When at first you do succeed: do it again. Imitation, not innovation, was the prevailing takeaway when CBS presented its fall prospects (and one notable midseason contender) at the TCA press tour on Thursday.
Not that the network's entertainment chairman Nina Tassler had any apologies for doubling down on what works — not when a franchise like NCIS (launching its second spinoff in September) can achieve what she called the "creative holy grail" with its global dominance, or when syndication and/or streaming deals with outlets like Hulu, Amazon and WGN add to the bottom line for shows including the acclaimed The Good Wife and Elementary and the sci-fi hits of the last two summers. "These [new] platforms aren't replacing each other. They're complementing one another and enhancing the value of the content as it moves from window to window."
No one doubts that CBS, despite some ratings slippage last season, is doing well when it comes to the business of show business. (CBS Corporation chairman Leslie Moonves took the stage with NFL and CBS Sports execs to tout the new Thursday Night Football deal, declaring it the new season's one "sure thing ... This is the single best product on network television.") But how about the shows?
Ironically, the freshest new series, Battle Creek — being held until midseason in what Tassler described as a "Let's spread the wealth" philosophy toward year-round programming — is based on a 12-year-old script from Breaking Bad's Vince Gilligan, retrieved from the lost-in-development-hell shelf in the wake of his new notoriety and, with Gilligan's approval and collaboration, put under the supervision of House's David Shore, because Gilligan's first priority is Better Call Saul, his Bad spinoff for AMC. Battle Creek may sound like just another crime procedural (CBS's specialty), but there's whimsy, heart and humor (a Gilligan specialty) in this underdog story of an underfunded police squad in the title Michigan burg, whose jaded star detective (a very appealing Dean Winters) is grumpily teamed with a guileless, golden-boy FBI agent (Josh Duhamel). For Shore, it's a refreshing change of pace. "I think in House, I was kind of exploring cynicism, and in this, I'm kind of exploring optimism. ... It's a show about hope." And we kind of hope CBS finds a good home for Battle Creek to flourish when the time comes. It's worth waiting for.
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Otherwise, it's business as usual on CBS's schedule, starting with the seemingly can't miss NCIS: New Orleans (airing behind the original on Tuesdays), introduced in a two-part "planted spin-off" last season starring Scott Bakula. Executive producer Gary Glasberg teased more crossovers ahead with the mothership's superstar cast, including executive producer Mark Harmon (who was on the panel alongside the new cast), Michael Weatherly, Pauley Perrette (whose character was born in New Orleans) and David McCallum. Unlike CSI's site-specific spinoffs of years past, this will be shot on location, which should at least bring some authenticity to the well-oiled formula.
Airing in front of The Good Wife on Sundays, Madam Secretary (starring the fetching Téa Leoni as the newly appointed Secretary of State) is a classy but rather contrived drama that its creators say will operate on three levels: global politics, inter-office politics and the politics of home/family life. In other words, The Good Wife in the State Department, minus the infidelity. And, so far, the originality.
Derivative in an entirely different way, the action-caper Scorpion (airing Mondays) is a hybrid unpromisingly described by producer Nick Santora as a "fun-cedural" — translation: a procedural with humor — about a team of brilliant but socially awkward misfits (see: The Big Bang Theory) who solve high-tech crimes. Their conduit to the outside world: a spunky waitress (Smash's Katharine McPhee) with a savant son. (Her name isn't Penny, but you get the point.) The novelty here is that Scorpion is based on an actual company founded by real-life genius Walter O'Brien (IQ 197), who's an executive producer of the show and who lends his name to the show's central hero (played by Elyes Gabel). O'Brien described the irony that "as I was on set helping Elyes understand how to act like a genius, I'm struggling with learning how to act normal."
Also based on a true backstory, the sole new sitcom on CBS's fall lineup, The McCarthys (Thursdays), is a slightly less cartoonish Irish twist on The Millers — inspired by the life of series creator Brian Gallivan, the openly gay son of a sports-mad Boston family. Tyler Ritter (yet another charismatic son of the late John Ritter) plays Brian's alter ego, Ronny, and Laurie Metcalf and Rescue Me's Jack McGee play his parents, who are reluctant to let their boy leave the nest. Strong cast, strained material. And this is the second try to get it right. The original pilot, filmed two years ago, was produced as a single-camera comedy. But, as Gallivan explained, "because my family expresses love through insulting each other and being hateful ... that was a little dark. So in a multi-cam [with a studio audience], we found it was more fun to have the audience laughing and enjoying it." Plus, it now fits the CBS brand. Perhaps too well.
Laughter isn't an option — at least not intentionally — when it comes to CBS's worst and most cynical clone, Stalker, designed as a Wednesday companion piece to the long-running disgust-a-thon Criminal Minds. From Kevin Williamson (The Following), this crime drama stars the overqualified Maggie Q and Dylan McDermott as detectives in a unit dedicated to investigating obsessive stalkers. The pilot's horrific opening sequence, in which a female victim is torched alive in her car, "was maybe being a little flashy to try get picked up," Williamson conceded. "We went big." His true intention, he explained, is "to be a creepy, eerie show [that] could be a fun, thrilling, informative ride." When challenged about why going inside the mind of such creatures would be fun or entertaining, Williamson shot back, "Turn the channel."