Critic's Notebook: The CBS Upfront
With CBS, it's not the shows that surprise us, it's the moves. Like uprooting CSI from its decade-long anchor position on Thursdays, making room for a new crime drama — you were expecting something else? — while bolstering Wednesday night (not unlike Survivor's move last season) by taking on the even longer-in-the-tooth Law & Order: SVU at 10/9c. Or moving its most acclaimed drama, The Good Wife, to become the centerpiece of the high-profile Sunday lineup. (Yes, viewers affected by fall football overruns will have to cope, but if any show benefits by being watched live, it's this modern masterpiece.)
CBS is even bucking tradition by putting an original scripted series on Saturday night. OK, it's Rules of Engagement, so "original" might be putting it a bit strongly. But hey, it's a start.
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This network knows what works for its audience, and is successful enough that it doesn't really need to rock the boat. But CBS' programmers also fear complacency as the gateway to the sort of stagnation that brought NBC down (and ABC to a lesser degree), which is why they shuffle the deck from time to time and this year came close (but not close enough) to snuffing one of the superfluous CSI clones. Stability is a CBS hallmark, which is why entertainment chief Nina Tassler seemed understandably relieved to bring out the new Two and a Half Men cast, putting the debacle of last season behind them as a bearded Ashton Kutcher took the Carnegie Hall stage, humming the theme song alongside Jon Cryer and Angus T. Jones. No surprise, Charlie Sheen was nowhere to be seen in the show's celebratory clip reel.
CBS shows don't always make the most noise, but they are consistent and reliable — and undeniably popular. As CBS leader Leslie Moonves told the Carnegie Hall audience Wednesday, "We don't rebuild, we reload." And rarely does CBS fire blanks. The good news about this year's slate of five new shows is that none are spin-offs or clones of a pre-existing franchise. (The best news is that Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior is charred toast.)
The most rousing reception at CBS' presentation went to new Monday night comedy 2 Broke Girls, a female buddy comedy about two waitresses who bond despite their differences: One is scrappy and working-class (Kat Dennings), the other a pampered society princess (Beth Behrs) fallen on hard times. Comedian Whitney Cummings, star of her own new NBC sitcom (which felt much more forced), fares better here as an exec producer, along with Sex and the City's Michael Patrick King. Not a bad pedigree.
The only other new CBS comedy, being paired with The Big Bang Theory on Thursday, is yet another self-conscious look at "real man"-hood (a theme prevalent in several new ABC sitcoms this fall). How to Be a Gentleman is an odd-couple match-up between a meek preppy columnist and a crude trainer/life coach (typecast Kevin Dillon) whose mandate is to "man up" his client to make him more relevant. It's a rung up the evolutionary scale from $#*! My Dad Says — what wouldn't be? — but the macho-vs-metrosexual theme feels behind the curve.
Whereas all three of CBS' drama pilots look right at home. Unforgettable is a primo CBS procedural-with-a-twist, starring Without a Trace fan fave Poppy Montgomery as a detective with perfect memory — we often watch her step outside her body to re-imagine things — and is likely to be more compatible with Tuesday's blockbuster NCIS two-fer than The Good Wife was.
Person of Interest, tasked to occupy CSI's critical former Thursday time slot, feels refreshingly non-formula, a high-concept action series (from J.J. Abrams' cult factory) with traces of Minority Report: the goal each week is to avert a crime before it happens, based on projections from an inexplicable computer program. The partners in rogue preventive crime-fighting are intriguingly cast: Lost's Michael Emerson as the enigmatic money behind the muscle, which would be Jim Caviezel as a former CIA spook living off the grid.
Leading off Fridays — which on CBS is hardly a death sentence — is a new spin on a medical drama, infused with a bit of Ghost Whisperer (which did pretty well for CBS in the same time period). A Gifted Man boasts a gifted cast, including Patrick Wilson as a renowned but aloof doctor who becomes a better human when visited by the spirit of his newly deceased do-gooder ex-wife (Jennifer Ehle). The leads are appealing enough to get us past our allergy to corn — not that CBS sees corny TV as a bad thing. This network lives and thrives in the mainstream, and its schedule looks as solid as ever.
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