Pilots 2021: Buzz On Contenders For Fall & Beyond In Another Pandemic-Impacted Broadcast Development Cycle

It’s the first week of May, which is normally when Deadline does its final handicapping of the new crop of broadcast pilots’ pickup changes. As the TV industry — and the country — are starting to see the first signs of a return to normalcy, the broadcast networks are gearing up for the upfronts, in their usual timeframe just two weeks away. However, the pilot evaluation process is anything but conventional this year after the 2020 pilot cycle was delayed by the pandemic, so we see 2020 pilots being screened alongside 2021 ones and pilot-to-series orders being handed out alongside straight-to-series pickups and off-cycle pilot green lights.

Your Complete Guide to Pilots and Straight-to-Series orders

It is risky trying to make any predictions this year, but, keeping up a Deadline tradition, here is what I hear is going on at the five broadcast networks.

ABC, which had a top executive change mid-development cycle, with Hulu’s Craig Erwich taking over programming,  has ordered the most new 2021 pilots of any broadcast network. That includes dramas Acts of Crime, Dark Horse, Epic, Promised Land, National Parks (developed last cycle) and Queens, in addition to off-cycle pilot Triage.

On the comedy side, ABC this year ordered the multi-camera Black Don’t Crack and Bucktown, and single-camera The Wonder Years reboot, Abbot Elementary (fka Untitled Quinta Brunson) and Maggie, joined by Adopted, rolled over from last year.

The network, which is starting internal screenings this week, already made one big decision, passing on multi-camera comedy starring Alec Baldwin and Kelsey Grammer, which had a straight-to-series order, after seeing the pilot.

The Wonder Years reboot, from Saladin Patterson, the original series’ Fred Savage and Lee Daniels, has been red-hot heading into the screenings. Drama Queens, headlined by Brandy, Eve, Naturi Naughton, Nadine Velazquez and Pepi Sonuga, also has been an early standout. While I hear an early cut did not quite deliver on the very high expectations set by the script and A-list casting, the pilot still remains the one to beat on the drama side.

Medical drama pilot Triage, told in three different time frames, has been on a different trajectory. Considered a long shot after its first cut did not fare well and was deemed a bit confusing, a recut has changed the project’s fortunes by testing well, putting the drama in serious contention.

Three high-profile drama pilots, the fairytale-themed Epic, executive produced by Once Upon a Time creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, Promised Land and National Parks, are on a different track and will be filmed for post-upfront consideration, likely for midseason.

Of the comedy pilots, Quinta Brunson’s Abbot Elementary has been picking up momentum and looks very good at the moment. Also said to be in contention are Black Don’t Crack and Bucktown, with Maggie considered a dark horse.

CBS has started screening its pilots, but in a less formal way than the corporate affair of CBS screenings past. Already seen internally are the two hourlong pilots, originally ordered last season and produced in early 2021, medical drama Good Sam, headlined by Sophia Bush, and political drama Ways & Means, starring Patrick Dempsey. Both have received solid feedback as well executed pilots.

Good Sam, in which Bush plays a surgeon, is considered a strong contender as CBS has been looking for a medical franchise. Meanwhile, Ways & Means is headlined by an actor famous for his role as a surgeon, Grey’s Anatomy alum Dempsey, who is back in the zeitgeist with his surprise return to ABC’s venerable medical drama for an arc this season.

Dempsey plays a powerful congressional leader in Ways & Means, which was ordered to pilot in the early stages of the 2020 primaries when politics was very much on everybody’s mind. Fifteen months later, after a grueling Presidential campaign and two impeachment trials amid a pandemic, there appears to be some political fatigue, which may impact the project’s prospects, along with its ability to sell internationally. That is crucial for owned series — which both Good Sam and Ways & Means are — in the current broadcast business environment. Still, few can dispute the major appeal of bringing Dempsey back to the small screen, especially post-Grey’s return.

CBS does not have big drama needs for next season. It is losing two long-running dramas, NCIS: New Orleans and MacGyver, which are ending this season, but it also has picked up straight-to-series three franchise drama spinoffs with strong international distribution potential for next season, CSI: Vegas, NCIS: Hawai’i and FBI: International. And highly rated freshman Equalizer already has been renewed for next season.

Additionally, CBS has signaled a shift toward more balanced schedule that means taking some real estate from scripted series for unscripted content.

The one 2020 comedy pilot, which was shot in 2021, Welcome To Georgia, starring Hannah Simone and Elizabeth Hurley, appears 50-50 at the moment, getting a boost by strong testing, I hear. In March, CBS picked up Ghosts to series while releasing the cast of The Three Of Us, greatly diminishing the project’s pickup chances.

Since CBS’ 2021 pilot orders came in later than usual  because of the pandemic, to have its newly picked up comedy pilots ready in time for the upfront, CBS ordered them as presentations. They have not been screened yet. The multi-camera Untitled Tom Smallwood project, based on the pro bowler’s life and starring Pete Holmes, is getting solid early buzz as an easy fit into the traditional CBS’ comedy brand.

Also a potential easy fit would be the Kelsey Grammer-Alec Baldwin multi-camera comedy, which was recently passed on by ABC and is being shopped, with CBS expressing interest, I hear.

The untitled Sarah Cooper/Cindy Chupack single-camera comedy, which has three female leads and tackles gender politics, is more of a departure from what CBS is known for in the comedy space but is considered a solid contender if the network decides to take a swing.

Fox last week gave a series order to the pilot that had been garnering the most buzz the last few weeks, The Big Leap. The ballet dramedy, starring Scott Foley and Teri Polo, had already been hiring writers. Of the rest, comedy Pivoting and drama The Cleaning Lady, which is making if-come offers to writers, are considered possibly the strongest contenders, with Blood Relative also solid. The Goonies Reenactment Project has internal support though I hear it may play a little too young for Fox.

Fox recently gave a straight-to-series order to one of the dramas it had opened a writers room for as part of a new development model that bypasses the pilot stage, Our Kind of People. I hear the other, the Country Music Dynasty drama, also is nearing a series order.

Additionally, I hear Fox is zeroing in on its first pilot order of 2021, for drama adaptation of Ben H. Winters’ sci-fi mystery novel The Last Policeman, from Kyle Killen.

There is also buzz surrounding single-camera comedy Bren Rents, based on the British series, Stath Lets Flats, for a potential presentation order. I hear Fox may make the bulk of its comedy decisions after the upfronts. The network has one new live-action comedy on deck for next season, This Country, also based on a UK format.

NBC is in the most unconventional situation of the major broadcast networks. It has no 2020 pilots that it had not made a decision on — it recently picked up to series its remaining pilots, dramas Ordinary Joe as well as Langdon, which moved to streaming sibling Peacock, and comedies American Auto and Grand Crew.

The network won’t have any new 2021 pilots ready for upfront consideration. NBC, which like ABC underwent a top executive change, with Susan Rovner taking oversight of the network’s programming, did not make its orders — for dramas Getaway and Untitled Nick Wootton/Jake Coburn Project and comedies Hungry and Someone Out There — until mid-April. Of them, only one, Hungry, is actively casting, and the process is in very early stages, so the projects won’t be factored into NBC’s fall 2021 plans.

But the network will have at least one other new scripted series for next season beyond Ordinary Joe and La Brea, which was picked up straight-to-series. After adding Law & Order: Organized Crime to its lineup this season, NBC is expanding the classic Dick Wolf franchise further, with a new series, Law & Order: For the Defense, on which Wolf has teamed with former CSI showrunner Carol Mendelsohn.

On the pilot front, NBC is closing in on a pickup of a Night Court sequel starring starring Melissa Rauch as Harry Stone’s daughter and John Larroquette reprising his role. In drama, I hear the network is eyeing a pilot order for Dangerous Moms, based on a Spanish format, a crime farce evoking Desperate Housewives.

The CW already gave a straight-to-series order to one of its scripts from this season, The 4400, a reboot of the 2004 USA Network series. That leaves three traditional pilots in contention for a series order, all from A-list auspices, Diablo Cody and Berlanti Prods.’ Powerpuff; Ava DuVernay’s DC-themed Naomi; and millennial nun dramedy Our Ladies Of Brooklyn from Jennie Snyder Urman.

All three pilots have been cast and are in various stages of production but none has been delivered yet. With its big pop culture profile, Powerpuff has a leg up, as evidenced by the big social media reaction to all cast announcements and first-look images. Both Powerpuff and Naomi have leads that are creating buzz internally (and beyond) and both have strong underlying IP while the concept for Our Ladies is out there, but so was the premise of Urman’s hit for the network, Jane the Virgin. And while Powerpuff does have a slight edge based on its beloved IP pedigree and recognizable cast, all three pilots are solid contenders and could potentially get picked up. It will come down to execution.

Of the three CW backdoor pilots, All American: Homecoming, Nancy Drew offshoot Tom Swift and Black Lightning spinoff Painkiller, only Painkiller has aired. All American: Homecoming has the strongest buzz, in large part because its mothership series is red-hot at the moment as the CW’s highest-rated series in the demo in linear viewing and top draw on digital both across CW platforms and on Netflix. Homecoming and Painkiller have an advantage because their backdoor pilots showcase the world of the potential new series and the core cast, while Tom Swift is a character that will appear in a Nancy Drew episode, so the network brass will have to also rely on the ordered pilot script. Depending how strong the three traditional pilots come, the CW could pick up one or more of the backdoor ones. (And for those still holding out hope for the potential The 100 prequel, which was introduced as part of the survival drama’s final season, there has been little movement but the project is not dead yet and still a possibility for a joint run on the CW and HBO Max.)

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