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Where Pilots Go to Die: FOX's "The Oaks"

It's always sad when you watch a botched pilot of a script that you really, really loved and are just wholly disappointed by what you see.

In this case, I'm talking about the pilot episode for FOX's supernatural drama The Oaks, which wasn't picked up to series. Last I heard, studio 20th Century Fox Television was attempting to shop the project to other networks, but I would be surprised if anyone picks it up after what I've seen. (You can read my original review of the pilot script here.)

It's not that there isn't an interesting story there because there is. I was utterly captivated by David Schulner's gorgeously nuanced script for The Oaks, which tells the story of three very different couples living in the same house in three different decades: there's twenty-something couple Mike (Matt Lanter) and Sarah (Shannon Lucio) who have recently weathered the death of their young daughter and have fallen apart as a couple; middle-aged blue collar parents of two Frank (Michael Rispoli) and Molly (Romy Rosemont, who replaced Gina McKee) whose daughter Lucy (Mackenzie Milone) seems troubled and whose son Brian (Kyle Kaplan) is prone to spying on his developmentally challenged teenage neighbor Jessica (Shanna E. Braddy); and expectant professional couple Dan (Jeremy Renner) and Hollis (Bahar Soomekh) who are in the midst of completing renovations on their historic home even as they interview midwives for the arrival of their child.

Some interesting stories and the action often transitions seamlessly from each decade to the next, their plots often overlapping as they serve a dual purpose: the first to explore the invisible thread that seems to connect these couples to one another through time (the ghost story) and the second to explore that most fragile of states: wedlock. Each of the couples faces an enormous hurdle in their married life, from the loss of a child to the non-existence of a sex life to long-buried secrets that, in the case of Dan and Hollis, could threaten to derail the life they've build for one another.

See, Dan did Something Bad as a teenager growing up in the very same neighborhood that he has now moved back into with his wife, something that 1988's Little Brian witnessed and something that involved taking advantage of Jessica, who--in 2008--is all grown up but still living in her parents' house right across the street from Dan and Hollis' new house. Dan claims that he doesn't remember Jessica but it's clear that he does, even if Hollis isn't quite suspicious enough.

Add to this a secret room, an oak tree planted by Sarah in 1968 that refuses to be cut down in 2008, whispers and visions in the water, and characters showing up in various eras seemingly by chance and you have the makings of an interesting and provocative supernatural-tinged drama, albeit one that seems more designed for a limited run than an open-ended series.

So what doesn't work? The majority of the casting for one, sadly. While the script brings these characters to life in vivid detail, many of the actors seem strangely out of place or unbelievable in the roles. Yes, I get that Mike and Sarah are a young couple but I found it extremely difficult to accept Lanter and Lucio as adults old enough to own a house (even with his father's help) and have had raised and lost a child, even as producers have tried to age up Lucio a bit with some period-appropriate makeup, hair, and clothes. By the reverse token, I had a hard time feeling connected to Rispoli and Rosemont's, er, dumpier characters who seemed to have zero chemistry between them whatsoever; while their sexless marriage is a huge element to the plot, I didn't see the whiff of any previous attraction between them evident in their interactions.

As for Jeremy Renner, he just looks... distractingly odd in the 2008 segments and I wanted to see him express some sort of moral conflict going on inside him. Or anything really. Renner's Dan is meant to be wholly emasculated by his Blackberry-obsessed career-driven wife Hollis (Soomekh) but we don't even see a clue about this dynamic between them. They just seem like any other tech-savvy modern couple expecting a baby and paranoid about disabilities and end up little more than ciphers on screen.

The direction was also disappointing. I'm usually a fan of Michael Cuesta (Dexter) but here I didn't see any elements of his trademark flair; camerawork was pretty straightforward and pulled some cliche zooms and close-ups right out of the 1980s horror flick handbook. For such an evocative and imaginative script, the produced pilot of The Oaks felt wholly flat and unrewarding, a scenario that may have occurred since both writer David Schulner and executive producer Shawn Ryan (The Shield) were not on set during production, due to the writers strike.

I can understand why The Oaks didn't make it to series at FOX and I can also understand why studio execs would possibly want to scrap the filmed version, recast, and start over again at another network: the script and the characters are intriguing and the concept is original and thought-provoking. But like several of the characters in The Oaks, after watching this, I couldn't quite shake the feeling that I needed a bath to wash off my disappointment.


What's On Tonight

8 pm: Price is Right Million Dollar Spectacular (CBS); Baby Borrowers (NBC); America's Next Top Model (CW); Wife Swap (ABC); So You Think You Can Dance (FOX; 8-10 pm)

9 pm:
Criminal Minds (CBS); Baby Borrowers (NBC); Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious (CW); Supernanny (ABC)

10 pm: CSI: New York (CBS); Celebrity Circus (ABC); Primetime: Crime (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

9-10 pm: Secret Diary of a Call Girl/Weeds on Showtime.

As I am still catching up on telly that I missed during my honeymoon, I actually missed this week's episodes of Secret Diary of a Call Girl and Weeds on Showtime, so I'll be watching them tonight. On Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Belle is booked by a return client for the entire evening and gets to test out her time management skills. Over on Weeds ("The Whole Blah Damn Thing"), Nancy makes her first official run across the border for Guillermo and Celia is offered a deal by Captain Till.


danielletbd said…
Where can I find a copy of the script online? I remember hearing about that not too long ago and thinking it sounded like there'd be a lot of cool promise for it, but casting unknowns is always rough, and putting it on network tv is always worse. I'm not surprised it's "dumbed down" in execution, but I am of course saddened.
Anonymous said…
I was also disappointed by this pilot. I didn't read the script but heard good things about it (on Televisionary!) and expected more.

The cast being mostly unknowns didn't bother me. What bothered me was that they just weren't very good.

I really liked the story but it felt more like a movie or mini series. I don't know if this show could last more than one season (even with a stellar cast) unless the writers had some tricks up their sleeves. Still, I would have liked to have seen a better execution of such an interesting idea.
Anonymous said…
I'm glad you posted this. Your script review made the show sound amazing, and this review made the script sound even more amazing because you gave more details. It sounds completely intriguing.

I was wondering why FOX would pass on it, because when they picked it up they seemed REALLY high on it, and even ordered several scripts, I thought it was a shoo-in for a series order, and was confused when they passed on it.

Anyway, this answers my questions. I desperately wish they simply would have requested to have it recast and reshot, because it sounds even better, dare I say it, than Fringe and Dollhouse, which are two shows I'm completely stoked for.
Anonymous said…
...where on earth have you people seen the pilot, because now I want to know what made you so abruptly change your stance on the story.
Anonymous said…
The Oaks was picked up in the UK and a series made called Lightfields which has just finished airing. Amazing script, acting and direction. A must watch.
Jack Yan said…
Just started on Lightfields, and I understand it is a remake of Marchlands—and both, of course, were based on The Oaks. Interesting that one network in the UK (ITV) would make both within three years, but I guess it confirms that Mr Schulner’s idea has legs.
Unknown said…
This site might help people to understand what's going on with the series.

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