It would be nice to hope, as NBC does, that the ratings magnet of the Summer Olympics, opening Friday, will somehow magically transform the network's sagging fortunes with its "incredible promotional platform" (as NBC Chairman Bob Greenblatt put it). To that end, NBC will sneak-peek two of its new comedies with commercial-free premieres on pivotal nights of the games, and tease a high-profile new drama on another. Much of NBC's fall lineup will launch ahead of the official premiere week in late September, in hopes of capitalizing on the momentum the Olympics provides.
And yet, the metaphor that loomed over Tuesday's fall-season presentations to the Television Critics Association wasn't so much the excitement of the impending games as the dystopian vibe of its preposterous new action fantasy Revolution, which envisions a near-future world where all the lights have literally gone out. Energy, innovation, electricity — all in pretty short supply in the land of the Peacock this fall.
"It's the originality thing. You can't underestimate it," said entertainment president Jennifer Salke of the new slate. Many of us had trouble finding it.
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As if to defy W.C. Fields' old warning about working with animals and kids, the new sitcoms on NBC's precarious Wednesday lineup include the wacky Animal Practice, in which a misanthropic but gifted House-like vet (Justin Kirk) is upstaged by a monkey, and the beyond-generic Guys With Kids, from executive producer Jimmy Fallon, which might have worked as a sketch called "DILFs" (its original working title), but hasn't developed much beyond its defining sight gag of three grown men toting Baby Bjorns.
Adding to the programming-by-numbers feeling: Dick Wolf's egregiously clichéd first-responder-as-beefcake drama Chicago Fire, in every way imaginable the anti-Rescue Me. Wolf insisted this isn't a "fire-of-the-week" drama, but a "character study about people who do things that you can't pay people to do." (Unless it improves quickly beyond the contrived, tired pilot, it's the kind of show you can't pay me to watch.) Similarly, one of Animal Practice's many producers tried to convince us that their show is "a smart, fast-paced, character-driven comedy that happens to have a monkey in it — not the other way around." Around which time Crystal the monkey (from the Night at the Museum and Hangover movies, as well as Community) took the stage, with sirens blazing, riding atop a mini-ambulance to deliver a "last question" card. There's little question whose tail is wagging this silly show. (The monkey also stopped traffic at the poolside party that ended the day.)
In the bigger picture, Greenblatt announced a "transition with our comedy programming" that entails "trying to broaden the audience and broaden what the network does." As opposed to the Thursday night comedies, "which the critics love and we love, [but] tend to be a bit more narrow than we'd ultimately like as we go forward."
In some corners, these might be seen as fighting words, especially when Greenblatt threw out words like "sophisticated" and "clever" as if those attributes would keep any show from having broad appeal. But it only makes sense, both creatively and economically, for NBC to want to break free from the suffocating pattern of single-camera droll absurdism that characterizes so many of its low-rated half-hours. This doesn't necessarily mean a wholesale housecleaning of shows like Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock and Community (which Greenblatt said isn't necessarily over after this season's 13-episode renewal and relocation to the Friday graveyard). And we certainly hope it doesn't mean a diet of shrill banality like Guys With Kids and Whitney.
A clearer sign of NBC's new direction in comedy is on Tuesdays, where two new sitcoms are aiming both high and broad, with imperfect but encouraging results. The more problematic show is Matthew Perry's latest comeback vehicle, Go On, which like his last short-lived venture, Mr. Sunshine, presents the Friends star as an unhappy wretch (here, a caustic radio host struggling to cope with personal tragedy), who is forced to join a support group of lovable misfits. The strong supporting cast includes Bill Cobbs, Julie White and the delectable Laura Benanti as their winsome therapist. Salke calls it "soulful comedy that can make you laugh, make you cry... might even get a little goosebump or shed a little tear at some point. But that's the kind of comedy I love."
It's being paired with the already controversial The New Normal from Ryan Murphy, starring Andrew Rannells (of Broadway's The Book of Mormon) and Justin Bartha as a gay couple planning to start a family with the help of a single-mom surrogate, whose outspoken grandmother (the hilarious Ellen Barkin) insults everyone with Archie Bunker-style bigoted rants. The show's mix of cloying sweetness and tart outrageousness will be, like most Murphy projects, an acquired taste, but Salke calls it Murphy's "love letter to families." Murphy himself conceded the show was born from his own discussions with his partner about contemplating parenthood. The anti-gay One Million Moms has declared a boycott before its premiere, but Salke says, "The title isn't meant to push the idea that [this] is a more normal family than everyone else. It's just meant to open up a family show to the public that we feel captures the zeitgeist of what's going on in the country right now and being inclusive."
Normal is the best of NBC's fall pilots, which may seem like faint praise, but on the plus side, a boycott at least means someone's paying attention. And for NBC these days, that's half the battle.
Let the games begin.