Trends emerge amid the laughs
Self-contained stories, one camera, high conceptsJust like their drama counterparts, serialized comedies have been given a cold shoulder this development season.
Overall, the five networks have ordered 53 comedy pilots and presentations, up from 50 last year.
The single-camera format continues to be in fashion, with all networks but Fox handing out more than half of their pilot orders to filmed comedies.
That might change come series pickup time in May because the most promising new comedy this season has been CBS' recently launched "Rules of Engagement," a multicamera sitcom. "We're really happy to see that people have responded to a traditional-looking show," says Wendi Trilling, CBS executive vp comedy development. "It proves that it's not about the format, it's about the show."
Also big this development season are big, high-concept ideas as the networks have gone for such shows more than in previous years, says Samie Falvey, ABC senior vp comedy development.
"For some, it's a throwback to nostalgia for shows like 'Bewitched' and 'I Dream of Jeannie,' and some are looking to create noise and buzz," she says.
Such high-concept comedies include NBC's "Area 52," about a government team watching over a bad-mannered extraterrestrial, and ABC's "Sam I Am" about a woman with amnesia.
"Area 52" also falls into another major trend this season.
"There are more workplace and family comedies this year," says Susan Levison, Fox senior vp comedy development.
That probably has a lot to do with the success of NBC's "The Office" and the lack of hit family comedies on the air with ABC's "According to Jim" and "George Lopez" nearing their end.
The success of "Office" and ABC's "Ugly Betty" is also fueling the popularity of foreign formats with six adaptations making the cut as pilots this year.
Overall, it has been an all-over-the-map development season, with executives casting a wide net to catch the next big comedy hit.
"Since no one really knows where that next hit comedy will come from, all rules have been thrown out, so you could go for any genre and any writer," Levison says.
Larger-than-life characters are front and center in ABC's crop of comedy pilots.
"The successful shows are about really brilliant characters that feel fresh and yet completely accessible," says Samie Falvey, ABC senior vp comedy development. "We're developing a couple of big ideas, but every show (we have) really truly is very character driven."
Falvey is facing a challenge in her first development cycle as the head of ABC's comedy department. The network's serialized freshmen entries, including "The Knights of Prosperity" and "Big Day," earned largely positive reviews but have struggled to connect with viewers.
"They are great, fun shows, but wherever possible our (new) shows will have episodes that stand alone with full, complete 'a' stories or the 'c' story arcs will be general enough that audiences can still follow what's going on," Falvey says.
While all its recent comedy additions have been single-camera, ABC is not completely turning its back to the multicamera format that served it well over the years.
"I believe in the form, and I think that there is place for a new great multicamera comedy on our air," Falvey says.
"This year we're looking for big ideas, for things that are very promotable," says Jeff Ingold, who is overseeing his first slate as NBC senior vp comedy development.
NBC is looking to expand its comedy presence beyond Thursday, taking a page from the successful launch of "My Name Is Earl" on Tuesday last season.
"We went for big ideas that can self-start and open up another night for us like 'Earl' did," Ingold says.
In a throwback to the big-concept comedies of the 1970s, NBC is betting on high-concept projects like "Area 52," whose ensemble includes an alien.
While the majority of NBC's pilots are single-camera, the network is staying true to its multicamera comedy roots with two projects.
"Even with those multicamera shows, we're looking for something that is unique in tone like 'The Mastersons of Manhattan' or in execution like 'The IT Crowd,' which includes single-camera elements," Ingold says.
In line with NBC's low-cost initiative, the network also has ordered "Improv Everywhere" and "This Is Culdesac," which run 20%-25% of the budget for a single-camera pilot.
Ensembles and young male leads are prominent on CBS' eclectic comedy slate, reflecting the eye network's effort to cast a wide creative net with its development this year.
More than half of the projects are in the single-camera format, up from just one last year. But there wasn't a conscious effort to target filmed comedies, says Wendi Trilling, CBS executive vp comedy development.
"Our development as always is really dictated by the writers who we wanted to be in business with and what it was that they wanted to write," Trilling says.
Despite of the high volume of single-camera pilots this year, Trilling says she is pleased to see that there is life yet for the traditional multicamera sitcom — as demonstrated by promising midseason entry "Rules of Engagement."
CBS' diverse slate of options for fall includes the mockumentary-style "1321 Clover" and projects from Scott Silveri, Paul Reiser and Max Mutchnick and David Kohan. Trilling's team also made a point of rescuing a project from last year, Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady's "The Big Bang Theory," that had a lot of fans but didn't quite jell in its first iteration.
"We pride ourselves on continuing to try to fix things," she says. "We don't think it makes sense to throw the baby out with the bath water."