Pilot watch: TV hones its edge

Nets take more risks with next crop

The mystery has returned to pilot season.

Spooky, fantasy-driven dramas are plentiful on the slate of broadcast network pilot orders this year, as are period pieces — including an oater set in the post-Civil War era (NBC’s “Reconstruction”) and a fanciful procedural featuring Edgar Allan Poe as a gumshoe in 1840s Boston (ABC’s “Poe”).

In comedy, there’s a big gender divide: a slew of vehicles about men yearning to embrace their manliness (ABC’s untitled Tim Allen starrer and “Man Up,” CBS’ “Home Game,” Fox’s “Family Album”) and plenty of plucky women trying to make their way in the world (NBC’s “Are You There Vodka?” and “Bent,” ABC’s “Apartment 23,” CBS’ “Two Broke Girls”) but not too much in the way of traditional nuclear-family laffers.

Behind the scenes, there’s a clear resurgence of half-hours in the multicamera format, which had been overshadowed in recent development seasons by single-camera projects.

Overall, biz insiders say there’s an optimism to pilot season this time around that was lacking the past two years amid the gloomy economic climate. This year, the networks are feeling more confident about their business, and that translates to an appetite for more ambitious and more creatively adventurous projects, especially after this season’s slate was criticized for being relatively bland.

“It just feels as if the networks are bullish about their business across the board,” said 20th Century Fox TV chairman Gary Newman. “They’re taking big bold shots with diverse projects. It’s a great sign of the health of our business.”

While the networks are often forced to take big swings — and probably no network will be pushing the limits more than NBC — execs know that, in the end, its more about the execution than the concept. Look no further than CBS, which sticks to solid meat-and-potato dramas that aren’t always the flashiest but often attract the most eyeballs.

At Fox, net is feeling confident with both the Steven Spielberg exec produced “Terra Nova” and “Alcatraz,” from J.J. Abrams. While “Terra Nova” has already been committed to series, Fox is hoping the “Alcatraz” pilot — about the mysterious reappearance of 1960s prisoners in the present time — isn’t “Undercovers,” the Abrams series about a pair of spies that failed to make it through its first season at NBC. Another high profile fantasy-mystery at Fox is “Locke and Key,” shepherded by “Fringe” creators/exec producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci.

“It’s important to have high concept things and to take swings, but the forefront thing in our minds is keeping these shows relevant and relatable,” said Terence Carter, Fox’s senior VP of drama development. “It’s about connecting to the audience.”

Carter added that while there is an increase in period pieces that are trying to establish a visual style similar to AMC’s “Mad Men,” that formula may not always work.

“Really, it’s a tough target to hit,” Carter explained, “and while ‘Mad Men’ is a fantastic show, it doesn’t get the audiences we need for broadcast TV. With ‘Alcatraz,’ we’re hoping there’s an inspired balance between the flashback scenes and the present-day action.”

With only two hours to program a night, Fox doesn’t need to undergo any type of major overhauls. Besides “Terra Nova,” the net will have the Simon Cowell-fueled “The X Factor” in the fall and, of course, “American Idol” in midseason. That’s not to say, however, the lineup couldn’t use a refreshening.

Both Carter and Marcus Wiley, Fox’s senior VP of comedy development, said they anticipate two or three pilots to earn series orders in each of their respective genres. Wiley has eight laffer pilots whose fate Fox entertainment topper Kevin Reilly will determine; he said the net is in a good place with “Raising Hope” having established itself as a promising frosh half-hour.

“This is the first time in a long time we’ve had a toe-hold in live-action comedy,” Wiley said.

The comedy pitches Wiley heard in recent months were similar in that they had heart as well as laughs, a formula showrunner Greg Garcia has engineered on the endearing “Raising Hope.”

“Generally, the half-hours for our network brand all have a built-in attitude, but this year the extra element was real emotional underpinnings,” he said.

As it rebuilds under the leadership of new entertainment topper Bob Greenblatt following the completion of the Comcast deal, NBC is simmering on low for now, but the Peacock has made little use of cookie cutters in its pilot bake-off.

Two pilots from the ’60s — one from the 1960s (“Playboy”), the other from the 1860s (“Reconstruction”) — hint at the network’s willingness to turn back the clock, while other candidates play with modern reality in their own ways.

“Grimm” is a police drama set in a fairy-tale world, “17th Precinct” mixes police with the supernatural, “REM” features a detective living parallel lives, and even comedy “Brave New World” sets its workplace hijinx in a pilgrim-themed amusement park.

NBC has also placed bets on stars it can market, though not necessarily all in the same way. While Debra Messing (“Smash”) and Don Johnson (“A. Mann’s World”) have histories with the net, NBC is just as interested in exploring the appeal of Janie-come-latelies Chelsea Handler and Whitney Cummings for their unique takes in comedy.

At the same time, NBC does have two remakes on the table: Maria Bello will be asked to launch the remake of popular British series “Prime Suspect,” while Adrianne Palicki will try to fill Lynda Carter’s costume in “Wonder Woman.”

The insiders’ view is that while sitting in fourth place, NBC has little to lose by taking a risk on something unique that might resonate and little to gain by playing it conventional and trying to beat a network like CBS at its own game. While Greenblatt isn’t going to remake NBC into a carbon copy of the Showtime he left behind, no one will be surprised if his initial imprint on the primetime schedule has a lot of high concept or edge.

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)