Fall TV Preview: Hapless NBC Still Stumbling Around Like a Peacock With Its Head Cut Off

NBC

With Labor Day in the rearview mirror, it’s time to focus on the main business of the fall: school football television! All week, Grantland will be previewing the new TV season, one network at a time, and evaluating the first efforts of each incoming freshman. Today: NBC.

Not losing isn’t necessarily the same thing as winning. Despite all the chaos, change, and Chelsea marring what proved to be an inauspicious debut for entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt, NBC didn’t finish the 2011-12 television season in last place. Well, OK, it did — but that’s only if you count all of the viewers. If you pour yourself a healthy tumbler of Canadian Club and consider the situation only as an advertiser, then NBC actually bested ABC in the sexiest of relatively meaningless demographics, 18-to-49-year-olds. Screw you, ABC! Enjoy life in the basement! The Peacock flies again!

Except … not. While NBC did post real, if modest, gains in viewership from the year before, a good many of them can be ascribed to its tri-annual airing of the only show that unites 18- and 49-year-olds: the Super Bowl. (Need proof of that? Fox, though still no. 2, was down 9 percent in total viewers from last year. Guess which network hosted America’s favorite six-hour Dorito commercial in 2011?) Furthermore, ABC, like a veteran beachgoer, has a decent base: Modern Family is the highest-rated comedy among those coveted 18–49ers, and returning shows like Revenge and Once Upon a Time should only grow in their sophomore seasons. If you’re going to crow about micronumbers, eventually you also have to acknowledge the bigger picture. And at NBC, that picture is grim. (Also? Grimm.) All of Greenblatt’s big bets from last season bombed (The Playboy Club? Closed. Prime Suspect? Convicted. The Firm? Flopped) and even his small successes don’t inspire much confidence: The much-disliked Whitney and the much-mocked Smash are returning with entirely new creative teams, while the marginally tolerated Up All Night continues to engender more goodwill for its talented cast than its weak storytelling.

The only thing NBC hasn’t lost is its Voice — but you can’t keep spinning chairs forever. (Though they’ll most likely try!) Once you get past the music of Monday nights, the rest of the week is marked by deafening silence. No network needed a game-changing fall more than NBC. Greenblatt has said as much, both in his Chaz Tenenbaum–like proclamations last winter and his more recent comments about the plan to “broaden” the Peacock’s programming. It’s not just that NBC is fiending for a hit, like some trackmarked suspect on SVU. It’s desperate for stability. The few, flickering bright spots on its air — critically if not commercially — are soon to be extinguished. (30 Rock and The Office are both shuttering soon; Parks and Rec is unlikely to be reelected.) The once-bedrock Thursday has tumbled from Must See dominance to barely seen, practically niche irrelevance, and the rest of the schedule appears positively Sisyphean: a crumbling roadblock of mediocre comedies and inexpensive newsmagazines attempting to stop a motorcade of high-octane SUVs (or are they NCISes?) As CBS has proven, time and time again, the way to build long-term success in the broadcast arena is night by night, not hour by hour. And with craters six days out of seven, NBC appears to have run out the clock.

So while I wish I could report that NBC’s fall slate contains some magical restorative elixir, made of melted Jell-O pudding pops and stray hairs swept from the floor of Jennifer Aniston’s trailer in 1998, it’s simply not possible. No network engenders as much goodwill as NBC due to a combination of nostalgia for yesterday’s hits as well as a physicalized sense of place; “CBS Television City” sounds like an imaginary town populated by the tubbies from Wall-E, but 30 Rock is both a show and a legendary building where ghosts and greats still mingle. But no network squanders that goodwill so frequently, either. Far from providing emergency relief, NBC’s six new shows debuting this month, together, constitute some fresh kind of disaster. The best of the lot stars a two-foot-tall capuchin monkey. The worst of them — well, it’s hard to decide which one that might be. There’s not a single new offering that could bolster a night of programming, let alone salvage an entire network.

How could this have happened? Well, CBS boss Les Moonves might argue that it’s much easier to build muscle while operating from a position of strength — and he’d most likely make the argument while chugging a creatine milkshake and attempting to lift his private island. And NBC apologists (and possibly even Greenblatt himself) might try to make the case that the previous kamikaze regime Zucked up the Peacock’s development department so profoundly that it’ll take more than two years to get it running again. (I’d say something about depleted minor league teams and the long-term cost of continually playing the short game, but, again, baseball’s been on Fox for a while now.) In an astute piece from earlier in the year, Cory Barker laid out in quite compelling terms how NBC has both over-relied on the ephemeral pixie dust of established brands (for every Parenthood there are a dozen Knight Riders) and ignored more stable investments in multi-camera sitcoms and procedurals. While Greenblatt remains worryingly addicted to the former (2013 will bring both a reboot of The Munsters and another familiar monster, Hannibal — both from talented producer Bryan Fuller), he has belatedly addressed the latter with the horrible Guys With Kids and the horribly dull Chicago Fire.

But as a former CEO of Bain Capital might argue, at a certain point you’ve got to stop blaming the previous administration. NBC’s lousy lineup isn’t only about the failures of the past, it also lacks a coherent vision. While Fox has poached the hip comedy mantle with New Girl and The Mindy Project, and ABC is likely to find success with appealing hours like Nashville (which, in an alternate universe, would have made a much more logical partner to The Voice than the tepid Revolution), Greenblatt seems devoted to chasing a soft and squishy middle that most likely hasn’t existed since the days when TVs were fatter than Pierce Hawthorne’s wallet. Just because the potential audience for Guys With Kids is larger than, say, Parks and Recreation doesn’t mean it automatically will be. Even assuming there is such a thing as “mainstream” anymore, there’s still a real skill involved in constructing a sitcom aimed at it. No matter one’s opinion of Chuck Lorre’s money-making multi-cam factory at CBS, it’s impossible not to recognize that those shows have a distinctive voice. Greenblatt seems determined to scrub any and all of that sort of individuality away; why else would he renew Community without its sui generis creator and then clone it, as Go On, without any creativity at all? It doesn’t matter if the tones you’re going for are all bold primary colors. When you treat programming like Jackson Pollack treated paint, the odds are against you producing anything coherent.

If — as those still kvelling over Bill Clinton’s recent speech believe — it is indeed possible to appeal to both Main Street and Whatever Street Harvard Is On, it’s a skill Greenblatt has yet to master. (Though, to be fair, not even Bubba himself could have sold a skeptical electorate on Awake.) It’s a tough needle to thread, attempting to redefine an entire network as one that resists definition. With nothing to build on and little to say, the Peacock is likely to remain flightless for another long season.

(SEASON) PASS

Animal Practice (Wednesday, September 26, 8 p.m.)

You might remember this novice veterinary comedy from its sneak preview just a month ago, when its middling monkey business interrupted the closing ceremony of the Olympics. No, nothing has changed, and I’ve seen no new episodes. But of all the sick puppies in NBC’s fall menagerie, only Practice suggests the potential to mature into a healthy animal, with a sleek coat, a wet nose, and a humorous POV that extends beyond a zoology textbook. It’s kibble, yes. But at least it’s something. If Dr. George Coleman (played by the appealingly prickly Justin Kirk) can heal a turkey, why can’t I give his show another chance?

UNSCIENTIFIC PREDICTION: Lasts long enough to merit a look-see on Thursdays after 30 Rock bows out and NBC’s risky attempt to hold Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. with two freshmen shows crumbles.

Go On (Tuesday, September 11, 9 p.m.)

Matthew Perry’s latest shift at the zing factory debuted to encouraging numbers during its Olympic airing last month. But it’s not the ratings alone that caused me to upgrade its chances for survival. Out of a shockingly weak crop, Go On, for all its flaws (many of which I detailed here), truly is NBC’s only half-salvageable tomato. In the right hands, its Community-lite premise could eventually blossom into something decent. Without follow-up episodes to consider, one often is reduced to grading pilots on a casting curve. And Laura Benanti, Julie White, and oddball par excellence Brett Gelman are enough to merit a tentative, if wobbly, promotion.

UNSCIENTIFIC PREDICTION: Having seen some of NBC’s mid-season offerings — one of which features Dane Cook as a bad-boy radio jockey — I can safely say that NBC will do literally anything, shy of apologizing for the barbarous way it treated the far superior Bent, to keep Go On alive through the spring.

FAIL

Guys With Kids (Wednesday, September 26, 8:30 p.m.)

On the plus side, this infantile stinker has a more helpful and instructive name than even Fox’s on-the-nose-like-a-witch’s-wart The Mob Doctor. It really is a show about three bros struggling with the horrific challenges of parenting their children! Thus informed, reasonable people ought to have no excuse not to avoid these guys like chicken pox. “I’m a stay-at-home dad with four kids. Do you know what I do all day? I stay at home with four kids!” bellows Anthony Anderson at one point, capturing both the show’s central idea and its crushingly literal lack of laughs (the anti-LOL). With this addition to Greenblatt’s already non-sterling half-hour résumé, it’s worth wondering about his sense of humor. It’s also worth wondering whether he understands the wisdom of that old showbiz adage about working with kids and animals. Which is to say, it rarely works out.

UNSCIENTIFIC PREDICTION: The BabyBjörns will give way to Dane Cook by March.

Chicago Fire (Wednesday, October 10, 10 p.m.)

If one considers this barely smoldering throwback purely as a sop to the ego of producer Dick Wolf to make up for the dwindling billions provided by the wheezing Law & Order franchise, its presence on NBC’s fall schedule begins to make a bit more sense. But not much. It’s an utterly rote exploration of remarkably pretty first responders and the often-shirtless firefighters who work alongside them. Like much of Greenblatt’s slate, it’s easily explainable — but even more easily forgotten.

UNSCIENTIFIC PREDICTION: Extinguished almost immediately.

The New Normal (Tuesday, September 11, 9:30 p.m.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably admit at the top that I am allergic to all the fevered expectorations of Ryan Murphy’s finicky mind. Glee makes me gag, and American Horror Story left me horrified, not scared. I find his mean-spirited approach to both character and plot wildly off-putting; it’s shock and awful. None of that prepared me for The New Normal, the unfunny Murphy’s first attempt at a sitcom. Concerning the very non-nuclear family formed by a cozy gay couple (the appealing Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha) and their surrogate (Georgia King), Normal is a mawkish and miserable mash-up of liberal sanctimony — sanctimony I normally agree with! — and Murphy’s trademark bile. While lauding the central couple — and lauding itself for having the bravery to laud them — Normal finds time to bash dwarves, the overweight, Republicans, and vaginas (“like tarantula faces”). The always-excellent Ellen Barkin parachutes in as King’s bigoted mother in order to call an Asian character “Hello Kitty” and thank her for building the railroads. Here’s the thing about comedy: It’s not amusing to have a character mouth hateful claptrap; it’s just a lazy way of mouthing hateful claptrap. The New Normal is a rare example of Greenblatt investing in a highly distinctive storytelling voice. Too bad it’s such an unpleasant one to hear.

UNSCIENTIFIC PREDICTION: Real talk? I have no idea.

INCOMPLETE

Revolution (Monday, September 17, 10 p.m.)

As the latest ore harvested from J.J. Abrams’s high-concept idea-mine, Revolution’s hook is promising: One random night in the not-too-distant present, someone (or something) pulls the plug on modern life. This means no tweets, no texts, no electricity of any kind. Planes and cities fall, attention spans rise. (Thankfully, mystery boxes run on an arcane and low-tech solution of witch hazel and flop sweat.)

The problem with this latest attempt to find another Lost is that the characters surrounding the mystery aren’t the slightest bit interesting. Once you get past the great Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Fring on Breaking Bad) on the call sheet, you’re left with a gaggle of blandly attractive unknowns who look like they’d have trouble surviving a Patagonia catalog shoot, let alone the end of contemporary civilization as we know it. Still, the presence of Esposito and the underused Zak Orth (as a onetime Google millionaire) offers some hope. But I agree with Time’s James Poniewozik: Revolution would be more compelling if it focused on the changed (un)reality, not a bunch of models’ attempts to turn back the clock.

UNSCIENTIFIC PREDICTION: Remember The Event? Yup. Me neither.

Filed Under: 30 Rock, Community, Fall TV Preview, Go On, NBC, Revolution, Robert Greenblatt

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald