Buckner/Getty Images, Jason Webber/Splash News

Pilot season is upon us, with upwards of 80 new series being filmed for the five major networks. Not nearly all of them will make it to air next fall; some because they’re just no good, many others because they don’t fit the networks needs, tone, or audience. We’ve taken a close look at all the pilots in production, talked to insiders, and read the scripts to suss out the twenty most exciting and intriguing ones, and then handicapped their chances of success. On the list you’ll find much to look forward to, including hipster chicks, stewardesses, Lost alums, gospel choirs, magical cops, NYPD, Playboy bunnies, and, of course, James van der Beek. And since no honest survey of any pilot season would be complete without some skepticism, we’ve also included the five pilots we’re most excited about for all the wrong reasons. (Poe, the detective! Don Johnson, the aging hairdresser! Bosom Buddies, the sequel!) Take a look.

What It’s About: Pilots and stewardesses at the dawn of the jet era. Why We’re Excited: All the period fun of Mad Men — but on a plane, and with a spy subplot for good measure. Bonus: Christina Ricci finally comes to TV and the director (Thomas Schlamme) did some of the best episodes of The West Wing. Supporting Evidence: “A fun, sexy period adventure that’s part Catch Me If You Can, part Mad Men, and part Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” one talent manager raves, calling it a “frothy romp.” Likelihood of Success: Ricci’s casting is going to make it hard for ABC to at least not give this show a shot.
What It’s About: Imagine a world where fairy-tale characters such as Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) not only exist but — thanks to a well-placed curse — are actually stuck living semi-ordinary lives in the real world. Why We’re Excited: In the wrong hands, this could be a campy mess; thankfully, the show’s from Lost vets Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who wrote some of the funniest (and most touching) episodes of the late ABC drama. Damon Lindelof has also been serving as an unofficial godfather for the project, further bolstering our interest. Supporting Evidence: “A surprisingly whimsical idea, executed simply and well,” says one development exec. “It’s an effort by some anxious network executives … to shake things up and see what sticks, and I’d love to see this one stick.” Likelihood of Success: Though the pilot doesn’t feel sci-fi at all, ABC has been burned so many times by far-out concepts in recent years (V being the latest failed tryst) that execs are going to have to summon up lots of courage to green-light an audacious concept such as Once. The show will have to feel more real than magical to get the go-ahead. Fingers crossed!
What It’s About: The forces of good and evil battle each other in a small southern town following the arrival of a mysterious stranger. Why We’re Excited: Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry is finally trying something new. Did we mention that there’s also a gospel choir whose songs help inform the story lines? Or that Terry O’Quinn (Lost) is in the cast? Supporting Evidence: One Hollywood development veteran says the show is “Marc Cherry doing what he does well: creating a town of rich and not-so-rich people who gossip about each other, do nasty things to one other, and have to live in the same place and stew in their own muck.” Likelihood of Success: Unless the gospel choir ends up looking like the singing uniforms on Cop Rock, there’s no way ABC doesn’t at least give Cherry a shot. If Shonda Rhimes gets to do Off the Map and Private Practice, the creator of Desperate Housewives gets at least one follow-up at-bat.
What It’s About: A single mother and former mean girl (Popular’s Leslie Bibb) returns to catfighting Dallas after her divorce. Why We’re Excited: As if the title (likely to change) didn’t tip you off that the show will be a camp-fest, Darren Star’s involvement, as a producer, and the pitch, Desperate Housewives meets Dallas, should. Better still, it’s being written by Robert Harling, a man with an ideal résumé for creating a Southern soap: He wrote Steel Magnolias and Soapdish. Supporting Evidence: An insider describes it as a funnier Desperate Housewives, and if it’s anything like its source material, a satisfying beach read of a novel, it’s bound to be a guilty pleasure. Likelihood of Success: Desperate Housewives is in its eighth season, and ABC could sure use a replacement. GCB seems to fit the bill almost perfectly, but then again, so might DH creator Marc Cherry’s Hallelujah.
What It’s About: High-powered publicist deals with her personal life and staff while solving high-level political crises. Why We’re Excited: Shonda Rhimes gets out of the hospital to enter the less bloody, but presumably no less bed-hoppy world of D.C. politics. And the cast is intriguing: Kerry Washington in the lead role is doing her first TV show, and she’s backed up by the likes of Lost’s Henry Ian Cusick and Tony Goldwyn as the president. Supporting Evidence: The main character is based on a real-life woman, Judy Smith, who was involved in everything from Iran Contra and Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, to Monica Lewinsky and Chandra Levy, exactly the kind of complicated, sordid stories that would make for great TV. Likelihood of Success: Rhimes has a lot of pull over at ABC. After all, the network is so supportive of her that Private Practice is still on the air. It’s not likely they’ll say no.
What It’s About: A farm-fresh Midwestern girl rents a room from a world-wisened New Yorker. Why We’re Excited: ABC has shortened the title from Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apt. 23, but the pilot script still boasts plenty of snark and zip. It’s also got James Van Der Beek playing (and presumably mocking) himself. Supporting Evidence: You’ll never get lines like this on The Middle: “June, sweetie, I banged your fiancé on your birthday cake. And I’m going to be late with my half of the rent.” Likelihood of Success: We could see this fitting in with Cougar Town if ABC decides to create a night of less-family-friendly comedies away from Wednesdays. Otherwise, the urban wryness might be a better fit for Fox.
What It’s About: A workhorse surgeon (Patrick Wilson) has his life changed forever after his wife dies — and then starts haunting him from the great beyond. Why We’re Excited: Because, really, nobody does touching supernatural stories better than CBS (see Medium, The Ghost Whisperer, Touched by an Angel). Also, Jonathan Demme’s directing. Supporting Evidence: “I hate doctor shows, I hate supernatural shows and I hate the combo of those,” one manager told us. “Yet this is heartfelt, well-written, and just plain good.” Likelihood of Success: CBS does have another doctor show in the works (The Doctor), and it stars Eye heroine Christine Lahti. Still, the Grant project seems a slam-dunk for a spot on the net’s Friday lineup.
What It’s About: Six NYPD rookie cops Why We’re Excited: Richard Price’s novels (Lush Life) basically read like the tightest screenplays around, and his work for The Wire wasn’t too shabby either. The premise isn’t earthshaking, but if anyone can make cops sounds fresh, it’s Price. Supporting Evidence: At a morning briefing, a sergeant sounds like this: “The Gun Clappin’ Goons on 115th and 6th have been talking smack on Twitter and MySpace for the last three weeks, and finally last night a GCG, Trevor Lemon, got shot in the leg, suspect in the wind, so we’re expecting payback today, tonight tomorrow the latest, a full-out run and gun war, the battle lane as always for these two sets, straight up and down 6th Avenue from Footpost 41 to 43 … ” Likelihood of Success: Despite Price’s Wire pedigree, the pilot script for this doesn’t seem too gritty for CBS (when the gangs mentioned in the dialogue above finally go at it, there are no guns involved). With Robert De Niro on board as an executive producer, this might slot in nicely with Blue Bloods as a slightly more complex take on CBS’s meat-and-potatoes procedurals.
What It’s About: Sarah Michelle Gellar plays twins, one who takes over the other’s identity as a rich Manhattanite, even though both are being targeted by hit men. Why We’re Excited: Sarah Michelle Gellar returns to TV playing twins, one posh and one a former prostitute, both running from hit men. In other words, Buffy’s ass-kicking ability meets a plot twist straight out of All My Children, with some Sex and the City Manhattan lifestyle porn thrown in for good measure. Supporting Evidence: A taste of the cold open: One of the twins, beaten, bloody, nearly unconscious and “stunningly beautiful,” lays there after having been beaten up by a masked man. As he raises his hand to hit her “glazed eyes flutter, on the verge of passing out. But not before uttering, ‘You have the wrong girl.’” Likelihood of Success: CBS has got action procedurals (Hawaii 5-0) and its got a serious drama about complicated women (The Good Wife), Ringer could be where the two meet, a serialized action-drama that’s got more through plot than any of CBS’s franchises, and more froth and fistfights than Wife. Like Rookies it’s a twist, but not too big of one, on what’s worked for CBS so far.
What It’s About: A supposedly dead CIA officer (Jim Caviezel) ends up tracking violent crimes in New York at the behest of a mysterious millionaire (Michael Emerson). Why We’re Excited: Memento and Dark Knight co-writer Jonah Nolan teaming up with J.J. Abrams in a show that also features Emerson? Suddenly, we’re all about the CBS crime procedurals. Supporting Evidence: So actually, not a lot of folks have read this pilot — Abrams has this thing about secrecy, see. So really, we’re just basing this on the auspices and our hopes. Likelihood of Success: Pretty 50-50. CBS has a habit of sleeping around with cool creative types like Abrams during pilot season, only to order another Criminal Minds spinoff when it comes time to actually order shows.
What It’s About: Two broke girls — one formerly rich, one always poor — who live in Brooklyn and work at a diner together. Why We’re Excited: The charming Kat Dennings takes to TV for a sitcom with a laugh-out-loud pilot script written by Michael Patrick King and Whitney Cummings. Supporting Evidence: A typical Dennings monologue: “This is the Williamsburg Diner, owned by Han Lee, who just changed his name to Bryce Lee because he wants people to take him even less seriously. Eight months ago he bought it from the Russian mob. The clientele used to be all eastern block criminals and crack whores but he took it over and ruined it … The customers are mostly older people who eat here because it makes them nostalgic for the Great Depression. We also get a lot of hipsters who come here because they it’s cool to come to a place that’s not cool.” Likelihood of Success: This is a multi-camera sitcom with a single-camera script. Young, hip, raunchy, and girl-centric — it’s about two chicks working in Williamsburg, for goodness sake — this is a Fox show, that CBS took a flier on. If they picked it up, it’d be sharper than anything they have on air, but it’s hard to imagine it fitting in with their lineup.
What It’s About: A newly single woman moves in with three dudes. Why We’re Excited: Screenwriter Liz Meriwether (No Strings Attached) teams up with manic pixie dream girl extraordinaire Zooey Deschanel on an inevitably quirky, pop-culture-teeming script. Kanye, Rachel Zoe, Pretty Woman, Tori Amos, and many more get shout-outs in the pilot alone. The original title, Chicks and Dicks, captures the tone better than The New Girl ever could. Supporting Evidence: Deschanel verbal diarrheas about why she can’t live with three boys: “This isn’t going to work, right? I mean, you don’t want to live with a girl. I’m going through a breakup and I’m a teacher, so I’m going to be bringing home like a lot of Popsicle sticks and stuff, and sometimes when I’m sad I pretend to be Carrie Bradshaw and I put on weird bras and type on my computer.” Likelihood of Success: Unlike Two Broke Girls, The New Girl is at least on the right channel. But of the two, surprisingly, it has the less strong script, and is more aggressively alienating to anyone over the age of 30. Still, Meriweather and Deschanel are some kind of indie dream team, and the show would fit in nicely with the quirky Raising Hope.
What It’s About: A single-camera romantic comedy about a group of friends moving forward after the loss of a loved one. Why We’re Excited: It’s from the mind of Community scribe Andy Bobrow, who co-wrote this season’s big space-capsule episode. Will Gluck (Easy A) is directing. Zach Gilford of Friday Night Lights is part of the cast (though even he couldn’t save Off the Map). And unlike most TV comedies about young folks copulating, this one feels grounded in reality: A key character’s fiancé didn’t leave her at the altar — he dies. Stakes! Supporting Evidence: “The best comedy pilot I’ve read so far,” declares our development vet. “Well-written, thoughtful, moving, funny: I want to see this show right now.” Likelihood of Success: Decent. Fox is constantly trying to expand its comedy brand beyond animated or family shows, and this would pair well with Traffic Light — assuming, of course, that show returns. Fox tends to like noisy comedy concepts, however, which could hurt Iceland’s chances.
What It’s About: Based on the graphic novel by Joe Hill, it’s a thriller about a family that moves into a haunted house full of secrets, dangers, and wondrous opportunities. So basically, The Shining by way of Narnia. Why We’re Excited: Hill’s novel series has serious, Walking Dead–level geek cred, and we like the idea of kids running wild in a freaky house. We’re also psyched to see Nick Stahl, so good in the gone-too-soon Carnivale, potentially back on a TV show. Supporting Evidence: So a recent episode of the graphic novel was devoted to a Calvin & Hobbes tribute. If the TV show is one-tenth as cool as that, we’re in. Likelihood of Success: Super-high. One of the first pilots green-lit by Fox this development season. The network even released a promotional still from the show to USA Today earlier this month. No reason to be hyping something that’ll never be on the air.
What It’s About: A police procedural set in a world where magic exists. Why We’re Excited: If the concept seems mockable, keep in mind it comes from Ron Moore, the guy who took the silly seventies version of Battlestar Galactica and successfully reimagined it as something deadly serious and compulsively watchable. Plus, Moore’s rounded out the cast with Battlestar alums: Jamie Bamber, Tricia Helfer, James Callis are all on board, plus the non-Battlestar but always awesome Stockard Channing. Supporting Evidence: In a world where magic exists, punishments are different: “Therefore, this court sentences defendant to the loss of the use of his right arm for a period of one year. Sentence to be imposed immediately.” Likelihood of Success: Given that NBC has ordered a pilot of this, Wonder Woman, and Grimm — a police procedural in which fairy-tale characters are real — it seems like the network is hoping to find the Heroes replacement it needed a few seasons ago. But two replacements? Unlikely.
What It’s About: Single-camera comedy about the employees of a Pilgrim-era theme park. Why We’re Excited: It’s from Peter Tolan, the man behind Rescue Me and, perhaps more important, the underrated (and short-lived) ABC workplace comedy The Job. We like the Office meets Adventureland vibe, too. Supporting Evidence: Early in a draft of a script we saw, one character puts down another thusly: “I guess if he knew you were going to be the end of his bloodline, he would’ve cut off his penis.” Likelihood of Success: We get the sense that new NBC chief Bob Greenblatt thinks his network already has enough niche-y, office-set comedies. Had a Will Arnett–level star agreed to star, this show might have had a chance. Unless the execution is brilliant, it’s hard to see this going forward.
What It’s About: The playboy club in 1963 Chicago, complete with the ultimate playboy, the ultimate bunny, and a murder. Why We’re Excited: Mad Men–era setting + premium-cable risqué content (the actors have nudity clauses in their contracts) + mainstream-appealing plot twists (murder by stiletto) = entertainment. With tabloid man Eddie Cibrian in the lead role, this isn’t the classiest production in town, but, well, bunnies in the sixties were still bunnies. Supporting Evidence: The leading man and the new bunny have a late-night chat: “Drink the rest of that water.” “I hate water.” [A genuine laugh.] “Me, too.” Likelihood of Success: Playboy has a great, sexy premise, but despite its Mad Men–cribbing and polish, it’s not anywhere near as highbrow. If NBC’s new honcho Bob Greenblatt wants a buzz-getting soap to sex up the lineup, this is it: If he wants to avoid lots of chatter about how cable does it better, this isn’t.
What It’s About: After a car accident, a detective (Jason Isaacs) finds himself living in two realities — one in which he’s accidentally killed his wife; the other finds his son dead. Why We’re Excited: It’s from Kyle Killen, the voice of Lone Star and The Beaver, which tells us it’ll be very well-written. And 24 vet Howard Gordon is serving as show-runner, which means things should get awfully tense. Supporting Evidence: “I couldn’t get this script out of my head for about a week after I read it,” one development exec told us. “It’s a different, melancholy family drama but at the same time it’s a dual procedural. I think the latter will be the real hook for the audience.” Likelihood of Success: NBC’s got plenty of shelf space and desperately needs a mystery show that’s not a goofy mess like The Event. The Inception vibe should help, too.
What It’s About: A soapy look at the making of a Broadway musical via executive producer Steven Spielberg. Why We’re Excited: It’s Glee for grown-ups! Or Spider-Man for the small screen. Also: The cast includes Debra Messing, Anjelica Huston, and former American Idol contestant Katharine McPhee. Supporting Evidence: “A beautifully written script that made me want to watch the show NOW,” one development spy tells us. The script is a page-turner: smart, compelling, and entertaining.” Likelihood of Success: New NBC chief Bob Greenblatt developed Smash for more than year when he was at Showtime. He immediately brought it with him to NBC when he officially moved there and has made it one of his top priorities. This thing is on the air.
What It’s About: Christina Applegate is a working mom married to stay-at-home dad Will Arnett. Why We’re Excited: Spivey is a Parks and Recreation alum (+30). Applegate is great at TV (+10); Arnett, even better (+20). Plus, Maya Rudolph is part of the cast (+15). Add it all up, and you’ve got Modern Family, NBC-style. Supporting Evidence: One of Applegate’s young co-workers sums up her mommy issues thusly: “My Mom was a groupie for ZZ Top. I don’t know who my father was or at least I’m not sure which one he was because all of my mom’s lovers had old prospector’s beards. So yes, I hate my parents.” Likelihood of Success: This show mashes up family and office comedies, letting NBC simultaneously stay in, and expand, its wheelhouse. And its got lots of well-known TV stars. Plus, it’s from exec producer Lorne Michaels. Pretty good odds.
What It’s About: A procedural set in 1840s Boston, with Edgar Allen Poe as the lead detective. Why We’re Excited: Please, let us get a chance to see the episode of TV that messes with history such that Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” was based on a true story. Even better, the episode where you get to sit on your couch and scream at a clueless Poe, “The heart is in the floorboards! The heart is in the floorboards!
What It’s About: A family drama set in the world of dance, with Eric Roberts as the sexually prolific dad and choreographer. Why We’re Excited: Eric Roberts dances, sleeps with women, deals with his three daughters from different mothers, and has to convince us he’s not creepy? We’ll bet he can pull off three of the four.
What It’s About: A straight fiftysomething male hairdresser trying to stay current in L.A. Why We’re Excited: That hairdresser is played by … Don Johnson. As if that weren’t enough, it’s written by Sex and the City’s Michael Patrick King, which means the Shampoo update could be campy on purpose, except the extremely punny, literal title gives us pause. Johnson’s character is named Allan Mann.
What It’s About: A 21st-century Wonder Woman Why We’re Excited: David E. Kelley writing a show about a feminist icon? We’re ready to argue about it already! And if it continues filming, Adrianne Palicki will inevitably pop out of that supremely unpractical top for the pleasure of Internet pervs everywhere.
What It’s About: Two men pose as women to find jobs. Why We’re Excited: It’s like the TV gods heard the prayer we never prayed, and gave us a remake of Bosom Buddies.
The 20 Most Exciting Pilots of the Upcoming TV Season