NBC at TCA: Press Tour and Post-Pilot Changes

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When NBC launches its fall lineups, its shows have the potential to be very different from the shows that were originally sold to advertisers and sent to critics when they were picked up in May.

This is not uncommon. It also doesn’t mean that the shows in question were outright terrible to begin with. But the reality of creating a pilot and the reality of mapping out a season of television are often at odds with one another, and in other cases new producers are brought in to take over a series and have different perspectives on where the series should be heading. At the same time, though, the public nature of this retooling inevitably places those pilots in a different category than those pilots that go through no such “public” changes. When Alexi Hawley departs State of Affairs as a showrunner, or Liz Brixius steps in to take over Bad Judge, or Constantine trades out its female lead for another female character entirely, it creates a different conversation than for shows with more subtle post-pilot changes that would logically occur when a writer’s room is in place and the experience on the pilot has revealed spaces for subtle inflection.

In all cases, the job of a press tour session is to assure critics—some of the few who have seen the initial pilots—that everything they like will remain the same, and that everything they don’t like will be better (to put it in David Caspe’s words, whose Marry Me is going through no such large-scale overhauling). For new State of Affairs showrunner Ed Bernero, he was quick to address that behind-the-scenes creative concerns were overstated: he’s been working on the show for months, and was crucial in setting up a writer’s room, picking soundstages, and working with existing executive producer Joe Carnahan to set the series moving forward. Bernero was specifically working against the optics he was just chosen days ago—when his deal was first reported by Deadline—but he was also working against the fact that the original writer Alexi Hawley left the project, which carries extra baggage—fairly or unfairly—given the dots-connecting journalists have done relative to Katherine Heigl’s presence at the center of the project.

In this case, Bernero is mostly mapping out what the series will look like moving forward with the pilot as a starting point. By comparison, Liz Brixius is dealing with a more substantial overhaul: when Bad Judge came to TCA, only Kate Walsh and Tone Bell were representing the cast, as the other series regulars have yet to be cast (or at least were not present at the session). Addressing the changes following the panel, Brixius described a situation where she came in from the perspective of someone who hadn’t seen the pilot, and who had a specific perspective on what “real estate” she thought was best to explore. The best friend character—played by Arden Myrin—was removed, as Brixius felt Tone Bell’s bailiff was the best friend, and the more valuable dynamic to explore. Meanwhile, the love interest played by Mather Zickel was reimagined to be more of an equal to Walsh’s character, and was recast as a result. These changes are somewhat challenging given that the pilot is structured around those two characters and their relationship with Walsh, but they intend to do some selective reshooting to put them in a position to transition into the stories they want to tell in the rest of the season (which they’ve mapped out to the halfway point).

That’s not entirely uncommon: reshoots are a reality of the pilot process, whether due to cast availability issues or more substantial creative shifts like these. However, as is clear with Constantine, there is a point where reshoots would need to be more substantial than just changing a couple of scenes. There would be no easy way to work around the choice to remove Lucy Griffiths’ Liv from the Constantine pilot: the show is built around her character discovering the world of souls trapped between worlds, and she is positioned as the story engine to drive the undead investigations that will form the series’ structure moving forward. But because the writers felt hemmed in by her naïve relationship to this world, and felt she would always be too wide-eyed to be a strong foil for Constantine, they’re shifting gears entirely and introducing the character of Zed (Angélica Celaya) from the comics series. Their choice to consciously hire a Latina actress is interesting, and the idea of a stronger equal is promising, but it creates a logistical challenge of how to map the project forward, especially given they’re choosing to largely leave the pilot—which heavily relies on Liv’s back story—as it is before branching off in a different direction through some light reshoots.

It’s going to create a pilot that sells the audience on the idea of a show more than the show itself, connecting with a character that will be abandoned after that episode. The producers worked hard to emphasize it worked for them thematically: people leave Constantine’s life often, and they’re going to rework the pilot to make her time with Constantine a jumping off point for the story. Of course, inherent to their answers is that reshooting an already expensive pilot—directed by Neil Marshall—was never a feasible option, but producers David S. Goyer and Daniel Cerone were well-prepared to spin the creative upside to what seems like a business compromise, given they all-but-admitted they wished they could go back and start with Zed from the beginning of the development process (where the character was considered but rejected in favor of a non-canon character in Liv).

Networks are always quick to remind critics that the pilots made available in May are “not for review”—it’s right on the screener disc itself, and in the case of NBC there’s also a watermark to consistently reminds critics of the possibility dramatic changes could be made. Although it’s not enough to give any pilot a free pass—Bad Judge has tone issues beyond its supporting cast, for example—it’s a reminder television is by design a work-in-progress. With press tour coming earlier than usual this year, many of the producers presenting their pilots aren’t yet entirely clear on what the show will look like, even in cases where such dramatic changes haven’t taken place. And so the most they can really say in interacting with critics is that they take the good, they take the bad, they take them both, and then you have a television show that may or may not bear the marks of its complicated development.

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One response to “NBC at TCA: Press Tour and Post-Pilot Changes

  1. Pingback: NBC at TCA: Searching for the Nuts and Bolts of A to Z | Cultural Learnings

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