In tough times, pilots go broad

New shows follow familiar trends

The networks are tapping the weak economy to conjure their own ratings stimulus.

Several of next season’s series hopefuls revolve around characters who have been hit by the recession — while several more take on the nation’s widening gap between haves and have nots.

That’s just one of several trends emerging from this year’s surprisingly hefty crop of pilot orders.

Overall, webheads are looking for the big, the broad and the familiar. That means tearing out a few pages from past playbooks: the return of TV stars like Kelsey Grammer and the dusting off of well-known titles like “Melrose Place,” for starters.

Network execs also seem to have taken several cues from this past TV season’s hits and misses. The success of CBS’ “The Mentalist” has once again proven that viewers like their hours to be self-contained, with a mystery solved by the end of the show.

And the continued success of the Eye’s “Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men” has finally convinced the nets to once again tackle broad, four-camera laffers. The nets are also rushing to fill the family sitcom void.

From a business standpoint, ABC and CBS haven’t shied away from greenlighting as many pilots as they always do — perhaps balancing those costs with the need to pick TV’s next hit from as big a pool as possible.

The pendulum also has swung back toward more inhouse productions; all five nets gave the lion’s share of their orders to sibling studios.

Among the creative trends this pilot season:

  • It’s the economy, stupid programmers.

Grammer is behind the ABC laffer “Pryors.” Inspired by the current economic headlines, the “Frasier” alum stars as a Wall Street exec who winds up downsized — and is forced to reconnect with his family as a result.

Also at ABC, viewers hit by economic woes may be able to relate to the comedy “Canned,” which centers on a group of pals who all get fired on the same day.

Other projects that center more on common folk include Fox’s “Two Dollar Beer,” about a bunch of blue collar guys in Detroit, as well as “Walorsky,” about a mall cop in Buffalo.

Alphabet’s “Empire State” pits two families — blue collar ironworkers vs. real estate tycoons — in a modern-day “Romeo & Juliet”-style story in Manhattan. Similarly, CBS’ “Confessions of a Contractor,” based on the book of the same name by Richard Murphy, looks at L.A.’s wealthy class through the eyes of a blue-collar contractor.

  • Book ’em, primetime.

Besides “Confessions of a Contractor,” literary adaptations include ABC’s “Funny in Farsi,” a comedy based on the Firoozeh Dumas’ memoirs about growing up as an Iranian immigrant in 1970s Southern California.

The book series “Vampire Diaries,” from the same company behind the “Gossip Girl” novels, is now being turned into a CW pilot. And the sci-fi book “Flash Forward” is among ABC’s drama hopefuls.

And of course, ABC has “Eastwick” — a version of John Updike’s “The Witches of Eastwick,” which was also turned into a 1980s theatrical.

  • Old is new.

“Eastwick” isn’t the only ’80s flashback at the nets. ABC’s reworking the old miniseries “V,” while NBC is adapting the 1989 theatrical “Parenthood.”

Also, with the successful remake of “90210” on CW, that netlet is now emboldened to try its hand at reviving “Melrose Place.” And Fox is hoping to translate the BBC hit “Absolutely Fabulous” into a U.S. version, “AbFab.”

  • D.C. gets its closeup.

Scribes and producers this year clearly had Washington on the brain — perhaps because of the intense presidential campaign and interest in the election of Barack Obama.

ABC, for example, has “Inside the Box,” set inside a Washington, D.C., network news bureau, as well as “See Cate Run,” about a young attorney destined to one day run for the presidency.

CBS is prepping “House Rules,” about a freshman congresswoman, and “Washington Field,” centering on the National Capital Response Squad — elite experts who respond around the world to events that concern U.S. interests.

Fox’s laffer “The Station” revolves around a CIA office in a small Central American country. And even CW is getting into the Washington trend, as “The Body Politic” focuses on a young woman who takes a job inside a senator’s office. 

  • The “ER” void is clamoring to be filled.

With NBC closing down “ER” after 15 seasons, several projects are stepping up to potentially fill the void.

Projects range from nurses (NBC’s “Mercy”) to doctors (CBS’ “Eastmans,” “Three Rivers”), as well as trauma units (CBS’ “Miami Trauma,” NBC’s “Trauma”) and even a schizophrenic brain surgeon (Fox’s untitled Ian Biederman drama).

  • Familiarity breeds content.

Beyond Grammer, TV vets back for another round include “Friends” alum Courteney Cox-Arquette, who stars in “Cougar Town” as a newly single 40-year-old back on the dating scene.

Other stars making a return include Patricia Heaton (“The Middle”), Lauren Graham (“Let It Go”) and Kristen Chenoweth (“Legally Mad”).

  • Meat and potatoes dominate the menu.

Last year’s buzz words — “blue sky,” “fantasy” — have been replaced by more grounded ideas. Out are the fanciful concepts of shows like “Life on Mars,” “Eli Stone,” “Crusoe” or “My Own Worst Enemy,” replaced by more traditional cop, medical and lawyer franchises.

Some of those concepts come with a twist, but are still franchises at their core.

On the comedy side, that also means fewer high-concept ideas and more shows that center on women looking for love (call it the “Sex and the City”/”He’s Just Not That Into You” effect) or thirtysomething guys torn between adulthood and slackerdom (call it the Judd Apatow effect).

2009-10 network pilot listings:

Fox TV pilots: 2009-10

Pilot Watch: CW

Pilot Watch: CBS

Pilot Watch: NBC

Pilot Watch: ABC

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