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Unprepared Parents, Dystopian Futures, and J.J. Abrams: The Most-Recycled Trends of the 2013 Pilot Season

JJ Abrams

Every January, the five broadcast networks place orders for roughly 100 new projects — two-thirds of which will never be aired — in hopes of finding a couple of shows that can plug holes in their prime-time schedules, and a few more to which they can affix the ignominious title of “midseason replacement.” It’s called pilot season, and it’s kind of like the draft, but for TV. All the networks are flush with optimism, feeling great about their new pickups’ potential — still months away from the harsh realities that come with the start of the fall season, when they learn that their veterans have nothing left in the tank, their promising rookies can’t stay on the court, and that project they passed on is averaging a triple-double in the ratings for a rival.

Of course, at this point there’s not much to go on, since few details about the project are released to the press. For the vast majority of pilots, the only info we get is the log line — a one- or two-sentence summary of the plot that is often vague and sometimes downright perplexing — and the names of the writers and producers. Casting is now under way on nearly all pilots, and the caliber of talent a project attracts can be a major clue as to the quality of the script. But that’s pretty much it. By the end of this month, most pilots will be in production, plodding inexorably toward failure.

But now, before the bloom is off the rose, let’s take a closer look at the Class of 2013. Aside from the usual crop of shows about dysfunctional families, groups of friends “navigating the challenges” of their 20s or 30s, “no-nonsense” cops/lawyers/cops-turned-lawyers, and government conspiracies that go all the way to the top (they always go all the way to the top), you can generally find a few interesting trends — even if they’re mostly just trends from the previous years reheated in the microwave.

1. The Assistant Underclass

Assistance (NBC)
Log line: An idealistic “working girl” assistant is pulled between her colleague (“work husband”) and her real-life fiancé while trying to manage a demanding (translation: crazy) boss.
Cast: Krysten Ritter (yay!), Zach Cregger, Peter Cambor, Vinette Robinson

To My Future Assistant (Fox)
Log line: A group of assistants at a large Manhattan law firm band together as a family to deal with the obnoxious overbearing bosses who challenge their sanity on a daily basis.
Cast: Joe Egender, Catherine O’Hara, Stephen Root, Brittany Snow, Melissa Tang, Tone Bell

Previously: The Assistants (CBS, 2011)

Have you ever been an assistant? I bet your boss was the worst, right? A power-mad sociopath who seemed to delight in your degradation? I’ve been there myself, and it’s not fun. Let me ask you this, though: How many times, after telling your friends about a particularly egregious affront to your dignity at the hands of your psycho boss, did someone say something along the lines of “Oh my God, you should totally write a book/screenplay about this”? If your answer was anything but “Every time,” then either your boss wasn’t that bad, or you aren’t a very good storyteller. But it seems like more than a few former assistants have taken their friends’ advice to heart, and at least two of them are funny enough to have landed pilot orders this year. Both projects are lining up great casts, with the Root/O’Hara combo nearly equaling my excitement that Ritter has found another starring vehicle so soon after the criminal cancellation of Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23. And like I said, a truly terrible boss is a bottomless well of great material, so here’s hoping at least one of these shows receives a series order.

2. The Family That Kills Together

Bloodline (NBC)
Log line: A young woman abandoned at birth by an ancient line of mercenaries, brigands, and killers must learn to defeat her own mother in armed combat to ever have the chance of leading a normal life.
Cast: Skyler Samuels, Tom Everett Scott, KaDee Strickland, Jonathan Banks, Chris Zylka

Boomerang (Fox)
Log line: A family seems like your average all-American family, except that these “systems consultants” are actually paid assassins working for the federal government.
Cast: Patrick Heusinger, Felicity Huffman, Anthony LaPaglia, Michael Stahl-David, Rosa Salazar

Previously: This is a new trend, to my knowledge. I guess a lot of TV writers are super into Assassin’s Creed.

If you want to become an assassin, there are two main ways to go about it: You can be trained by the government, or you can be born into a family of assassins. (Moving next door to one and agreeing to take care of his plant is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing.) Of the two, I recommend the latter, since most government-trained assassins are framed for a murder they didn’t commit by their own organization once they’ve outlived their usefulness. Sure, it’s great while it lasts, as most governments can provide crucial services like forged documents, top-secret military technology, and unlimited access to taxpayer dollars. But why work for someone you know is going to try to kill you eventually? Being born into a family of killers is definitely your best bet.

Or is it? Projects from Fox and NBC should shed some light. Of the two, I think Bloodline sounds more intriguing, but partly because its log line is a great example of the issue with pilot log lines: At some point, a more complete synopsis will be released. But until then, those of us who do not work in development at NBC or Universal Television are all sitting here wondering how exactly killing one’s own mother constitutes a path to normalcy.

3. The J.J. Abrams “High-Concept” Drama

Believe (NBC)
Log line: A girl learns she possesses gifts and powers that will peak in seven years. A man is broken out of prison to protect her from the people trying to find her.
Cast: Jake McLaughlin, Johnny Sequoyah, Kyle MacLachlan, Jamie Chung, Sienna Guillory, Delroy Lindo

Human (Fox)
Log line: In a Los Angeles of the not-too-distant future, human police officers are partnered with androids with very human characteristics.
Cast: Karl Urban, Michael Ealy, Lili Taylor, Minka Kelly, Michael Irby, Mackenzie Crook

Previously: Revolution (NBC, 2012), Person of Interest (CBS, 2011), Alcatraz (Fox, 2011)

One way to explain the term “high-concept” is as a premise that can be conveyed in relatively few words. For instance, this year NBC has a comedy pilot, Brenda Forever, that follows two parallel story lines about the same woman at age 13 and age 31. They also have one called Holding Patterns, about a group of friends whose lives change completely after a plane crash. The first is “high-concept.” The second one is not, because you can replace “a plane crash” with pretty much any event — a state funeral gone awry, a chance meeting with Richard Grieco, changing their toothpaste to Crest Complete — and you’d still be wondering how their lives change, and who’s in this group of friends, anyway? Still confused? Me too, kinda. This year, we’re getting Alien Nation, but with androids, and what appears to be a rough adaptation of The Golden Child.

4. I’m Not Ready to Be a Parent to a Child

Donor Party (NBC)
Log line: An irresponsible man is forced to grow up when he discovers he has children resulting from his days as a sperm donor. A new family unit develops when a single mom contacts him and he begins to have a relationship with her and the son he never knew he had.
Cast: TBD

Girlfriend in a Coma (NBC)
Log line: A woman in her 30s awakens from a coma after almost two decades to find out she has a 17-year-old daughter from a pregnancy she was unaware of when her life was put on hold.
Cast: Miranda Cosgrove, Daniel Stern, Ann Cusack

Happiness (NBC)
Log line: A dad whose 14-year-old daughter has just moved in with him must navigate being a father while dealing with a temperamental new boss at work.
Cast: Sean Hayes, Samantha Isler, Echo Kellum, Linda Lavin, Thomas Lennon, Lindsay Sloane

Trophy Wife (ABC)
Log line: A reformed party girl marries a guy 20 years older than she is who has two judgmental ex-wives and three manipulative kids, who are all in their lives. It’s a lot to take on, but she’s determined to make it work.
Cast: Malin Akerman, Bradley Whitford, Marcia Gay Harden, Ryan Lee, Michaela Watkins

Previously: Unprofessional (ABC, 2012), Other People’s Kids (ABC, 2011), Lost and Found (ABC, 2011), Bad Mom (ABC, 2011)

Not to be confused with the similar “I’m Not Ready to Be a Parent to a Baby” genre, which has given us Fox’s Raising Hope and ABC Family’s Baby Daddy, this trend features those who have parenthood thrust upon them when the child(ren) have reached an advanced age, generally one where their hormones are raging and they’re asking uncomfortable questions about sex, drugs, and which drugs make sex the most fun. Maybe the protagonist was unaware of his/her child, maybe he/she was too busy/self-centered/incarcerated to engage fully. Whatever the reason, you can be sure that the “new parent” will be completely overwhelmed. (Because, you know, teens.)

Of the four projects, Girlfriend in a Coma stands out for both its premise and its cast (if you don’t know who Miranda Cosgrove is, ask your little sister or your creepy coworker). I like the idea of having the mother wake up to a daughter the exact same age as she was when she fell asleep, as it adds a Freaky Friday­ element to the project. As for the others, Happiness and Trophy Wife have also attracted strong casts, but aside from the fact that Happiness could also, perhaps, merit inclusion in the Assistant Underclass category, their log lines don’t do much for me. I was going to write that no cast being announced for Donor Party was an ominous sign, and lo! It was recently announced that production has been pushed since NBC couldn’t convince anyone to star. Offers to Rainn Wilson and Seann William Scott, two guys not exactly known for being picky with their projects, were both rebuffed. I guess you could say NBC shot a blank with this one.

5. Classic Story, Contemporary Setting

Hatfields & McCoys (NBC)
Log line: This classic feud between two warring families is updated to modern-day Pittsburgh, where the McCoys (a large, hardworking, upwardly mobile blue-collar family) battle the Hatfields (wealthy, powerful politicians and building developers) for control of the city.
Cast: Rebecca DeMornay, Virginia Madsen, Patrick Flueger, Sophia Bush, Jesse Lee Soffer, Nick Westrate, Annie Ilonzeh, James Remar

Sleepy Hollow (Fox)
Log line: After being mortally wounded in battle during the Revolutionary War, Ichabod Crane wakes up two centuries later in modern-day Sleepy Hollow to discover that the soldier he slayed on the battlefield, the Headless Horseman, has also returned from the dead, seeking vengeance and ushering a powerful new evil into the town.
Cast: Tom Mison, Nicole Beharie, Orlando Jones, Katia Winter

Westside (ABC)
Log line: A forbidden and dangerous romance emerges between the scions of two rival families as they battle for control of Venice, California. (Loosely based on Romeo & Juliet.)
Cast: Jennifer Beals, Odette Annable, Michael Graziadei, Bruce Greenwood, Lincoln Lewis, Dean Winter, Lexi Ainsworth, Brooklyn Sudano

Previously: Beauty and the Beast (ABC, 2012); Do No Harm, based on the novella/Nintendo game Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (NBC, 2012); Elementary, based on the Sherlock Holmes stories (2012, CBS); Revenge, based on the novel The Count of Monte Cristo (ABC, 2011)

Want to create a project based on a classic piece of literature or folklore, but you’re too lazy to do the research to accurately depict a period setting? Two words for you, bro: “modern reimagining.” It’s the type of phrase that gets studio execs all hot and bothered. “You mean we can take a known commodity and set it in the present, and not have to worry about spending money on period costumes and sets?” “Pretty much, yeah.” It’s the textbook definition of a win-win. It also doesn’t hurt that both Elementary and Revenge have become hits for their respective networks. But of the three pilots on offer this year, none sound particularly intriguing. Westside (formerly Venice) just sounds like your typical ABC prime time soap, and it’s worth noting that McG is set to direct the pilot, which … I’m not sure anyone was clamoring for McG’s take on Shakespeare (with the notable exception of McG). Hatfields & McCoys has already been done and done passably by both History Channel and Looney Tunes. That leaves Sleepy Hollow, which will have to compete for viewers with the other crime procedural with supernatural elements, NBC’s Grimm.

6. The Dystopian Nightmare Future

Delirium (Fox)
Log line: In a world where love is illegal and is able to be eradicated with a special procedure, a woman does the unthinkable: She falls in love.
Cast: Emma Roberts, Daren Kagasoff, Jeanine Mason, Billy Campbell, Corey Reynolds, Gregg Sulkin, Michael Michele, Erin Cahill, Brenda Koo

The Hundred (The CW)
Log line: Ninety-seven years after a nuclear war has destroyed civilization, a spaceship housing the lone human survivors sends 100 juvenile delinquents back to Earth to investigate the possibility of recolonizing the planet.
Cast: Eliza Taylor, Henry Ian Cusick, Marie Avgeropoulos, Eli Goree, Bob Morley, Christopher Larkin, Thomas McDonell, Isaiah Washington, Paige Turco

The Selection (The CW)
Log line: Three hundred years in the future, a poor young woman is chosen by lottery to participate in a competition to become the next queen of a war-torn nation at a crossroads.
Cast: Yael Grobglas, Michael Malarkey, Lucien Laviscount, Peta Sergeant, Celia Kate Massingham, Sean Patrick Thomas, Anthony Stewart Head, Louise Lombard, Sarah Winter, Ben Aldridge

Previously: The Selection (The CW, 2012)

Every pilot season, you can generally find at least one trend that can be linked directly to some super-popular project from the past year. Did you see The Hunger Games? Probably, right? It was pretty popular, despite a plodding script and special effects only slightly better than those featured in the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s The Langoliers. But since it was based on the first book in a popular young-adult trilogy, the television and film studios touched off a frantic race to buy up the rights to any and all young-adult novels set in dystopian futures. Delirium is based on the first book in a trilogy of young-adult novels, The Selection is based on the first book in a planned trilogy of young-adult novels, and The Hundred — the odd man out here — is based on an upcoming series of young-adult novels, but this series will have two books, not three. Credit the CW for making a smart bet last pilot season on The Hunger Games’s imminent success, as The Selection went to pilot last January (with Friday Night Lights alum Aimee Teegarden in the lead role). The project didn’t receive a series order, so they’re giving it another shot this year with a (mostly) revamped cast. It’s just as well, since my main thought after walking out of Hunger Games was, I feel like I just watched a two-and-a-half-hour episode of some show on the CW.

7. The Film Adaptation

About a Boy (NBC)
Log line: An adaptation of the 2002 film about a bachelor whose primary goal in life is avoiding any kind of responsibility, until he meets a geeky young boy.
Cast: Minnie Driver, David Walton, Benjamin Stockham, Anjelah Nicole Johnson, Al Madrigal

Bad Teacher (CBS)
Log line: An adaptation of the 2011 film centering on a sexy, foul-mouthed divorcée who becomes a teacher to find her next husband.
Cast: Ari Graynor, David Alan Grier, Ryan Hansen, Sara Gilbert, Sara Rodier, Kristin Davis

Beverly Hills Cop (CBS)
Log line: A series sequel to the 1984-94 feature-film comedy franchise starring Eddie Murphy centering on Aaron Foley, the son of Murphy’s Axel Foley, who is also a cop and struggles to distinguish himself from his dad.
Cast: Brandon T. Jackson, Christine Lahti, Kevin Pollak, David Denman, Sheila Vand

Previously: Nothing since 2010.

It seems like every pilot season is positively awash in adaptations of books and foreign TV properties, but adaptations of films are relatively rare by comparison. (Here is a list. Did you know that Jennifer Aniston starred in the short-lived series based on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?) The only currently airing network series based on movies are the CW’s Nikita and NBC’s Parenthood, so there’s a chance that number could double come fall. There’s an old adage in Hollywood that good books make mediocre films and mediocre books make good films. If this holds true for movie-to-TV adaptations, then these are going to be some amazing pilots. Of course, a few of the greatest shows of all time have been adaptations of mediocre films, including the recently concluded Friday Night Lights, as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And who saw either of those coming? Is it totally out of the realm of possibility that any of one of these movies could make a solid show? My money is on Bad Teacher, although I do have concerns about an R-rated movie being adapted by CBS. (Nobody tell Angus T. Jones.)

8. The Family Reformation

Back in the Game (ABC)
Log line: A stubborn single mom has to move back home with her acerbic widower dad, who was a former minor league baseball player.
Cast: James Caan, Maggie Lawson, Ben Koldyke, Kennedy Waite, Lenora Crichlow, Griffin Gluck

Dads (Fox)
Log line: A pair of successful thirtysomething guys’ lives are upended when their nightmare dads unexpectedly move in with them.
Cast: Tommy Dewey, Peter Riegert, Brenda Song, Martin Mull

Untitled Greg Garcia Project (CBS)
Log line: A recently divorced man’s life is further complicated when his parents decide to divorce and his mom moves in with him.
Cast: Will Arnett, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Margo Martindale, J.B. Smoove, Beau Bridges, Michael Rapaport

Previously: How to Live With Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life (ABC, 2012), Like Father (Fox, 2012)

The family reformation sitcom, as I’m choosing to call it for lack of a better term, has two main variations that produce the same end result: (1) a grown child (usually recently divorced or, less frequently, widowed) moves back in with his/her parents; (2) an aged parent (usually recently widowed or, less frequently, divorced) moves back in with his/her grown children. It’s a conceit designed to combine two thematic staples of situational comedies: intergenerational conflict and uncomfortable living arrangements. One of the projects, Dads, has received a straight-to-series order, which generally means that a network is confident enough in a project to forgo the pilot stage entirely. (Ironically, NBC — the network least capable of judging a project’s prospects for future success — has been passing straight-to-series orders out like candy recently.) As for the two untitled projects, both have attracted big-name leads. James Caan is making his first foray into network TV since NBC’s Las Vegas ended its run in 2007, while Arnett is looking to land on his feet after the at-this-point-inevitable cancellation of Up All Night. So we’re probably dealing with three quality scripts at three networks, with NBC being left out in the cold once again.

Pete Keeley (@petekeeley) is a writer (and mostly editor) who lives in Los Angeles. If you are writing a book about vintage Chicago Bulls gear, please let him edit it.