Nellie Andreeva

It’s the first week of April, and we’re kicking off our annual Pilot Buzz series. Keeping with tradition, the first list only includes a limited number of projects that have been garnering strong early buzz as the vast majority of pilots are still filming or going through post-production. So we will omit those on which there is no conclusive feedback yet and will reserve judgement on those that we hear not so good things about until next time.

If the rather dull Pirates Of The Caribbean Disney ride spawned a successful movie franchise, could the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad do the same on the small screen? Despite taking jabs for its origins and casting mostly unknowns, Big Thunder is a surprising early leading contender on the drama side at ABC. Not so surprising is the very strong early showing of the McG-directed Romeo and Juliet-esque soap Venice, with another soapy drama, Betrayal, and the horror take on Once Upon A Time, Gothica, also drawing some early attention, while Reckless and The Returned are emerging as dark horses. Then there is a drama pilot with a zero buzz that is all but assured a spot on the schedule, Joss Whedon’s S.H.I.E.L.D. Why isn’t anyone talking about S.H.I.E.L.D.? Because virtually no one has seen it, with Marvel and Whedon keeping the footage under lock and key. And then there is the Once Upon A Time spinoff presentation, which is now filming and has got to be considered a prime contender for a series order.

On the comedy side, the David Spade starrer Bad Management is hot, as is the Cullen Bros. project, with people singling out the great comedic performance of star James Caan. Adam Goldberg’s How The Hell Am I Normal also has momentum, as do early pickups Trophy Wife starring Malin Akerman and Super Fun Night starring Rebel Wilson, who is breaking out in a big way and is hosting the MTV Movie Awards next weekend.

In the past two years, Fox had a clear early comedy favorite with New Girl and The Mindy Project, respectively, both of which rode the momentum to series orders. This time around, it is a male-centered half-hour that is getting the strongest yearly buzz, the Andy Samberg-starring Mike Schur/Dan Goor cop comedy. Since the three comedy series Fox has renewed for next season all have female skew, Raising Hope and especially New Girl and The Mindy Project, the Schur/Goor project could be a potential companion for the male-centered Dads, which already has a six-episode order and is coming off a strong table read. Given its pedigree — Family Guy and American Dad creator Seth MacFarlane is executive producer — some suggest Dads may break into Fox’s Sunday animated comedy block the way Malcolm In The Middle launched behind The Simpsons. There are two other male-skewing pilots that are getting some buzz, Army-based Enlisted and dating comedy I Suck At Girls, which stars Christopher Meloni. On the female/family comedy side, Us And Them (aka Friends And Family) and To My Future Assistant are getting solid buzz, with The Gabriels also a possibility.

Drama-wise, Rake, starring Greg Kinnear and directed by Sam Raimi, seems to be the one to beat in the early going, with Gang Related and The List, both headlined by Latino actors, probably competing for a slot (Gang Related seems to have a slight edge at the moment), and Sleepy Hollow gaining momentum and Boomerang looking solid. It’s too early for the special-effects-enhanced Inhuman, but it comes from the Fringe duo of J.H. Wyman and J.J. Abrams, which gives it heft.

With CBS recently renewing 18 programs (and two more pending, Two And A Half Men and Criminal Minds), the network has very little shelf space for next season. The competition is shaping up to be fierce on both the comedy and drama side. I hear top CBS brass are particularly happy with this year’s crop of half-hour pilots. Chuck Lorre’s pilot Mom, starring Anna Farris, is as close to a sure thing as they come, and that’s just on paper as the project is yet to go into production, awaiting for Lorre to wrap his three CBS series. Also all but assured at least one spot on the schedule is Greg Garcia, who has two pilots, the recently completed single-camera Super Clyde, which is getting good buzz, and a multi-camera pilot, which is yet to film but boasts top-notch cast led by Will Arnett. After once again sticking to all-multi-camera series orders last May, CBS is expected to back up its statements of commitment to the single-camera genre with 1-2 single-camera series pickups. In addition to Super Clyde, other early single-camera standouts include the Robin Williams-starring Crazy Ones and the Irish family comedy The McCarthys, while ensemble Friends With Better Lives is strong on the multi-camera side. Because of their very late casting, there is no feedback yet on the single-camera Rottenberg/Zuritsky and Tad Quill, but with Debra Messing and Matthew Broderick as the leads, they are intriguing.

Five of the six CBS comedies currently on the air are coming back. (There was talk that the sixth, Rules Of Engagement, might do one final short order but that now appears very unlikely.) That leaves only one half-hour opening on the schedule. With so many half-hour contenders, CBS will likely add another comedy hour after contemplating the idea but ultimately passing on it last season. The question is whether CBS will expand its Thursday block to two-hours and move Person Of Interest or open a block elsewhere, something that has proven challenging in the past.

On the drama side, the NCIS: LA spinoff has got to be a top contender. The backdoor pilot episode was received OK, and CBS so far has picked up every spinoff from one of its crime franchises to series. Also very strong is Beverly Hills Cop. I hear Eddie Murphy killed it with the reprisal of his signature role as Axel Foley in the pilot, while Brandon T. Jackson is still coming into his own as a leading man. I’m sure CBS would want more of Murphy on the show. The rest of the drama field is pretty tight. There is strong early buzz for the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced conspiracy thriller Hostages, with most of the other pilots also very much in the running, including gothic psychological thriller Second Sight, which has Carol Mendelsohn and Michael Cuesta behind it, Intelligence, which stars Josh Holloway and Marg Helgenberger, and Backstrom, whose script was a favorite of CBS brass.

A surprising early drama frontrunner at NBC — the comic book-driven The Sixth Gun, which has an unconventional premise (supernatural Western, mythical guns) and had difficulty casting some of the lead roles. But it has top showrunner Carlton Cuse and a rumored $10+ million budget. NBC also seems to be going back to the well, betting on the producer who delivered its only new scripted hit this season, Revolution‘s J.J. Abrams, with his new NBC pilot, the high-concept Believe, drawing early attention. Also solid early on is the James Spader-Megan Boone starrer The Blacklist. NBC brass also appear committed to legal drama I Am Victor starring John Stamos, which experienced a behind-the-scenes clash over differences between the network and executive producers Katie Jacobs and Daniel Rappaport, who may be exiting. Also in the running is the Rand Ravich action thriller. And let’s not forget the planted Chicago Fire spinoff.

NBC already has one new comedy series set for next season, the untitled Michael J. Fox vehicle, which has a 22-episode order. Another half-hour fronted by a well known sitcom star, the untitled Sean Hayes pilot, is getting strong early buzz, along with the Krysten Ritter-starring Assistance. Abrams and Hayes may get more good news soon as there is speculation that Revolution and the Hayes-produced Grimm, along with The Voice, may get early renewals next week. Also said to have support at the network are school parent comedy The Gates, the multi-cultural Welcome To The Family, the Bill Lawrence-produced Undateable and About A Boy. It’s too early for the Lorne Michaels-produced John Mulaney pilot, which just finished casting. With The Office gone, NBC is expected to add a new show to Greg Daniels’ plate. He has two pilots: The untitled Robert Padnick project which was very strong at the script stage but hit some bumps in the casting process, and the Craig Robinson project, one of which will likely get on the schedule.

CW brass seem very pleased with the Vampire Diaries planted spinoff The Originals, which is now shooting, so it appears a lock for next season’s schedule. The Originals also is a marketing dream as its three stars are established Vampire Diaries cast members who have built-in followings. Of the network’s traditional pilots, the futuristic The 100 is very hot. Also getting early buzz is the Close Encounters Of The Third Kind-esque love story Oxygen. The new Selection pilot is not a lock yet but is considered a significant improvement over last year’s pilot. The Mary Queen of Scots period piece Reign is getting points for its visuals (both The Selection and Reign are filmed in Europe — in Hungary and Ireland, respectively), while Tomorrow People has top CW producers Greg Berlanti (Arrow) and Julie Plec (Vampire Diaries, The Origins) behind it.

TV Editor Nellie Andreeva - tip her here.