2011 TV Pilot Reviews

A look at some of the pilot scripts for US TV SF&F shows that got the green light this year

Who says genre on TV is dead? Well, the pundits and the critics and even the network execs hem and haw that anything with seasonal arcs are too serialised for modern broadcast TV and audiences won’t commit to weekly viewing. Yet despite the naysaying, the major US broadcast networks have again picked up some ambitiously sci-fi centric shows that have us excited about what’s to come this fall.

We’ve watched Alcatraz and read the pilot scripts for several of the others so we can let you know what looks like it will be worth your while watching come September.

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Alcatraz

Network: Fox
Main showrunner: Elizabeth Sarnoff ( Lost )
Main stars: Sam Neill, Sarah Jones, Jorge Garcia

Script review/analysis: We can’t give an official review because the episode may change before its broadcast this fall, but we can say there’s a lot to like in the Alcatraz pilot. First there are strong performances from the always enigmatic Neill, the affable Garcia and newcomer Jones. The core conceit of the show – Alcatraz inmates long-thought transferred off the Rock and long deceased are showing up again in the present day – is compelling. It adds a organic retro element that makes the flash-back device so loved by Bad Robot shows feel fresh and useful. Plus there’s a mythology that isn’t nearly as inscrutable as Lost or even Fringe . We’re looking forward to more.
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Awake

Network: NBC
Main showrunner: Kyle Killen ( Lone Star )
Main stars: Jason Isaacs, BD Wong, Laura Allen

Script review/analysis: Already dubbed “that Inception show,” Awake is similar to the Nolan film in that the main characters both suffer from a debilitating loss and hover in a dream state between realities. However, Awake doesn’t feature dream architects, kicks, totems or grandiose structures to wander through. The environment is just the everyday life of Detective Mark Britten. A long-time cop, he survived a terrible car crash with his family, but in one reality only his wife survived and in the other reality only his son survived. Post accident, both realities feel incredibly real to Mark but only one can be the truth…or can it?

The incredibly well-written and constructed pilot finds a bereaved Mark attending required therapy with a separate therapist in each reality. His therapists are equally perplexed and fascinated by what Mark has constructed so thoroughly in his sleep, and concur that it must be an elaborate coping mechanism to deal with having lost such a pivotal person in his life. As Mark works two separate but intertwined cases (with different partners), he talks with his therapists and tries to establish if one reality is truly dominant over the other. All the while, he’s also tip-toeing around his fragile relationships with his also grieving son and wife. Whew! Confused yet?

Surprisingly, the script keeps each reality very clear and the detail-blurring serves to add mystery for Mark and the audience. It’s gripping stuff, but the biggest question is how long can this device sustain in series form? Will both worlds deteriorate or stay equally strong? And then if so, that means Mark remains a mental case infinitum. How can that sustain as well? Right now, it’s a conundrum worth exploring.
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Grimm


Network: NBC
Main showrunners: David Greenwalt ( Angel ) & Jim Kouf ( Cutter )
Main stars: David Giuntoli, Silas Weir Mitchell

Script review/analysis: Another fairy-tale inspired series (there’s also Once Upon A Time coming this year, which we’ve seen but only the understanding we don’t review it – bah!), Grimm is a procedural wrapped in fantasy. Portland Detective Nick Burkhardt is happily engaged and good at his job, but something weird is happening to him. As he passes seemingly average people like a pretty woman, Nick instead sees an old hag. Or the perp being led into jail has an owl’s face. The snippets of bizarre throw him, but it only gets worse when his dying aunt Marie – who raised him after his parents died – comes for an unplanned visit.

On a walk together, she tells him that there’s a lot more to his history than he’s ever been told and that she knows he is seeing odd things. Before she can finish, the two are attacked by a troll-like creature. Sickly aunt Marie suddenly turns into an ass-kicker, but Nick ends up killing the troll with a few rounds from his gun. However what’s lying in the street isn’t a creature but a nerdy looking guy.

In the hospital, Marie tells him to look inside her Airstream camper for the answers and so Nick comes to learn that he comes from a long-line of magical protectors called Grimms. They see what average people can’t – the Blutbads (or Big Bad Wolves), trolls, witches and more wrapped in magic and human guise living amongst us. Some are really bad – their natures manifesting in murders, rapes, and child abductions. Others aren’t so bad, like reformed Blutbad Eddy Munroe (who advises Nick on more details about his Grimm status) as they actively fight against their natures to live peacefully. The family job will pass to Nick and he’s got to muddle through only knowing the barest facts about his imposed destiny.

It’s not surprising that there are certainly shades of Buffy and Angel in Nick’s supernatural duties, as showrunner Greenwalt worked on both shows. There’s certainly more of a cop show in the DNA of this series than either of those show, which makes this more accessible to mainstream viewers. There’s an interesting tone and vibe that allows for the fairy tales to go back to their dark roots with the violent crimes that Nick and his human partners have to investigate, but the execution of the creatures via VFX will determine how creepy or cheesy this show will be. The mythology arc is interesting, if not particularly fresh, but characters like Eddy show there could be a lot of potential outside of the case-of-the-week aspects.

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The Secret Circle

Network: The CW
Main showrunners: Andrew Miller, Kevin Williamson ( The Vampire Diaries )
Main stars: Britt Robertson, Ashley Crow, Natasha Henstridge

Script review/analysis: The Secret Circle is one of those shows that feels like it was cynically crafted to appeal to the female-skewing CW demo who love Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries . It actually reads like a mash-up of the two, with equal parts bitchy high school clique drama and secret coven mythology.

Cassie Blake is the focal point of the story, a seemingly (always seemingly, right?) average 16-year-old who loses her single mom in a tragic “accidental” house fire. Funny thing is that Cassie wasn’t home for the fire and didn’t see a weird guy standing outside the home spilling water and lighting matches diabolically in concert with what was going on inside with her trapped mom.

Fast-forward a month later and a sad Cassie relocates to New Salem, Maine to live with her caring grandmother, Jane Blake. She’s got to start a new high school with prototypical mean girls, sweet girls that are true friend material and lab specimen perfect hunks appraising her around every corner. Of course, Cassie’s true origins are revealed when she finds a book in her mom’s childhood bedroom – a spell book – that lists an old secret coven with the participating member’s family surnames including Blake and many of her new schoolmates. She starts poking around and is told that yes, the coven continues with the same descendents now and Cassie can be the seventh member if she’s quiet and discreet. Uncertain and on the fence, it takes the man who killed her mom coming to town to push her to complete and join the secret circle.

While Secret Circle screams teen show with all its requisite pop culture speak, sex, drugs and narcissism, Williamson did transform the rocky Vampire Diaries pilot into an addictive guilty pleasure so he might be able to do the same here. Witch mythology is hot right now and it’s certainly fresher than zombies or vampires, but we’d like to see a lot more maturity in the writing before we sign on.
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Touch

Network: Fox
Main showrunner: Tim Kring ( Heroes )
Main star: Kiefer Sutherland

Script review/analysis: Picked up as a mid-season series (likely to fill the old 24 time slot in January), and given the greenlight on the strength of the script alone (or maybe just the fact Kiefer Sutherland has committed to it), Touch is most definitely the work of Heroes creator Tim Kring. Initially the story stems from the insular world of 10-year-old Jake Bohm, who has acute autism diagnosed as Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, but then it mutates into something else, connecting seemingly disparate characters across the globe via a lost cell phone. With Jake’s initial narration about mathematical patterns and chaos we come to learn that connection is inevitable and while he’s obviously brilliant with numbers, outside of his internal monologue, he can’t vocalise any of his wisdom to the people around him. Lost inside his drawings, notebooks filled with numbers and an obsession with cell phones, Jake seems to be isolated. But as the hour unfolds Jake’s immense, and misunderstood, powers set up the show’s major themes of destiny much like Heroes did, just without the superhero construct.

As of yet, Kiefer Sutherland is the only person cast, playing Martin Bohm, Jake’s overwhelmed father. Widowed on 9/11 when his wife died in the World Trade Center bombings, Martin is trying to raise and communicate with his enigmatic son in any way possible but failing at every turn. In the pilot, circumstances come to a head when Jake evades his father to climb a cell tower (again), putting Martin’s custody in jeopardy with Child Protective Services. Clea Hopkins, their new case worker, is sympathetic and along with Martin, also comes to realise that Jake’s numeric obsessions are extremely special and possibly precognitive. All the while, the global strangers are connecting through that lost phone bringing their personal destinies together… and they all orient around Jake’s numbers.

Aside from Heroes , there are shades of Knowing and Lost inherent too considering Jake’s obsession with the Fibonacci sequence and some electro-magnetism theories. Overall, it reads melodramatic and dark, but the boy at the center is an interesting linchpin. Let’s hope they keep the story focused and grounded rather than epic so it doesn’t go off the rails.