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So you've seen all of the new shows this fall - but what about the ones that didn't make the cut? For the next 30 days we're going to take a "first look" at a collection of 30 pilots that didn't land on the 2009-10 season schedule. Are there any gems that got passed over or are they all deservedly locked in the networks' vaults? Stay tuned.
INSIDE THE BOX (ABC)
(written by Richard E. Robbins; directed by Mark Tinker; TRT: 44:21)
What is it? A drama about the behind-the-scenes of a fictional cable news network.
Who was behind it?: Reporter-turned-screenwriter Richard E. Robbins penned the hour, which was directed by drama veteran Mark Tinker ("Deadwood," "NYPD Blue"). "Grey's Anatomy" creator Shonda Rhimes also served as an executive producer.
The plot in a nutshell: Catherine Kumar ("Rome's" Indira Varma), Assistant Washington Bureau Chief for CNS News, is so good at her job, people might as well worship her. Or, at least that's what she and her equally talented producer pal, Jake Fisher (Martin Henderson), like to tell each other. You see, she's just learned that Supreme Court Justice Fanning has fallen ill and plans to step down after nearly 30 years on the highest bench in the land. More importantly, said investigative skills are one of many reasons that she should be handed the Washington Bureau's reigns once its current chief, Fred O'Brien (apologies as I didn't recognize the actor), retires. It's much to her surprise then that BBC veteran Kenneth Donnegan ("Viva Laughlin's" Lloyd Owen) has just been tapped by her boss Rosen ("24's" Xander Berkeley) for the job.
"You give me confident, smart, respectable news," Rosen explains. "[But] nobody wants respectable anymore." With Donnegan then comes the promise of a more tabloid style with more "sizzle." Stunned, especially considering their history, Catherine demands Rosen give her an investigative unit that can operate outside of Donnegan's domain. He agrees, but only if she can deliver a huge story. And thanks to a mole in the White House ("Prison Break's" John Heard), she just might have it: it turns out the President plans to name Charlie Ewing, the Republican governor of Virginia, as Fanning's replacement to help heal partisan wounds from the election. Complicating things however is that the married Ewing has been funneling money to a pretty law student named Tanya Simmons ("NUMB3RS's" Navi Rawat). And so if she can connect all the various dots, the story of the year is hers.
Aiding and/or hindering her quest are the rest of the CNS team: incoming White House correspondent Kyle Chisholm ("Eli Stone's" Jason George), whose nervousness leads to an embarrassing moment on camera; Senior Correspondent Samantha Hathaway ("Lipstick Jungle's" Kim Raver), who's less than thrilled about being passed over for the aforementioned job; and Molly Sullivan ("Everwood's" Sarah Drew), a resourceful, albeit very green, production assistant. They get drawn into the Ewing story through their own foibles: Kyle has the ear (and the bed) of Lauren Thomas (Jennifer Finnigan), the White House Press Secretary; Samantha likewise is sleeping with a married DOJ agent ("24's" John Allen Nelson), who's in charge of vetting all the President's appointments; and Molly is assigned stakeout duty on Tanya's home by Jake.
Things however get even more complicated when Catherine uncovers that Tanya isn't Ewing's mistress at all - she's his daughter. And thus the following moral dilemma: get her big story at the cost of two people's reputations or keep quiet and lose out on her investigative unit. But wait there's more: Donnegan has traded the news about Ewing's impending nomination to the White House for an exclusive interview with the President, leaving the tabloid aspects as Catherine's only angle. Thankfully she manages to convince Ewing himself (again, apologies as I didn't recognize the actor) to take the metaphorical bullet for daughter Tanya in the form of an exclusive interview. And while it won't get Catherine her own investigative unit, it will let her keep her soul.
What works: This is one of the few pilots in recent memory that I'm genuinely puzzled as to why it didn't make the cut. Slickly filmed and surprisingly authentic, "Inside the Box" is a genuinely compelling drama with a stellar cast and distinct charm. Varma and Henderson in particular seem on the cusp of stardom here, not because they are pretty, but because they actually behave as adults rather than overgrown teenagers (as is often the case in ensemble workplace dramas). It's an aspect that applies to the show itself as "Box" is an "adult" drama for lack of a better word: lots of things happen that aren't explicitly spelled out, choices characters' make have consequences beyond the immediate and, gasp, you learn a thing or two about what their profession involves.
I was particularly impressed by the latter as it's refreshing to see news being portrayed as something that is "made," meaning that news isn't a litany of facts but rather the creation of a story around them, which may or may not have clandestine intentions. For instance, there's a great scene in which Samantha asks one of her sources something that's completely made up, only to use their reaction as the genesis of a new story. Another - too lengthy to document here - does a great job of showing how journalists can take a small piece of the puzzle and twist it into something much different than what it was ultimately alluding too. It's revealing stuff folks, something that could definitely make a compelling television series.
Other highlights include Catherine's surprisingly rich characterization: she initially comes off as having her ambitions unchecked. That was the case until a few years ago when she gave a poor young boy in Somalia $50 to wear a hidden camera and walk into an enemy encampment, fully aware she could be sending him to his death. It's a dark decision initially attributed to Rosen - she was under orders! - until Catherine later confesses she did it because she knew it meant a promotion. It's not surprising then that Catherine finds herself tempted to throw Tanya Simmons to the wolves and all the more revealing that she's pulling back from the darkness when she doesn't. Kudos to Robbins and company for a great show.
What doesn't: There's definitely a few silly aspects - Molly and Kyle's relative newbieness is played for slightly over-the-top laughs (her first task is to deliver a tape from the White House however she gets into a car accident, she breaks her phone and... wait for it... her purse is stolen with the tape inside; he throws up during a live broadcast and has to go on Jimmy Kimmel - who appears in a cameo - to ease the embarrassment) - while some of the bedroom shenanigans feel tacked on (Kim Raver gets in her underwear because, well, she's Kim Raver). And there's a subplot involving a missing Chinese girl that Donnegan wants to rehash for the sake of ratings that gets dropped abruptly without resolution.
The bottom line: Like I said, this really should have made the cut.