Creators aim for maximum impact with pilots.
With so much competition from cable and streaming services, it’s harder than ever for a broadcast-network pilot to break through.
The pressure is on to connect with viewers right away. Here, the creators of five pilots debuting this fall on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW talk about the process of writing those all-important first episodes and what they did — they hope — to leave viewers wanting more.
YOUNG SHELDON, CBS
Chuck Lorre and Steven Molaro
How did Sheldon Cooper become the brainy oddball we know and love on The Big Bang Theory? There has been endless fascination with the subject on the CBS sitcom, which provides intriguing glimpses into Sheldon’s upbringing whenever his mom, Mary Cooper (Laurie Metcalf), makes an appearance.
So when Jim Parsons, who plays the theoretical physicist, asked show co-creator–executive producer Chuck Lorre if he’d be interested in creating a series that would expand Sheldon’s backstory, Lorre says he “thought it was a marvelous idea.” He immediately called his Big Bang Theory colleague, Steven Molaro, “and we got to work on it.”
The result is Young Sheldon, a half-hour comedy premiering on CBS September 25 (episode two airs November 2). It takes us back to when Sheldon (Iain Armitage) was a child prodigy attending an east Texas high school — at age nine. “One of our priorities in the pilot was making people believe that the character you’re watching on screen really is Sheldon as a child,” Molaro says. “If we couldn’t get that to feel accurate, the whole premise was in trouble.”
“He’s not simply a small Sheldon. He’s a Sheldon in process,” Lorre says. “We came to understand in writing it that Sheldon at nine is a very different character than the Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory, who is a grown man and capable of taking care of himself to some extent. But at nine, he is still very naïve as to the way the world works. He’s very vulnerable. He hasn’t become the character we know on The Big Bang Theory.”
Jon Favreau directed the Young Sheldon pilot and had a significant impact on the script. “He said, ‘Sheldon may not be a superhero, but we’re going to look at this like it’s a superhero origin story,’” Molaro says. “That was his mindset from the beginning.”
“It was very helpful,” Lorre adds. “Jon encouraged us to make some big changes in the pilot script that turned out to be invaluable. It’s rare when you get notes that really impact the process in such a positive way. But right out of the gate, from the first time we met him, his opinion of the script mattered. It was important, and we integrated his notes into the script.”
KEVIN (PROBABLY) SAVES THE WORLD, ABC
Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters
It’s easy to feel hopeless these days. “You don’t have to work really hard to find ugliness in the world. You watch the news. You go on Twitter. You read message boards on news websites, and you feel inundated by it,” Michele Fazekas says. As an antidote to all this negativity, she created Kevin (Probably) Saves the World with longtime collaborator Tara Butters.
The duo previously created Reaper and were executive producer–showrunners on Marvel’s Agent Carter and Resurrection.
In the pilot for the ABC series, debuting October 3, we meet Kevin Finn (Jason Ritter), a young man who’s having trouble finding his way in life. He goes back to his hometown to live with his widowed sister (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) and his niece (Chloe East).
There, Kevin meets Yvette (Kimberly Hébert Gregory), an angel of sorts, who enters his life by way of a meteor. She informs him that she is there to guide him on a mission to help others. “The central theme is: one person cannot change the world. That is impossible. But you can change yourself,” Fazekas says. “It’s a very simple show in that it’s basically a guy who gets to be a better person.”
While the original title of the series, The Gospel of Kevin, made it sound like a religious show, Butters says it’s not religious so much as it is spiritual: “The show is a blend of science fiction and magical realism that allows you to delve into what it means to be a human being.”
When writing the pilot, Fazekas and Butters made it a point not to quote from the texts of any religion. Instead, they focused on achieving a light, humorous tone. While they didn’t write the pilot with Ritter in mind, the material suits him well.
“When he came in and tested, he was saying the lines exactly as I had heard them in my head,” Fazekas says, noting they didn’t have to adjust the pilot script to accommodate their talent.
“What he brings that was not on the page is the physical comedy,” Fazekas adds. “There’s a scene in the pilot where he gets out of bed, and there’s a helicopter outside, and he immediately falls to the ground. That was him. It’s not like he goes way off book, but he makes every scene his own.”
THE BRAVE, NBC
When he was writing the pilot for NBC’s The Brave, Dean Georgaris trusted his gut throughout the process. “And my gut said, if I wrote something I would want to watch, then other people would want to watch it, too. Ultimately, that’s all we can really do as writers,” he says.
Georgaris is best known as a movie screenwriter whose credits include The Manchurian Candidate update and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.
For The Brave, he indulged his fascination with the Americans who risk their lives to protect us all. He crafted an intricate, fast-paced pilot that has viewers tagging along as an elite special-ops squad led by Captain Adam Dalton (Mike Vogel) goes on a dangerous mission into Syria to rescue a kidnapped American doctor.
Back in Washington, the squad is supported by a strategic ops crew led by Patricia Campbell (Anne Heche), deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The pilot for The Brave, debuting September 25, is purposely action packed; Georgaris throws in some daunting twists and turns to demonstrate the resiliency of his heroes and keep viewers on their toes. “I wanted to have at least one Murphy’s Law moment, where the team is doing things properly, and things go wrong through no fault of their own, and they’re forced to adapt,” he says.
“I wanted to show the audience that this was not simply a team in uniforms that was going to be breaking down doors every week.”
In the pilot, we don’t go home with the characters. They’re focused on the job they have to do, and information about their lives and motivations is revealed sparingly. “I know these characters. I’d be able to talk to you about them for three hours, but I’m not going to show you things unless the story makes time for it,” Georgaris says of his unforced approach.
“You get smaller pieces of character [in the pilot], but hopefully, the pieces you get feel meaningful because they feel more natural, and the audience feels as if they’re discovering things.”
Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten
Usually, when a writer pens a pilot, the project has not yet been cast. But there was never any question that Craig Robinson and Adam Scott would play the lead roles in the Fox paranormal comedy Ghosted, premiering October 1.
In fact, the show — think The X-Files meets The Odd Couple — was written and developed specifically for the duo. Robinson was always going to play Leroy Wright, a former cop turned security guard, and Scott was always set to be Max Allison, a one-time academic working at a bookstore. The unlikely pair is recruited by The Bureau Underground to investigate paranormal activity in Los Angeles.
“That was the really special thing about this. They were actually integral in the makeup and the development and the DNA of this project,” says Tom Gormican, who sold Fox the idea for Ghosted.
Best known for writing and directing the 2014 film That Awkward Moment, Gormican is new to television, so, after Fox bought into his initial concept, Kevin Etten (Desperate Housewives, Scrubs and Workaholics) came aboard, joining Gormican as co-creator, writer and executive producer.
“I know there are lots of nightmare stories about writers being put together, and it not working out,” Gormican says, “but this has been an exceptionally fun and cool collaboration. I had never done a television show before, and I needed somebody who was super experienced that could help really pull the thing together.”
The pair started by working out “a beat sheet/outline that we just handed back and forth, and then we got into the script phase, and it was a nonstop rewrite until we started shooting — just trying every version of every scene until you feel like you’ve landed on it,” Etten says.
While there is a lot of adventure and some fun visual effects in the Ghosted pilot, both Gormican and Etten agree that the opening episode lives or dies based on whether viewers buy into the characters’ partnership. Leroy is a skeptic when it comes to all things paranormal, and Max is a true believer.
The writers worked hard to provide the actors the material they’d need to sell that relationship. Says Gormican: “The more you can focus on the characters and their development in a pilot, the more successful you’ll be.”
DYNASTY, THE CW
Josh Schwartz, Stephanie Savage and Sallie Patrick
“All of us have worked on shows that owe a huge debt to Dynasty, so it’s kind of in our writing DNA to do this show,” says Stephanie Savage. She collaborated with Josh Schwartz (they co-created Gossip Girl) and Sallie Patrick (Revenge) to write the pilot for The CW’s reincarnation of the classic primetime soap opera, premiering October 11.
The executive-producing trio spent a lot of time at Savage’s dining table talking about what was so special and enticing about the original series — and how they could best capture that while updating it. They also met with Esther and Richard Shapiro, who created Dynasty and are executive producers of the new version, to get their input.
Like the original, which debuted in 1981, The CW’s Dynasty centers on the wealthy Carrington family, but the new show is set in modern-day Atlanta instead of Denver. The producers chose Atlanta in part for its diversity. They also updated the characters. Patrick says, “We knew in our version — 2017 — we wanted Steven’s conflict with Blake to be not about him being gay, but about him being liberal.”
Grant Show plays patriarch Blake Carrington, and James Mackay plays Steven, his son. Sammy Jo is back in Steven’s life, though the character is now a gay man with whom he has a one-night stand in the pilot. Rafael de la Fuente plays Sammy Jo.
And while the first Dynasty had Blake’s fiancée, Krystle, fighting for his attention with Alexis (his ex-wife and the mother of his children), the pilot of the reboot sets up two new main protagonists: his daughter, Fallon (Elizabeth Gillies), and his soon-to-be wife, Cristal (Nathalie Kelley), now a career woman of Hispanic origin.
“Even when you watch the original, Fallon is a character who feels as if she can exist in 2017,” Schwartz says. “She just pops off the screen, and she can take on Krystle, who, in the original, was pure and the moral center of the show. With this new Cristal, we liked the idea of not letting her be quite as pure and raising some questions about her past and having her stir the pot — making her more formidable. That really let us lean into this rivalry between Fallon and Cristal.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2017