Katie Findley as Sydney and Dave Annable as Wesley in the pilot for Heart of Life
Ever wonder how TV executives wade through the dozens of pilot scripts they're pitched each year? They have staff script readers, who provide what's called "Script Coverage," an executive summary and a recommendation for each script. Now, thanks to Primetimer's own resident script reader, you too can preview some of the season's most buzzed about pilots. Note that all opinions are our own, and all plot, casting and other creative details described here are subject to change.
Before she stepped down as ABC's Entertainment President, Channing Dungey made it clear that one of her goals was to find the network's next big family drama, a genre that was core to their brand in the 90s and 00s, but has recently become more closely associated with NBC (thanks in large part to the runaway success of This Is Us). In an interview with Deadline in August 2018, Dungey stated: “We (went) into this season wanting to do our version of Thirtysomething, and I feel that we found that in A Million Little Things. For next season, we are talking about Brothers & Sisters and trying to see if we can find a way to do that.” After Dungey's departure for Netflix, her replacement Karey Burke has carried the torch and picked up Heart Of Life.
The project, inspired by singer-songwriter John Mayer’s song of the same name, was developed internally at 20th Century FOX Television. It was written on spec by Ben Queen, best known for his work on the comedies A to Z and Powerless. (Curiously, both Dan Fogelman and DJ Nash also worked mostly in comedy before creating This Is Us and A Million Little Things.) The package was taken out to broadcast, cable and streaming networks in December, and ABC quickly made an offer. If picked up, the project would the Alphabet's fourth with producer Melvin Mar, who, along with his partner Jake Kasdan is already producing Fresh Off the Boat, Speechless and Bless This Mess for ABC.
WRITTEN BY: Ben Queen
DRAFT DATE: 1/11/19
PAGE COUNT: 58 pages
SCRIPT SYNOPSIS: SYDNEY WINTER (24) grew up idolizing her namesake father SIDNEY (64). After discovering her father’s illness, Sydney undergoes DNA testing to see whether she carries the same gene and is surprised to learn that both she and her brother BRENDAN (29) are not her father’s only children. At Sidney’s birthday party, famous musician ALEXANDRA REID (36) shows up on the Winters doorstep introducing herself as his daughter. After connecting with her long-estranged father on his death bed, Alexandra calls her brother WES (39) to try to convince him to do the same. That night, Sidney passes away, leaving Sydney’s world turned up side down as she learns that her idol abandoned his former family. Arriving in Pasadena to visit his dying father, Wes is devasted and angry to learn that his Sidney has passed away. As the two families struggle to make sense of their father's secrets, they learn to live among each other in order to face their shared truth...
COMMENTS: While there have been past attempts to develop scripted TV series inspired by songs, including Carrie Underwood’s Two Black Cadillacs and Plain White T’s Hey There Delilah, Heart Of Life may become the first to actually get picked up to series. If the show sparks with viewers, perhaps it'll be the beginning of a trend. It's funny because it's not one of John Mayer's most popular songs -- it wasn't even a single. And it doesn't tell a story, per se. It just expresses feelings and sends a message of comfort. It's sweet and emotional and the script effectively captures its tone. And yes, the song is indeed played in the pilot, but you'll have to wait for the last minutes to hear it.
While the show is a bit lighter in tone, it doesn't avoid the conflicts, plot twists and ugly cries that we've come to expect from the modern family drama. As a fan of the genre, I can't say Heart Of Life is revolutionary -- it's not even as good as Brothers & Sisters. The same way A Million Little Things isn't the show of the decade, it's "just" a good, simple show that relies on the charm of its characters and their stories, this show doesn't try to be "the new This Is Us," with a complex structure and an ambition that will inevitably disappoint because the bar was set so high from the get-go. That's not to say that it doesn't have ambition, just that its goals are realistic and attainable.
The pilot is narrated by the father character, Sidney, who talks about himself in the third person. I can't remember another show doing this, and although it's risky choice, I think it works (at least in script form). The pilot starts as a super simple love story, but it gets more complicated as lies tend to lead to more lies, heartbreak and illegitimate kids, apparently. I think it's more than enough to hook viewers through the end of the pilot, and the characters should make us want to come back for more.
Sydney is ambitious and caring, with a type-A personality that not everyone will fall in love immediately, but that's the beauty of her character. She's like a slow burn. She takes over her father's architecture firm and as a woman in a man's world, she must fight to be heard and respected. Brendan, her brother from the same mother, is a self-centered world traveler who is good at getting by on his father's money but is also often the voice of reason. He comes back from France with a fiancée, Garance, who's not the most fleshed-out character. I'm guessing she's not here to stay. And then there's their mother, Lily, a courageous woman who accepted a lot in the name of love. She's not the focus of the pilot but I can see her ultimately becoming a fan favorite.
Then there are the kids their father decided not to raise, and to not even stay in touch with. Alexandra Reid is a famous singer. She's not Taylor Swift but she is someone who is recognized on the street and she has a multi-million dollar loft. She's not exactly the nicest person, but she's complex and that's good fuel for the show. Her brother Wesley is even more damaged than her. He didn't have music to work through his pain and anger. He's played by Dave Annable, who's basically playing Justin Walker from Brothers & Sisters again, but older. I don't know if this casting is genius or lazy. But it will feel weird at the beginning for fans of the earlier show, that's for sure. Finally, there's Jimmy, Alexandra's old partner, a wiry, aloof, singer/guitar player and aging rock star who drank and partied a bit too hard. He’s surprisingly sweet, thoughtful and a good listener. Together, Alexandra and Jimmy bring a kind of Nashville vibe to the show and I'm honestly not sure how I feel about that. The Reids are harder to love than the Winters, but they are the rebels you want to root for. And when the two families are finally brought together, something special happens on the page, capping off a compelling pilot with the promsie of even better things to come.
FINAL RECOMMENDATION: The pilot for Heart Of Life plays like a sweet song full of emotion that you can't help but listen to over and over again. In this way, it could be a good pickup for a streaming service, but it's also a good fit for ABC. I can see it working with a lot of the other shows in their lineup. Here's hoping they find a slot for it this fall.
OVERALL PROJECT SCORE:
Wednesdays at 10? Or maybe Mondays if ABC opens slots for more dramas around The Good Doctor...