Critic's Notebook: The NBC Upfront
The Peacock has finally found its voice. But as a critical new season of rebuilding beckons, they've got to be careful not to wear it out.
That was the takeaway from NBC's cautiously optimistic kickoff to Network Upfront Week on Monday, as new NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt announced, "Today is the start to the road to recovery," while warning the turnaround could take years. Unspoken was the acknowledgement that it could hardly get worse. While not everything on the new season's slate looks like a winner, NBC is once again showing signs of life. And by midseason, when the new shows look to be much stronger, the buzz is likely to get much louder.
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At times the presentation felt like a two-hour tribute to this midseason's breakout hit The Voice. Nearly everyone mentioned it: Seth Meyers as part of his Weekend Update shtick, Jimmy Fallon singing its praises before crooning a mock salute to NBC's new corporate owner Comcast. And Greenblatt, quoting another exec's contention that The Voice was "that rare gift from God," says growing the show (with an expanded schedule and two-hour episodes come January) is among the network's top priorities. The others: aggressively expanding the comedy slate and strengthening the 10/9c hour — once upon a time known as Jay Leno's no-man land. Keeping with the musical theme, the upfront event (as opposed to the defunct The Event) ended with two of The Voice's celebrity judges, Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green, vocalizing with house band The Roots (borrowed from Late Night With Jimmy Fallon).
After listening to the pitch and watching the clips in the Hilton ballroom, here are some thoughts about NBC's fall and midseason plans:
NBC has to hope we don't tire of singing competitions any time soon. I'm curious to see if The Sing-Off will work as something other than a Christmas-time stunt, but two-hour weekly episodes may be asking a lot from an audience that may also be occupied with Fox's The X Factor later in the week. Plus, it will likely be going head-to-head for some of its run against ABC phenom Dancing With the Stars. That's a lot of reality competition for one night. Same for when The Voice launches on Mondays in January. (My prediction: They'll split the audience, and even if Dancing's overall ratings are higher, Voice and possibly Sing-Off will dominate in the demos.)
I love the '60s of Mad Men, but watching NBC groom Eddie Cibrian as their clone of Jon Hamm in The Playboy Club has me scratching the Brylcreem. Hard to tell yet if there's any substance under the glamorous style, but if they could convince me this is Showgirls with bunnies, I might be more interested. In January, when The Voice returns with great fanfare, it will be paired with Smash, a musical drama about the making of a Broadway musical that looks, in a word, smashing. It's Glee for grown-ups, peppered with some first-rate New York stage talents in the cast, but why do the credits think they're "introducing" Katharine McPhee to anyone?
No change, which is good, although I keep waiting for NBC to shrink The Biggest Loser down to size. Those bloated two-hour episodes are painful. But Parenthood has earned its shot for a third season.
Taking on ABC's comedy lineup with two brand-new sitcoms is bold, and at least one of them has promise: Up All Night, with the very well-cast Christina Applegate and Will Arnett (for once playing a character without ironically commenting on playing a character) as overwhelmed new parents. It's the yuppie version of Raising Hope! Well, we can hope. Whereas the workplace sex comedy Free Agents, featuring a mopey Hank Azaria and a snappish Kathryn Hahn, looks pretty toxic. A transplanted Harry's Law will not woo me from my Modern Family-Cougar Town fix, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit carries the banner for the battered franchise.
The million-dollar (at least) question: Can a traditional multi-camera, laugh-track comedy work on a night so devoted to single-camera drollery? I still believe so, but not when the wackiness is as forced as what we've seen so far from Whitney, starring the prettier of the token women who recur on those Comedy Central celebrity roasts. (I preferred the clips of the midseason Chelsea Handler adaptation starring Laura Prepon. One trend of the first day of upfronts: midseason shows that look a lot more compelling than the fall shows.)
Prime Suspect, occupying the old ER slot, is based on one of my all-time favorite PBS imports — and characters (Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison) — so has mighty big shoes to fill. Maria Bello looks prickly and feisty enough, but the "boys' club" network she fights against in the NYPD Homicide unit seems rather antiquated after so many years of gender-integrated procedurals. Law & Order's Lt. Van Buren would have these jerks for lunch. I miss her.
Cult night. Besides Chuck's last gasp, there's the peculiar and possibly "oh brother" Grimm, a fantasy/horror-laced procedural about a homicide cop who sees legendary creatures lurking under the surface of people in his midst. The hunky lead seems fairly colorless, though in this genre you kind of expect the ghouls to steal the show. But its biggest challenge may be going up against established supernatural shows with small but rabid followings: Fox's Fringe and (if the CW keeps it on Fridays) Supernatural.
Besides Smash, the new NBC show I'm most excited about is also slated for midseason (with no time slot yet): Awake, an immediately gripping drama about a man living in two possibly dream worlds: one in which his wife survived an auto accident that claimed their son, and another in which his son lived but his wife died. Jason Isaacs has electrifying star presence as the tormented family man who's seeing shrinks (Cherry Jones, B.D. Wong) in both worlds, but as he tells them, provocatively, "I have no desire to ever make progress" if it means keeping both alive — at least in his head.
Is Awake too offbeat, too exacting, for network TV? Can it sustain over the long haul? Any time a new show prompts me to ask such questions, I know it's a show I want to see more of. After too long of being asleep at the wheel, NBC finally has something on the horizon to make us wake up and take notice.
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