Critic's Notebook: CBS at TCA
This summer's press tour journal starts with CBS, where "stability is a good thing," this understatement coming courtesy of entertainment pres Nina Tassler, kicking off the network portion of the Television Critics Association gathering on Tuesday. (As opposed to the disarray over at ABC, whose turn comes Sunday, after having been rocked this week by the sudden ouster of its programming boss Steve McPherson.)
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CBS is playing to its traditional strengths this fall with a lineup of new legal and crime dramas and conventional laugh-tracky sitcoms. No critical breakthroughs on the order of The Good Wife, but there's every reason to believe commercially crafted shows like the Hawaii Five-0 "reboot" (don't call it a "remake") and the buddy-lawyer Vegas romp The Defenders will carry on the Eye tradition of mainstream populist escapist success.
Tassler's team is so confident in these new shows they've made their most aggressive moves of any network this fall by shaking up the schedule to make room for them. Hawaii, a high-octane re-imagining of the '60s classic into a hybrid of NCIS and The A-Team, moves into the coveted Monday time slot (10/9) long occupied by CSI: Miami (which moves to Sundays). Hawaii stars three-time CBS hopeful Alex O'Loughlin (Moonlight, Three Rivers) as the new Steve McGarrett, a military ace who assembles a rogue task force including scene stealer Scott Caan (Entourage) as the irreverent new "Danno" and Lost's Daniel Dae Kim as Chin Ho. During the Hawaii panel, O'Loughlin pretty much admitted, "If this one doesn't go, I'm completely bewildered. I have no idea how television works at all."
Not to worry. Though some critics openly expressed concern about the pilot episode's grittiness and violence, including a tragic back story for McGarrett, the producers and Tassler insist the show boasts plenty of "blue-sky" and light-hearted qualities. This one's about as close to a slam-dunk as it gets.
The Defenders, which was originally pitched to Fox as a docu-reality series following two real-life high-rolling Las Vegas lawyers, has morphed into a genial if generic comedy-laced courtroom drama starring Jim Belushi and Jerry O'Connell as cocks of the neon walk. It displaces CSI: NY on Wednesday nights, moving it to Fridays as a lead-in to the new crime drama/multigenerational family saga Blue Bloods. Tom Selleck (who plans to continue the Jesse Stone movie franchise on the network) stars in Bloods as a crusty NYC police chief whose kids all enforce the law (Donnie Wahlberg as a detective, Bridget Moynahan as a DA and Will Estes as a law student turned police-academy recruit). Solid but staid, with an established star at its core, Blue Bloods pretty much embodies the CBS brand.
Here's Tassler on the CSI moves: "Both Miami and NY are still strong players for us. So we said, 'Look, we can use them to improve the time periods they're going into, as well as support new shows they they're launching side by side with.'" And that's how you program a stable network.
The downside of stability, of course, is complacency, and there wasn't much genuine excitement generated at CBS's press day, even when The Big Bang Theory cast and creators took the stage to discuss the network's boldest fall gambit: moving the hit sitcom into the teeth of the Thursday maelstrom, separating it from the Monday lineup and its powerful Two and a Half Men lead-in to kick off the Thursday lineup at 8/7c. Tassler describes the decision as "difficult," but says "this was a great opportunity for us to really move it into a strategic place, let it open the night, and it earned its way there. We don't expect it to do the numbers that it's done on Monday just yet, but I think the show has distinguished itself. ... We haven't seen a comedy like this in a while, and it's really exciting to be a part of it."
In the low-key but authentic love-fest for Big Bang that followed, executive producer Chuck Lorre (Two and a Half Men, the new Mike & Molly) was sanguine about the latest move. "One assumes they've given it a lot of thought and it's a good thing for the show. Given where we are now after three seasons, I'd be crazy to argue with the choices that CBS has made along the way." He took the expected creative position that "Our job is to make a good show. It's not to program the show. You know, we grow the crops. We don't have the truck that brings it to market."
He describes the move to Thursday as "almost like a re-launch of the show ... a do-over in a way. So we are really doing everything we can to make it everything we believe it should be." And believe me, should things go south for Big Bang on Thursday, which few expect, CBS will move quickly to restore things to their proper order to protect this still-growing hit.
It might help if Big Bang were being paired with a comedy more palatable than $#*! My Dad Says, a witless showcase for William Shatner in grumpy-old-man mode in a sitcom derived from the popular twitter feed. The pilot is being revamped, including recasting the actor playing Shatner's son. But the show could use a dose of the spirited passion Shatner displayed from the TCA stage, in which he made a case for restoring the word "s--t" to the show's title. "The word 's--t' is around us. It isn't a terrible term. It's a natural function. Why are we pussyfooting?"
But as he marveled over the show's genesis on twitter, calling it "an electronic miracle" (while admitting he's hired a young college grad to post his own tweets), he described $#*! as a "viral show ... that stems from the culture of now." More than a few of the twitter-ati in the audience couldn't help thinking the show was viral all right—as in the toxic writing.
The goodwill Shatner generated may not have swayed many critics' skepticism about the show (although judgment will be reserved until we see the finished product, as usual), but sometimes an actor's charm can move the needle under the right circumstances. Take Billy Gardell, a veteran stand-up of considerable girth who headlines the new Monday night romantic comedy Mike & Molly (9:30/8:30c), a love story between two overweight people—his object of affection is played by Gilmore Girls' Melissa McCarthy—which smothers its characters in a barrage of fat jokes.
While executive producer Chuck Lorre tried to insist "this isn't a show about weight, it's a show about people trying to make their lives better and find someone that they can have a committed relationship with," Gardell confronted head-on the metaphorical elephant in the room. "When you're a fat guy in Hollywood, you're the bad guy, the cop or the neighbor. ... I'm humbled to be at this weight and this age in Hollywood to be one of the leads of a show of this caliber."
To nervous laughter, he announced, "I broke a chair before I came over. I'm not kidding. It happens. I'm heavy."
Round two: "Everybody'd like to be a little bit better than they are, you know, but everybody has a different tick, man. Mine just happens to be pizza. ... It's OK. You can laugh at that. I've got a mirror. Lighten up."
Round three: "We're fat. The show's funny."
And that's no bleep.
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