It feels like we say this every year, but this might be the year the networks finally just give up. There are a ton of pilots with cool premises, great casts, and solid writers, yet nearly all of them seem hampered by a lack of ambition. 2011 is filled with shows that aim for “average” and consistently hit the mark. Making them doubly disappointing: Many of them waste nifty ideas and a lot of talent on lackluster execution. Still, there are also fewer outright terrible pilots than there have been in recent years, which means almost any of these could eventually develop into stronger series. So join us for a voyage into the land of mediocrity, as we look for the few glimmers of hope—and contemplate the dark clouds likely to snuff them out.
A note: All pilots screened for this feature are works in progress. Most will go to air as they are, but some will be recast, reshot, or re-conceived. Whenever possible, we’ve indicated this.
Allen Gregory (Fox, 8:30 p.m. ET, debuts Oct. 30)
What it’s about: A super-smart, self-possessed 7-year-old who’s been raised and home-schooled by a gay couple enters elementary school for the first time, and has difficulty relating to children his own age.
Why it could be good: Judging by the trailer, the latest resident of Fox’s Sunday animation block is closer to Bob’s Burgers than Family Guy, even though former FG producer David A. Goodman is the showrunner. Creator Jonah Hill—who also provides Allen’s voice—seems to be aiming for character-driven, even poignant comedy, with just a touch of zaniness.
Why it probably won’t: Fox is holding Allen Gregory back until late in the fall season, and hasn’t been promoting it as aggressively as its other fall shows (though perhaps the network is planning more of a big push during baseball’s postseason). Also, this kind of tone can be tricky to pull off. We have to like the hero, even though he’s obnoxious, and the writers and animators have to keep the comedy popping without losing the truth of the situation.
Best-case scenario: Hill and company come up with something funny and sweet: like an animated version of the movie Rushmore.
Worst-case scenario: Hill and company come up with something tone-deaf and strained: like an animated version of the movie Problem Child.
Hell On Wheels (AMC, 10 p.m. ET, debuts Nov. 6)
What it’s about: A large, disconnected cast of characters trails behind the men building the Transcontinental Railroad in the small mobile village of Hell On Wheels, based on an actual historical community. Included are recently freed slaves (complete with easily producible copies of the Emancipation Proclamation on hand), a Confederate veteran hunting down former Union soldiers for mysterious reasons, and the tycoon responsible for building the thing. Also, Native Americans, British women, nefarious preachers, and all manner of other folk.
Why it could be good: The show is clearly going for the HBO slow burn, introducing a whole bunch of characters and situations in the pilot, then showing us over the course of the first season how they will come to interact. Plus AMC’s track record is still pretty good, The Killing notwithstanding.
Why it probably won’t: The only network that’s been able to make the HBO slow burn work is HBO, and it’s doubly hard to do that sort of thing with the decreased running time of basic cable. So this pilot, as it stands, feels like a weird, disjointed mess. Also, thanks to weird color tinting, it looks awful.
Best-case scenario: New producers brought in after the pilot (including Breaking Bad vet John Shiban) get a handle on the many story threads and start bringing them together in interesting ways, reminding us why we love Westerns and AMC.
Worst-case scenario: Viewers get to the finale and still don’t learn who built the Transcontinental Railroad.
Homeland (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET, debuts Oct. 2)
What it’s about: Claire Danes is the one woman in the CIA who doubts that recently returned POW Damian Lewis still plays for her side. Someone told her back when she was on duty in the Middle East that an American soldier had been turned, so now she’s obsessively watching the returned-as-a-war-hero Lewis to see if he cracks. One problem: Everybody in the CIA is pretty sure she’s crazy, and has been for a long, long time.
Why it could be good: It sounds like a leftover premise from 24, and considering it hails from some of that show’s producers, it seems even more like it would be an action-packed series in that show’s vein. Instead, it’s a surprisingly cerebral, thought-provoking look into issues of loyalty, forgiveness, and deceit, wrapped around an irresistible hook. It just might be the best new show of the fall.
Why it probably won’t: This is Showtime, the network that never met a short-run premise it couldn’t extend indefinitely.
Best-case scenario: Honestly, the best-case scenario is probably that no one watches, season one builds to a tremendous climax, and Showtime cancels it, then releases a DVD, preserving it as the limited-run show it probably should be.
Worst-case scenario: Each season turns into a showcase for bigger, better, and more dastardly soldiers-turned-terrorists for Danes to capture, culminating in Tony Danza’s season-six arc as a terrorist so secretive, no one knows he’s the one who keeps bombing their post offices.
Once Upon A Time (ABC, 8 p.m. ET, debuts Oct. 23)
What’s it about: An evil queen dooms Snow White, Prince Charming, and all their unprotected-by-copyright fairy-tale companions to an eternity in real-world New England. Now unaware of their true identities, the characters can only find their “happily ever after” through a 28-year-old Boston P.I. (Jennifer Morrison) who happens to be Snow White and Prince Charming’s daughter.
Why it could be good: In spite of whiplash-inducing jumps between storybook land and Storybrooke, Maine (See what they did there?), Once Upon A Time’s pilot builds a fun, familiar sandbox—while giving only the barest of hints as to how Morrison will fulfill her “chosen one” role.
Why it probably won’t: Showrunners and former Lost producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz were given a similarly rich world to explore in Tron: Legacy, but populated their story with reheated setpieces and games of “wink wink, nudge nudge,” the latter of which Once Upon A Time echoes each time it introduces one of its seven dwarves.
Best-case scenario: The elements of Morrison’s quest are patiently doled out while Kitsis and Horowitz construct and populate their magic kingdom.
Pan Am (ABC, 10 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 25)
What it’s about: Pan Am packages the glossy surface of Mad Men into an enjoyable candy-sweet confection that only gradually reveals that it has more on its mind than displaying pretty women in attractive clothes, working in an era when air travel remained pleasant. Amid the stories of four stewardesses and two pilots facing down the ’60s are tales of international espionage, broken romances, and political strife, all seasoned with a dash of Christina Ricci.
Why it could be good: Pan Am is TV escapism done right. There’s the barest hint of more going on in its head than the fluffy exterior, but the fluffy exterior is done so well, and it’s so much fun. By running as far from the coolly cerebral Mad Men as possible, Pan Am comes closer to catching what makes that show work than the similarly ’60s-set Playboy Club.
Why it probably won’t: Mixing this many tones and locales and timelines would be tricky for just about anyone. How will the show juggle its vast number of elements in the long run?
Best-case scenario: Ricci and her ensemble cast of (mostly) unknowns come up with a poppier, goofier spin on the ’60s that nonetheless manages to examine the changing role of women in that era.
Worst-case scenario: The many conflicting elements prove confusing to audiences, and the network, panicked, starts slapping bikinis on everyone for no real reason.
2 Broke Girls (CBS, 8:30 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 19 at 9:30 p.m. ET)
What it’s about: Brassy working-class waitress Kat Dennings forms an unlikely friendship with down-on-her-luck rich kid Beth Behrs while working at a Brooklyn diner. Together, they decide to try to open a business in a sitcom created by Whitney Cummings with Michael Patrick King.
Why it could be good: Dennings is a hell of a lead, and while a lot of the jokes featured in this show’s trailers are standard stuff, the pilot features surprisingly good character work, some extremely funny lines, and a hint of an edge that’s unusual for CBS. It includes a gimmick around the money the leads are saving that gives the show a little more narrative drive than your average workplace sitcom.
Why it probably won’t: There are some typical sitcom pitfalls, too: The Brooklyn setting doesn’t feel earned, there’s a lot of stale ethnic stereotyping, and CBS seems to think Behrs spraying whipped cream all over herself is way funnier than it actually is.
Best-case scenario: CBS lets this thing become a breakout sitcom hit that appeals to people under 50. Its timeslot-mate, How I Met Your Mother, could help there.
Worst-case scenario: CBS insists on focusing the show around Behrs getting other foodstuffs all over herself; Oleg the cook becomes the breakout character.
Enlightened (HBO, 9:30 p.m. ET, debuts Oct. 10)
What it’s about: A woman (Laura Dern) fresh off a nervous breakdown returns to her life after an extended stay at a treatment center where she decided to take a more “enlightened” view of the world. The perils of trying to live a good, less self-centered life while working for a massive global conglomerate drive her to examine the central hypocrisies of her own life, which just sounds like a laff riot. Also, Luke Wilson! Because why not?
Why it could be good: Dern is a game lead in this sort of series, and co-creator Mike White has the germ of a good idea here, if he can get away from the “underused actress in a high-concept premise that gets less and less believable with every episode” trap that’s ensnared so many Showtime series.
Why it probably won’t: The first handful of episodes aren’t especially funny, which wouldn’t be such a big deal if the storytelling were more interesting. Sadly, it isn’t, which means the best we can say about this is “At least it’s better than The Big C.”
Best-case scenario: White and Dern take their storytelling to an uncompromising, satirical place that examines how hard it is to live a life that doesn’t impact anyone negatively.
Worst-case scenario: The show turns into the televisual equivalent of that 18-year-old relative who goes to college and abruptly realizes that the world isn’t exactly fair to everybody.
Hart Of Dixie (CW, 9 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 26)
What it’s about: Ambitious surgeon Rachel Bilson crashes out of her career track in New York and moves to small-town Alabama to become a general practitioner. She reunites with O.C. creator Josh Schwartz, with small-town hilarity and life lessons sure to follow.
Why it could be good: Bilson has always been a charming lead, and it’s nice to see her back on TV, especially when paired with Scott Porter of Friday Night Lights. Plus, The CW could do with another good small-town show in the vein of Gilmore Girls; could this be it?
Why it probably won’t: The show feels thuddingly obvious. Bilson’s character is an underwritten career-obsessed stereotype, and the Alabama material is mighty broad. At one point, a doctor tells Bilson, “If you want to be a heart surgeon, then you gotta work on your own.”
Best-case scenario: If the characters evolve out of stereotypes and the setting gets a little more grounded, Hart could be an entertaining bit of comfort TV.
Worst-case scenario: The show mines every possible Sweet Home Alabama subplot possible, and when it runs out of those… Well, that’s when Porter picks up the banjo.
The Playboy Club (NBC, 10 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 19)
What it’s about: In the 1960s, Chicago’s Playboy Club was a place where men could be men, and women could wear uncomfortable costumes and have dreams—or something. After Bunny Amber Heard accidentally kills a mobster, she’s saved by the kindness of a suavely mysterious Eddie Cibrian. Other Bunnies (Naturi Naughton, Laura Benanti, Leah Renee) struggle with life, love, etc.
Why it could be good: Renee’s storyline has promise, and for the rest… Maybe vampires will eventually show up.
Why it probably won’t: The pilot is too clunky and schizoid to be taken as drama, and too desperate to resemble Mad Men to work as camp. Given the show’s official connections to Playboy (Hugh Hefner narrates the first episode), the brand will have to be protected, which means a limit on the kind of stories producers can tell. Also, everyone on the show uses the word “Bunny” way too seriously.
Best-case scenario: The “empowerment” themes get chucked because the series can’t sustain it, and the Bunnies start up a band and travel America; Cibrian turns out to be a lizard-man, and Hefner’s pajamas take on occult significance.
Worst-case scenario: After the first season, Emmy voters fall for NBC’s clever trap and confuse Cibrian with Jon Hamm.
Terra Nova (Fox, 8 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 26)
What it’s about: When an environmentally ravaged Earth becomes uninhabitable, thousands of intrepid explorers journey through a “time fracture” into the prehistoric past, to live in the fresh air—and among rampaging dinosaurs. Among the pioneers: the Shannon family, headed up by doctor Shelley Conn and ex-cop-turned-criminal Jason O’Mara.
Why it could be good: There’s a lot of potential in the setting: a walled colony populated by military types, agrarian types, and young people who love living on the wild side. Throw in some giant insects and towering monsters, and the result is a place where something exciting can happen every week.
Why it probably won’t: The pilot has a serious case of premise-creep. It isn’t just about adventuring in ancient times, it’s also about a splinter group of colonists, unexplained artifacts left by other possible time-travelers, the new romantic interests of the Shannon family’s teenagers, and O’Hara’s impulsive efforts to earn the respect of Terra Nova’s skeptical commander, Stephen Lang, and his own brooding son.
Best-case scenario: Terra Nova deals imaginatively and thoughtfully with the way human beings learn to live together in a wondrous and dangerous new world.
Worst-case scenario: “You’re a loose cannon, Shannon!” “I hate you, Dad!” “Oh no, a dinosaur!” Week after week.
Apartment 23 (ABC, 9:30 p.m. ET, debuts in November)
What it’s about: Chipper blonde Midwesterner Dreama Walker (best known for The Good Wife) moves to New York and ends up with the world’s worst roommate—sticky-fingered, exhibitionist party-girl Krysten Ritter, who also happens to be friends with James Van Der Beek (playing himself).
Why it could be good: With her “goth Anne Hathaway” looks, Ritter is a refreshingly unconventional presence amid the canned quirk of network TV, and a gifted comedian who can land lines like “I got a lot of frosting in my crack” with ease. Walker plays June with just the right mix of perkiness and ’tude.
Why it probably won’t: The show’s snarky, heavily referential brand of comedy could wear out its welcome quickly. Just how many Dawson’s Creek jokes are there, after all?
Best-case scenario: The tenuous understanding between Walker and Ritter develops into a full-blown friendship, providing the heart necessary to balance the show’s exceedingly clever humor—à la Jack and Liz on 30 Rock.
Worst-case scenario: Juno: The Twentysomething Years
Last Man Standing (ABC, 8 p.m. ET, debuts Oct. 11)
What it’s about: Tim Allen is the last sane man in a world gone much too feminine. This is just one of the many comedies debuting this fall about how hard it is to be a man today, all seemingly inspired by the same Atlantic article about falling employment numbers for men. Nancy Travis plays Allen’s wife, and Hector Elizondo and Kaitlyn Dever show up to make people wonder why they aren’t on better shows.
Why it could be good: The pilot isn’t so good, but it has its moments, and Allen knows how to deliver a punchline. Similarly, Travis is good at playing the exasperated sitcom wife while making that seem more wryly funny than irritating. Plus, this all comes from the pen of 30 Rock’s Jack Burditt, who seems committed to reviving the multi-camera family sitcom, and is usually a funny dude.
Why it probably won’t: It’s still a Tim Allen vehicle about how hard it is to be a man nowadays, meaning it could have debuted in 1995, and it would have felt about as stale as it does now.
Best-case scenario: The show follows Allen, Travis, and the talented cast into a situation where it ditches the stupid premise and just tells funny stories about family life in 2011. Burditt slowly turns the show into a stealth 30 Rock spin-off.
Worst-case scenario: President Obama decrees that what the nation needs is more Tim Allen grunts in his own version of Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech. Allen is only too happy to oblige.
Man Up (ABC, 8:30 p.m. ET, debuts Oct. 18)
What it’s about: Three guys in their 30s work together to figure out how to live in an adult, manly way, while clinging to the pleasures of their arrested-adolescent tendencies.
Why it could be good: The three leads, all of them essentially new faces to network TV (including the Tony-winning Dan Fogler and Mather Zickel, of the Adult Swim series Delocated) are accomplished clowns with a nifty comic rapport.
Why it probably won’t: The pilot is often hilarious, because unlike its lead-in, Last Man Standing, Man Up has little patience and less respect for its characters’ clueless obsession with the importance of achieving a proper masculine identity. Networks are notoriously uneasy with comedies more concerned with being funny than seeming “relatable,” and it would only take a little more emphasis on learning and hugging to kill what has the potential to make this show special. Besides, there may be room for only so many sitcoms about guys who live to measure their junk.
Best-case scenario: The network stays out of it, and the show stays funny.
Worst-case scenario: The network tries to pump up the ratings by having Tim Allen do a crossover guest appearance.
New Girl (Fox, 9 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 20)
What it’s about: Jess (Zooey Deschanel) moves in with three single dudes after a really terrible breakup. She struggles to find her footing as a single girl, and the guys struggle to take a female friend into their bro-tastic group. Oh, also, Deschanel plays a neurotic weirdo who does things like make up her own theme song.
Why it could be good: Sure, this is Zooey Deschanel at her most manic-pixie-dream-girl-ish, but she manages to elevate her character’s generic “She’s so weird!” idiosyncrasies, and ends up seeming a lot more charming than she should. The three guys, fronted by Jake M. Johnson, share an onscreen rapport that’s evident from the first scene.
Why it probably won’t: There’s a fair amount of quirkiness in the pilot, which right now seems to be there just for the sake of it. The writers have a lot of work to do to turn Jess into a fully realized character.
Best-case scenario: They do that work sooner rather than later, and New Girl becomes the first Fox comedy pilot in a long time that turns into a solid, character-based comedy, one that isn’t all about Jess’ preciousness.
Worst-case scenario: Canceled unceremoniously, just like every Fox comedy that isn’t animated or created by a guy whose name rhymes with Schmeg Schmarcia.
Ringer (CW, 9 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 13)
What it’s about: To avoid testifying in a high-profile murder case, ex-stripper and recovering addict Bridget (Sarah Michelle Gellar) hides out with her estranged twin sister, Siobhan (um, also Sarah Michelle Gellar), a wealthy Manhattan socialite. When Siobhan suddenly goes missing, Bridget assumes her identity, only to discover that—surprise!—Siobhan’s happy life isn’t what it seems.
Why it could be good: The identity-switch premise is irresistible, though hokey. And if anyone can make this show work, it’s Gellar.
Why it probably won’t: The writing, especially the wooden dialogue, is devoid of the nuance and wit necessary to elevate material otherwise worthy of a daytime soap. And in 2011, the split-screen twin effect—used dozens of times in the pilot—feels dated and gimmicky.
Best-case scenario: With a bit more charm and psychological depth, the show could be a pulpy, tongue-in-cheek thriller—Vertigo for Gossip Girl fans.
Worst-case scenario: Unable to create three-dimensional characters, executive producers Nicole Snyder and Eric C. Charmelo try (and fail) to distract viewers with passé visual effects and Gellar’s mean right hook.
Unforgettable (CBS, 10 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 20)
What it’s about: Poppy Montgomery plays a former New York police detective who suffers from hyperthymesia, the medical condition that makes it impossible for her to forget anything. And we do mean suffer: Still haunted by the unsolved murder of her sister when she was a child, she reluctantly returns to police work, the only area of her life where her memory is an asset rather than a curse.
Why it could be good: Montgomery tears into her role and shows more fire and grit than she did on Without A Trace.
Why it probably won’t: The pilot takes a sledgehammer approach to the idea that memory is a bitch; not content to require Montgomery to go back to work alongside a former police partner who’s also a former romantic partner, it has her tending to a senile mother who, of course, can’t remember who she is. These are just overwrought dramatic trappings draped over the carcass of one more played-out procedural series.
Best-case scenario: The writing lightens up, and the stories improve just enough that the show can at least provide a decent pedestal for Montgomery. Letting her show a little humor wouldn’t hurt, either.
Worst-case scenario: Every week, Montgomery and company will spend 45 minutes walking through a pile of procedural clichés, at which point Montgomery will take a look at some bit player’s official report, notice something that doesn’t jibe with her super-memory, and crack the case.
Tomorrow: Our TV preview continues on to Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, with shows featuring Maria Bello as a cop, Will Arnett as a stay-at-home dad, and Patrick Wilson as a doctor who sees his wife’s ghost. No, really!