Critic's Notebook: NBC at TCA
There's event TV, and then there's NBC's The Event. Which had better be eventful, for NBC's sake.
You can tell a lot about a network's hope for a show from the way it's launched during the TCA press tour. For NBC, once again in a "rebuilding" year (as the execs put it) after last year's prime-time Jay Leno debacle, the highest expectations are pinned on two splashy high-concept action hours—the mysterious The Event and the light spy caper Undercovers — which NBC presented Friday morning before they even introduced their top programmers.
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NBC had an uphill climb convincing a room of skeptical critics, still irked by last season's crash and burn of ABC's FlashForward while also suffering from apparent post-Lost fatigue, to take a leap of faith that The Event's chaotic, convoluted but intermittently enjoyable pilot episode will result in a satisfying experience. (In a nutshell, the thriller is about an ordinary innocent, appealingly played by Jason Ritter, who gets trapped in a conspiratorial nightmare that has mystifyingly cosmic implications.)
The producers insist answers to the pilot's biggest burning questions will be immediately forthcoming, several addressed as early as the second episode, while (naturally) setting up more questions—because why else watch? "You still have to kind of go on faith that we know what we're doing," says creator/executive producer Nick Wauters. (Where have we heard that before?) He describes the pilot, which jumps around in time with almost laughable frequency, as an "appetizer," and says, "as a viewer myself and a fan of Lost, I think I'd ask for people's trust." He can ask all he wants, but the show needs to deliver.
"We all had the same fear," says Laura Innes (ER), who plays one of the show's more secretive characters. "We don't want to end up on a show that drives people crazy." To which Wauters responded: "One of my main goals was to write a show that could keep the audience hungry but not frustrate people."
The good news is that The Event's tone isn't nearly as dark as FlashForward, and Jason Ritter helps give the bizarre antics a compellingly sympathetic anchor. Exec producer Evan Katz (24) says the emotional connection should bring people back. "The show is designed with a lot of cliffhangers and what I call 'holy crap' moments."
Even the network's entertainment president, Angela Bromstad, understands why we might hesitate before jumping aboard the Event train. "We accept and have had to deal with the skepticism of returning to this genre of show. But really, if you can get this show right, even though the risks are tremendous, the rewards are really great."
Did we mention The Event is airing on Mondays in the time period (9/8c) where Heroes briefly burned bright but is now remembered best for its slow fade? While Bromstad still speaks only fondly of Heroes, she notes, "We are going to do everything in our power to guard against the FlashForward [model]. ... It was something that we were afraid of competitively and understand that it did disappoint the audience. We take those lessons really seriously."
It will be interesting to see what lessons we take away from The Event. NBC's not the only one hoping for a more positive outcome.
There's much less controversy, but also a surprising lack of critical buzz, greeting Undercovers, the spy lark from J.J. Abrams (who famously gave us Alias) and Josh Reims (whose association with Abrams dates back to Felicity). The show, which will air Wednesdays at 8/7c, stars Boris Kodjoe and British import Gugu Mbatha-Raw as drop-dead-gorgeous spies who are married and, after several years of retirement, lured back to the world of international intrigue. Reims says the show's inspiration is closer to classic romantic comedy a la The Philadelphia Story than the tormented labyrinthine mythologies of Alias.
The leads are charismatic, and there was plenty of appropriate fuss made over the significance of a big-budget network series featuring a pair of black stars, although the show itself is in most respects refreshingly post-racial in attitude. But as they say where I come from: How's the show? The downside of the Undercovers pilot is that it's perhaps a bit too light, with very little tension even in the elaborate action sequences.
Seeming to acknowledge this problem, Reims says the pilot is being tweaked. "And from the pilot and future episodes, we are sort of bringing the danger up a little more, just to make it more serious and to make it more tense, so that when we have those Nick & Nora moments back at home with our characters, it feels like a nice respite from where we just were in Russia with crazy killers."
Sounds like a move in the right direction. But at first look, like so much of the new fall product on nearly all of the networks, Undercovers just feels under-inspired, a bit ordinary. Still, ordinary would be a compliment for the rest of NBC's woeful scripted newbies.
The afternoon went pretty quickly downhill, with critics heaping scorn on Outsourced, a one-joke sitcom joining the Thursday lineup after The Office. It's yet another workplace comedy, yoked to a culture-clash fish-out-of-water setup, about an American office manager assigned to oversee a customer call center that's been outsourced to Mumbai, India. Let the cultural stereotyping begin!
Two other shows were given a mere 20 minutes on stage to plead their case, and even that felt long. The prize for most ludicrous premise of the season belongs to Outlaw, starring Jimmy Smits as a maverick (read: conservative/libertarian) Supreme Court Justice who quits the bench to go tackle Big Issues on behalf of the little guy. As hokey as it is ridiculous, with Smits gambling and womanizing when he isn't gearing up for the next self-righteous speech, the show is "a little bit of a fantasy," says exec producer John Eisendrath. Which qualifies as the understatement of the day. This one airs on Fridays, so it's really not on anyone's radar.
And then there's Chase, which is being asked to take on Hawaii Five-O and Castle on Mondays (10/9c). A generic action procedural from the Jerry Bruckheimer factory that sends a team of telegenic U.S. Marshals after gnarly fugitives-of-the-week, it's mainly notable for giving a second chance at stardom to the fetching Kelli Giddish as a spunky heroine they call "Boots" for obvious reasons. Fresh from an instantly forgotten Fox flop (Past Life), Giddish fares slightly better here, but we're betting third time—or more—will have to be the charm. I'd report on what went down during the brief session, but most of the room was floating in a sugar coma from the Top Chef: Just Desserts reception that immediately preceded this panel.
Thanks, Bravo. At least something went down sweet.
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