The 15 Most Promising Shows of the 2012 Pilot Season

I couldn’t tell you how many pilots have been announced so far during this pilot season — 40? 50? — but many of them sound as terribly generic as much of what’s already on TV right now. However, there were several with great promise, either because of the showrunner, the talent involved, or because of an intriguing premise. There’s no promise, of course, that any of them will be greenlit to series for next fall (or midseason), but of the announcements made so far, these are the 15 Most Promising Pilots (networks only). Hopefully, a few of these will vie for the slots left by the slew of cancellations we can expect in March and April.

15. Let It Go — The pilot is an ensemble comedy about a married couple, the husband, his best friend, and her sister as they try to navigate, negotiate, and sometimes manipulate society’s unspoken rules. I’ll grant that the premise sounds terrible, but it will star Zachary Levi, who was much sought after during this pilot season. The fact that he chose this project over all the rest suggests that it must have some promise, despite the premise. Either that, or Zachary Levi just has terrible taste.

14. Animal Kingdom — This NBC pilot basically sounds like a comedy version of “House,” but instead of a hospital, it’s a veterinarian’s office, and instead of Hugh Laurie, it’s Justin Kirk (“Weeds”). It could be good, it could be terrible, but I’d hedge my bets to the positive side simply because Justin Kirk is so good.

13. Prairie Dogs — I know that people have caught on to the fact that the idea was basically ripped off of a “Friends” episode, but I do like Kal Penn, and it comes from the makers of “That 70’s Show,” so there’s some promise here. The show is about an uncool cubicle worker named Neil who is the victim of identity theft. Said corporate drone ultimately discovers the thief created a much more fulfilling life with his identity than he ever did — and thus he engages the con man to help him improve his prospects.

12. Living Loaded — The Fox pilot doesn’t have a terribly intriguing premise — it’s about a loose partying blogger who is forced to change his career plans when he becomes an NPR radio host — but it comes from Rob McElhenney (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) and has tapped Donald Sutherland as the manager of the NPR station. Mike Vogel (Cloverfield) has been cast in the lead.

11. How to Live with Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life — I will basically follow Sarah Chalke anywhere (I even watched the dreadful CBS sitcom “Mad Love” for much longer than I should have). This one is for ABC, and it’s about a recently divorced single mom who moves in with her eccentric parents, Elaine and Max, a couple who’s full of life but knows no boundaries. It will be a multi-camera/hybrid comedy, similar to “How I Met Your Mother.”

10. Nick Stoller Untitled Comedy — One of many pilots on this list whose promise is purely because of the creator, here Nick Stoller, the man behind The Muppets and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The idea is generic — it’s a twentysomething ensemble comedy that centers on Jake (Michael Angarano), a commitment phobic ad agency exec who, after breaking up with his girlfriend, realizes he has to continue working with her one cubicle away — but Angarano is great, and Stoller has yet to disappoint. Unfortunately, it’s for CBS. However, it was announced today that Brie Larson (who sat on cakes or balloons or pies, I forget, in “United States of Tara”) has also joined the cast, which bumps up its promise.

9. Last Resort — Good cast, compelling premise. The show comes from Shawn Ryan (“The Shield” “The Unit,” “Chicago Code,” “Terriers”) and will star Scott Speedman (“Felicity”) and Andre Braugher. The drama, bidding for a spot on the ABC schedule, is about the crew of the nuclear submarine who become fugitives after disobeying a suspicious order. They land on the island of Sainte Marina, where they take over the NATO Listening Station and declare themselves an independent nuclear nation. So, “The A-Team” with submarines?

8. Smart One — I don’t know how good this pilot will be, but with the talent behind it, it will almost certainly go to series. It stars Portia de Rossi, Malin Akerman, and Jean Smart. Ackerman and de Rossi will play sisters and Jean Smart (“Designing Women”) will play their mother. Donald Todd (“Samantha Who?”, “Ellen”) and Ellen DeGeneres are producing the single-camera ABC sitcom about a “brilliant and successful woman (de Rossi) who has to go to work for her less brainy but more popular sister, Candy (Akerman), a former beauty queen, weather girl and now big city Mayor.”

7. Louis CK Pilot — I wouldn’t get too excited about this project, as 1) it’s a 13-year-old pilot idea; 2) it’s multi-camera; and 3) it’s on CBS (the no-nudity channel), and 4) Ashley Tisdale is signed on to star. The huge draw here, of course, is Louis CK, but I’m not sure that even Louis can break through and create something original on the least original network on television. Plus, Louis CK likely will not be in the show, which is about an ensemble of young people trying to achieve their creative dreams in these tough financial times.

6. Like Father — The promise for this Fox pilot rests upon one factor: Bill Lawrence. The showrunner on “Cougar Town,” “Scrubs,” and a former “Spin City” producer/writer will write and direct the pilot starring Colin Ferguson (“Eureka”). Based on Lawrence’s own upbringing, it’s about his father-son relationship after the death of his mother. I should also note that Phil Lewis is in this, as well. Lewis was Hooch in “Scrubs.” Hooch is crazy.

5. Mindy Kaling Comedy — NBC passed on this (which was frankly kind of dumb), but Fox jumped on it. Kaling (“The Office”) will star as a young Bridget Jones-type Ob/Gyn doctor balancing personal and professional life, surrounded by quirky co-workers in a small office. Does it sound generic? Sure, but how great would the Fox Tuesday night comedies be if it paired Zooey Deschanel’s quirky comedy with Kaling’s quirky comedy? It just fits.

4. Downwardly Mobile — Another NBC sitcom, this Roseanne Barr pilot about a mobile home proprietor and the quirky folks who live and work in the mobile home park didn’t hold much appeal to me until John Goodman signed on. He’ll play one of the workmen, a former war veteran who is a nutso. With Goodman involved, the show at the very least gets the benefit of the doubt.

3. Serial Killer Pilot with Kevin Bacon — Bacon has never toplined a television show, although the networks have been after him for years. You’d have to imagine it’d take a great pilot idea to pull the feature actor onto the small screen. This Fox Drama comes from Kevin Williamson, the guy behind the Scream films, “Vampire Diaries,” and “Dawson’s Creek.” It’s about a diabolical serial killer who uses technology to create a cult of serial killers, and a retired FBI profiler (Bacon) who finds himself in the middle of it. Part of the appeal here is that it will only be a 15-episode season in order to better recreate the appeal of basic cable dramas.

2. County — Jason Katims is maybe the best drama showrunner on television right now. He’s behind the phenomenal “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” and while the last thing network television needs is yet another hospital drama, Katims sophisticated mix of pathos and intelligence will certainly elevate this one beyond the likes of “Grey’s Anatomy.” It’s already cast two Katims’ vets, Jason Ritter (currently on “Parenthood”) and Michael B. Jordan (who has been on both “FNL” and “Parenthood.”) The show will chronicle the lives of young doctors, nurses, and administrators in a frenetic underfunded and morally compromising LA County Hospital

1. Friday Night Dinner — Based on the British series, Greg Daniels (“The Office”) is bringing the single-camera sitcom to NBC. It’s about a quirky family that has dinner together every night. Tony Shalhoub and Allison Janney have been tapped as the patriarch and matriarch of the family. Ken Kwapis, who directed Daniels’ pilot for “The Office” will direct this one, as well. Daniels, who is also behind “Parks and Recreation,” “King of the Hill,” and much of “The Simpsons,” is pretty much the gold standard for comedy sitcoms (at least in their first few seasons). “Friday Night Dinner” will almost certainly land in one of the NBC Thursday night slots. The show also stars Aya Cash, who was great in the short-lived Fox series, “Traffic Light.”