Critic's Notebook: NBC, Fox Upfronts
NBC logo, Fox logo
When people call the network upfronts one long song and dance, they're not kidding. Especially if the network is NBC — which opened the week of splashy fall-schedule presentations at Radio City Music Hall, with a spoof video imagining many of NBC's returning shows transformed into musicals: Grimm, Parenthood, SVU (with an animate corpse as Mariska Hargitay sings), Parks and Recreation's Leslie Knope singing "Popular" from Wicked, and most memorably, Meet the Press' David Gregory doing a bump and grind with showgirls.
This was followed by an actual show-stopper: Smash stars Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee teaming on the signature song "Let Me Be Your Star," capped by the Voice judges turning their chairs around, with NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt sitting in Blake Shelton's fourth chair. All a not-so-subtle reminder of the importance of The Voice to the network's fortunes — for the first time, the singing competition will be part of the fall lineup, occupying three hours between Monday and Tuesday — and the symbolic importance of Smash as Greenblatt's highest-profile passion project to date. (The show, rewarded an early renewal, won't return until next midseason, so it can air straight through without interruptions.) For all of its ups and downs and creative growing pains, Smash has bragging rights as one of NBC's few modest successes this season, as the struggling network continues to rebuild.
Though Greenblatt promises he won't go so far as to musicalize his entire schedule — see the new lineup here — he certainly hasn't been shy about playing musical chairs. Which some might liken to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic — because there's no discernible logic to renewing marginal comedies like the reviled Whitney and the acclaimed cult item Community, then pairing them on Friday. The latter move is an acknowledgment that most Community fans time-shift it anyway, so maybe it doesn't matter when it airs. (I'd argue it still deserves a Thursday slot more than the buzz-free Up All Night.)
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So here are some first impressions and analysis, based on clips (not always a reliable barometer) and context.
Monday: There's a risk of overexposure and burnout in bringing back The Voice so quickly, instead of resting it for half the year the way Fox handles American Idol. But NBC can't afford to keep an asset this hot on ice, and it's promising some necessary tweaks to the format. The strategy is to use The Voice to launch NBC's most promising newbies — in the dramatic genre, that would be Revolution, which looks like J.J. Abrams and Supernatural's Erik Kripke channeling Stephen King in a quest adventure set in a near-future where all electricity and technology has stopped operating, plunging civilization into a primitive fight for survival. At first glance, it looks like a higher quality Jericho. And much more inviting than misfires like The Event.
Tuesday: Another hour of The Voice (what a time-suck) helps launch two new comedies in NBC's "sophisticated" mode, which means they look smart and droll, while possibly being a little light on the funny. (Time will tell.) Go On seems to be a better fit for Matthew Perry than the short-lived Mr. Sunshine, but he's still playing a prickly guy — and a recent widower to boot (downer alert) — whose misadventures in wacky group therapy are the core of the comedy. Ryan Murphy's The New Normal, with its gay dads and surrogate mom premise, is certainly timely, but recalls one of the unhappiest chapters of Brothers & Sisters. Still, the cast is strong (including The Book of Mormon's Andrew Rannells as one of the dads and a viper-tongued Ellen Barkin as the surrogate's disapproving grandmother), and I'm intrigued to see Murphy play in the comedy sandbox. But will these shows be able to break through against Fox's more established comedy block?
Wednesday: Broader comedy kicks off the night, with a prankish monkey upstaging Justin Kirk's misanthropic vet in the raucous Animal Practice, while Guys With Kids (from Jimmy Fallon's company) looks to be as generic as its title. Then comes a two-hour block of Dick Wolf procedurals, with SVU once again bounced to the 9/8c hour (where it traditionally fails to get traction against Criminal Minds and ABC's comedies) to make room for Chicago Fire, a thoroughly clichéd macho firehouse soap that seems a backward step for a genre that reached its dramatic-comic apex in Rescue Me.
Thursday: The running-on-fumes 30 Rock will conclude its run in the fall, only one season too late, presumably to be replaced by the midseason 1600 Penn, which unlike most NBC comedies aims straight for the belly-laugh in its depiction of a fictional First Family's antics, especially the John Belushi-like bungling son played by another Book of Mormon grad, Josh Gad. This one could be a sleeper hit. The scheduling of Rock Center With Brian Williams at 10/9c is perhaps the starkest sign yet of how far the network has fallen on this formerly must-see night. The slot once occupied by groundbreaking dramas from Hill Street Blues to ER is now such a costly dead zone that NBC is basically giving up, opting not to sacrifice another expensive scripted show after the fast failures of Prime Suspect, The Firm and (my favorite) Awake.
The Weekend: I've already discussed the weirdness of moving Whitney and Community to Friday (and let's hope a deal can be made to secure show creator Dan Harmon's full-time services to Community). Saturday is the usual wasteland of repeats. And Sunday belongs to the NFL juggernaut in the fall, with reality dominating at midseason, though the new medical thriller Do No Harm, starring Rescue Me's Steven Pasquale as a surgeon with a psychopathic alter ego, looks creepily compelling.
Moving on to Fox, which also made singing competitions a centerpiece of its upfront (at the ornate uptown Beacon Theater). Ryan Seacrest hosted the proceedings, with plenty of American Idol flourishes, and the long-awaited announcement of Britney Spears and Demi Lovato as new judges on The X Factor was unveiled with suitable fanfare. (Mary J. Blige, an Idol mentor this season, sang us out.)
Fox is such a stable network these days, only three new shows were ordered for fall, none of them particularly ambitious. (See the new lineup here.) But after the costly failures of high-concept fantasies like Terra Nova and Alcatraz this season on Mondays, it's not entirely surprising to see something as conventional as the medical melodrama The Mob Doctor taking root as a punchy companion piece to Bones. (Much more intriguing is the midseason thriller The Following, with Kevin Bacon on the trail of a charismatic serial killed played by Rome's James Purefoy. Fox is touting this as "the next 24," which is a lot to live up to, though it does look exciting and scary.)
The network's bigger priority this season was developing new comedies and creating a four-sitcom block on Tuesdays, using the underrated Raising Hope and the breakout New Girl as building blocks. (New Girl was the focus of Fox's filmed parody, with characters including Fringe's Walter Bishop and Zooey Deschanel's sister Emily from Bones auditioning to be new roomies.) Following Hope will be Ben and Kate, a quirky sibling comedy about a single-mom sister and well-meaning doofus brother (the charming Nat Faxon) that appears awfully sweet, though possibly lacking the distinctive tone of Hope and New Girl. Fox has higher hopes for New Girl's companion piece The Mindy Project, a showcase for The Office's Mindy Kaling as a funky doctor frantically trying to fulfill her romantic-comedy fantasies. As is often the case, it's hard to gauge from the clips whether Kaling has the chops to break from the ensemble to carry a show Tina Fey-style. But in theory, it makes sense.
The new Tuesday lineup kicks Glee to Thursdays at 9/8c, the network's riskiest move this fall. Pairing the musical dramedy with The X Factor makes thematic sense, but dropping this unsteady and now-vulnerable franchise into one of the week's most competitive time periods is likely to do Glee no favors at a time when it's going through its greatest upheaval yet, sending several of its core characters to New York for a show-within-the-show. If this ends up recharging Glee's creative batteries, then maybe it will have the juice to be a Thursday player. Stranger things have happened.
Next up: ABC
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