Pity the network that has to follow cable at the annual Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills. Such was long-time underdog NBC's lot on Saturday, putting its happiest face on a mixed bag of new fall programming in front of an audience that just a day earlier had sat in rapt fascination as the cast and creator of AMC's Breaking Bad presented their farewell TCA panel — the first episode of its final run (airing Aug. 11) is as gripping as you could hope, by the way. The cable portion of TCA also included a spectacularly geek-tastic celebration of Doctor Who's upcoming 50th anniversary staged by BBC America (complete with TARDIS and Dalek, a roving Cyberman and a museum-quality display of costumes and props).
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There was a hint of Rodney Dangerfield in NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt's remarks that broadcast TV doesn't get enough respect for its quality shows, especially in drama, shunned again this year at the Emmys: "Our peers in this industry ... just look at the shiny new bulb in the cable world." And he got a chuckle with the line, "Flat is the new up," while talking about NBC's stagnant ratings.
"Flat," unfortunately, is no laughing matter when it comes to the uninspired quality of so much of this fall's new network programming all across the board. Which is why it was encouraging to hear Greenblatt declare, "We need to be in the event business," announcing an ambitious development slate of miniseries and "limited series" (which are basically miniseries with legs) that includes a biopic about Hillary Clinton starring Diane Lane, an updated twist on the macabre classic Rosemary's Baby, an historical epic about the Pilgrims titled Plymouth (no doubt inspired by the phenom of History's Hatfields and McCoys) and a remake of Stephen King's Tommyknockers (a reaction to CBS's summer smash Under the Dome, although this is one of King's sketchier titles).
Greenblatt also touted as "events" such live programming as September's two-week around-the-clock game-show stunt Million Dollar Quiz, a live telecast of The Sound of Music (starring Carrie Underwood) for early December, reality hits like The Voice — and, of course, sports. NBC Sports sponsored panels promoting a new season of the top-rated Sunday Night Football and February's Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, although the latter session was peppered with repeated questions about how the network would address Russia's draconian anti-gay laws. (The short and not particularly satisfying answer: Depends on the situation at the time and how it affects the Games, as if it already hasn't.)
I'm all for the return of the much-missed network miniseries format, even when disguised as a weekly "limited-run" series, but the real question dogging NBC and its peers is how to "event"-ize its bread and butter: the weekly entertainment series. One answer this season is to lure big names back to TV.
The biggest, and certainly most beloved, is Michael J. Fox, whose eponymous comeback sitcom (9:30/8:30c) will cap a family-oriented comedy lineup on Thursdays, leading in to a transplanted Parenthood at 10/9c. (That drama was the only returning scripted series to earn a TCA panel, a sign of long-overdue network support — reinforced by a full-season renewal of 22 episodes, its first such order in three years.)
In promoting The Michael J. Fox Show (premiering Sept. 26 with back-to-back episodes), a smart and likable showcase finding humor in the star's Parkinson's condition, Fox was at his most disarmingly charming as he matter-of-factly discussed his disability — "Sometimes it's frustrating and sometimes it's funny" — and how he's "rebuilding the muscles" to maintain a weekly production schedule. This is a star, and a show, to root for.
If Fox is NBC's best new comedy, Emmy winner James Spader in The Blacklist tops NBC's drama roster, inheriting Revolution's cushy Monday time period (10/9c) after The Voice. Spader oozes menace and mystery as an enigmatic and well-connected master criminal (described by a producer as "the Rosetta Stone of crime") who manipulates a novice FBI agent (Megan Boone) through a hunt for super-criminals. There's a Silence of the Lambs vibe to their relationship, but producers hasten to point out that "None of the people in this show are who they appear to be." And Spader isn't channeling a cannibalistic psycho — that's turf already claimed by the network's Hannibal.
On the down side: NBC's ludicrous "re-imagining" of '70s procedural Ironside (Wednesdays at 10/9c), starring the usually charismatic Blair Underwood in an aggressively pugnacious take on the Raymond Burr classic, as a combative NYPD detective who bullies perps from his wheelchair. He's literally Hell on Wheels, and while the producers insist their inspiration comes from gritty '70s movies like Serpico and The French Connection, this so-called "crime drama wrapped in a character study" feels more like an exploitation cartoon.
And winning this season's sweepstakes for unfortunately titled misfires, Sean Saves the World (Thursdays at 9/8c) features Will & Grace veteran Sean Hayes as a gay single dad who can't even salvage the slapstick set pieces as he tries to juggle his hectic home life (witheringly observed by the great Linda Lavin as his acerbic mom) with the demands of a boorish boss (Reno 911's Thomas Lennon). Described by producer Victor Fresco as a "'post-gay show, in that there is a gay man in the center of it, but it's not about being gay," Sean is also post-funny: stale and neutered. Though not as ghastly as Hayes' regrettably over-the-top guest role in last season's Smash (another title NBC lived to regret), it's also not as memorable.
If NBC has a sleeper this season, it could be Welcome to the Family (Thursdays at 8:30/7:30c), which elevates a familiar premise — two families unhappily yoked by a teen pregnancy — with smart casting and welcome diversity: Mike O'Malley and Mary McCormack (In Plain Sight) starring as the pregnant girl's exasperated parents, and Justina Machado (Six Feet Under) and Ricardo A. Chavira (Desperate Housewives) as the honor-student boyfriend's Latino mom and dad. Part of a post-Modern Family sitcom boomlet this fall, this blended-family farce isn't so much about a culture clash as it is about a clash "of personalities and of families," says series creator Mike Sikowitz. It's appealing if not exactly groundbreaking. And on the TCA panel, O'Malley reminded us what a class act he is, providing one of the tour's most memorable and moving moments as he reflected on his Glee co-star Cory Monteith's tragic passing.
That sad subject is almost certainly going to recur when Fox takes the TCA stage later this week.