TV Upfronts: Early Trends Emerge as Broadcasters Bet on Black Leads, Politics and Terror

Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Katherine Heigl all will have a place on the 2014-15 schedule as the Big Four networks look to build on formulas that work.
Katherine Heigl in NBC's "State of Affairs"

After only two days of series pickups, some very clear early trends have started to emerge as the broadcast networks are prepared to give the green light to dozens of other new comedies and dramas in the march up to next week's upfront presentations in New York.

Fox, with a new development model and limited shelf space, has already picked up Batman prequel Gotham, Octavia Spencer hospital drama Red Band Society and Lee Daniels and Danny Strong's hip-hop drama Empire to series. Those join previously ordered dramas Backstrom and Hieroglyph as well as comedies Mulaney -- picked up for a back-10 episodes -- Weird Loners and Will Forte vehicle The Last Man on Earth.

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At NBC, the network handed out pickups to comedy Marry Me, from Happy Endings' David Caspe and starring Casey Wilson, to go along with Ellie Kemper starrer Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (formerly Tooken) and Craig Robinson's Mr. Robinson. On the drama side, NBC added three from its sibling studio, Universal Television: Katherine Heigl's return to TV, State of Affairs, Traffic-like entry Odyssey and Russian spy thriller Allegiance.

State of Affairs arrives as political fare has become increasingly popular on both broadcast and cable. After The West Wing made the political drama viable -- no hourlong entry set in the White House had ever worked prior to the Aaron Sorkin show -- the genre has seen a resurgence with HBO's Veep, Netflix's House of Cards and ABC's addictive thriller Scandal. CBS, for its part, also has Madam Secretary in serious contention, and TNT is mulling Sharon Stone political thriller Agent X. Also worth noting is the fact that the role of State of Affairs' president -- played by The Help's Alfre Woodard -- was initially conceived as a male character and reimagined as a strong black female POTUS.

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For her part, Woodard also is part of a rapidly growing roster of female African-American leads coming to primetime. She joins Scandal's Emmy nominee Kerry Washington, who with the ABC drama's second season renewal, became the first black lead to earn a sophomore run since 1974. Woodard is joined by Red Band Society's Spencer, who is making her TV series debut in the Fox adaptation of the Spanish series; and Empire's Taraji P. Henson, who co-stars opposite Terrence Howard in the family drama/hip-hop musical. Also likely to join this list is Viola Davis, whose Shonda Rhimes-produced ABC drama How to Get Away With Murder is considered a lock to join the schedule.

Meanwhile, NBC has been high on spy and conspiracy dramas with the early pickups of Allegiance and Odyssey (which coincidentally both feature leads from The CW's likely-to-be-canceled The Carrie Diaries). Both shows join a rapidly growing roster of similarly themed fare including FX's The Americans and forthcoming Tyrant as well as Showtime's Homeland. Allegiance (formerly Coercion) also counts Homeland producer Avi Nir among its EPs.

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As for Gotham, the DC Comics-themed procedural will likely be joined by several other comic-book-based shows including The CW's Arrow spinoff The Flash and Rob Thomas' female-led iZombie adaptation as well as NBC's Hellblazer take Constantine and ABC's Captain America offshoot Agent Carter.

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