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Still Star-Crossed (ABC) pilot preview: Shonda Rhimes goes all Shakespearian and Downton Abbey

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Created and executive produced by Heather Mitchell (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy). Based on Melinda Traub‘s novel. Directed by Michael Offer (How To Get Away With Murder, Homeland, Longmire). Also executive produced by Shonda Rhimes, Betsy Beers (How To Get Away With Murder, Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy) & Michael R. Goldstein (Rodney) & José Luis Escolar (Cloud Atlas, Kingdom of Heaven, Indiana Jones and the Last Cruisade). For ABC, ABC Studios, Shondaland Productions & The MrG Production Co. 64 pages.

Description: In the 16th century Verona, the deaths of Romeo and Juliet have escalated the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. The streets of Verona have become dangerous, traitors have emerged, and the kingdom is vulnerable to attack. The young ruling Prince of Verona, Escalus, wants to end the feud and bring peace to the kingdom. Following the sage advice of his sister Princess Isabella he devises a plan to marry a Capulet to a Montague to unite the families and strengthen his position. He commands a union between Romeo’s cousin, the womanizing Benvolio, with Juliet’s cousin, Rosaline, who is in love with Prince Escalus. Each is fiery and independent. They’ll have to banter their way to a compromise in the midst of treachery, power grabs and palace intrigue. Another star-crossed love story begins.

With Lashana Lynch, Sterling Sulieman (The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars), Torrance Coombs (Reign, The Tudors), Zuleikha Robinson (Lost, Homeland, Rome, The Lone Gunmen), Grant Bowler (Lost, Ugly Betty, Defiance, True Blood), Anthony Head (Buffy, Merlin, Dominion, Free Agents), Medalion Rahimi (The Catch), Wade Briggs (Please Like Me), Ebonée Noel, Dan Hildebrand (Sons of Anarchy, Deadwood) and guest-stars Clara Rugaard as Juliet & Lucien Laviscount as Romeo (Scream Queens, Episodes).

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We probably all had the same reaction when we learned the Shondaland pilot of the year for ABC was 1/ a period drama 2/ a sequel to Romeo & Juliet: we laughed hysterically and cried a little. And now, it’s time for a little prayer. Make it work. Make it beautiful. Make it modern, somehow. Make it the Downton Abbey of Shonda Rhimes. She always said she was a big fan of the UK show (which is huge in the US too). Some say she’s “the Shakespeare of our time” (and yes, it’s too much). In 2016, we celebrate the 400th birthday of the author’s death. There’s no coincidence, if you ask me. This will be probably get ordered no matter what. Let’s see if it’s worth it or if it’s just saying “yes” to everything Shonda initiates.

For many years, networks worked on modern incarnations of cult Romeo & Juliet. At least one project like this is in development every year. And none of them hit the air in the end. Maybe because Shakespearian tales fuel soap operas for decades, whether consciously or not. The tragedies he wrote are timeless and still resonate with our world, our lives. In that regard, those projects had nothing special going on for them. Maybe the right way to go was this all along and nobody believed in it, or was up to the challenge: adaptating the original story as a period drama and going even further. And asking the crucial question: what happens in Verona once Romeo & Juliet are dead? Still Star-Crossed, despite its flaws, boldly goes in that direction and never apologizes for it.

More specifically, the first two acts are dedicated to tell the story of Romeo & Juliet respectfully. I wouldn’t say it’s boring but we all know how it plays out and how it’s gonna end. Honestly, I don’t know if they could have done otherwise. For the few (young?) people who don’t know it or for those who don’t remember it well, it seemed to be inevitable. Plus, since Romeo & Juliet are those who started the war, it would have been strange not to meet them. And it’s better than flashbacks. The good thing is we’re introduced through their last days to the characters that will play huge parts in the rest of the show, from delivish Lady Capulet and her coward of a husband to Mercutio, and Rosaline, and Tybalt… The list goes on and on. Maybe that’s the biggest problem here: too many characters and very little time to serve them correctly.

This is mostly a premise pilot, that sets up the situations and the relationships for the remainder of the season. Don’t expect too many twists and turns. There are but it’s not the point. And there’s plenty to do starting from here, though I don’t think the first season will consist of more than 13 episodes, since it looks like a midseason entry and the budget will be high with a shooting in Spain. That’s probably for the best. It needs to be prestigious and strong. 22 episodes wouldn’t suit it well. Look at Reign on The CW, in the same vein: it is quite good but the first seasons were way too long. It lost my interest. They have to avoid that at any cost, even if it becomes a success. It needs to be an event. Its built-in brand appeal already makes it an important appointment.

I don’t want to be too specific about what happens in the pilot, I’d just say it’s more exciting than I expected, quite well-written, and it can also appeal to those, like me, who are not fans of period pieces. Treachery, power grabs and palace intrigue are at the center, and it’s not that hard to connect with the characters. They feel modern. The women are, definitely. I have a harder time with the men, it will probably take more time to like them. The show is clearly geared towards women. Unfortunately, it lacks humor and eccentricity for my tastes. I couldn’t stop thinking of the movie Romeo + Juliet, with Claire Danes & Leonardo DiCaprio. It was brilliant, we’re far from it. There are no A-listers in the cast but some people we will be happy to meet again.

Still Star-Crossed seems to be a no-brainer for a pick-up at ABC, not because it’s incredibly good but because it’s different from what networks are used to, because it has a real appeal and already make people curious, and because it’s from Shonda Rhimes of course. It’s a risk worth taking, as long as they play their cards right. 

Shonda Rhimes: her shows you will never get the chance to watch!

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Who thought one day the writer behind Disney’s The Princess Diaries and Britney Spears’ movie Crossroads would become THE producer everyone in Hollywood talks about, dreams to work with, dies to be? Shonda Rhimes, the queen of her own empire modestly called Shondaland, the queen of Thursday nights (#TGIT!), the queen of ABC, the queen of television, well THE QUEEN, has had a lot of success since she launched medical drama Grey’s Anatomy in 2004, still on the air 12 years later and probably for at least a couple more. Spin-off Private Practice quietly lived 6 years after a rocky start; Scandal got bigger and bigger; How To Get Away With Murder started strong right out of the gate last year. The Catch, coming this midseason, is a question mark for now, but the cast is just great (Mireille Enos, Peter Krause, Sonya Walger…). The only disappointment so far was another medical drama Off The Map, cancelled after 13 episodes in 2011. But Shonda Rhimes knows failures too. She also developed many projets and pilots that were not picked up to series over the years, like every other producer out there. Here’s your guide to the dark side of Shondaland: the shows you will never see (except if they are revisited some day)…

 

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PILOTS THAT DIDN’T MAKE THE CUT

INSIDE THE BOX – ABC (2009)

Description: Welcome to the fast-paced, cutthroat world of network news. CNS is a hotbed of professional backstabbing and personal betrayals. The only way to survive here is through strength, talent and friendship. When the DC Bureau Chief retires, everyone assumes that Catherine Powell is a shoe-in for his job. She’s dedicated and savvy and she practically runs the newsroom already. So no one is more shocked than Catherine when the board passes her over in favor of the charismatic, but shallow Englishman, Kenneth Donnegan. Kenneth welcomes Catherine to stay onboard as part of his team but he makes it clear that it’s his team. There’s no way Catherine’s going to take this lying down. She quickly pulls together an investigative team of her own, including her loyal, right-hand man Jake Fisher and talented, but brutally ambitious reporter, Samantha Hathaway…

Cast: Indira Varma, Kim Raver, Jennifer Finnigan, Jason George, Martin Henderson, Sarah Drew…

I will tell you later in the article how Shonda Rhimes attempted to create a show revolving around journalists twice. But she finally made it the third time. Well. Almost. ABC ordered Inside the Box pilot the same year as The Deep End (basically Grey’s Anatomy with lawyers), The Forgotten (that we’ve all… yeah… forgotten, just one of those Christian Slater’s cancelled shows), Eastwick, V and high-concept and much talked-about Flash Forward. Despite quite an interesting cast (with an Indian lead! We had to wait for Quantico, starting this year, to get another one in a drama!) and a result that was said to be “great” from insiders, Inside The Box was not picked-up to series and it was announced that it would be redeveloped at a later time. Which it never was. Shonda used the cast for her other shows though. For having read the pilot script, I have to say I’m very surprised ABC didn’t even try. Yes, it was a bit generic, yet another soap not that different from the others, but it explored a new world and it had a real potential! That was a weird decision quite frankly. I would even call it a mistake.

 

THE GILDED LILYS – ABC (2012)

Description: After a year away in Paris in 1895, Violet Langton Lily – a beautiful young socialite from the renowned Lily family – gets blindsided by love on a New York-bound luxury liner. His name is John Kidd, a handsome working-class man whom Violet’s family definitely wouldn’t approve of. This sudden yet profound encounter makes her question everything including her future. Ultimately, Violet will have to choose between what her heart wants, and what her family expects. Back in New York, Violet returns to discover her father, Edwin Lily, has sunk the family fortune into the construction of the City’s first Luxury Hotel, The Lillian. Eager to get in on the action and attention, Edwin’s brother, Julius, offers to become equal partner and financier. Through years of reckless behavior, Julius has earned a reputation for being a playboy and lout. He’s the Black Sheep, and this is his chance at familial redemption. And he’s willing to get it no matter the cost…

Cast: Sarah Bolger, Matt Long, John Barrowman, Matt Lauria, Blythe Danner, Brian F. O’Byrne, Madeline Zima…

When the world fell in love with the English show Downton Abbey in 2010, Shonda Rhimes was among the early fans. So when The Nine writer K.J. Steinberg came to her with an idea of a similar show located in the US she couldn’t resist and accepted to produce it. The script was convincing enough for ABC to order a big-budgeted pilot. But it was not good enough to order it to series, so it seems. It’s hard to know what went wrong but one thing’s for sure: period dramas are always a tough sell, especially on a network, and it might be what doomed it in the end. And according to The Daily Mail at the time, John Barrowman as the lead was not considered a big enough star in the US to carry the show. The pilot had to compete that year with Nasvhille, Last Resort, Zero Hour, 666 Park Avenue and Devious Maids (first developed for ABC, then sold to Lifetime). Even though most of them came quickly to an end, they had very decent pilots… One year later, K.J. Steinberg created Mistresses for ABC, but without Shonda.

 

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PROJECTS THAT WEREN’T ORDERED TO PILOT

CORRESPONDENTS – ABC (2006)

Description: drama about four female journalists from different media who travel the country…

Cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan…

In 2003, Shonda Rhimes sells her first script deal for a TV series to ABC, about four female war correspondents who strive to maintain some semblance of normal life despite their demanding careers. She’s virtually no one at the time and the project doesn’t pass the script stage but Disney is impressed and wants her to write something else. One year later, it becomes a little show called Grey’s Anatomy. But the woman is obsessed with the idea of a journalist-centric TV show so she comes back with a similar idea, this time without the “war” part, with Pete Horton, Grey’s Anatomy‘s pilot director, on board. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is meant to be part of the cast after his highly-praised recurring role on Grey’s Anatomy as Denny Duquette. Again, the script was never ordered to pilot. Probably because she is already very busy working on two different shows at the same time and not experienced enough to be able to add another one. Yet.

 

THE CIRCLE – ABC (2012)

Description: drama about 10 friends, adopted as children by a billionaire philanthropist, who begin to question their past when one of their own is murdered

Created by Richard Robbins, like Inside The Box, The Circle was developed the same year as The Gilded Lilys. Maybe ABC didn’t want to order two Shondaland pilots at the same time, especially since Shonda already worked on two shows. Or maybe the script was just not good enough. We’ll never know. But even if the premise is exciting, it’s hard to imagine something really good coming out of it for the long haul.

 

WILDWOOD – FOX (2012)

Description: period drama about a wise-beyond-her-years teenager who poses as an adult in order to land a job at a popular bar on the jersey shore in 1985

The first time Shonda developed a show for another network than ABC -but it was still ABC Studios-produced of course- it sounded a lot different than what she’s used to make. The coming of age 80s dramedy was written by Diane Ruggiero, whom she never worked with before, a prominent Veronica Mars‘ writers, who later created iZombie for The CW. It sounded cool, and reminds me now of The Carrie Diaries. Retrospectively, FOX may have missed a great opportunity to get a hit but it may have been considered too teenage-y for the network.

 

UNDER THE GUN – NBC (2013)

Description: drama about a woman who goes to work for the FBI as she struggles to make sense of a terrible event in her past that ruined her life and tore her family apart. While her young and fragile appearance doesn’t typically suggest that she’s best suited to work as a field agent, her dark past helps her get inside the head of criminals who were normal one day and cracked the next…

Two years before Pete Nowalk created How To Get Away With Murder -after writing mostly for Grey’s Anatomy- he came to Shonda Rhimes with the idea of Under The Gun. The script was sold to NBC and not to the Alphabet network. Not ABC enough? Not good enough for NBC either? Anyway, it sounded like a procedural we’ve already seen.

 

MILA 20 – ABC (2013)

Description: sci-fi thriller about a young woman who discovers that she is a Mobile Intel Life-like Android, Mila, an experiment in artificial intelligence created by the U.S. government and her scientist mother, who kidnapped her when she was found to have human emotions…

This Bionic Woman-like story, based on a book for teenagers, was written by David DiGilio, who created the really good but cancelled too soon Traveler for ABC in 2007. It didn’t sound good and I’m not sure Shonda Rhimes and her fellow associate Betsy Beers were the right persons to work on it… But the idea of a sci-fi show produced by Shondaland is appealing in the future!

 

THE MIX – ABC (2013)

Description: drama about the public and not-so-private lives of five very different women who sit in the hot seats as hosts of an influential morning talk show

I’m still not over the fact that this very promising idea never came to fruition. Inspired by ABC’s incredibly popular morning show The View, it was created by screenwriter John Hoffman, who co-produced HBO’s Looking later on. I was already picturing it as the new Desperate Housewives! Going too far?

 

COOKING UP FOR NEXT PILOT SEASON…

WARMTH OF THE OTHER SUNS – FX (2016)

Description: llimited series based on Isabel Wilkerson’s book which chronicles the movement of some 6 million African-Americans from the south into the north and western regions of the country from the period of 1915 to 1970

Shonda Rhimes is working for the first time for a cable network! And it’s a historic drama, another first for her. It might never see the light of day but the high-profile project is in development right now, written by Dee Rees, who made recently HBO movie Bessie.

 

UNTITLED CONVENT DRAMA – ABC (2016)

Description: It revolves around a group of Catholic nuns fighting the closure of their Bronx-based convent who must suddenly deal with three young novices whose arrival unearths long-buried secrets.

This is SO EXCITING, good lord! It’s original –Sister Act is long gone- and it exactly sounds like what Shonda Rhimes does best, with the right amount of soapy elements and feminism, in a very different environment than before. It’s too soon to tell if ABC will give it the thumb up for shooting a pilot but as of now it’s one of the best things that ABC has in store, at least on paper. And creator Alison Schapker has written for AliasBrothers & Sisters, Lost, Fringe and The Flash. Impressing. That can’t be bad, right?

 

SPLITSVILLE – ABC (2016)

Description: in the wake of a wave of divorces, the single residents of a suburban cul-de-sac join forces to raise their kids and get through it together…

Shonda Rhimes has yet to produce a comedy series. She develops a few projects but this one seems to have a better chance to land a pilot order next cycle. Emily Halpern (Private Practice) & Sarah Haskins, the women behind great and cancelled too soon Trophy Wife, are writing it right now…

 

“The Catch” (ABC) pilot preview: After Meredith, Addison, Olivia, Annalise… now please welcome Alice!

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Also known as “Smoke and Mirrors“. Written & produced by Jennifer Schuur (Hannibal Big Love, Crash). Co-produced by Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder), Betsy Beers, Helen Gregory & Kate Atkinson. Directed by Julie Anne Robinson (Grey’s Anatomy, Weeds, The Middle, One for the Money). For ABC, ABC Studios & Shondaland Productions. 63 pages.

Description: Alice Martin, a fraud investigator, fighting crime by the numbers and exposing embezzlers, money launderers and even cartels, is a partner in a Los Angeles firm and attracts top clients, which affords her a nice lifestyle she shares with her fiancé, Kieran. They are about to get married but one day he disappears with two million dollars from her bank account. Now, Alice is determined to find Kieran and the truth. Even worse, if her clients and colleagues find out that this fraud investigator was a fraud victim herself, it could mean the end of her career. The game of cat and mouse has just begin…

With Mireille Enos (The Killing US, Big Love, World War Z), Damon Dayoub, Jay HaydenElvy Yost, Rose Rollins (The L Word, Bosch), Jacky Ido (Taxi Brooklyn), Bethany Joy Lenz (One Tree Hill, Dexter), Alimi Ballard (CSI, Sabrina)…

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When you read a Shonda Rhimes-produced pilot, you can’t help comparing it to what she brought to television before. It’s a natural reaction. With How to Get Away With Murder, it was obvious: the perfect mix between Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, while still managing to be its own thing. With The Catch (or whatever it is called in the end), the most unstartling element is Jennifer Schuur, the writer who created it, has never worked for or with her in any of her previous shows and she didn’t even try to imitate her style of storytelling here. So, the question is: why did shonda Rhimes feel this idea, this pitch, fits in the Shondaland brand? As different as it may sound, it’s in the same vein as Scandal and entirely devoted to Alice Martin, a strong leading woman, brilliant at her job but who can also prove to be fragile when it comes to her messy personal life, in the same fashion as Meredith Grey, Addison Montgomery, Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating. Ultimately, like the Kerry Washington-starrer, it’s about about people hiding secrets and others finding the truth whatever it takes, while they have secrets of their own, though I have to admit a firm specialized in fraud is less sexy and catchy than Washington’s political scene. It still gives a wide playing field for the writers. The Catch comes off as a thrilling ride, but I can’t say it blew my mind… yet.

Remember when the idea of Scandal came to our attention back in 2011 and was called Damage Control at the time? A lot of people were  suspicious about it and very few people felt excited. ABC picked it up anyway but decided to launch it only in the last few weeks of the season, with 7 episodes to prove it was worth a chance. Didn’t look like a vote of confidence from the network. Everybody burried it before it even started. And when it finally did, with very little promotion, the pilot was not widely liked, neither watched. Even I -known to be a Shonda lover- thought it was not exactly what I wanted it to be -I had time to fantasize about it, nearly a year- but the following episodes were better and better, the cliffhangers were breathtaking, ratings started to take off and Scandal finally found its footing by season’s end. You know what happened after that. It became a huge success and four years later, the show is still one of the highest watched on television and the number one drama on ABC. The story could repeat itself with The Catch except now a lot of people want Shonda Rhimes to fall from grace. Badly. Because successful people are always hated at some point, because Scandal is hitting a rough patch story-wise and because she can’t stop killing characters on Grey’s Anatomy. She’s still the queen, haters!

A few pages in, one character from Alice’s team -Maria, a brilliant newbie- asks another -James, a 30 year old who just came out of the closet- “How do you explain your job to people?“. His answer is: “I tell them it’s solving crime, but with numbers“. It’s exactly what it is, but it’s still hard to understand how. Don’t be afraid, Jennifer Schuur did a great job making it easy to follow. The case they’re investigating in the pilot is okay, with a fair amount of twists and turns, but it’s the way Alice kicks ass all along to find the truth that is the most fun to watch. And she doesn’t mind spreading her legs if she needs to. Or hurting someone in the process. Of course, the most interesting part is the cat and mouse game between our heroin and her slippery fiancé. To put the puzzle together, we are helped through flashbacks from the time they were happy and full of hope for the future. Or so it seems. They were already lying to each other. A lot. Still, many pieces are missing. Alice remains a mystery in the end of the pilot. Who is she? Not the woman she pretends to be, that’s for sure. When the FBI gets involved, she’s the mouth caught in her own trap. And Kieran is not ready to let her go this easily either… It’s a great role for Mireille Enos. I’m a huge fan of her work in Big Love and The Killing US and Alice is very different from what she has already played. Can’t wait watching her nailing it!

ABC has a lot of exciting stuff coming out of this pilot season. The Catch is not their pilot script I liked the most. Quantico & Original Sin have stronger hooks and feel more exciting for the long haul. If it was not produced by Shonda Rhimes, I’m not sure ABC would have picked it up to series (I assume they will whatever happens). That being said, it would match pretty well with Scandal on Thursday night and I’m all for it joining “TGIT” when How To Get Away With Murder‘s second season is done by February. It’s simply where it belongs and where it has the biggest chance to spark with the audience. Doing only 8-10 episodes to begin with couldn’t hurt it from a creative point of view. The Catch is a no-brainer. Let the game begins!