Improved economy, new network chiefs lead to high-profile fare

On the major networks’ 2011 pilot menu, there are a slew of projects with supernatural themes, and there’s an abundance of police and detective dramas. There are even a few supernatural cop shows, notably NBC’s “17th Precinct” from “Battlestar Galactica” boss Ron Moore.

The pilot market is robust this year, thanks to the rebound in the economy and demand for advertising, which makes the networks and studios more confident about betting big on ambitious projects. And it comes following a current season that has seen no breakout hits amid a mostly vanilla crop of skeins.

There’s a big added stimulus from the fact that two of the Big Four networks have newly appointed entertainment toppers — ABC’s Paul Lee and NBC’s Bob Greenblatt — who have money to spend and the mandate to overhaul their primetime slates.

Greenblatt, who formally started his gig as chairman of NBC Entertainment late last month as the Comcast-NBC Universal takeover was completed, has the tough assignment of parachuting in at about the halfway point of the development cycle, after the scripts have been completed but before the bulk of pilot orders are handed out.

With the Peacock’s new owners vowing to invest big to turn NBC around, Greenblatt is empowered to take ambitious shots on a range of material, particularly on the drama front. Picks so far include David E. Kelley’s new spin on “Wonder Woman,” a moody Western set in the era of Reconstruction, a return to the swinging, early 1960s Playboy Club scene in Chicago and a backstage drama revolving around the development of a Broadway tuner.

The latter project, “Smash,” (first developed at Showtime during Greenblatt’s tenure there as entertainment topper) has perhaps the starriest pedigree of any pilot this year: It stems from an idea of Steven Spielberg’s that has drawn Craig Zadan and Neil Meron as exec producers, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman as tunesmiths, top legit helmer Michael Mayer to direct the pilot and Debra Messing for a lead role.

TV bizzers say the focus on high-concept, high-star wattage and fantasy fare comes from the increasing need for the nets to sell their shows to auds in much the same way that studios market tentpole features. The Big Four have the advantage and the burden of playing to a mass audience. In an increasingly fragmented viewing landscape, that means new shows need to be “noisy” with clear marketing hooks to grab attention — like ABC’s reboot of “Charlie’s Angels.”

“You want to be able to see the poster for the show when you pitch it,” says Suzanne Patmore-Gibbs, ABC’s exec veep for scripted creative. “It’s definitely getting harder and harder to distinguish ourselves in the clutter.”

Among ABC’s big bets this year is the period drama “Pan Am,” a sexy early-1960s period soap revolving around the pilots and flight attendants of what was once the undisputed king of the air for U.S. travelers. “Mad Men” opened the door for period dramas to generate pop culture buzz, Patmore-Gibbs says, but she notes that ABC’s challenge is to ensure “Pan Am” plays well to a larger and hopefully slightly younger crowd than AMC’s cable sensation.

Like NBC with oater “Reconstruction,” ABC is also going back to the 19th century with “Poe.” The drama pilot follows famed author Edgar Allan Poe as he investigates “dark mysteries” in 1840s Boston.

Other prominent supernatural-fantasy vehicles in the mix this year are Fox’s “Locke and Key,” from producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, about a spooky New England mansion that houses a fearsome creature; NBC’s “Grimm,” revolving around a man tasked with fighting off characters from Grimm’s fairytales; CBS’ untitled project from screenwriter Susannah Grant about a doctor whose wife speaks to him from beyond the grave; and ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” from “Lost” alums Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, about a woman in a small town where fairytales may help her unlock the mystery of her life.

CW, meanwhile, is joining the zombie brigade with “Awakening,” in which two sisters find themselves on opposite sides of a zombie uprising.

Among other trends spotted this season:

Return of the heavy hitters: “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry and “Heroes” mastermind Tim Kring are fielding their first new scripts in years. Cherry has a music-fueled sudser, “Hallelujah,” for ABC set in a Southern town where the arrival of a mysterious stranger shakes up the locals. Kring is shepherding “Touch,” a drama for Fox about an autistic boy with unique abilities. And “Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes has penned ABC legal ensembler “In Crisis.”

Overachievers: “Sex and the City’s” Michael Patrick King is entering the fray with two projects, an hourlong for NBC (“A Mann’s World”) about a hairdresser trying to stay hip in a young person’s biz, and a comedy for CBS (“Two Broke Girls”) about young income-challenged femmes in Gotham. The CBS project was co-written with Whitney Cummings, who also has a second untitled laffer that she wrote and will star in for NBC. Peter Tolan, the versatile veteran scribe, has single-camera laffers at Fox (“Council of Dads”) and NBC (“Brave New World”). And “Friends” alums Ted Reich and Andrew Cohen boosted their odds of getting an ABC comedy picked up by fielding two for the Alphabet, “Smothered” and “Work It.”

Plucky girls: A host of laffer pilots revolve around strong-willed women in all manner of circumstances. Among the more provocative-sounding projects: ABC’s “Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apt. 23,” revolving around an earnest girl from the Heartland who moves to Gotham and becomes roommates with an amoral party girl. Fox’s “Chicks and Dicks” has a reverse “Three’s Company” vibe, focusing on a girl (Zooey Deschanel is in talks for the role) who moves in with three male roommates after a breakup.

Men struggling to be manly: A good number of laffers (ABC’s “The Last Day of Man” and “Man Up,” NBC’s “My Life as an Experiment” and CBS’ untitled Rob Schneider project) turn on men grappling with domestic bliss, or the lack thereof.

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