PASADENA, Calif. - Nothing leads a TV critic to cast a skeptical eye on a series as quickly as when a network refuses to show us the pilot episode. ABC's Brothers & Sisters is this year's no-show pilot, a high-profile series that's taking the coveted 10 p.m. Sunday time slot vacated by Grey's Anatomy, which moves to Thursday.
Brothers & Sisters marks Calista Flockhart's return to series television after Ally McBeal. She plays the sister of Rachel Griffiths, acclaimed for her work on HBO's Six Feet Under. Sally Field plays their mother, replacing Betty Buckley, who filled the role in the original pilot, which, though unseen by American critics, was made available to Canadians who generally liked it but said it needed some of the fixing that's presumably under way. (It's also worth noting that Flockhart's Ally McBeal was not screened for critics before the July press tour in 1997, and it became a critical darling and ratings hit.)
Producers, naturally, tried to distance themselves from the "troubled show" tag, with executive producer Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Point Pleasant) saying it's not trouble: "We're the private show," she joked.
Created by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, Brothers & Sisters follows the lives of grown siblings in the Walker family. Sarah (Griffiths) runs the family business, Kitty (Flockhart) is a right-wing radio show host who becomes a TV pundit, Tommy (Balthazar Getty) is the womanizer, Kevin (Matthew Rhys) is a gay lawyer and Justin (Dave Annable) grapples with the trauma of fighting in a war.
"There was a great response to the pilot," Noxon said, but producers decided to go in different directions with some of the characters. "We wanted the temperature to be a little different. We wanted there to be an opportunity for the family to be shown having a little more fun. It's the same story, just told from a slightly different point of view."
Baitz compared the original pilot to a workshop production, while the remade pilot is akin to opening night on Broadway.
Unlike so many series this fall that feature strangers brought together by unusual circumstances, Brothers & Sisters offers a more straightforward plot.
"We have this organic [family] connection," said executive producer Ken Olin (Alias). "It's not a tortured premise of, 'How do these people come together and feel something for each other if they're not working in a law firm or a hospital?' We understand their investment in one another."
Olin said, in an effort to make a more updated family drama, the series will feature multiple things happening at once to imitate the cacophony of sound often found at family gatherings.
Although Flockhart's character may bring to mind conservative pundit Ann Coulter, Olin said she differs from Coulter in one significant way: "She's not insane"
"She's a thoughtful conservative,"
Baitz said, comparing her politics to those of Dwight D. Eisenhower or William Buckley.
"Ideologically she's very much in line with the older parts of the party, but she's also a humanist and there's a real tension in her, in her role in all of that. She's not apologetic about being a conservative, but it's interesting and compelling to us to leave behind some of the smug presuppositions of the two coasts that I'm most familiar with politically and look at an evolving patriotism, an evolving traditionalism."
Should Brothers & Sisters disappoint, as some observers are betting it will, well, that's OK with Field, who said she knew that her last ABC drama, The Court, would fail before it ever aired.
"I figure, better to fail with a big, huge, loud splat than a tiny, little, weenie whimper," Field said. "Certainly this is a different try, and if we splat, I hope it's really colorful, really bold."
NBC announced it will revive Nobody's Watching, the failed 2005 WB pilot produced by NBC Studios.
Created by three Scrubs writers, Watching follows two guys who move from Ohio to Hollywood to create their own sitcom and unwittingly end up starring in a reality show.
The series became a video hit when someone leaked it to YouTube.com last month. NBC let the show remain posted and is now developing new Webisodes starring the Watching stars that will be posted online starting in September. NBC will also develop scripts for the half-hour Watching sitcom, which could air on NBC later this year.
Executive producer Bryan Burk wouldn't offer many hints about the third season of Lost.
"We've got big problems," Burk said. "Jack, Kate, and Sawyer, they've got Other issues, and I mean Other with a capital 'O'."
But executive producer Carlton Cuse was more forthcoming.
"This year we're looking to make the show brighter, more vibrant," Cuse said at an ABC party. "There's more emphasis on action, adventure, and romance. The show won't be as dark, as internal. There will be more emphasis on character access, less on mythological access."
For instance, Cuse said John Locke (Terry O'Quinn) will be a different person in season three.
"All his doubt and questions and uncertainties were answered; the button did mean something, there was something at stake," Cuse said.
The relationship between the outside world (including Penny, Desmond's beloved) and the island will be a part of season three. The black cloud monster will return, as will the polar bear.
Lost won't return to the story of Michael (Harold Perrineau) and Walt (Malcolm David Kelley) immediately, but Cuse said their tale is not done (and will eventually take into account young Kelley's growth spurt in puberty).
"Michael's story in the overall lexicon of Lost isn't finished," Cuse said. "What fascinated us is that last season we asked, is there any price you would not pay to get back your child? Michael paid an enormous price" when he killed Libby and Ana Lucia.
Production on the third season begins in mid-August, later than usual by almost a month, Burk said, because finishing the second season and beginning the third season collided.
"The writers started breaking all these story lines for this season towards the end of last season," he said. "We have a really good handle on what the show is."
ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson said series co-creator J.J. Abrams will return to direct an episode this season (most likely the seventh, Cuse said). Abrams will also co-write the Oct. 4 season premiere.
By splitting the 22-hour season into 6 in the fall and 17 running from February through May, the show will offer fans two uninterrupted batches of new Lost episodes.
"It will be more satisfying to have an intense, high-octane pod in the fall" and return with a string of original episodes in early 2007, Cuse said.
Some fans are pouting about the 13 weeks between those episode clusters, but it's a smart move. Better to have two runs of uninterrupted episodes, even if they're separated by the 13-week Taye Diggs drama Day Break that airs November through January.
A more ideal approach would be the 24 model, with Lost returning for a single uninterrupted run in January. Perhaps this year's schedule is a step in that direction.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen, the TV editor for the Post-Gazette, is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Los Angeles.
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