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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2008-2009 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot - or in this new post-strike/straight-to-series world, reading the pilot script. We'll start with the ones that were actually filmed and move on to the others in the coming weeks.
For our final two weeks, we're going to shift gears a little and look at the scripts for 10 high-concept projects in the works for midseason. All of them have just started or recently completed production so it may be some time before we hear when and if they make the cut.
As always a lot can change from what's on the page right now but we couldn't resist taking a peek.
CAPTAIN COOK'S EXTRAORDINARY ATLAS (ABC)
(written by Thomas Wheeler; 67 pages)
The network's description: "For years it has been rumored that one of the greatest adventurers in history, Captain James Cook documented only a portion of his amazing voyages in the diary he presented to King George VI, secreting his most wondrous discoveries away in a second extraordinary atlas. This legendary atlas is said to have documented a fantastical world of adventure and magic that exists right beside our own. This elusive book has allegedly been passed down from one navigator to the next for centuries... finally finding its way into the hands of our heroine Gwen Malloy at the beginning of our pilot. But unlike the famed adventurers that have preceded her, our heroine is only 13-years-old. This daring, unprecedented fantasy drama combines the action and humor of the Harry Potter movies with the mystical frights of Pan's Labyrinth. With its humor, suspense and sophistication, this fantasy adventure has a strong adult appeal, while also being an accessible family-friendly show. Quirky Gwen Malloy isn't like most 13-year-old girls: she yearns for something more in life. And after she finds Captain Cook's Extraordinary Atlas, she is certainly going to get what she wished for. The Atlas will lead Gwen on many adventures, to a variety of strange lands�some wonderful, some terrifying. Thankfully, she doesn't always have to go alone. Her only real comrade in arms turns out to be an Indiana Jonesish rogue named Bishop, who has grudgingly vowed to help Gwen stay out of trouble�both in this world and the other one. But keeping her adventures a secret from her family may prove harder than anticipated as deep mysteries surrounding her roots and her future open up before her. Legions of fans both old and young will tune in each week to join Gwen on another journey of discovery into unknown realms... as one more glowing page turns in Captain Cook's Extraordinary Atlas."
What did they leave out: It's actually NOT based on a series of young adult books.
The plot in a nutshell: 18th century explorer Captain James Cook was, as the narrator explains, "the greatest navigator of his time and with his three ships The Endeavor, The Adventure and The Resolution charted more unknown lands than any man before or since." His legend grew after his mysterious death as it's believed that in addition to his diary, which resides in the National Maritime Museum, Cook penned a second journal, an atlas of "treasures and creatures far too controversial and terrifying to share with the public." Furthermore whoever possesses this extraordinary atlas can magically "navigate" to those worlds. And with that we turn our attention to the present day, where a precocious 13-year-old girl named Gwen Malloy (Jodelle Ferland) is, unbeknownst to her, about to become The Chief Exploration Officer for the Extraordinary Atlas. Right now though, she's suffering through moving day with her parents - mom Marion (Janel Moloney) and college professor dad Phinneas (Patrick Breen) - plus her wise-beyond-his-years younger brother Finn (Nathan Gamble), who's slightly horrified by Gwen's "Juno"-esque quirkiness. It seems she's lost Jasper, her pet tarantula, one of her many offbeat possessions (arrowheads, stuffed badgers, you name it).
Thankfully a terrified mover has found him. In any case, the family's been invited to dine with Phinneas's new boss, Dean Winters (yet to be cast), whose house feels right out of "The Addams Family." There Gwen can't help but explore the house where she discovers - amongst the dean's impressive collection - a curiously titled book named "Captain Cook's Extraordinary Atlas." Inside she finds a list of "Navigators" - beginning with Cook and ending with Tara Lisbon in 1996 - as well as three rules - wear sensible shoes, never travel at night and never, ever, leave anything behind. Hooked, Gwen can't help but return to Dean Winters's house the following day, only to find his door unlocked and no one home. Afraid but still curious, Gwen takes the Atlas, kicking off what will be the greatest adventure of her life - one that includes dragons, mysterious protectors, homicidal teachers, candy-eating trolls, overprotective parents, secret dealings, ghosts from times past, life changing revelations and most terrifying of all, cheerleading tryouts.
What works: A breezy read even at 67 pages, "Atlas" is the type of whimsical family fun that hasn't been seen on television since, well... since I can remember. Chief among its achievements is the understatedly clever way in which the "Atlas" works - it's essentially going on a scavenger hunt. For instance, to find where dragons reside one must locate "a steep, unexplained drop in local wildlife populations" (a telephone pole smothered in missing pet flyers), then find the nearest dead maple tree, then head in the direction of its last living branch, then search for charred groundhog dens and so on. Sure it's kind of silly, but it's also charming a "Harry Potter" meets "Pushing Daisies" kind of way.
What doesn't: On the flip side, even for a show about a magical atlas - there's far too much disbelief going on. Gwen, despite her best intentions, is something of an unapologetic thief. Sure we're supposed to write it off as part of her preordained destiny and/or quirkiness, but at the same time she's all too willing to trespass, lie, steal and wander off (during school hours no less) without hesitation - not exactly endearing qualities for someone in junior high. There's also a fair amount of violence and scares that walk a fine line between oh-isn't-it-amusing-how-she-gets-away and it's-crazy-to-picture-a-child-doing-this; not to mention quite a few familiar genre beats - an adopted child with a destiny of greatness, a roguish protector with a heart of gold, an outsider whose outsider-ness makes them perfectly equipped to handle the extraordinary duties thrust upon them, etc. Nevertheless, one can't help but get a little swept up in "Atlas." It's a fun show that - in a rarity nowadays - seems targeted to both adults and kids without talking up or down to either group.
The bottom line: Who wouldn't want to see a "Harry Potter"-esque project for the small screen?