Before we begin, a quick reminder of what it means when a pilot is picked up. It means that a network sees enough promise in the idea of a show to order one episode. Based on that one episode, a network will decide whether to pick it up to series. Historically, most pilots have not been picked up to series, but given the expense and added star power in most pilots these days, networks are more selective about what they choose to greenlight for pilots so more land on our television sets than before. However, pilots are sometimes scrapped before they are even shot due to casting difficulties, creative differences, or the inability to turn an interesting idea into an actual episode of television.
In other words, there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever see the following shows on our televisions. In some cases, that’s not a bad thing.
One show that looks particularly promising is Start Up. ABC has given this Zach Braff series a “put pilot” order, meaning that if it is not picked up to series, the network will have to pay a sizable penalty, which means this one will probably come to fruition. Braff — returning to TV for the first time since Scrubs — will star in this single-camera comedy about a guy in his mid-30s with a wife and kids who gives up his steady job to join the risky world of start ups. It’s loosely based on the experiences of Alex Blumberg, who left This American Life a few years ago to start a podcast network, Gimlet Media (home of Reply All, among any other excellent podcasts). Blumberg’s first podcast on Gimlet Media was StartUp, which tracked his efforts to create Gimlet Media. Braff’s post-Scrubs career hasn’t exactly taken off — and he courted criticism when he was one of the first celebrities to Kickstart his own movie — but with his Scrubs exec-producer Matt Tarses onboard, they could rekindle the Scrubs‘ sensibility and magic (and hopefully bring back a few of the Scrubs regulars). I’d love to see how they get to play PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, the Reply All hosts. Tarses, will write the pilot and produce the series. Braff will direct the pilot himself.
Speaking of Scrubs, that show’s creator, Bill Lawrence, who had once sworn off doing any more shows for network television after a series of early cancellations, is nevertheless giving it another go with NBC with Spaced Out. Created by Adam Sztykiel (Undateable, Due Date, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip ), it’s a workplace comedy about a misfit genius who tries to fit in with his colleagues, who are working on building a rocket to Mars. I expect this comedy to be less like Scrubs and more like the broad Undateable (or a workplace version of Big Bang Theory), given Sztykiel’s involvement. I don’t have a lot of hope for it, but I’m still willing to give any Lawrence series a look.
Lawrence got his start on Spin City along with Jay Scherick and David Ronn, who also have a pilot in the works. This one is produced by Elizabeth Banks and it’s called The Trustee. It’s an hour-long female buddy cop comedy about a stubborn detective and her precinct’s trustee, an ex-con finishing out her sentence doing menial work for the department. The tone of the show is being compared to Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty. The buddy cop show is in the midst of a comeback after the success of Fox’s better-than-expected Lethal Weapon. The Heat also proved that there’s plenty of viability in female buddy comedy format, too, although I’d probably prefer a series based on SNL’s “Dyke and Fats.”
While we’re on the subject of SNL, a couple of SNL alums, Seth Meyers and Mike O’Brien (a writer and briefly a featured player) have a single-camera comedy in the works for NBC about a cynical Ivy league college professor who loses out on his dream job and has to work, instead, as a high school biology teacher. In that capacity, he introduces his unorthodox teaching methods to his students, who he also uses exact revenge on those who wronged him. I like Mike O’Brien a lot — his “Sad Mouse” short film for SNL is classic — and he’s done strong work on FX’s Man Seeking Woman, but he has a very specific sensibility that I’m not will be a good fit for a network sitcom, although the high-concept premise seems to have possible broad appeal.
Another SNL vet with a comedy pilot is Tina Fey, who rejoins her producing and writing partner Robert Carlock for an unnamed pilot about two estranged sisters who pull off a Sully Sullenberger act of public heroism but then are forced to navigate their fame together. Their last effort was Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which NBC gave to Netflix after concluding it didn’t suit the network’s sensibilities. Ideally, this one will end up with Netflix down the line, as well.
Mindy Kaling was never on SNL, but she was offered a writing role (she had to decline because of her commitment to The Office). She’ll be joining her The Office and The Mindy Project writing colleague Charles Grandy for an NBC pilot about an aimless gym owner, Vince, and his gorgeous, idiotic brother, whose dating, carefree lives are upturned when Priya (Kaling, in a recurring role) drops off Vince’s teenage son. This one is also going to NBC, and it sounds right up Kaling’s alley: An opportunity to show bros how to be better men for the benefit of the next generation. NBC declined The Mindy Project, but based on the pilots they’ve ordered so far, it seems as though NBC might be moving past its “broader is better” strategy and trying to return to the comedies like The Office and 30 Rock whose audiences in 2007 might have seemed small but would be considered wildly successful today.
Speaking of NBC’s Thursday night comedies, veterans of two of them — Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) and Craig Robinson (The Office) — will reunite again (they partnered in the Hot Tub Time Machine sequel) for Ghosted. Its pilot being described as a comedic X-Files about a cynical skeptic (Robinson) and a genius true believer (Scott) who are recruited by the FBI to look into unexplained phenomena in Los Angeles while also uncovering a larger conspiracy that could end the world. This one has a production guarantee, and could debut on Fox this fall.
The classic film from another SNL vet, Bill Murray, is being gender reversed and turned into a television series. NBC has decided to greenlight What About Barb? based on the 1991 comedy What About Bob?. The pilot comes from Joe Port and Joe Wiseman, who were writers on both The Office and New Girl. An attempt was made last year to turn What About Bob? into a series, but failed.
Elsewhere, there was talk of an X-Men series last July, but Fox has made it official by ordering a pilot. Bryan Singer will produce, while Burn Notice showrunner Matt Nix will oversee. This one also as a put-pilot commitment, and will focus on ordinary parents who discover that their children have mutant powers. Forced to go on the run from the government, they join forces with an underground network of other mutants. Casting is underway, and barring a disastrous pilot, this one will probably air this fall on Fox. The network is high on it, although I’m beginning to wonder how many more comic-book shows network television can sustain. It’s not as though Agents of SHIELD or Gotham have been huge hits, and X-Men will have to compete with both of those, plus the CW’s three DC series and the Marvel series on Netflix.
ABC — which boasts a strong collection of diverse family sitcoms — has now greenlit a pilot from Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs (who has also been recurring on black-ish). It’s about a struggling hip-hop star who decides to run for mayor in order to promote his mixtape. And he wins. The pilot was cast contingent — meaning it would need a lead before it could be greenlit. The network found its lead in Brandon Michael Hall, who played Julian in the fantastic first season of TBS’s Search Party.
Finally, this is not a traditional pilot, but a potential backdoor pilot. ABC is in the early stages of planning a black-ish spin-off focusing on Yara Shahidi and her character Zoey Johnson in college. Larry Wilmore, the original creator of black-ish came to ABC with a college-set comedy, and there is talk of merging it with a spin-off of Zooey’s character. black-ish’s current showrunner, Kenya Barris, would co-produce along with Wilmore. Interestingly, in the 1980s, The Cosby Show also spun off Lisa Bonet’s character after she went to college with A Different World. It ran for six seasons, though Bonet only lasted one as a regular.