I did not go to San Diego Comic-Con this year. This gave me time to watch 28 network pilots. I am here to share.
Bear in mind that what follow are not necessarily good shows, but merely what Herc estimates are the 10 best of the 28 he got to see:
1. Studio 60
What’s it about? A pair of up-and-coming filmmakers are suddenly recruited to become showrunners at their alma mater - a show very much like “Saturday Night Live” - when the old showrunner has an network-induced on-air meltdown.
When’s it air? 10 p.m. Mondays on NBC, opposite “CSI: Miami” and “What About Brian.”
Who’s responsible? Writer Aaron Sorkin, who created “A Few Good Men,” “The American President,” “Sports Night” and “The West Wing.”
Who’s in it? Matthew Perry (“Friends”), Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”), Amanda Peet (“Syriana”), Steven Weber (“Wings”), Sarah Paulson (“Deadwood”), Nathan Corddry (“The Daily Show”), D.L. Hughley (“The Hughleys”) and Tim Busfield (“thirtysomething”).
Why is stupid Herc so excited? “Studio 60” is not only destined to be my favorite new show, I’m pretty sure it will depose contenders like “Veronica Mars” and “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Venture Bros.” and “The Brotherhood” and “24” and “Lost” as my favorite current series of any vintage. The network exec played by Amanda Peet is another of Sorkin’s Bartlet-esque dream presidents; by the time the pilot’s over, you want to put Jordan McDeere in charge of every network, plus all the cable channels. Matthew Perry front and center in Aaron Sorkin marks the formal achievement of critical entertainment mass. Perry and Bradley Whitford are terrific together, funny and moving and completely endearing in their unapologetic hetero mutual man-love. I love that in this alternate universe, Hollywood’s historic Palladium was somehow expanded and converted into a West Coast Studio 8H. (Was the show re-titled, I wonder, because “Studio 60” fits on the Palladium’s sign better than “Studio 7”?) If the pilot stumbles, it’s in making the departing Lorne Michaels character (Judd Hirsch) a lot less funny than the real Lorne Michaels. But Hirsch’s Wes Mendel is pretty much gone for good after the first act, so not a huge issue. It’s a four-star pilot, and I frankly expect an even better series.
What’s it about? A superrich and well-insulated Manhattan family finds itself torn in all sorts of directions when its teen son (Leopold Caine!) is abducted by a murderous individual who really knows what the fuck he’s doing.
When’s it air? Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC, opposite CBS’ “CSI: New York” and ABC’s “The Nine.”
Who’s responsible? Writer Jason Smilovic, who masterminded “Karen Sisco,” ABC’s way-too-good-for-TV TV version of Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight.”
Who’s in it? Jeremy Sisto ("Six Feet Under"), Delroy Lindo ("Get Shorty"), Dana Delany ("China Beach"), Timothy Hutton ("Beautiful Girls"), Mykelti Williamson ("Boomtown"), Linus Roache ("Batman Begins"), Carmen Ejogo ("Lackawanna Blues"), Will Denton ("Palindromes") and Boris McGiver ("The Pink Panther"). And Mamet regular Ricky Jay!!!!
Why is stupid Herc so excited? It’s the best show nobody is talking about (possibly because people keep mixing it up with Fox’s super-similar - yet vastly inferior - “Vanished”?). You kinda know right away you’re in good hands the minute you notice the lack of pride world-weary Massive Private Bodyguard Virgil Hayes takes in correcting the elevator operator on a species of flora being transported. “We don’t discuss Virgil with guests,” Delany’s character reminds her preteen daughter (in French) as a “Times” writer lurks nearby. (If you’re a fan of Jack Bristow or Jack Bauer or Aaron Pierce, there’s an excellent chance you’re going to be way into Virgil Hayes.) And I’m not even sure Virgil survives the pilot. Jeremy Sisto (Brenda’s incestuous love interest on “Six Feet Under”) plays a character so badass he’s charged with cleaning up Virgil’s mess. He has a very kissable British partner who does not get kissed in the pilot. Delroy Lindo demonstrates all manner of heretofore unnoticed nuance as an FBI shark. Hutton kicks in some of the “Ordinary People” gravitas he pioneered more than a quarter century ago. Dana Delany is incredible, and today defines “milftastico.”
What’s it about? A small town in Kansas loses all communication – TV, radio, phones - with everything beyond its city limits. And a huge mushroom cloud appears over Denver.
When’s it air? 8 p.m. Wednesdays on CBS, opposite “Bones,” “America’s Next Top Model,” “Dancing With The Stars,” “30 Rock” and “20 Good Years.”
Who’s responsible? Stephen Chbosky (“Rent”) wrote the pilot. Jon Turteltaub (“National Treasure”) directed.
Who’s in it? Skeet Ulrich ("Miracles"), Gerald McRaney ("Deadwood"), Ashley Scott ("Birds of Prey"), Pamela Reed ("Proof of Life"), Kenneth Mitchell ("The Recruit"), Lennie James ("Sahara"), Sprague Grayden ("Six Feet Under"), Michael Gaston ("Prison Break") and Erik Knudsen ("Saw II").
Why is stupid Herc so excited? This, I believe, is the best scripted pilot CBS has taken to series since “Northern Exposure.” That’s one creepy mushroom cloud! And there’s an exceedingly eerie answering-machine message! Plus? A resident of Jericho is undergoing an nasty IRS audit when the greater ugliness begins. The power goes out. There’s a tiny child whose trachea is swelling shut. The Geiger counters don’t register radiation, but there are all these dead animals lying around. People start fighting over gasoline. The Ulrich character won’t tell anyone where he’s been or what he’s been up to the last few years. This pilot isn’t as good as “Lost’s,” not by a long shot, but it’s way way way better than the pilots for “Surface,” “Threshold,” “Night Stalker,” “Invasion,” “Supernatural” and every “X-Files” rip-off trying last season to emulate “Lost’s” precedent-shattering sci-fi success. The cast is tremendous.
What’s it about? An artist-addict discovers he’s clairvoyant. A cop discovers he can read minds. A cheerleader discovers an ability to heal her injuries. An office worker discovers he can freeze time. A stripper discovers she has a deadly mirror twin. A prisoner discovers he can teleport himself. A male nurse begins to think he can fly. A handsome Indian nerd is investigating. And all these newly superpowered beings seem to be connected to each other.
When’s it air? 9 p.m. Mondays, opposite ABC’s “The Bachelor,” Fox’s “Vanished,” The CW’s “Runaway” and CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” and “Old Christine.”
Who’s responsible? “Crossing Jordan” creator Tim Kring.
Who’s in it? Milo Ventimiglia ("Gilmore Girls"), Adrian Pasdar ("Judging Amy"), Hayden Panettiere ("Ally McBeal"), Ali Larter ("Final Destination"), Greg Grunberg ("Alias"), Noah Gray-Cabey ("My Wife & Kids"), Leonard Roberts ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), Santiago Cabrera ("Empire"), Tawny Cypress ("Third Watch"), and Masi Oka ("Scrubs").
Why is stupid Herc so excited? A lot of the pilot makes no sense to me. It’s loaded with bizarre coincidences. Most of the characters are underwritten, and some of them do things very differently than would most people dealing with the same circumstances. But the pilot at least plays more like “Unbreakable” than “Mutant X,” and there are questions raised that I remain keen to see answered. (There’s no way I’ll miss the second episode.) And it’s hard to get the pilot’s written prologue out of my head: “Although unaware of it now, these individuals will not only save the world, but change it forever.” The best news? Subsequent to the pilot shoot, the great Bryan Fuller (who created both “Dead Like Me” and “Wonderfalls” and wrote the pilot for “The Amazing Screw-On Head”) was brought aboard to help things along.
What’s it about? “The Fugitive” meets “Everwood” as an entire family is forced to go on the run and reinvent their identities after their lawyer dad is framed for murdering his hot, lonely colleague.
When’s it air? Monday nights on the CW, opposite NBC’s “Heroes,” ABC’s “The Bachelor,” Fox’s “Vanished,” and CBS’s “Two and a Half Men” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”
Who’s responsible? Writer Chad Hodge (“Tru Calling”). The pilot was directed by Mikael Salomon (“Rome”).
Who’s in it?Donnie Wahlberg (“Boomtown”), Leslie Hope (“24”), Dustin Milligan (“Final Destination 3”), Sarah Ramos (“American Dreams”), Nathan Gamble (“Babel”), Susan Floyd (“Random Hearts”) and Karen LeBlanc (“Kevin Hill”).
Why is stupid Herc so excited? It’s hard not to get sucked into The CW’s only new drama. The teen son is pissed because he had to ditch his hot blonde cheerleader girlfriend and has to share a room with his brother in some Iowa shithole. The wife is pissed because she suspects her husband either boned or wanted to bone the dead girl. The husband is pissed because the wife impulsively changes their cover story. The preteen son keeps forgetting elements of the that cover story. Don’t be dissuaded by the fact that Darren Star (“90210,” “Melrose Place,” “Central Park West,” “Grosse Pointe,” “The $treet,” “Miss Match”) is involved; he didn’t write or direct the pilot. “Runaway” is compelling. There is suspense. Leslie Hope, who played Jack Bauer’s wife during the first season of “24,” is one talented actress.
What’s it about? People who commit out-of-town armed robberies to supplement their incomes.
When’s it air? 10 p.m. Tuesday on CBS, opposite ABC’s “Boston Legal” and NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU.”
Who’s responsible? Writer-producer John Wells (“ER,” “The West Wing”).
Who’s in it? Ray Liotta (“Goodfellas”), Virginia Madsen (“Sideways”), Jonny Lee Miller ("Trainspotting"), Amy Smart ("Starsky & Hutch,” “The Butterfly Effect") Simon Baker ("The Guardian") and Franky G ("Saw II").
Why is stupid Herc so excited? There’s a cool scene with Simon Baker fucking with a pair of Hawaiian tough-guys. There’s a cool sequence with Baker hanging out in the apartment of a new sexual conquest. There’s a cool scene with Amy Smart tearing her own blouse open and tasering an old high-school friend. There’s a strange scene with Virginia Madsen and a pee-cup that could cause a few viewers to tune in for episode two. It’s another stupid attempt to do Tarantino TV without Tarantino, but one of the better I’ve seen.
7. The Knights of Prosperity
What’s it about? A bunch of New York half-wits form “The Knights of Prosperity,” dedicated to getting rich quick by plundering Mick Jagger’s opulent Manhattan apartment. (This one is better known as “Let’s Rob …”)
When’s it air? 9 p.m. Tuesday on ABC. Opposite The CW’s “Veronica Mars,” CBS’ “The Unit,” Fox’s “Standoff” and NBC’s “Law & Order: CI.”
Who’s responsible? “Ed” creators Rob Burnett & Jon Beckerman (“Late Show With David Letterman”).
Who’s in it? Donal Logue (“Grounded For Life”), Sofia Vergara (“Four Brothers”), Maz Jabrani (“The Interpreter”), Josh Grisetti (“The Namesake”), Lenny Venito (“The Sopranos”), Kevin Michael Richardson (“ER”) and Mick Jagger (“Freejack”).
Why is stupid Herc so excited? It’s a very silly show about profoundly stupid characters, but the Mick Jagger stuff is hilarious. Hopefully it will improve upon its pilot, just as Burnett and Beckerman’s last comedy, “Ed,” did.
8. Notes From The Underbelly
What’s it about? A thirtysomething couple gets pregnant on the first try.
When’s it air? 8:30 p.m. Thursdays on ABC. Opposite CBS’ “Survivor,” NBC’s “The Office,” The CW’s “Smallville” and Fox’s “Happy Hour.”
Who’s responsible? Writer Stacy Traub (“What I Like About You,” “Kitchen Confidential”). Barry Sonnenfeld (“The Tick”) directed the pilot.
Who’s in it? Jennifer Westfeldt (“Kissing Jessica Stein"), Peter Cambor (“The J2 Project”), Melanie Deanne Moore (“Happy Family"), Michael Weaver ("The Mullets"), and Rachael Harris (“Fat Actress”).
Why is stupid Herc so excited? It’s brainy, it moves quickly, it has highly likeable leads, it has a funny “Lost” gag. Jennifer Westfeldt is exceedingly loveable; America needs to see more of her. Netflix the lesbian romantic comedy “Kissing Jessica Stein” if you don’t know what I’m talking about. ABC really should have turned this into an hourlong.
9. 30 Rock
What’s it about? The showrunner of a live hit sketch series called “The Girlie Show” is forced by an NBC exec to add a deranged movie star (apparently modeled on Martin Lawrence) to her cast.
When’s it air? 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays on NBC. Opposite CBS’ “Jericho,” Fox’s “Bones,” ABC’s “Dancing With The Stars,” and the CW’s “America’s Next Top Model.”
Who’s responsible? Writer Tina Fey (“Mean Girls,” “Saturday Night Live”).
Who’s in it? Tina Fey (“Mean Girls,” “Saturday Night Live”), Alec Baldwin (“The Aviator,” “The Cooler”), Tracy Morgan (“Saturday Night Live,” “The Tracy Morgan Show”), Rachel Dratch (“Saturday Night Live,” “Mean Girls”), Scott Adsit (“Kicking and Screaming”) and Jack McBrayer (“Talladega Nights”).
Why is stupid Herc so excited? The pilot is kind of a disaster and makes not a ton of sense, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me laugh at junctures. So it sticks its head above the sitcom pack in this regard at least. Fey, now possessed of big American post-pregnancy breasts, continues to hold a vexing physical allure. The series is doomed as long as it follows the laughtrack-happy Lithgow/Tambor sitcom “20 Good Years,” which is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.
10. Men in Trees
What’s it about? A famous author and “relationship coach” learns, en route to a speaking engagement in remote Alaska, that her fiancÃ© is having an affair. Devastated, she decides to remain in this tiny snow-covered town – where the male-female ratio is 10 to 1 – to write a book about men.
When’s it air? 9 p.m. Fridays on ABC. Opposite CBS’ “Close To Home,” NBC’s “Las Vegas,” Fox’s “Duets,” and the CW’s “Smackdown.”
Who’s responsible? Writer Jenny Bicks (“Sex and the City,” “Leap of Faith,” “What A Girl Wants”). James Mangold (“Heavy,” “Cop Land,” “Identity,” “Walk The Line” directed the pilot.
Who’s in it? Anne Heche (“Ally McBeal”), James Tupper (“Corky Romano”), Sarah Strange (“Life As We Know It”), Emily Bergl (“Carrie 2: The Rage”), John Amos (“The West Wing”), Francoise Yip (“Blade Trinity”), Abraham Benrubi (“ER”), Claudette Mink (“Alfie”) and Derek Richardson (“Hostel”).
Why is stupid Herc so excited? There’s nothing here that wasn’t done a dozen times better on “Northern Exposure,” but the cast gets this enterprise over a lot of so-so scripting. Heche, particularly, is sexy and exhibits a lot of confidence and remains very watchable.
As it happens, Netflix is making my top two pilots – “Studio 60” and “Kidnapped” - available for rental well in advance of their late-September broadcasts. Look! A press release!
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NBC AND NETFLIX PARTNER TO OFFER SUBSCRIBERS ADVANCED SCREENING DVD OF NEW FALL DRAMAS 'STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP' AND 'KIDNAPPED'
-Promotion Launches Six Weeks Prior to Broadcast Premieres and Includes Preview Trailers of Fall Drama Lineup-
BURBANK - July 19, 2006 - In a first-of-its-kind promotion, NBC and Netflix, Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX), the world's largest online movie rental service, today announced they will offer Netflix's approximately five million subscribers an advanced look at the premiere episodes of NBC's anticipated new drama series "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and "Kidnapped." The shows will be made available in their entirety, six weeks before their respective broadcast premieres, on a special DVD created for Netflix that will also include preview trailers of the network's other new fall drama series. The announcement was made by John Miller, chief marketing officer for NBC Universal Television Group, and Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for Netflix.
"This unique joint effort will generate even more early buzz for some of our hottest new dramas by letting the Netflix user get an early preview," said Miller. "The promotion takes aim at the Netflix demographic-rich entertainment consumer who is looking for this kind of high-end television show, and then is eager to pass the word."
"Great TV is an increasingly important and popular component of the 60,000-title catalog Netflix offers its subscribers," said Sarandos. "Joining forces with NBC to launch two terrific new series differentiates our service in the area of unique and original content and provides NBC with an innovative platform to promote its fall lineup."
Beginning August 5, Netflix subscribers will have the opportunity to view "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and "Kidnapped" before anyone else. When added to their personal "queues" on Netflix.com, the DVD will be mailed first-class with postage-paid return via the United States Postal Service, Netflix's customary means of distribution. Netflix subscribers can add the shows to their "queues" now and the promotional offer will extend until September 17.
To drive awareness of the offer, NBC and Netflix will employ a range of promotional vehicles, including tagged network spots and integration into the annual 30-minute NBC "Fall Preview Show," which airs repeatedly on the NBC stations (and NBCU cable channels) for approximately six weeks prior to premiere week in September. In addition, the promotion will be featured in banner ads on the Netflix Web site and print ads inside the company's trademark red mailers. Netflix will also promote the special offer to relevant subscribers based on previous rentals and ratings of comparable content.
About "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" Emmy Award-winning executive producer-writer Aaron Sorkin (NBC's "The West Wing") and Emmy-Award winning executive producer-director Thomas Schlamme ("The West Wing") return to television with this crackling take on the drama behind the humor of producing a popular, late-night comedy sketch show, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." Sorkin lays bare the backstage politics, romances and delicate balance between creative talent, on-air personalities and network executives in an instant text-messaging world. Prominent are Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet, "Syriana"), a savvy new network entertainment chief who inherits a massive public relations disaster on the series and Matt Albie (Matthew Perry, "Friends") and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford, "The West Wing"), a brilliant creative team that she wants to resurrect the program. Also playing crucial roles are the sketch comedy series stars Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson, "Down With Love"), Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley, "The Hughleys") and Tom Jeter (Nathan Corddry, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"), their normally cool-headed director, Cal Shanley (Timothy Busfield, "thirtysomething") as well as supreme network honcho Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber, "Wings"). The series is a production of Warner Bros Television.
NBC's "Kidnapped" is a high-stakes serialized thriller in which the
teenage son of a wealthy Upper East Side family is kidnapped and everyone
is a suspect. The series focuses on the elaborate, triangulated game
between the kidnappers, FBI and law enforcement, and the private
negotiating team contracted by this "perhaps" not-so-picture-perfect family.
On a rainy New York morning, the idyllic existence of Conrad Cain
(Timothy Hutton, "Kinsey"), a self-made millionaire with a long list of
enemies, and his well-to-do wife Ellie (Dana Delany, "China Beach") is torn
apart when their 15-year-old son Leopold (Will Denton "Palindromes"), a
smart but quirky kid whose innocence makes him the perfect target, is
kidnapped on his way to school. The boy's bodyguard Virgil (Mykelti
Williamson, "Boomtown"), the boy's first line of defense even after the
kidnapping, is left to die. Desperate to find his son while keeping his
skeletons hidden, Mr. Cain enlists the services of Knapp (Jeremy Sisto,
"Six Feet Under" and "Thirteen"), a "professional" investigator who
works outside the law's strict rulebook to retrieve kidnapping victims and
guide families through the grueling process, and his able partner and
right hand Turner (Carmen Ejogo, "Lackawanna Blues"). Operating
opposite Knapp and his team are Special Agent Latimer King (Delroy Lindo, "The
Core"), an experienced FBI agent who postpones his retirement due to a
vested interest in this complicated case, and King's colleague and
antithesis Agent Andy Archer (Linus Roache, "Batman Begins"), who only
knows how to play by the rules. "Kidnapped" is produced by Sony Pictures
Television and 25C Productions. Jason Smilovic ("Karen Sisco"), David
Greenwalt ("Angel"), Michael Dinner ("Invasion"), Sarah Timberman and
Carl Beverly are executive producers.