Pilot Program

05.07.12

TV Upfronts 2012: Best Pilot Scripts From ‘Mastermind’ to ‘Ralph Lamb’

With the broadcast networks about to unveil their new lineups, Jace Lacob picks his favorite scripts—from psychological thriller Mastermind to period drama Ralph Lamb.

At the network upfronts the week of May 14—when broadcasters unveil their fall schedules along with new programming and glad-hand with advertisers amid a series of presentations and parties—broadcasters will reveal the shows that might end up on your TiVo’s Season Pass in the fall.

This year, nearly 90 pilots are battling for slots on the schedules of CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and the CW, all of which are desperate to replace aging hits and find those few breakout shows. This year’s crop is especially heavy on the supernatural, imported formats (especially from Israel), period dramas (which range from the frontier era and the Gilded Age of Shonda Rhimes’ The Gilded Lilys to the 1980s of Sex and the City prequel The Carrie Diaries), remakes and prequels (Mockingbird Lane! Hannibal! The Carrie Diaries!), Beauty and the Beast (there’s not one but two competitive projects based on the fairy tale), and—oddly enough—a fascination with cults, which turn up in several pilots.

Among the many pilots this development season, what follows are the 13 strongest drama scripts. A few caveats: The list below focuses exclusively on drama pilots, as I believe that casting and chemistry among actors are two of the most important factors to the success of comedies. The selections below represent my own personal taste, which doesn’t always necessarily mesh with that of the broadcasters. Finally, as always, there’s a lot that can change between these scripts and completed pilots, with significant change sometime occurring before a pilot makes it to the screen. That said, here’s hoping that some of these projects—presented in no particular order—will make it on the air!

Untitled Kevin Williamson, previously referred to as Mastermind (Fox)

Cast: Kevin Bacon, James Purefoy, Natalie Zea, Maggie Grace, Shawn Ashmore, Valorie Curry, Adan Canto, Kyle Catlett, Jeananne Goossen, Nico Tortorella
Writer/Executive Producer: Kevin Williamson (The Vampire Diaries)
Director: Marcos Siega (Dexter, The Vampire Diaries)

Logline: When a serial killer escapes from prison, it’s up to the former FBI agent who once put him there to recapture him, but the sadistic criminal masterpiece now has an extensive network of acolytes, recruited through social media, to help him.

A taut psychological thriller that pits Bacon’s disgraced FBI agent a step behind Purefoy’s charismatic cult leader/serial killer Joe Carroll, whom he managed to capture years ago and who has now escaped from prison. While this could result in a standard cat-and-mouse chase, Williamson utilizes a deft manipulation of the insidious ways in which social media has infected every element of our lives, allowing Purefoy’s character to indoctrinate anybody with Internet access, leading to some unexpected twists and turns. Given this, there’s a thick atmosphere of dread and paranoia hovering over the action, as anyone can be part of Carroll’s death cult. Creepy and unnerving, this is one project that, properly shepherded, could make for an addictive, if disturbing, serialized drama.

Do No Harm (NBC)

Cast: Steven Pasquale, Alana De La Garza, Phylicia Rashad, Michael Esper, Ruta Gedmintas, Mousa Kraish
Writer: David Schulner (The Event, Trauma)
Director: Michael Mayer (Smash, Flicka)

Logline: A modern-day update of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which revolves around a neurosurgeon whose placid demeanor hides a vicious alter ego that he has managed to imprison within his psyche, but after five years, his alter ego has found a way to escape.

Updates, remakes, and prequels are apparently de rigueur this season, but the provocative Do No Harm—which moves the Jekyll and Hyde action to modern-day Boston, where the man struggling with the dual personalities battling it out is a gifted neurosurgeon. Rather than depict yet another origin story, we’re deposited in the middle, where Jeffrey Kohl (Pasquale) has successfully managed to isolate his alter ego, Ian Price, and kept him caged through the use of drugs for five years after Ian nearly killed his girlfriend Olivia (Gedmintas). Yes, Steven Moffat explored an updated version of the Jekyll/Hyde mythos in the successful BBC miniseries Jekyll a few years back, but that had deep connections to the Robert Louis Stevenson novel. Here, however, the plot is inspired by but never references the original work, instead depicting Kohl as a man beset by a vengeful demon within his own head, a doctor battling his Hippocratic Oath when all his alter wants to do is destroy everything he’s built.

Hannibal (NBC)

Cast: Hugh Dancy
Writer/Executive Producer: Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Heroes)
Executive Producers: Jesse Alexander (Heroes, Lost), Sara Colleton (Dexter)
Director: David Slade (Awake, Breaking Bad)

Logline: A prequel to Silence of the Lambs (and based on Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon), a young FBI agent, a highly empathic criminal profiler in pursuit of a deadly serial killer, begins a professional relationship with an unlikely mentor, the cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

While Dancy is so far the only talent attached (he’s playing FBI agent Will Graham), this project has already been—in theory—ordered to series by NBC, which means that if the pilot passes muster, it will be fast-tracked onto the air. In the hands of Fuller, what could be fairly conventional crackles with wit and electricity. The as-yet-uncast Lecter radiates pure evil from the page, and his partnership with Graham—whose empathy is played as both a gift and a curse—gives the procedural plot some heft and genuine menace, while the gruesome crimes lend a cinematic air to the proceedings. Definitely one to watch out for.

Untitled Karyn Usher (Fox)

Cast: Julian McMahon, Saxon Sharbino, Angela Bassett, Louise Lombard, Rick Schroder
Writer/Executive Producer: Karyn Usher (Prison Break, Bones)
Director: Brett Ratner (Tower Heist, Prison Break, Red Dragon)

Logline: When a CIA operative is killed, his teenage daughter—taught in the ways of espionage—sets out to uncover her father’s killer with the help of a rogue agent, even as she’s recruited to be a spy herself.

Alias plus Veronica Mars multiplied by Jane Levy’s Tessa on Suburgatory. While that may seem nonsensical, it’s the most succinct way of describing Usher’s kick-ass female-centric teen actioner, which has its feet in multiple realms, fusing together the cutthroat worlds of high school and high-octane espionage. In Jane Forsythe (Sharbino), television has a strong, intelligent, and resourceful young woman adept at subterfuge and weapons, who is seeking revenge for the murder of her father. It’s that final element that gives the project a strong throughline, connecting her with McMahon’s devilish Kevin Lear. While it’s potentially an odd fit for Fox, this is one of the most intriguing and pleasurable projects to emerge from this development cycle.

Bad Girls (NBC)

Cast: Amy Smart, Jaime Pressly, Jurnee Smollett, Zoe Boyle, Rick Gonzalez, Tracee Ellis Ross, Karolina Wydra, Kym Whitley
Writer/Executive Producer: Nancy Pimenthal (Shameless, South Park)
Director: John Dahl (Dexter, Justified, Red Rock West)

Logline: Based on the British drama about the female inmates of a federal prison, its guards, and its highly eccentric female warden.

Numerous networks—including HBO and FX—have attempted to bring an American adaptation of the British soap to the screen, which depicts the power structure within a federal prison for women and the inmates’ relationships both inside and outside of its walls. While it’s a subject matter that lends itself perhaps most readily for a cable channel rather than a broadcast network, which might have to pull back the sex and violence a bit, this adaptation managed to find the perfect balance between savagery and tongue-in-cheek humor, relishing in the “trashy” aspects that made the original soap so bloody fun. Oz this isn’t, and that’s okay: there’s definitely more comedy to be found within its prison plots, backstabbing (both emotional and actual), and quirky characters.

Ralph Lamb (CBS)

Cast: Dennis Quaid, Jason O’Mara, Michael Chiklis, Taylor Handley, Carrie-Anne Moss, James Russo, Michael Reilly Burke, Michael O’Neill
Writers/Executive Producers: Nicholas Pileggi (Casino, Goodfellas) and Greg Walker (Three Rivers, Without a Trace)
Director/Executive Producer: James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Girl, Interrupted, Copland)

Logline: Based on the true story of the “cowboy sheriff” of Las Vegas in the 1960s, who—during his 18 years in office—merged the sheriff’s office and the police department into one law enforcement unit, creating an effective urban police force for Sin City while fighting off the mob.

An astonishing and brilliant period drama that crystalizes the feel of Las Vegas in 1960, hovering uneasily between the cowboy roots of the Old West and the sin and corruption of the future-facing casino town. In Ralph Lamb (Quaid), the writers have brought to life an old-time cowboy—able to take a punch to the face without flinching—and infuse him with the grit and determination of a frontier sheriff. The script manages to capture the glitz and glamour of nascent Las Vegas as well as the beauty and scale of the surrounding country, one embodied in the heroic ideals of Lamb himself. While this falls within CBS’ typical police procedural realm, the setting and time period—as well as the pitch-perfect writing—make this required viewing.

County (NBC)

Cast: Jason Ritter, Michael B. Jordan, Aimee Garcia, Michael Imperioli, Norbert Leo Butz, Agam Darshi, Kevin Perez, Emily Rios, Jess Weixler
Writer/Executive Producer: Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood)
Director: Jeffrey Reiner (Friday Night Lights)

Logline: A medical drama revolving around the doctors, nurses, and administrators of an underfunded Los Angeles County hospital.

In both Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, Jason Katims has proven adept at turning out well-crafted characters, naturalistic dialogue, and genuine emotion, and he doesn’t disappoint here, transforming a medical drama about young doctors into something that manages to be important without being self-important. At times gritty, at times sweet, County manages to paint a vivid and complex picture of what life is like for the patients and doctors at a budget-starved county hospital, and in true Katims fashion, there’s a strong undercurrent of well-realized sentiment throughout.

Elementary (CBS)

Cast: Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, Aidan Quinn
Writer/Executive Producer: Robert Doherty (Headcases)
Director/Executive Producer: Michael Cuesta (Homeland, Dexter, Six Feet Under)

Logline: Based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries, this modern-day update is set in New York City and revolves around a former Scotland Yard consultant who now solves crimes for the NYPD, aided by his sidekick, Joan Watson, a personal recovery assistant and former surgeon.

I know, I know: There’s already a fantastic and stylish modern-day Sherlock Holmes update in BBC/PBS’ sensational Sherlock, and I was predisposed to disliking CBS’ take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting sleuth because of my love for the Steven Moffat/Mark Gatiss series. However, given that Holmes is the most adapted character in all of literature, there’s room in the universe for two visions of a present-day Holmes (Miller), here presented as a recovering addict and Manhattan transplant who is forced to work alongside a female Watson (Liu), his “sober companion.” There’s dexterity to the writing and to the chemistry between Holmes and Watson, one that doesn’t involve tension of the sexual kind. Instead, these two flawed individuals must put their personal failures behind them and attempt to work together, bringing their own set of skills to some baffling cases. Fun and fast-paced, I’m curious to see what CBS does with this.

Last Resort (ABC)

Cast: Andre Braugher, Scott Speedman, Dichen Lachman, Autumn Reeser, Jessy Schram, Daisy Betts, Camille de Pazzis, Daniel Lissing, Sahr Ngaujah, Jessica Camacho
Writers/Executive Producers: Shawn Ryan (The Shield, The Unit), Karl Gajdusek (Dead Like Me)
Director: Martin Campbell (Casino Royale)

Logline: When faced with an order to deploy their nuclear missiles, the crew of a U.S. military submarine goes renegade and takes over a NATO listening post, declaring the island a sovereign nation.

Thanks to some social media outreach by creator Shawn Ryan during the filming of the pilot, there’s already an awareness of this political/military project, which ponders the implications of a government conspiracy, nuclear warheads, and a submarine crew who are willing to go rogue rather than destroy several cities in Pakistan after receiving a cryptic order over a less secure military line. While the first episode is largely concerned with set-up (particularly when it comes to the island of Sainte Marina), this thought-provoking and action-packed pilot explores issues of sovereignty, the chain of command, loyalty, and isolationism, as the ragtag crew must work together—along with local inhabitants and NATO officers—to build a new society, even as they’ve become enemies of the United States. While this may be a hard sell, should Last Resort go to series, it will be a strong platform for Ryan, who honed his skills writing about rogue cops and military officers.

Midnight Sun (NBC)

Cast: Julia Stiles, Michael Raymond-James, Emma Bell, Alexia Fast, David Harbour, Lucien Laviscount, Conor O’Farrell, Daniella Pineda, Keenan Tracey, Lucia Walters, Titus Welliver, Oz Zehavi
Writer/Executive Producer: Lisa Zwerling (Awake, FlashForward
Director: Brad Anderson (Fringe, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire)

Logline: Based on an Israeli series, when the residents of a remote Alaskan commune—or potentially a dangerous cult—vanish without a trace, an FBI agent travels up north to conduct an investigation, and uncovers a vast conspiracy and a looming mystery.

While every season brings numerous attempts to reclaim the lightning-in-a-bottle that was ABC’s Lost, few contenders ever live up to the challenge. This year, Midnight Sun might have the best shot at coming close, as its remote Alaska setting separates it from the slew of formulaic supernatural/science-fiction would-be heirs apparent; here, the setting is put to fantastic use, forcing Stiles’ FBI Agent Leah Kafka and the audience out of their element, denying the possibility of sleep when there are so few hours of darkness a night. (It also has an added benefit for production: few night shoots!)  Add to it a compelling mystery, suspects aplenty, and a cult as well as a sharply menacing villain in Bennett Maxwell (Titus Welliver from Lost) and you have the makings of an intriguing drama, one that blends psychological thriller, murder mystery, and conspiracy. Whether this will disintegrate into incoherence like FlashForward or sustain itself for several seasons remains to be seen, but don’t count this one out just yet.

Mockingbird Lane, a.k.a. The Munsters (NBC)

Cast: Charity Wakefield, Eddie Izzard
Writer/Executive Producer: Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Heroes)
Director/Executive Producer: Bryan Singer (House, X2, The Usual Suspects)

Logline: Based on The Munsters. After 10-year-old Eddie has a werewolf incident with his Boy Scout troupe, the Munsters move to a new town in order to start over, but their struggles—including being supernatural creatures, except for Marilyn—have a habit of following them.

This reboot of The Munsters could have easily gone off a cliff, but in the hands of Fuller, it’s far closer to the witty repartee and rapid-fire banter of Pushing Daisies than a parody of the source material. Fuller utilizes the heightened reality of their monstrous conditions to explore the emotional implications of their identities: what does it mean that Herman is constructed out of various corpses and that his heart is bursting from his chest? How is Eddie’s journey of discovery—that he’s a werewolf with a werewolf’s needs—different from that of puberty? If Grandpa hungers for blood, what do his appetites say about him? There’s an easy affability about the script and characters and a slightly satirical bend to the “horror” here, but these Munsters are lovable and engaging, even when they’re being monsters.

The Selection (The CW)

Cast: Aimee Teegarden, Ethan Peck, Martin Donovan, Celia Kate Massignham, William Moseley, Peta Sergeant, Sean Patrick Thomas, Leonor Varela, Andrew Elvis Miller
Writer/Executive Producer: Sarah Fain (The Shield, Angel, The Vampire Diaries)
Director: Mark Piznarski (Gossip Girl, Veronica Mars)

Logline: Based on the upcoming novels by Kiera Cass. Set 300 years in the future, a war-torn country’s lottery system forces 35 young women, from various castes, to compete in a tournament to marry the royal prince and ascend to the rank of queen.

The comparisons to The Hunger Games are apt here, but The Selection’s battles are less about physical death matches and more about the cutthroat competition among the girls for the prince’s attention, as they scheme and plot their way into his affections and eliminate their rivals for a multitude of reasons. For low-caste America Singer (Teegarden), surprisingly chosen in the lottery, it’s an opportunity to save her family from financial ruin, raising the chances of their survival. A “Five” in the rigid caste system of Illeá—a super-nation that has emerged from the ashes of North, Central, and South America—America is at a disadvantage against her higher-born competitors, but her strength, compassion, and determination may give her an edge. Meanwhile, rebel forces seek to destabilize the monarchy and may have already infiltrated the palace. (It’s not all about the romance fantasy here.) With all of its various threads assembled, the makings of a compelling fantasy that deals equally with intrigue, romance, and political machinations emerge. While I may not be within the CW’s standard demo, I’m curious to see where plot goes after the momentum of this transporting pilot script.

Beautiful People (NBC)

Cast: David Conrad, Frances Conroy, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Tovah Feldshuh, Madisen Beaty, Cody Christian, Patrick Heusinger, Ernie Hudson, James Murray, Andrea Parker, Jud Tylor
Writer/Executive Producer: Michael McDonald (Cougar Town)
Director: Stephen Hopkins (House of Lies, Californication, 24)

Logline: In the extremely near future, androids are so sophisticated that they closely resemble their human makers, but some of these robotic servants are becoming self-aware, evolving to the point where they are capable of human emotion and connection.

A meditative and profound look at the things that define us and make us human… and, not surprisingly, this project has remained a bit of a dark horse, given its out-there subject matter (it’s set 10 minutes in the future!) and its contemplative tone. However, it’s a daring and imaginative way to explore the way that technology evolves and changes the world we live in, even as we change to adapt to it. While it’s perhaps better suited for a cable network, I found myself actively engaged with the amount of risk-taking on display here, but wonder if it’s broad enough for a mainstream audience, especially after the failure of the similarly themed Caprica.