Pilot Script Review of Harlem's Kitchen
ABC may not have Shonda Rhimes in the house anymore, but some of the writers who worked with her for years are eager to follow in her footsteps. That's the case with Zahir McGhee who got his start at Shondaland with stints on Private Practice and For the People. He also worked for six seasons as co-executive producer on Scandal. He's currently a consulting producer on the ABC's freshman drama Stumptown, after signing on overall deal with ABC Studios. Harlem's Kitchen marks his first-ever pilot order. It is produced in-house with Mandeville Television under the supervision of Laurie Zaks, Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman (The Fix, The Family, Castle).
The script sparked actor Delroy Lindo's interest so much that, after a meeting with McGhee and director Stephen Williams (Lost, Watchmen), he decided to step back from the CBS All Access legal drama The Good Fight to join the pilot. According to Deadline, "he felt this was an important project and one he wanted to support," especially after the creative team shared their commitment to parity and inclusivity on set. If picked up to series, Harlem's Kitchen would be ABC's first major drama with a mostly black cast, coming at a time when FOX's Empire and Viola Davis-led How To Get Away With Murder are ending. Lindo's character Ellis Rice is loosely based on famed Harlem-based chef Marcus Samuelsson, who informed the writing.
PILOT SCRIPT TITLE: "The Chosen One"
WRITTEN BY: Zahir McGee
DRAFT DATE: 12/20/2019 Fourth Revised Network Draft
PAGE COUNT: 61 pages
SCRIPT SYNOPSIS: The show starts with a quote from Chef Marcus Samuelsson: "Harlem is not a place that people come to live. It's a place people come to be. It is a place you get to know inch by inch."
We open on ELLIS RICE (60s) looking directly into the camera. He's magnetic and powerful. Through his voice-over, we're thrown into the heart of HARLEM as he walks along Malcolm X Boulevard and is greeted warmly along the way. He knocks on the door of a tired old van. A guy opens the door and hands him a mysterious brown bag. He takes it, nods, and continues walking until he arrives at RICE, the iconic fine dining restaurant he founded thirty years ago. The place is impeccable and it has heart and soul. There are portraits of Harlem's finest on the walls, from James Baldwin to Billie Holliday. Ellis enters the kitchen and reveals what's inside the bag: a dozen live blue crabs. We cut to the same kitchen at night, in the thick of a dinner service. It's an incredible orchestra led by Ellis. He makes his way out of the kitchen to the dining room, which is full of celebs -- Diddy! Neil Patrick Harris! Even Chef Marcus Samuelsson himself! As each heap praise on Ellis, he doesn't even try to play his modest self. The sequence ends with a picture of Ellis with his arms around Jay Z and Beyoncé.
Cut to: another day in the kitchen, as the staff is prepping the next service. Two chefs are on the line: EDEN (30s) ans MARCO (30s). They're both anxious but they try to hide it beneath jokes and an evident chemistry. Chef Ellis enters: he's here to taste their last creation, and after a long and tense deliberation with himself, he's not satisfied. Eden takes it hard. Moments later, we meet Ellis' longtime wife CC (60s) and she's not exactly thrilled when he tries to touch her. To calm his nerves, he goes to his secret hidden happy place: the walk-in refrigerator. There, nobody can see him do the thing he says he doesn't anymore: smoke a cigarette. But as the camera slowly pulls away, something terrible happens: he crumbles in pain as he's having what looks like a heart attack...
COMMENTS: When you consider how many popular reality shows center around restaurants and cooking, it's surprising there aren't more scripted comedies and/or dramas set in restaurants. Only CBS's 2 Broke Girls and FOX's Kitchen Confidential (going all the way back to 2005) come to mind at the moment. In 2015, ABC ordered the pilot Mix, a multi-cultural, multi-generational dramedy set at a family-owned restaurant in Austin, Texas. That one didn't make it, but five years later they're giving it another go, and based on the script, Harlem's Kitchen is a stronger contender from the get-go. An ensemble family drama very similar to Brothers & Sisters, it reads much like what you'd expect from a Shondaland alum. It's fast-paced, weird, witty, full of OMG moments and complex female characters. If not for its overused starting point of a patriarch dying and leaving his business to his wife and children who soon realize he was not exactly the saint they thought he was, I would have considered it a total shoe-in for a series pickup.
But let's go back to the weird stuff for a moment. By now you may have surmised that that Ellis Rice actually dies midway through the pilot. And he does, but Delroy Lindo didn't leave The Good Fight just for a guest shot on a pilot. He will keep appearing as a "ghost". Yes, it's a risky choice, and I can't assure you that it will work. But on paper it does. This is due, at least in part, to how well the show introduces him while he's still living. He's a dynamic character, and one that you can't help but want to see more of. Here's how it works: sometimes he's there in the corner, watching a scene play out just like us, reacting and breaking the fourth wall. Other times, he appears in his wife CC's mind as she misses him or feels anger towards him. Another "weird thing" about the script is a bit more gimmicky: featured dishes are identified on screen with a stylish chyron like they are in Chef's Table. I don't have particularly strong feelings about this either way, although I do wonder whether this one will stand the test of time. The last weird thing won't make it to screen but played an important part in how I felt the script: the writer Zahir McGhee often addresses the reader as if he was a viewer of his own show, reacting to its twists and turns. Script readers will either love it or hate it. I loved it.
The richness of the show comes from the vibrant neighborhood in which it's set, and the characters who inhabit it. Many have strong personalities and questionable morals — with a father figure who looms as large as Ellis, you wouldn't expect anything else. CC is a caring mother and a world-class pastry chef who appears to have secretly been the driving force behind her husband’s success. Together, they had three daughters and while mother and father are both convinced that only one of their daughters has what it takes to ultimately take over the family business, they don't agree on which one... which, as you might imagine, causes a good deal of drama.
Zadie is the eldest She has a perfect little baby, a perfect husband and the perfect job as the front-of-house manager of the restaurant. Ivy League educated, she could have worked anywhere she wanted, but her perpetual sense of responsibility brought her back to RICE. As the series opens, she finds herself in something of a 1/3rd life crisis that threatens to jeopardize everything she has achieved. Eden is the middle child with one simple dream: to be the first African American chef to earn a Michelin star. Eden’s work ethic as sous chef at RICE is unmatched, but her talent is slightly outpaced by her ambition. She's engaged to the adoring, spiritual force and wunderkind master sommelier, Golda. Eden wants her father’s spot at RICE and is willing to cross any line to get what she wants. Finally, Nina is the mercurial youngest sister: stubborn, volatile and brilliant. Nina’s bond with her father is magnetic, but despite her natural talent in the kitchen, she's always has steered clear of the family business. Instead, she found purpose and family in the streets of Harlem. When we meet her, she’s fresh off of a three-year stint in prison. Now that she’s out, Nina finds herself at a crossroads that will make or break her.
Apart from Ellis, there's only one strong male character: Marco, a talented line cook and an undocumented El Salvadorian who trekked to America with his little brother. Like his mentor and surrogate father, he had nothing when he landed in Harlem. Ellis took Marco in and made him employee number one at RICE. Marco repaid Ellis with hard work, quickly rising from dishwasher through the ranks of the kitchen. He's the embodiment of the American Dream. Passionate, sensitive and sexy, Marco is easy to love — and quick to fall in love himself. Adding to show's intrigue, he has a torrid affair with one of the Rice sisters! There's also a mistress in the picture and a long-hidden son but let's not give it all away...
FINAL RECOMMENDATION: Despite a cliched starting point, Harlem's Kitchen is an intense and juicy drama centered around fierce and ambitious black women. With a history of leading the way with representation both in front of and behind the camera, ABC may have another winner here. It fills the network's mandate in many ways and kills it with an exciting, sophisticated script.
OVERALL PROJECT SCORE:
[ ] PASS
[ ] CONSIDER
BEST FIT: It could join Station 19 and Grey's Anatomy on Thursdays at 10, in the fall or in midseason, depending on what they do with A Million Little Things.