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Pilot Watch: 10 Intriguing Picks for the New TV Season

Date June 30, 2011
Pilot Watch: 10 Intriguing Picks for the New TV Season I spent a large chunk of the last few weeks watching dozens of network pilots for next season. My conclusion is this: Don't try this at home.

Well, OK, you can't try this at home right now, but in a few months, the five broadcast networks will start to throw a ton of new programs at you, and you might want to begin familiarizing yourself with the...

Pilot Watch: 10 Intriguing Picks for the New TV Season I spent a large chunk of the last few weeks watching dozens of network pilots for next season. My conclusion is this: Don't try this at home.

Well, OK, you can't try this at home right now, but in a few months, the five broadcast networks will start to throw a ton of new programs at you, and you might want to begin familiarizing yourself with the shows that have potential. So here is a list of shows to keep on your radar before the fall arrives.

Now, what follows aren't reviews of these programs. Pilots can be extensively retooled before their premieres (and keep in mind that several pilots, including the high-profile 'Terra Nova,' haven't even been sent to the media yet). So it isn't quite fair to offer long-form assessments of what works and doesn't work about these shows. These are mere observations and thoughts on why I think these programs have potential.

Does that mean that, several months into the 2011-'12 season, all these shows will still be worth watching? Absolutely not. Given that the networks are taking chances with some unusual concepts -- and thank goodness for that -- there are bound to be quite a few flameouts this season. More than usual, in fact. Looking at this list, I can point to at least half a dozen shows that may well be unable to sustain or develop their risky central concepts with grace, creativity and energy. But hey, I'd rather the networks take chances on mold-breaking ideas -- a few of which may actually succeed -- than keep rolling out the kind of tired, formulaic fare we've mostly seen in the last few years.

Creating a good pilot isn't exactly a walk in the park, but that is the easy part, compared to making a show that becomes more compelling, touching or funny week after week. It's a hard slog, and it goes without saying that some (if not many) of the shows below won't cut it. And I should also mention that some of the pilots I saw that were a bit on the wobbly side may become addictive, given time to gel. The unpredictability is one of the fun parts of this job: Sometimes the bad pilots evolve into excellent shows, and you never can tell what promising fall pilots will be terrible long before Thanksgiving rolls around.

All right, of the dozens of pilots that the broadcast networks picked up for next season, I've watched 33 of them, and here are 10 that got me thinking, "Hmm, they may be on to something here."

'Alcatraz' (debuts at mid-season on Fox)
This drama has an impressive pedigree, which includes 'Lost' co-creator J.J. Abrams and 'Lost' writer Elizabeth Sarnoff, but every year, shows with impressive pedigrees (some of them by Abrams) wither on the vine. And after seeing the taut, well-crafted 'Alcatraz' pilot, I do wonder if 'Alcatraz,' which concerns the past and present of the infamous island prison, might be tempted to settle into the kind of storytelling routine that makes network executives happy and viewers bored. But there's no denying that the show's cast (which includes Sam Neill and Jorge Garcia) is excellent and the premise contains juicy helpings of intrigue and mystery.

Pilot Watch: 10 Intriguing Picks for the New TV Season'Apartment 23' (debuts at mid-season on ABC)
Part of the subversive charm of this comedy is that its central character, Chloe (Krysten Ritter), is selfish and manipulative (which makes 'Apartment 23' part of the new season's bad-girl trendlet). If the show goes to far in softening the edges of Chloe, a New York schemer whose best pal happens to be James Van Der Beek (playing a douchey version of himself), the show might run out of steam. But there's no denying that this frisky show is among the new season's more promising comedy offerings.

'Awake' (debuts at mid-season on NBC)
In this very high-concept police drama, Jason Isaacs does a terrific job of playing a cop trapped in two different realities. The pilot feels like the first half of a 'Memento'-like thriller, and it's hard to see how 'Awake' would work over 13 or 22 episodes, but this excellent pilot is worth checking out and I look forward to seeing more. American television has been trying to find the right vehicle for the talented Isaacs for some time, and I hope this is it.

'A Gifted Man' (debuts Sept. 23 on CBS)
If you're like me, you read the description "A high-powered surgeon is visited by the ghost of his dead wife" and you instantly reach for the vomit bucket. Yet I found this wonderfully acted pilot thoughtful, compelling and even moving. The cast, which includes Jennifer Ehle, Patrick Wilson and Margo Martindale, is top-notch, and Jonathan Demme did a wonderfully restrained job in directing the pilot, which successfully avoids gloppy sentimentality. There's part of me that wonders if the quality of the pilot can be sustained over a full season, but I once wondered the same thing about 'The Good Wife,' and look how well that turned out. There's no guarantee that 'A Gifted Man' will become as excellent in the long-term as 'The Good Wife,' but I'm certainly going to stick around to see it try.

'Free Agents' (debuts in the fall on NBC)
This workplace comedy has a welcome edge to it and the cast is good, in particular Anthony Stewart Head as the self-absorbed manager of a P.R. agency.

'Once Upon a Time' (debuts Oct. 23 on ABC)
Talk about high concept: The idea of a storybook world and the real world interacting sounds like a recipe for possible disaster, so any false moves by this drama could throw it off the rails. 'Once Upon a Time' certainly is a distinctive show that won't be for everyone, and the balance of fantasy and reality it strives for is a delicate one. Yet I can't deny that the pilot's mix of mystery, magic and emotionally grounded dilemmas put a spell on me.

'Prime Suspect' (debuts in the fall on NBC)
No broadcast network adaptation could ever match the quality and ambition of the original British series, a searing character drama that starred the incomparable Helen Mirren. Also, the blatant sexism of the male detectives on this NBC adaptation feels very early-'90s, and I can easily envision ways in which this drama could be shoved toward a procedural, bad-guy-of-the-week format, which would be a mistake and a betrayal of what the original 'Prime Suspect' was. That said, Maria Bello is surprisingly convincing in the lead role, and I'm interested to see how this version of the show will balance the portrait of its driven lead detective with the ins and outs of her investigations.

Pilot Watch: 10 Intriguing Picks for the New TV Season'Ringer' (debuts Sept. 13 on the CW)
The concept of the artist formerly known as Buffy Summers playing sisters with deadly secrets could become either grating or convoluted, and the pilot didn't wow me. But there are some interesting elements here, and if they can be aligned properly, this Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle might become a fun, 'Alias'-style ride.

'Smash' (debuts at mid-season on NBC)
You might call this Broadway-set show a 'Glee' imitator, but if 'Smash' can sustain the heart, the creativity and the concise characterizations of its excellent pilot, it'll be far more satisfying than the congenitally inconsistent Fox show. The networks are holding quite a few of their best pilots for mid-season, and this is certainly one of the most promising shows on the network horizon.

'2 Broke Girls' (debuts Sept. 19 on CBS)
This is a very solidly made, well-performed multi-camera comedy, and Kat Dennings in particular shines as a waitress with entrepreneurial aspirations. This show should be an enjoyable addition to the CBS comedy lineup.

By the way, all of us AOL TV staffers offered first-look thoughts on next season's pilots a couple of weeks ago (click these links for CW, Fox, NBC, ABC and CBS reactions, and for links to trailers and more info on the new shows). Keep in mind that, at the time we wrote those snap judgments, I had seen most but not all of the pilots for the new season. I have now, and I have the mental scars to prove it.

On a tangentially related note, I'm off for the next few days. Have a great July 4th and we'll reconvene to keep the TV conversation going next Wednesday.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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