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05.01.11

The 8 Best Pilot Scripts of 2011

With the broadcast networks about to unveil their new fall lineups, Jace Lacob picks his favorite scripts—from the period drama Playboy to the Sarah Michelle Gellar-starring Ringer.

The network upfronts—when the broadcasters unveil their fall schedules, tout their new programming, and bring out stars to shake hands with advertisers—are the week of May 16, but it’s never too soon to take a look at which shows you might become addicted to next season.

With more than 80 pilots vying for slots on the fall schedules of CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and the CW, the competition is fierce and so are the stakes for the broadcast networks to find shows to replace such aging hits as CBS’ CSI and attempt to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of ABC’s now-retired Lost. While there are more than enough shows revolving around doctors, lawyers, and cops this year (as every year), the broadcasters did shake up the paradigm a bit, commissioning scripts that followed Playboy bunnies, Pan Am flight attendants, parallel life-living detectives, and more.

While two of the most eagerly awaited pilots, CBS’ Person of Interest and Fox’s Alcatraz—both from executive producer J.J. Abrams ( Lost)—are being kept under lock and key, it’s good to remember that such secrecy doesn’t always lead to ratings success. (Remember Abrams’ Undercovers for NBC last fall? No? You’re not alone.)

Among the many pilots this development season, what follows are the eight strongest drama pilot scripts, ranging from period pieces to brutally funny dramedies. Two caveats: The list below contains no comedy pilots (I believe that the chemistry between the actors is key to the success of a comedy, though sitcom standouts include Iceland and Free Agents) and the selections below represent my own personal taste. I wouldn’t have ever greenlit last year’s $#*! My Dad Says or Outlaw, but their respective networks did. Still, here’s hoping that some of these, however, will make it on the air!

REM (NBC)

Cast: Jason Isaacs, Cherry Jones, Laura Allen, Steve Harris, Dylan Minnette, B.D. Wong, Wilmer Valderrama, Michaela McManus

Writer/Executive Producer: Kyle Killen ( Lone Star)

Director: David Slade ( Twilight Saga: Eclipse)

Logline: Following a devastating car accident, a police detective navigates two parallel lives, both of which revolve around his fractured family.

Hands down the most provocative and compelling pilot script of the season, Kyle Killen’s REM is arguably the most ambitious, establishing two parallel lives for Jason Isaacs’ police detective Mark Britten, each of which is painfully real. In one, his wife is dead and he must raise his sullen teenage son alone; in another, it’s his son who died, as he and his wife grapple with their grief at losing their only child. As Mark attempts to discern between the two realities, he’s confronted by two very different psychologists (Cherry Jones and B.D. Wong), two different partners, and criminal investigations that seem to overlap between realities. Emotionally resonant and thought-provoking, REM asks deep questions about the nature of reality and of dreams, forcing the viewer to confront the possibility that we might be sleepwalking through life. (Much like last summer’s Inception, in fact.) Equal parts mystery, psychological drama, and police procedural, REM emerges as one of the development season’s most compelling and creative offerings.

Pan Am (ABC)

Cast: Christina Ricci, Michael Mosley, Kelli Garner, Jonah Lotan, Margot Robbie, Karine Vanasse

Writer: Jack Orman ( Men of a Certain Age, ER)

Director: Thomas Schlamme ( The West Wing)

Logline: 1960s flight attendants serve on a new clipper fleet on Pan American World Airways, though each has a different reason for wanting to see the world.

The world of 1960s flight attendants might not seem the likeliest candidate for development, but this season’s common thread at the broadcast networks appears to be high-concept dramas that explore new or unusual worlds. In this case, the story revolves around flight attendants of the once-premier airline Pan Am, the gorgeous icons of the new frontier of the 1960s, as America took to the sky. While on the surface, Jack Orman’s script seems to be about the romantic and professional exploits of these stewardesses, there’s an unexpected espionage angle embedded within the serialized arc as the Cold War ramps up. Look for flight attendants to bat their eyelashes… and secretly pass microfiche to Cold War operatives overseas. The result is fun and frothy, with a hint of malice lurking beneath the surface, as well as the knowledge that this airline pioneer is eventually doomed to failure. (Interestingly, NBC has its own 1960s-set period drama with Playboy.)

Good Christian Bitches (ABC)

Cast: Leslie Bibb, Annie Potts, Kristin Chenoweth, Jennifer Aspen, Marisol Nichols, Mark Deklin, Miriam Shor, David James Elliott

Writer: Robert Harling ( Steel Magnolias, Soapdish)

Director: Alan Poul ( Swingtown, The Big C, Six Feet Under)

Executive Producer: Darren Star ( Sex and the City)

Logline: With her two teenage kids in tow, a woman moves back to the wealthy Dallas neighborhood where she grew up, only to come face to face with the women that she made miserable as a high school mean girl.

While it’s a given that the sly title will change (there have already been grumblings among potential viewers), Good Christian Bitches—based on the novel by Kim Gatlin—represents the best hope ABC has to eventually replace its seen-better-days nighttime soap Desperate Housewives. Like Desperate Housewives, this is a tongue-in-cheek soap that revolves around the well-heeled women in a particular neighborhood. Unlike the goings-on at Wisteria Lane, there are no ghostly narrators or stolen babies, and the emphasis is strictly on comedy and the catty competitiveness of the female leads (though there are a few soap-worthy plot twists, particularly at the very end). Harling’s script is funny, warm, and whip-smart, overflowing with clever repartee as well as an understanding of Dallas and its wealthy women, as ex-mean girl Amanda (Bibb) returns to her childhood home after her husband, who was enmeshed in a Ponzi scheme that bilked thousands out of their money, dies. Timely and apt, the plot kicks into gear when Amanda runs afoul of the women whose lives she made miserable when she was queen bee. Bitchy, vengeful, and manipulative, the girls Amanda once crossed have turned into powerful women who don’t intend to let homecoming be a sweet one.

The River (ABC)

Cast: Bruce Greenwood, Joe Anderson, Paul Blackthorne, Leslie Hope, Sean Parks, Thomas Krestchmann, Eloise Mumford

Writer: Michael J. Green ( Green Lantern, Kings) and Michael R. Perry ( Paranormal Activity 2, Persons Unknown)

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra ( Orphan, House of Wax)

Logline: A crew travels to the Amazon in search of a missing television explorer, but encounters a deadly and powerful evil.

Shot in a documentary style on location in Puerto Rico, the eerie supernatural suspense thriller The River is somewhat like if you put Lost, Paranormal Activity, and Cloverfield in a blender together and hit puree. Revolving around a missing adventure television series host and explorer, the plot follows the naturalist’s estranged son and wife heading down to the Amazon to see if there is any way that he might have survived. What they discover in the Amazon River is his beloved ship, destroyed, something deeply unnatural within the cargo hold, and the realization that they might not make it out alive. Possibly the scariest pilot script developed for broadcast television, The River conflates our obsession with reality television and the rollercoaster ride of horror/suspense into one appealing package that seems designed to attract fans of Lost. If this gets ordered to series, it’s definitely something you’ll want to watch with the lights on.

Ringer (CBS)

Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ioan Gruffudd, Mike Colter, Tara Summers, Kristoffer Polaha, Nestor Carbonell

Writers: Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder ( Supernatural)

Director: Richard Shepard ( Ugly Betty, Criminal Minds)

Logline: A recovering drug addict goes on the run and reconnects with her wealthy twin sister, ultimately assuming the latter’s identity.

Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are already eager to take a look at Sarah Michelle Gellar’s latest television project, the noir-tinged suspense thriller Ringer, in which the former Buffy star plays two very different roles: a pair of diametrically opposite, estranged twin sisters, Siobhan and Bridget. When down-and-out Bridget goes on the lam from the mob and the FBI, she reconnects with her wealthy twin, Siobhan, in Manhattan, and ends up assuming her identity after Siobhan dies. But Siobhan had secrets of her own… not to mention some mightily powerful enemies as well. What follows is a taut serialized drama that explores questions of identity, self, and escapism as Bridget attempts to slip into her twin sister’s shoes, only to learn that the seemingly perfect life her sister was living was broken and dangerous. Twisty and unpredictable, Ringer would make for an addictive nighttime drama that is extremely different from CBS’ usual procedural fare, even as it serves as an action-packed throwback to Hitchcock and Preminger’s films.

Locke & Key (Fox)

Cast: Nick Stahl, Sarah Bolger, Jesse McCartney, Miranda Otto, Skylar Gaertner, Harrison Thomas

Writer: Josh Friedman ( Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles)

Director: Mark Romanek ( Never Let Me Go, One Hour Photo)

Executive Producers: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci ( Fringe, Alias, Star Trek)

Logline: Three siblings and their mother move into their murdered father’s family home, where they discover a series of supernatural keys, which give them extraordinary abilities.

Based on the comic series by Joe Hill (the son of Stephen King), Locke & Key revolves around three siblings who—with their grieving mother—move into Keyhouse, their father’s decrepit family home, after he is brutally murdered. Once there, they discover that the mansion contains a number of supernaturally charged keys that offer strange abilities and powers (such as the ability to separate one’s soul from their body)… but there is a powerful entity that will stop at nothing to destroy the family and which has been biding its time. Suspenseful and gripping, this is a dark, supernatural drama that combines mystery, suspense, and action into one hell of a sinister package. Fox may have a difficult time marketing the potential series, given that the leads are mainly teens, but if they can pull it off, the network could have a good companion for the similarly mythology-driven Fringe.

Touch (Fox)

Cast: Kiefer Sutherland

Writer: Tim Kring ( Heroes)

Director: Charles D McDougall ( Desperate Housewives, The Chicago Code, The Good Wife)

Logline: A single father discovers that his autistic son can see patterns within numbers and everyday occurrences, an ability that he can use to predict events before they happen.

Former 24 star Kiefer Sutherland has already attached himself to his project, currently under consideration for midseason (the pilot will be shot beginning at the end of May, due to Sutherland’s involvement with the Broadway revival of That Championship Season), the first for Kring since NBC’s Heroes was canceled at the end of last season. Sutherland will play Martin Bohm, a struggling single father and airport baggage handler whose mute and autistic son has the ability to predict events based on patterns he sees in the world around him. Like Heroes before it, Touch has a global plot that brings together seemingly diverse characters—a single father, an autistic kid, a suicide bomber, an Irish singer, a pair of Japanese girls—into a single, unified storyline that displays the interconnectivity of the human race. Just as Martin’s son is compelled to climb cellphone towers, a cellphone itself makes its way around the world, connecting these unlikely characters by threads of fate, forming a pattern of its own. Deeply ambitious and spanning multiple countries, Touch is an intriguing concept and definitely one to watch for midseason.

Playboy (NBC)

Cast: Laura Benanti, Eddie Cibrian, Amber Heard, Leah Renee Cudmore, Jenna Dewan, David Krumholtz, Wes Ramsey, Sean Maher, Naturi Naughton

Writer: Chad Hodge ( Runaway)

Director: Alan Taylor ( Mad Men, Game of Thrones)

Executive Producer: Brian Grazer

Logline: Amid the political and social changes unfolding in 1963, the cocktail waitresses at the Chicago-based Playboy Club look for love, fame, and fortune.

With the success of AMC’s Mad Men and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, it was only a matter of time before the broadcast networks decided to enter the fray with period dramas of their own (see also: ABC’s Pan Am and Poe and NBC’s The Crossing). But as CBS found with its short-lived Swingtown, it can be difficult to find mass appeal for such endeavors. NBC is clearly hoping that the cachet and brand-recognition of Playboy works for them in a soap that revolves around the Playboy Club in Chicago in 1963. (And if Naturi Naughton seems familiar, that’s because she played Lane Pryce’s Playboy Bunny girlfriend on Mad Men last year.) While much of the action depicts the personal and professional trials of these cocktail waitresses, the plot takes a turn for the dark when one of them—Amber Heard’s Maureen—inadvertently kills a handsy patron, who is revealed to be a powerful Chicago mobster. The concealment of the accidental killing—thanks to handsome playboy Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian)—injects an ominous sense of dread and fear into the otherwise colorful and fun milieu of the 1963 Playboy Club. The tone, setting, and cast make this one to watch out for, particularly given the competition at ABC with the similar Pan Am.

Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV Columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.