Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Jamie Lee Curtis and the Tale of Two Pilots

You undoubtedly heard the screams of elation this morning when this consummate Jamie Lee Curtis fan awoke to news of the actress’s casting in a new CBS pilot, at some past or present point titled ONLY HUMAN. This casting news quickly became – at least for me – the ultimate good news/bad news scenario: Curtis had previously been attached to a very tasty horror-drama pilot over at ABC Family called THE FINAL GIRLS. Now her involvement in the latter has been dubiously called into question with news of the former.

Here’s what we know:
In September of last year, the Internet went crazy with the news that ABC Family had bought a high-profile spec script from screenwriter Jeff Dixon for a buzzy horror-drama pilot. Stoking the fires of excitement was news that veteran former scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis and her HALLOWEEN: H2O director, Steve Miner, were attached to the project. THE FINAL GIRLS – its title referring to the moniker given to the surviving heroine of a slasher film as coined by Carol J. Clover in her seminal exploration of the subgenre in MEN, WOMEN, AND CHAIN SAWS: GENDER IN THE MODERN HORROR FILM – is the story of a mysterious older woman (Curtis) who assembles a group of young women who have each survived their own real-life horror of some kind “to channel the stress and scars of their experience for some greater good”.

At the time of the announcement, ABC Family had not actually greenlit the project but merely closed a deal for the script and the involvement of those attached. Nothing else has come out officially on the project, but Dixon has dropped a few vague semi-updates on his blog. He’s alluded that the show is going through what most savvy viewers know as “the Hollywood machine” – the countless rewrites, behind-the scenes hirings and firings, and subsequent delays. Less optimistically read, Dixon hints that THE FINALS GIRLS is not “in a typical pilot situation” (uh-oh) and that the pilot’s original March shoot (with an eye on an apropos Halloween bow) isn’t happening. Factor in a new network President and today’s breaking news of the show’s leading lady booking another high-profile pilot on a major network and hopeful horror hearts have no choice but to sink a bit.
ONLY HUMAN, which is penned by David Marshall Grant (of BROTHERS & SISTERS and SMASH fame), will place la Curtis in the lead role as a “dynamic and distinguished” physician who is also the mother of adult quadruplets – three boys and a girl – who grew up in front of reality TV cameras. According to THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, Curtis’s Caroline character “seems hard-hitting and demanding, especially where her son Jonathan, a new hire at the hospital, is concerned. But her toughness really covers a devastating loss that she has never quite recovered from – the death of her husband from a rare genetic disease. And the fact that her children have a 50-50 chance of meeting the same fate has colored her life ever since."

While being clearly in demand with two high-profile pilot bookings that all but guarantee the actress’s imminent return to television with a full-time dramatic role and means a win-win for Curtis fans, it’s now hard not to ponder which would be the better vehicle for her triumphant return to series TV. Let’s examine the seeming pros and cons of each.
THE FINAL GIRLS is (putting no too fine a point on this) every adult horror fan’s dream project. Curtis playing den mother to a bunch of junior scream queens sounds dark, delicious, and campy. Although the pilot’s network affiliation seems to indicate that the horror itself might be watered down for the tween and teen ABC Family demographic, Dixon himself promises this is not the case and even alludes to a sequence involving a nailgun remaining intact even after tweaks and revisions to his script. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine how nailguns could be considered tame in any sense of the word. In addition, it’s logical that ABC Family is investing so much time and pre-pilot work in the project because it’s (perhaps) got some high hopes that the show will draw in more of the much-coveted 18-49 demographic in an effort to expand the channel’s reach. On the upside, ratings on basic cable networks don’t need to be huge to earn future season pick-ups; on the downside, Curtis may command a pricey paycheck…

…which brings us to the ONLY HUMAN pilot. Without a shadow of a doubt, CBS – positioned in first place among the major networks – has the deeper pockets to afford Curtis. Their network also seems to have a built-in older demographic to which Curtis will have undeniable appeal, having test-driven her already with a five-episode guest stint on their juggernaut NCIS which resulted in a ratings spike. Pilot scribe Grant is a respected and pedigreed screenwriter and producer with proven network success. Plus, the synopsis sounds darned interesting. On the upside, CBS – unlike NBC or even ABC – has a better track record of nurturing shows through their freshman year and sticking with them over a season or two before turning the lights off; on the downside, good (if not stellar depending upon the show’s price tag) rating are still a must on network TV, so the pressure would be on.
All this speculation begs the question: Which series would this unmitigated Jamie Lee Curtis fan prefer to see the actress land and launch? As always, I’m going with the underdog – in this case, Dixon’s THE FINAL GIRLS. In terms of sheer ratings potential and water-cooler appeal, I think FINALS GIRLS has the edge. It’s got a genuine genre pedigree, interesting premise that screams possibility, and built-in buzz-worthiness. While I think both her role and profile will be bigger from the get-go in the CBS pilot, I think audience response to THE FINAL GIRLS and Curtis herself would quickly auto-correct the slim chance that network execs over at ABC Family would relegate her character to some sort of framing device (i.e. Charlie in CHARLIE’S ANGELS) and prefer focus on the youngins.

THE FINAL GIRLS or ONLY HUMAN? Either way, Curtis is poised to make her full-time television comeback. And that’s reason enough for this longtime fan to celebrate.

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