Skeet Ulrich in Jericho by Robert Voets/CBS
Frankly, I was surprised and a bit dismayed that CBS didn't have symbolic bowls of nuts in the room as the network launched its portion of the TCA press tour Wednesday morning. Which didn't stop
from dominating much of the conversation when CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler took the stage to introduce one of the more ambitious and controversial new lineups in CBS' recent history.
Tassler said she couldn't go to a neighborhood camera store, or even a doctor's office (where the doctor pulled a bag of peanuts out of his coat in reference to the fan campaign) without being reminded of the furor over
's cancellation and subsequent renewal for seven episodes at mid-season. She says she went on message boards, read the e-mails, "and what you saw was a huge segment of the population that really felt they were not being counted, but more specifically, that they had a knowledge and an awareness of the show that was so detailed and so committed and so passionate that we said, 'Look, this is a rare opportunity for us to interact with our audience and take another shot.'" Ms. Tassler, welcome to the world of cult television.
She hopes to create similar vibes from her new slate of offbeat shows, most of which fall way outside the typical CBS brand. The new series include Jimmy Smits' Latino family serial drama,
, hardly a thriving genre, and the incredibly strange
, a mystery drama with musical interludes that is based on a successful British concept and evokes echoes of ABC's
fiasco among the skeptical TV press corps. When a release came out this morning revealing that its premiere had been pushed back to mid-October, the first thought many of us had was maybe that's one way to keep
from being the season's first cancellation. (Tassler explained that the late start is due to double-header football overruns in the first part of the season.)
There was a noticeable "bring it on" attitude in Tassler's answers as she was grilled about several of her more unusual high concepts. She hopes there will be controversy and debate over the reality-show "social experiment" of
, in which 40 kids from ages 8 to 15 relocate to a New Mexico ghost town to fashion a kids-only civilization. Exploitative? Potentially. We've only seen a clip reel. "The whole objective was to get out there, do something different and have people talk about the show."
She also hopes to raise eyebrows with the mid-season drama
, set amid the sexual revolution of the '70s in a suburban area rocked by freewheeling experimentation. "I hope there are concerns about it. I really do. And we're going to push the envelope with that show."
Is this what we really want from CBS? Is this another example of that old maxim, "Be careful what you wish for"? After years of hearing us gripe that CBS had cluttered its schedule for too many years with too many same-sounding procedural crime dramas, TV's most populist and mainstream network is shifting gears in a noisy, and some might think reckless, way. What hath
Following an introductory clip reel that prominently featured the phrase "A change is coming," Tassler opened with remarks including the declaration that for this season's development, "We really looked for projects that were different, that were a little bit daring. We have a very strong and stable schedule, and it really seemed like a great opportunity for us try things that were different creatively."
Even if it means sacrificing a show that was performing relatively well (though skewing old) on Fridays, like
Close to Home
, in favor of the much riskier work-in-progress vampire drama
(which has undergone all manner of changes in casting and content since the presentation reel from the pilot season). "We wanted to be daring and we saw an opportunity to not only better the time period but do something that would make a little bit of noise and be a little bit better companion to
." Forgive the skeptical mutterings from those of us who remember how well
fared in that same Friday time slot a couple of seasons ago.
I'd like nothing better than for some of these risks to pay off, and for several of these shows to display more promise than is evident in their problematic pilots. Because if the new CBS schedule ends up looking more like the nuclear bomb that took out the world outside Jericho, you have to wonder how long it will be before they start doing location searches for the next
venue. And that would be a crime.