The end of pilot season is always a little bittersweet. On the one hand, we’ll get to see the visions of the writers come to life, with a select few making it to series. On the other hand, we have to wait another nine months for a new crop of pilot scripts to be released to the world. But such is life: time — and pilot season — marches on.
Before I recap this season, I wanted to take a few moments to address the state of network television. Once upon a time, every showrunner wanted to be on network TV. You got more eyeballs on your show, got paid more money, and got a modicum of fame (particularly if you had a cool title card, like Stephen J. Cannell). The network showrunner job didn’t hold as much cache as, say, being a feature writer, but at least you got to enter the living room of a significant portion of the country on any given week.
Today, most of the great showrunners want to be on cable, a premium network, or a streaming service. The pay is still good, the episode order more manageable, and the likelihood of cancellation lower. Cable and streaming allows the writers to be true auteurs (for better or worse). And it allows them to get home to their families for dinner occasionally.
Consequently, the quality of network television has suffered. We’ve seen sub 1.0 Nielsen ratings, shows cancelled after a handful of episodes, and the existence of things like Work It. Many people believe we are in a second golden age of television, but virtually none of the acclaim is tied to network television. Year end “best of” lists may feature The Good Wife or Black-ish, but they’re generally dominated by non-network shows.
Network television, like time and pilot season, marches on though. It has to. It still takes in the most advertising money, it still attracts some of the biggest stars, and still has the potential to reach a large swath of the country and world.
And so I patiently wait for the network equivalent of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Veep or Silicon Valley. It generally doesn’t arrive though. This pilot season was good, not great, probably above average. We’ll have to see how the execution turns out, but I’m cautiously optimistic.
Before we get into the recap, let’s talk trends.
Prior to pilot season, the trends I thought would be big on the comedy side were remakes, family comedies, and vertical integration (buying shows from in-house studios). The latter two guesses emerged as true, largely dictated by economics. Parent companies want more profit, and it makes sense to go with the format that worked the best over the last couple pilot seasons.
Remakes were actually at a minimum. There’s still plenty of intellectual property to exploit, and we did see a number of high profile remakes on the drama side. However, comedy has steered clear of that trend. Once bitten, twice shy maybe? With the failed launches of the Coach and Uncle Buck reboots, maybe network is deferring to Netflix for re-dos.
Replacing remakes as a top priority is high concept. Shows containing time travel (Making History), live action-animated hybrids (Son of Zorn), and talking dogs (Downward Dog). High concept makes sense due to the difficulty in getting buzz for comedies and to piggyback off the success of Last Man on Earth. My issue with high concept shows though is they often draw viewers for the pilot, but then leak them after the novelty wears off. You really need a show like Wilfred, that leverages the unique concept to say something both funny and occasionally deep.
Without further ado, our network comedy pilot recap…
A pretty underwhelming comedy pilot season at the alphabet. That’s going to be tough on the incoming president at the network. That being said, she has some very strong returning shows and not a lot of room on the schedule, so a lackluster comedy pilot season is not a killer.
Amongst the likely pick-ups, I just don’t see any breakthroughs, viewer-wise. The Fluffy Shop might be able to slot in on a Friday and Dream Team might get some sampling because of Justin Long, but where’s the next Modern Family? I think the network would settle for another The Goldbergs at this point.
And on the high concept side, will the possible shows have legs? Downward Dog cuts a nice promo, I’m sure, but does it work as a series? Does Happy Endings’ ultimate cancellation mean there’s not going to be an audience for something like Toast? If I’m being honest, I know it’s incredibly expensive, but ABC needs to keep renewing Modern Family for a while (even if it is Fox owned).
Unlike ABC, CBS does need to find a few hits immediately. They have holes in the schedule. Their reliance on A-list stars is usually a proven route to go. So can Matt LeBlanc, Joel McHale and Kevin James fill the hole left by Melissa McCarthy? Will one of the star driven vehicles be a better fit for Big Bang Theory than Life in Pieces?
I think their pick-ups, regardless of who they choose, will do OK. Once again, no real breakouts, with the possible exception of the Kevin James show. Why? The Matt LeBlanc starrer is kinda bland and the Joel McHale show is not the greatest premise. But these are only pilots and CBS audiences are pretty patient. I think they’re in good shape.
It’s always a little sad to see NBC so far from its Must See TV comedy roots. I broke with tradition and picked a bunch of pilots that I thought had a lesser shot of getting picked up, but that I liked more. It’s a wide open field at NBC though. It’s also a pretty wide open schedule.
It will be brutally difficult for NBC to start over building a comedy brand. I’m not sure I see the foundation laid with this pilot slate. They needed an Office-like water cooler show, and I’m not sure there’s one there to pick up. Maybe Good Place, the straight-to-series I haven’t read, will fit that bill. But as I’ve said each year for the last three years… I’m worried for NBC.
The CW is simply not a network that hosts “comedies” in the traditional sense; the half-hour is effectively dead at CW, which is why we’re not providing a breakdown of their 2016 pilots in the same way we’ve been doing for the rest of the networks. That said, a lack of sitcoms doesn’t mean that The CW is without comedy. The current development period may continue the network’s trend of picking up an hour-long dramedy that rests outside of its ‘Berlanti-brand’ with the dramedy No Tomorrow, but generally speaking, CW is focusing on its dramas.
Fox stayed true to its young-skewing roots this year. I think they’re in pretty good shape. They’re going after an audience that is slowly abandoning TV, but the quality of their pilots seems solid. I’ll be interested to see how Son of Zorn, Making History and Winning Ugly turn out. Those are somewhat big swings, concept-wise, but sometimes you have to do that in this era of 500 channels.
They have plenty of time available on their schedule. They’ve also proven through their animation block an ability to meet audiences’ expectations. If they can execute on some of these pilots, they’ll be in good shape. Now it’s just time for execution.
Andrew Woodberry | Contributor