Forget cops, doctors, and lawyers and their dreary modern-day jobs. This fall, TV could be ruled by superheroes, wizards, and Playboy Bunnies. The broadcast networks’ pilot orders are nearly finished, and not since a certain island-based ABC hit have the Big Four developed so many serialized, sci-fi, and straight-up wild projects.
Where to start? There are plenty of retro wonder women, between NBC’s Playboy (set in the 1960s, about the lives of Hef’s Bunnies), ABC’s Charlie’s Angels (the 1970s classic set in modern times, starring Minka Kelly, Annie Ilonzeh, and Rachael Taylor), and Pan Am (a sexy soap about 1960s flight attendants and pilots). And of course there’s Wonder Woman herself, in David E. Kelley‘s reboot at NBC.
Broadcasters rarely launch period dramas nowadays — critics may love Mad Men, but it’s not a ratings blockbuster. (Remember the short-lived Swingtown?) This year, though, Pan Am and Playboy aren’t the only pilots set in the past: NBC’s The Crossing is a Western that takes place in the aftermath of the Civil War, and ABC’s Poe is — well, the 1840s setting is actually the least unusual thing about this show, which finds Edgar Allan Poe solving crimes. Never mind that the horror author wasn’t a detective and was hardly leading-man material. Quoth the Raven: ”WTF?”
Some of the pilots don’t even take place in the real world at all. Lost exec producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz have the ABC project Once Upon a Time, about a woman who is drawn into a town where magic may be real. And NBC has two titles with cops solving crimes in magical realms — Whedonverse writers Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt‘s Grimm (inspired by Grimm’s fairy tales), and Battlestar Galactica guru Ron Moore‘s 17th Precinct (dubbed ”Harry Potter for grown-ups”).
If all that doesn’t intrigue you, Fox has J.J. Abrams going back to an island — Alcatraz, about the mysterious goings-on at the infamous prison, starring Lost alum Jorge Garcia. It’s one of two Abrams-produced pilots that have been greenlit: The other is CBS’ Person of Interest, from The Dark Knight writer Jonah Nolan (Christopher’s brother), a show about an ex — CIA agent and a billionaire who team up to prevent crimes. Abrams fans would probably also like ABC’s The River, from Paranormal Activity‘s Oren Peli, a ”cinema vérité”-style project about the search for an adventurer who goes missing in the Amazon.
The major question is why networks are suddenly embracing so many high-concept ideas in the first place. Some insiders point to the success of Fox’s Glee, as well as AMC’s The Walking Dead. Fox Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly credits Hollywood writers for this pilot season’s genre push. ”Even character-based writers were coming in with high-concept ideas,” he says. ”Writers would pitch stories about a dog with laser-beam eyes; everything had a ghost in it.” That said, broadcast needs big hits, he adds. ”We always look to find someone’s favorite show, and a high concept or big conceit done well is one way to break out from the pack.”
Of course, a pilot order is no guarantee that the show will become a series, and procedural king CBS is once again mostly sticking to traditional ideas. Still, one of that network’s titles, Ringer, about a woman on the run from the Mob, stars Sarah Michelle Gellar — and that’s all the geek street cred any show needs.