Pilot Season 2016: The Year of the Family Comedy (and More Early Trends)

Shonda Rhimes - H 2015
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Shonda Rhimes - H 2015

About two-thirds into Pilot Season 2016, a few early trends have started to emerge — many of which are carrying over from development season.

With just under 60 pilots already ordered at the broadcast networks, to say that family comedy is the biggest trend overall would be a massive understatement. On the drama side, Empire has, in fact, inspired a wave of soaps, while Serial, The Jinx and Making a Murderer have done the same for crime/courtroom and cop dramas. Elsewhere, time travel has suddenly become all the rage.

Here's a closer look at the biggest trends to emerge (so far) this season:

Family Comedy

Of ABC's 12 comedy pilots, all of them can be described as variations on the tried-and-true family format. There are semi-autobiographical entries (Chunk & Bean, Dream Team, The Fluffy Shop), families dealing with cancer (Pearl) and special needs children (Speechless), one focusing on a family of geniuses (Square Roots) and even Shondaland's Shonda Rhimes has her first comedy pilot ever (Scott Foley family entry Toast). On the high-concept front, the network has a dating comedy that's part live-action and CGI from The Goldbergs team (untitled Goldberg/Guaracio) as well as one about a woman finding her way in life that's narrated by a talking dog (Downward Dog). A fun anecdote that speaks to ABC's focus on family: Chunk & Bean EP Brian Donovan's sister, Liz Friedman, also had her pilot picked up at the network with drama Conviction.

ABC's orders come as the Disney-owned network may be planning for life beyond former Emmy darling Modern Family. Or, judging from the volume, perhaps the network is eyeing a third night of comedy to go along with its Wednesday block (Modern Family, The Goldbergs, Black-ish and The Middle, with the latter narrowly escaping cancellation last season) and hour blocks on Tuesday (The Muppets, Fresh Off the Boat/Real O'Neals) and Friday (Last Man Standing, Dr. Ken).

Over at CBS, the network — under new entertainment topper Glenn Geller — is looking for a "big family multicam" and just ordered one (The Kicker) from 30 Rock trio Jack Burditt, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. That joins Kevin James' straight-to-series family comedy, which also happens to be a multicam as well as "How I Skyped your mother" hybrid rom-com My Time/Your Time from the How I Met Your Mother producers. Of the network's five half-hour pilots ordered thus far, four are dedicated family vehicles, including one about a brood of drag racers inspired by Aussie format Upper Middle Bogan.

The story is the same at NBC, where entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt says comedy is his No. 1 focus. The network has a Marlon Wayans family comedy inspired by the life of the comedian; a black-sheep comedy from Amy Poehler and Charlie Grandy; and a pair of semi-autobiographical entries from 30 Rock alums Matt Hubbard and Tracey Wigfield.

Fox, meanwhile, has only two comedy pilots ordered thus far — including animated/live-action family comedy Son of Zorn that has already been picked up to series.

Noted one studio exec of the major wave during script season: "The challenge every year is to figure out a different way to tell that family story. What are the other types of family stories that aren't currently on the air? That's a challenge to try and thread that very small needle."

Added one veteran comedy producer of the reason behind this week's wave of family orders: "Those are the shows people don't DVR — they watch them live with their kids before bed."

As for The CW, network president Mark Pedowitz also revealed he's looking for "quirky family material" — but no word on if the rumored Archie reboot will be part of that (yet).

Crime, Courts and Cops

At ABC, there's Conviction (about a former president's daughter looking to overturn convictions with a twist); Kiefer Sutherland's Designated Survivor, a straight-to-series family drama/conspiracy thriller about a low-level cabinet member who becomes president following a massive attack; anthology The Jury, which explores bias and perception; P.I. drama Presence from John Ridley; and, perhaps most on-point, Notorious, inspired by the true-life stories of criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos and cable news producer Wendy Walker that explores criminal law and the media.

Over at CBS, the network has a diverse take on Nancy Drew — said to now be centered on a woman in her 20s — as well as redeveloped courtroom soap Doubt starring Katherine Heigl.

Meanwhile at Fox, the network has FBI terror drama Recon, cop drama A.P.B., Sanaa Lathan's series pickup Shots Fired, reboots of 24 and Prison Break. Over at NBC, the network is putting a twist on the murder trial mayhem with serialized comedy farce The Trail joining traditional dramas Chicago Law (yet another Dick Wolf spinoff) and soapy legal drama Miranda's Rights, whose title you really can't not chuckle at. Rounding out the pack is straight-to-series Taken prequel, which effectively is the network's version of 24. Said one studio exec heading into crunch time: "We'll see a lot of the Serial affect this year. Mysteries that unfold over the course of 13 episodes. That will continue to be a trend for sure. … The theme is going to be a highly serialized types of shows that will be ordered. Whether that is a more traditional soap or a crime thriller."

Soapy Fare

ABC, home to soapy fare like Grey's Anatomy and Nashville, has nine of its 12 dramas falling into the soaps and crime/courtroom categories. Among the soapy offerings are Shondaland's Romeo and Juliet follow-up Still Star-Crossed, fashion take Model Woman and The Death of Eva Sofia Valdez.

Over at Fox, where "high-concept soap" is the top priority for co-chair Dana Walden, the network continues to look for a proper Empire companion. To that end, it is prepping Lee Daniels' girl group music drama (formerly Star) and developed (though passed) on a reboot of Urban Cowboy with more to come.

Said one studio exec earlier this month: "This year, I think it's all about big, loud characters. Those big, loud, really strong point-of-view characters will be the theme that continues this year for sure."  

Time Travel

Time travel may also be one to keep an eye on, as Fox already has an untitled comedy from Last Man on Earth's Phil Lord and Chris Miller (formerly In Time); NBC picked up Time, a drama about a time-traveling crime-fighting trio from Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke; and ABC has Kevin Williamson's Time After Time, about a young H.G. Wells travels through time. (And we're not even counting CBS' My Time/Your Time, which explores a time zone romance.)

Three of the four trends above were among development season's hottest subjects and arrive as broadcasters tend to produce more of what's working elsewhere in a bid to ride the wave of popularity. While there are still more orders to come (volume is, however, expected to be down year-over-year), there may still be other hot trends to emerge. Though we're betting we haven't seen the last family comedy pilot pickups.

Keep up with all the latest pickups, castings and eventual series orders with THR's handy guide to pilot season.