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TV pilot season offers new hope for the networks

I still remember the excitement of getting the Sears Wish Book as a kid, rifling through its pages and dreaming about how great some of its contents would be when I finally got them Christmas morning.

Yeah. I’m that old.

But now, that same feeling is provided every May — the second-most wonderful time of the year — with catalogs having been replaced by Hollywood trade papers and industry websites.

May has come to signify the end of pilot season, the weeks the networks spend whittling down hundreds of potential new series to the couple of dozen you’ll see next season. And after last year’s less-than-inspiring efforts, there are plenty of reasons to be excited leading up to next week’s unveiling of the fall lineups.

Unlike last year, which saw three Vegas-set series in contention, there are none this time around. But a couple have ties to the valley.

Thomas Dekker, who grew up in Henderson and went on to star in “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” is the male lead in “Secret Circle,” a CW drama about a coven of witches that’s based on the books by the author of “The Vampire Diaries.” And “Chelsea Lately” regular Jo Koy, a former longtime Las Vegan who began his stand-up career here, co-stars in the NBC comedy “Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea,” based on Chelsea Handler’s memoir.

And, as always, Las Vegas plays a vital role in determining what gets on the air at CBS and The CW, thanks to pilot testing and audience research conducted at CBS Television City at the MGM Grand. (Even though the facility operates year-round, you have only a couple of days left to help craft the fall lineups.)

But while some of the early headlines were generated by ABC’s certain-to-be-renamed “Good Christian Bitches” and “Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apt. 23” — OK, who’s still letting Mel Gibson pitch scripts? — the real story is the overhaul under way at ABC and NBC.

Both networks have new entertainment bosses. ABC’s Paul Lee comes from ABC Family while NBC’s Robert Greenblatt turned Showtime into a programming force. And they’re full of ideas that sound cable-ready.

Of the roughly two dozen dramas they’re developing, less than a quarter of them sound like typical network fare.

Now they just have to hope that unlike “Lone Star” — last fall’s best new network drama as well as its first casualty — they can make shows that feel like cable without pulling in cable-sized audiences.

For starters, it has taken four years, but “Mad Men” finally has spawned some imitators. ABC has “Pan Am,” which follows the iconic airline’s ’60s-era pilots and flight attendants, while NBC is developing “Playboy,” set in Chicago’s Playboy Club in 1963.

But those seem downright modern compared to NBC’s “Reconstruction,” set in the aftermath of the Civil War, and ABC’s “Poe,” which casts the mystery writer as a detective in 1840s Boston.

Things stay literary with ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” — about a small Maine town in which fairy tale characters may exist — and NBC’s “Grimm” — in which fairy tale characters do exist. The big difference being that “Grimm” is, of all things, a cop drama.

In this swing-for-the-fences year, though, “Grimm” isn’t even the only supernatural cop drama in the works at NBC. “17th Precinct,” about police operations in a city ruled by magic, is from “Battlestar Galactica” mastermind Ronald D. Moore and reunites “BSG” stars Jamie Bamber, Tricia Helfer and James Callis, with “Caprica’s” Esai Morales and “Smallville’s” Kristin Kreuk thrown in for good measure. This one already has so many nerds drooling over it, you’d swear it had been dipped in the sweat of a young Carrie Fisher.

Other series breaking out of the networks’ traditional cops-docs-and-lawyers mold include:

■ NBC’s “Smash,” executive produced by Steven Spielberg, about the mounting of a Broadway musical.

■ ABC’s “Hallelujah,” from “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry, about a tiny Tennessee town torn apart by the forces of good and evil.

■ NBC’s “Mann’s World,” from “Sex and the City’s” Michael Patrick King, with Don Johnson as an aging, straight Beverly Hills hairdresser struggling to stay relevant.

■ ABC’s “The River,” an Amazon-set “Paranormal Activity”-style thriller from that low-budget horror sensation’s creator, Oren Peli.

■ and NBC’s “REM,” described as an “Inception”-style thriller about a cop living in parallel realities, that also represents a second chance for “Lone Star” creator Kyle Killen.

Granted, not everything in development is dripping with originality.

NBC is trying to reboot “Wonder Woman” while ABC is breathing new life into “Charlie’s Angels.”

But that isn’t keeping me from dreaming about them just the same.

Christopher Lawrence’s Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. Contact him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com.

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