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Critic's Notebook: The Network Upfronts

A curious rite of mid-May: Even as the broadcast networks are wrapping their regular seasons with a flurry of cliffhangers and finale events — farewell, Cristina Yang, and a toast to those soon-to-be-newlyweds Mitch and Cam — all eyes in the industry are already looking to the future, with a just-concluded Upfront Week of noisy presentations in New York in which new series and schedules are announced with a fanfare that probably beats the alternative: blowing taps for all the failed series announced last year at this time.

Matt Roush
Matt Roush

A curious rite of mid-May: Even as the broadcast networks are wrapping their regular seasons with a flurry of cliffhangers and finale events — farewell, Cristina Yang, and a toast to those soon-to-be-newlyweds Mitch and Cam — all eyes in the industry are already looking to the future, with a just-concluded Upfront Week of noisy presentations in New York in which new series and schedules are announced with a fanfare that probably beats the alternative: blowing taps for all the failed series announced last year at this time.

Superheroes are hot. So, refreshingly, is diversity, with more minority leads and casts than any time in recent memory. And now that we have a clear picture of how the nets, and the nights, are lining up, here are some very preliminary first impressions from having seen clips and sifting through the hype. How did the networks rate (in order of presentation)? NBC: Most derivative. Fox: Most unusual. ABC: Most daring. CBS: Most consistent. The CW: Most surprising.

Let's take it night by night:


When you've got it, flaunt it. Or clone it. NBC is back with another cycle of The Voice — not yet diminished by overexposure, but how long before the clock begins ticking? — featuring new coaches Pharrell Williams and Gwen Stefani in the revolving chairs (replacing Cee Lo Green and Christina Aguilera). For the first two months of the season, breakout hit The Blacklist will be back, soaking up that powerful Voice lead-in. The success of The Blacklist (and to varying degrees Scandal and pay-cable's Homeland) has inspired NBC to order a number of series involving international intrigue, espionage and conspiracy. Diminishing returns may set in soon, because the show replacing The Blacklist in November, State of Affairs, seems a blah fill-in, asking us to accept Katherine Heigl (dressed as if she's going to a cocktail soiree) as the top CIA analyst who prepares the daily briefing book for the president (the more intriguingly cast Alfre Woodard).

After a season of free fall on Mondays, CBS makes a bit of history by reducing its two-hour comedy block to a single hour for the first time since the mid-'80s. With Thursday Night Football taking up CBS's top-rated real estate on that night, The Big Bang Theory moves in to give the underrated Mom a powerful boost for eight weeks. That's going to take a bite out of The Voice (and Dancing With the Stars) at least through October. A new procedural, Scorpion, looks like a promising mix of humor and action, as a team of brilliant misfits unites to help Homeland Security (in the form of Robert Patrick) tackle high-tech security threats. Perfectly suited for CBS. And filling the recent ratings abyss of 10/9c, a transplanted NCIS: Los Angeles, which finally makes CBS competitive with Castle and Blacklist.

Adding to the competitive swirl, Fox hopes to capitalize on the surprise breakthrough of last season's wildly entertaining supernatural fantasy Sleepy Hollow by pairing it with Gotham. This dark and deluxe Batman prequel focuses on pre-Commissioner James Gordon (Ben McKenzie, resurfacing from the acclaimed Southland), back in his detective days, coping with the festering corruption and crime of Gotham City (which claims the life of young Bruce Wayne's parents), while providing origin stories of many of the Batman franchise's most memorable super-villains. This looks stunning.

And here's a surprise: The other new Monday show I'm most excited to see is from The CW: Jane the Virgin, a telenovela-inspired hourlong comedy in the Ugly Betty vein, about a virtuous girl from a strict Latino family whose chastity is besmirched when she is accidentally artificially inseminated. It's funnier than it sounds. In fact, it's kind of adorable.

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CBS will once again dominate with viewers in a procedural three-for-all led by the undying NCIS, its latest spin-off (NCIS: New Orleans) and the marvelously unconventional Person of Interest. NBC stresses stability with The Voice and Chicago Fire bookending the night, and pairing returning midseason charmer About a Boy with one of this season's way-too-many wacky yet generic rom-coms: Marry Me, from the creator of Happy Endings, featuring the appealing Casey Wilson and Ken Marino as a longtime couple with incredibly bad timing when it comes to big gestures like proposals. Not an exciting premise, but not nearly as annoying as ABC's Manhattan Love Story, a gimmicky misfire that lets us hear (through voice-over) every unguarded thought of a newly dating couple. You can't even tell them to shut up. They'd just think louder.


Would you believe a modern-day twist on My Fair Lady, reinvented for the age of social media? ABC's Selfie sitcom stars Karen Gillan (best known as Doctor Who's beloved Amy Pond) as narcissist Eliza Dooley, in need of a makeover after a viral Epic Fail, with marketing expert Henry Higgins (John Cho) to the rescue. Cute, different, but is it a self-starter on a tough night?

Avoiding a superhero showdown, ABC shifts Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which enjoyed a late-season creative surge, to the 9/8c hour, opening the field at 8/7c for The CW's spectacular looking The Flash, starring the likably boyish Grant Gustin as "meta human" speed freak Barry Allen, who stole Felicity's (and more than a few viewers') heart in several Arrow episodes this season. The Flash trailer is as impressive as Gotham's, and that's saying something.

Fox will likely struggle to keep its strange new reality concept, Utopia, from ratings limbo, as it follows a group of castaways building a civilization from scratch. Imagine the whiplash as the network shifts gears to its perilously low-rated quirk-coms New Girl and The Mindy Project. As a lead-in, Utopia could prove hellish. This is what we get for cheering when Fox canned The X Factor.


I still wish ABC had tried airing Trophy Wife a few times on this night, but having failed that, it makes sense for The Goldbergs to take up residence between durable comedy tentpoles The Middle and Modern Family. The new Wednesday comedy, Black-ish, is one of ABC's bolder strokes, a family comedy about racial identity starring Anthony Anderson as an affluent dad who despairs when his kids refuse to embrace their heritage.

The night's riskiest new show? Unquestionably Fox's Red Band Society, a dramedy set in a hospital's pediatric ward, where a group of kids bond forever as patients, tended by nurse Octavia Spencer and doctor Dave Annable. (Not to mention executive producer Steven Spielberg.) Narrated by a boy in a coma, this could be either a maudlin train wreck or the next Party of Five feel-good tearjerker. At least it's different.

Which is more than you can say for NBC's The Mysteries of Laura, starring Debra Messing as a homicide cop who's better at nabbing criminals than wrangling her obnoxious twin boys and estranged husband on the home front. If Laura is too cute a procedural, CBS's Stalker (designed as a companion piece to the repulsive Criminal Minds) is too much, a weekly wallow in deranged voyeurism, with Nikita's Maggie Q and a cocky Dylan McDermott leading the charge against deadly stalkers. Clips featured one terrorized victim being torched inside her car. Made me want to attach a rape whistle to my remote.


How Shonda-riffic! ABC goes all Shonda Rhimes all night long, with the power producer's ever-popular duo of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal each bumped an hour earlier — temporarily fixing the network's pesky 8/7c pm problem — with a new Rhimes show in the 10/9c hour, led by Oscar nominee Viola Davis as a badass leather-wearing criminal-law professor teaching her students How to Get Away With Murder. Sounds perfectly outrageous to me.

CBS makes waves on one of TV's most combative and lucrative nights, causing even more headaches for its rivals by scheduling eight weeks of Thursday Night Football at the start of the season. (The regular series lineup will resume Oct. 30 with one new addition: the Irish family comedy The McCarthys, which appears to be less shrill and silly than The Millers, but give it time. Tyler Ritter, yet another charming offspring of the late John Ritter, stars as the gay son, with Laurie Metcalf as the loudly outspoken mom.)

Fox counters with the nomadic, long-running Bones and what now seems a pointless remake of the brilliant British crime drama Broadchurch, here titled Gracepoint, a 10-episode whodunit featuring David Tennant (reprising his detective role from the original, albeit masking his Scottish brogue with a flat American affect) and Breaking Bad's Anna Gunn as his inexperienced partner. NBC more or less gives up, breaking up its comedy block by starting the night with The Biggest Loser, then airing two pointless new comedies: Bad Judge starring Kate Walsh in the self-explanatory debauched title role (no more amusing than CBS's Bad Teacher), and another rom-com, A to Z, starring Mad Men's Ben Feldman and How I Met Your Mother's poorly used Cristin Milioti as apparent soulmates.

At least NBC's Parenthood gets a proper send-off with a shortened final season, to be replaced at midseason by Allegiance, a spy drama that might sound fresh if FX's brilliant The Americans hadn't already mined this territory of deeply embedded Russian spies.


ABC continues its diversity campaign with the Latino sitcom Cristela, about an ambitious law student living with her traditional family. Nothing groundbreaking here, but "T.G.I.F." is all about comfort-food TV, and the plucky star Cristela Alonzo could develop a following.

CBS moves The Amazing Race from Sundays, which might feel like marginalizing the Emmy-winning franchise, but at least fans won't have to endure those aggravating NFL overruns in much of the country. And good luck to Fox's Utopia on this purgatorial night, airing a second weekly installment opposite Friday's dominant reality player, ABC's Shark Tank.

NBC has found a nice niche for dark fantasy on Fridays, and may have developed a strong companion for Grimm with the DC Comics-inspired Constantine, based on the Hellblazer comics and starring Matt Ryan as a wry demon hunter confronting forces of evil on a weekly basis. As one does. (Of course, I'll be counting the weeks until the astonishing Hannibal presumably spells it at midseason.)




Animation is no longer quite such a dominating factor on Fox's Sunday lineup, with the award-winning freshman police comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine separating The Simpsons and Family Guy, and another live-action sitcom, Mulaney, presenting affable stand-up and Saturday Night Live veteran writer John Mulaney in a Dick Van Dyke Show-like situation as he kowtows to an egomaniacal TV comic (Martin Short). Fox rather wishfully describes this as "a Seinfeld for a new generation," but I can't help but see it as more of a (Rob) Petrie dish.

CBS is taking the most risks on its highest-quality night, bridging 60 Minutes and the better-than-ever The Good Wife with a new drama, Madam Secretary, starring the alluring Téa Leoni as a newly installed Secretary of State. Depending on how this develops — I'm hoping the political White House skirmishes will take precedence over earnest international trouble-shooting — she and Alicia Florrick could make a winning combo. And the latest long-running procedural to inherit the precarious 10/9c time period that is particularly vulnerable to sports overruns: the original CSI, which when it finishes its 15th season will be replaced by new spinoff CSI: Cyber. Because that's how CBS rolls.

No real room to elaborate on the midseason offerings, but among the more intriguing teases: CBS's character-driven crime drama-with-humor Battle Creek, from Vince Gilligan and David Shore, feeling more Northern Exposure than Breaking Bad; Fox's sexy hip-hop family saga Empire, starring Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson; NBC's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt from 30 Rock's Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, starring The Office gamine Ellie Kemper as an innocent on the loose in the Big Apple; The CW's whimsically high-concept iZombie, with a touch of Pushing Daisies as the undead heroine helps solve crimes after gaining insight from ingesting victims' brains; and a handful from ABC: an Asian-family sitcom about culture-shock assimilation, Fresh Off the Boat; the warped medieval musical Galavant; the racially charged American Crime (sending off a very cable vibe); and the creepy The Whispers, based on a Ray Bradbury story, about aliens using children to do their sinister bidding. Looking forward to checking out all of these.

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