Critic's Notebook: NBC at TCA
It's showtime for Bob Greenblatt, who spent Monday at the annual TCA press tour presenting his first fall slate of new shows (many of them initiated by the last regime) as chairman of the long-beleaguered NBC Entertainment.
A far cry from Showtime, the pay channel he successfully programmed for seven years with cutting-edge buzz shows like Dexter, Weeds and The Tudors. "I certainly don't want to turn NBC into Showtime," he told the room of critics and reporters at the Beverly Hilton. "But I would love to bring some of the creative vitality to NBC that we had at Showtime. We just have to do it in a way that's really broad and commercial," as opposed to the darker niche shows that typify so much of cable. "The devil's in the details."
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Coming off a summer where America's Got Talent is topping the ratings and a midseason where The Voice emerged as a surprise hit, NBC now needs to strike gold in the scripted arena, Greenblatt's specialty harking back to his days as a producer (Six Feet Under) and development exec at Fox (The X-Files). "You just have to find things that make people really want to watch. The beauty of the reality shows, the unscripted shows, is they are, in many ways, more event-like."
And he's not talking The Event-like.
"We've got to figure out some clever ways to just make these scripted shows as, I'll quote, 'must-see' as we can." The turnaround won't be cheap, it won't be easy or pretty, and it won't happen quickly. This season, Greenblatt's vision isn't even likely to kick into full gear until midseason, when his passion project Smash — a drama he originally developed for Showtime about the making of a Broadway musical — premieres alongside the return of The Voice. (NBC confirmed that the second season of The Voice will launch behind the Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 5, with Smash opening a night later following Voice's Monday night two-hour time-period premiere.) With unusual candor, Greenblatt said Smash "may be the most adventurous show that we do, and it ultimately may be the most narrow show we do. It's hard to know where we're going to come out on the continuum there."
Just as risky is the gripping midseason drama Awake (not yet scheduled), about a detective who emerges from a terrible car accident, caught between two possible dream worlds: one in which his wife died, leaving him a single parent; and the other in which his son perished. That one really feels like a cable show. (Awake didn't come up during Greenblatt's presentation. Guess that can wait for January's press tour.)
Of the fall shows he inherited, Greenblatt pointed toward the Americanization of fabled British police drama Prime Suspect, starring Maria Bello, as "a really good example of the kind of franchise show that feels fresh because we put a very iconoclastic character in the center of it, and it has a directorial vision and a writer vision in it." Will it be as distinctive as the Helen Mirren classic? Not from what we've seen so far, but then, it probably can't afford to be and hope to survive on NBC on Thursdays.
Some more impressions from NBC's day at the press tour:
BUNNY SHRUG: "I think the comparison to Mad Men sort of ends at the era of the '60s," said one of the producers of the period pastiche The Playboy Club. No argument here. (The show will air Mondays at 10/9c.) A muddled and murky mix of misogyny, music and Chicago mob intrigue, starring Eddie Cibrian as a poor man's Jon Hamm, Playboy has been banned by one Utah affiliate that objected to glorifying the Hefner brand, though as another of the show's producers noted, "It's mild compared to a lot of stuff that's on television." Again, no argument.
Playboy's session got off to a rocky start as many critics recoiled at the producers' assertion that Club was somehow "empowering" in its depiction of Playboy Bunnies — who they took pains to differentiate from Playmates. The cast quickly went on the defensive, the Bunnies acting more like Killer Rabbits. "I think it's just chauvinistic to deny women their sexuality," said Amber Heard, whose newbie Bunny character inadvertently skewers a mobster with her stiletto, causing Cibrian to come to the rescue.
In a joke-filled stand-up intro to NBC's day, Community's Joel McHale referred to Playboy Club as "Mad Men with boobs." It might be more accurate to think of this as "Mad Men for boobs."
COMEDY TONIGHT: "Comedy is a goal for us," Greenblatt declared. "We've gotta have more of it, and I think we've got to transplant it off of Thursday." Which is why two new comedies are airing on Wednesday, representing the best and worst of NBC's new sitcom development.
The best: Up All Night (8/7c), produced by Lorne Michaels and created by Saturday Night Live vet Emily Spivey, starring Christina Applegate and Will Arnett as new parents whose me-first lifestyle is upended by the baby on board. Maya Rudolph steals the show as Applegate's self-absorbed, needy boss — a role that is expanding in a promising tweaking of the pilot, turning her from a p.r. exec into a Oprah-wannabe daytime talk-show host. Spivey based this series on her own life as a new mom with an exacting TV job, and all three stars have young kids of their own. Arnett said he had two sick boys at home: "I was legitimately up all last night." And Rudolph just gave birth to her third. "I just had a child and I'm in a bit of a fog. I'm not going to lie to you.... I pumped about a half-hour ago." If you want authenticity, this is your show. Too bad it's not part of the Thursday lineup, where it would be more likely to get noticed. (On Wednesdays, it's facing ABC's established comedies and Fox's mega-hyped The X Factor. But as Greenblatt wryly pointed out, "Any time period virtually on any night is like standing in the middle of the 405 [freeway].")
The worst: Free Agents (8:30/7:30c), a toxic workplace comedy about a divorced sad sack (Hank Azaria) who sleeps with an unhappily widowed co-worker (Kathryn Hahn) and both live to regret it. The tone is smarmy, the characters charmless, and the phrase "anti-romantic comedy" was bandied about on the panel like a badge of honor. Anti-entertainment is more like it.
Another of Greenblatt's goals is "to see if we can bring respectability back to the [traditional multi-camera live-audience comedy], which seems to have been, aside from CBS, almost a dirty word." The first shot across the bow is Whitney (Thursdays at 9:30/8:30c), a showcase for stand-up star Whitney Cummings, playing a wacky version of her comic persona. Unfortunately, as often happens in these cases, the show largely feels like an awkward extension of her stage shtick with nothing fresh about the situations or the shrill execution. Cummings even said at one point, "I like to think of the show as my next [comedy] special." Tonally, it's at odds with the rest of the Thursday comedy lineup. (Up All Night would be a much better fit.)
TALL TALES: NBC's quirkiest fall show is unquestionably the fairy-tale-inspired Grimm, designated for the "cult night" of Fridays (opposite Fringe and Supernatural at 9/8c), co-created by Buffy/Angel vet David Greenwalt, who suggested this is aimed at a slightly broader audience. "It takes a police procedural and kind of turns it on its head, and it takes a storybook fairy tale every week and fractures that." The hero is a detective (the regrettably bland David Giuntoli, a Brandon Routh clone by way of Road Rules) with the ability to discern mythological creatures among us. The legends are sometimes upended — Greenwalt teased titles like "Thinderella" and "The Wolf Who Cried Boy" — and welcome comic relief is provided by Silas Weir Mitchell (Prison Break) as a reformed "big bad wolf." Still, it's hard to imagine this uneasy hybrid achieving a "happily ever after" ending.
WHAT'S IN A NAME? NBC is begging unflattering comparisons by naming its new Thursday night crime drama (10/9c) after the revered British landmark series Prime Suspect, which made Helen Mirren a star as the driven, abrasive detective Jane Tennison. The American adaptation isn't terrible, and Maria Bello is quite good as the scrappy Jane Timoney, a New York detective battling sexism on the job — some of which is being dialed back from the almost cartoonishly boorish behaviors in the pilot episode. The new Jane is a mess in her personal life, but not nearly as dark as the British counterpart. "We all agreed in the beginning not to make her a conventional cop," said Bello, citing influences like Baretta, Columbo and Kojak. "They were all detectives who had a little weird thing, their own quirk. And we haven't seen a woman like that on television." Jane's most prominent quirk is sartorial: a fedora that executive producer Alexandra Cunningham is calling an "iconic idiosyncracy." (The hat seems to have split the critics, annoying many, but the show is sticking with it. "I feel like it's my magic hat," said Bello.)
Don't look for this Jane to go the self-destructive alcoholic route of Mirren's character. "I feel like we've seen alcoholic cops a lot," Cunningham said. Instead, the new Jane will be struggling with quitting smoking — which isn't a cliché? — all part of lightening (if not lighting) Jane up. Cunningham said she's drawing on many of the original Jane's gnarly attributes: "strong, rude, ambitious, selfish, all of those great qualities that make a really watchable character ... but also, we're trying to incorporate maybe a little more humor than the British version."
So really, why call it Prime Suspect? Why not just Lady Cop?
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