The Upfronts: Your Preview of the Best, Worst, and Weirdest New Shows on the Big Four Networks

Upfronts week is a propagandist’s dream, a nonstop cavalcade of lofty promises, shining stars, and room-temperature mock-maki. In lavish ballrooms extending from midtown Manhattan to the other side of midtown Manhattan, the broadcast networks trot out talent and psyche themselves up in an attempt to sell advertisers, and an increasingly attentive public, on their latest bill of goods (or at least mediocres). So why does it more often sound like they’re selling themselves too? “Why just watch when you can feel?” enthused emo ABC chief Paul Lee at the Alphabet’s shindig. It was a well-constructed bit of hokum that could be repurposed for nearly any of Lee’s rivals (CBS: “Why just watch when you can doze?”; The CW: “Why just watch when you can [SKRILLEX BASS DROP]?” NBC: “Why watch?”). ABC may be peddling a brand strategy that attempts to draw bright lassos of linkage between its tradition of heart-tugging Body Washes (you know: like soaps, but classier) and head-scratching array of newcomers, but the truth is that none of the networks have any real idea what they’re doing. In an atmosphere where an afterthought could redefine a company and a heavily hyped investment could cost everyone onstage their jobs, can those in charge really be blamed for playing it safe? Any of their new shows could fail, a very few could succeed. But anyone who tells you they know which is which before Labor Day is lying. On Tuesday, ABC led their clip package with the words, “When we share great stories, they touch our hearts and feed our souls.” Last year, the same people were touting the soul-nourishing properties of Work It. La plus ça change, la plus c’est la meme merde.

All of the shows that were unveiled this month with great fanfare and lukewarm coffee, from the promising (Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project) to the putrefying (Dane Cook’s Next Caller), were the winners of a particularly brutal behind-the-scenes Hunger Games, in which creators scratch, claw, and recast in a desperate bid to have the honor of potentially being canceled in ignominy come October. In a perceptive New York Times article from earlier this week, Brian Stelter chronicled the wasteful, depressing process in which each network whittles a list of 80 green-lit projects down to two dozen pilots (each of which have a price tag in the millions) and then halves them again before finally flashing the green light of success/surrender. If recent trends continue, only 30 percent of these winners will make it to a second season. Everything else is tossed in the compost heap (it is California), and the entire tilt-a-whirl starts again in June. It doesn’t take Malcolm Gladwell to identify this as an inefficient system — Malcolm in the Middle could have done it, too. It’s creaky, it’s expensive, and it makes the jobs of people like Paul Lee and his equivalent at NBC, Bob Greenblatt, extremely hard. Depending on your metric, their networks finished in either last or second-to-last place in 2011, and their hopes are now pinned to a process that’s uncomfortably similar to the NBA draft. If either of them hits on what boils down to a costly educated guess, they could be set for years. If they miss — as Lee did last year with Pan Am and Greenblatt did with just about everything — they’re stuck for at least another season.

Only perpetually front-running CBS is immune to this loony lottery. The former Tiffany network may be the butt of jokes for its old-skewing audience, but by targeting the one demo consistently ignored by cool-hunting cable execs, CBS has become a model of stability. (Other than hybrid success story The Good Wife, CBS’s dramas aren’t serialized, its comedies aren’t single-camera, and its failures are never canceled — merely disappeared. How to Be a Gentleman was six feet deep in the Meadowlands before Kevin Dillon had time to get his mail forwarded from HBO.) For the other three, including first-place (again, depending on your metric) Fox, 2012 promises a lot of big swings, an overreliance on comedy (still the only genre the Big Four do better than cable), and, inevitably, a ridiculous number of misses. With the enormous caveat that (a) I haven’t seen any of these things, and (b) good shows are rarely good from their pilots, let alone the teaser trailers for their pilots, here’s a first look:

ABC

Despite Paul Lee’s shaky taste in catchphrases and cross-dressing, his slate seems the most sensible of any of his peers, building nights like stations at a well-catered buffet: supernatural Sundays, family-comedy Wednesdays, casual Fridays.

INTRIGUING: Connie Britton in Nashville. The show itself seems like warmed-over grits: Two generations of sassy country divas face off in Music City against a backdrop of jowly politicos and good old bad boys with tasteful scruff and $200 boots. But Britton is the most consistently excellent actress on TV and has long been deserving of a mass-appeal showcase, even if it means drawling and brawling with the likes of Hayden Panettiere.

PERPLEXING: Last Resort, from cable capo Shawn Ryan (The Shield, Terriers), is the ballsiest rookie on anyone’s schedule. Starring Andre Braugher as a guy who speaks sternly, it’s a high-concept, higher-budget serial about the crew of a rogue nuclear sub who set up a new, deterrent-dangling nation on An Island That Conveniently Looks Like Hawaii. It’s got great credentials, a great cast, and is exactly the sort of all-or-nothing gambit the network drama departments should be trying before sliding into complete procedural irrelevance. So why has Lee beached this thing on Thursdays at 8 p.m.? It’s either savvy counter-programming to CBS and NBC’s sitcoms or a high-stakes game of brinksmanship. One way or another, somebody’s getting blown up.

REVOLTING: It’s hard to get too exercised one way or another about The Family Tools and How to Live With Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life), the Alphabet’s latest attempts to mine laughs out of sh*t our moms and dads say. Instead, save the vitriol for The Neighbors, a half-baked premise seemingly mined from a wadded-up memo found in the late Brandon Tartikoff’s racquetball locker. (Since 1988, NBC has kept the entire thing intact and untouched behind a velvet rope, like Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom.) Everything here seems 20 years past its sell-by date, from the creaky premise (those suburban weirdos are from another planet — literally) and Jami Gertz at the top of the call sheet (she passed on Courteney Cox’s part on Friends) to the universal hilarity of Dick Butkus jokes. Some ideas are better left on Melmac.

NBC

As befits a network that needs the most help, NBC ordered the greatest number of new shows this cycle, from budget-busting thrillers to multi-cam comedies to reality shows starring Jenny McCarthy. But it’s hard to divine a method to the madness. Instead, Bob Greenblatt’s strategy seems to involve throwing as much stuff as possible at the wall, hoping something sticks, then claiming that was the plan all along. Not a bad idea, really. It worked over at ABC with Lost.

INTRIGUING: Speaking of polar bears, J.J. Abrams has bestowed the Peacock with another big-ticket idea from his brain freezer. Revolution picks up the story of Earth 15 years after all the power went out: The U.S. government has fallen into rebel factions, horses are under more strain than they were on the set of Luck, and people growing food in their backyards in Brooklyn are essential instead of annoying. Despite a recent graveyard of serialized sci-fi stinkers, I think our still-powered world is ready for another mutual obsession, and a little more Giancarlo Esposito is always a good thing. But the biggest red flag here is the sword-and-crossbow-wielding cast, a worryingly white collection of jutting jaws and bland good looks. Total societal breakdown? These pretties would barely survive a Patagonia catalog photo shoot.

PERPLEXING: Much of the talk this development season focused on NBC’s reportedly outstanding crop of comedy pilots — many of which would purportedly challenge ratings-deprived fan favorites like Parks and Rec and Community for a spot on the dial. Yet when Greenblatt took the stage on Monday, all the bubble shows were renewed in one form or another, and there appears to be very little primed to replace them. The most promising of the lot will be the first to premiere: Go On, starring pro’s pro Matthew Perry, has a loopy warmth, despite the pro forma premise (sportscaster loses wife, gains perspective via group therapy). (“Could this be any more like Dear John?” — Chandler Bing.) But even that potential seems mitigated by the presence of multi-cam mediocrity like Guys With Kids. With its central thesis of “Yuck, responsibilities!” the show would have fit in better with last year’s lame epidemic of vaguely misogynist manxiety. Mid-season replacement Save Me, in which the always interesting Anne Heche declares herself a prophet, sounds like a repurposed pilot from Greenblatt’s old gig at Showtime, while the rest of the lot depends on one’s tolerance for shrieking monkeys (Animal Practice) and/or Josh Gad (1600 Penn). Forget about “must,” this is Maybe See TV at best.

REVOLTING: It’s unclear which is worse: comedy “from the imagination of Ryan Murphy” (The New Normal) or from the vomitorium of Dane Cook (Next Caller). Either way, Whitney Cummings should relax: Critics have some new punching bags.

Fox

With six fewer hours to fill each week than his rivals, it’s not hard for Kevin Reilly to look like the smartest kid in the class. And the breakout success of New Girl in 2011 afforded him the opportunity to do what his rivals only dream about: flex.

INTRIGUING: Mindy Kaling’s terribly titled The Mindy Project (which admittedly is a better name for a show about a disorderly gynecologist than the originally announced It’s Messy) is one of the few teasers to generate legit LOLs, mainly because few comic personae are as perfectly realized as Kaling’s Bridget Jones tripping over a drunk Jane Austen. It’s promising, and a perfect foil for Zooey Deschanel’s adorkability (and I’ve been saying so since January!). The only red flag is that some strangely intense directing choices make the show look more like Gossip Girl than a frothy rom-com co-starring the dude you get for your indie feature when you can’t get Mark Ruffalo, Chris Messina. Ben and Kate, also on Tuesdays, features the guy who won an Oscar with Dean Pelton as a manchild helping raise an actual child with his sister. Paired with Mindy, it’s the sort of urbane, heartfelt package that NBC should be spending money to develop instead of investing in all that cutting-edge chair-spinning technology.

PERPLEXING: I’m no fan of overly precious titles — I still think CBS’s canceled Unforgettable should have stuck with The Rememberer — but The Mob Doctor strikes even me as a bit on the nose. It also seems like a risk: the story of Jordana Spiro attempting to balance the Hippocratic oath with the code of the streets. It also features Friday Night Lights vet Zach Gilford as a second-string doctor forced into the big time, and William Forsythe, last seen playing a slab of kosher ham on Boardwalk Empire, as a Chicago mafioso. The M.D. — see what I did there — is the first attempt by another network to clone the success of The Good Wife, a show that sneaks premium-cable grit and depth inside the shaggy skeleton of a standard procedural. Still, Fox tends not to exhibit much patience with underperforming dramas that don’t feature alternate realities (the fact that Fringe is still making new episodes seems too far-fetched even for the show’s own producers to believe). It’ll be interesting to see how long this one lasts before getting whacked.

REVOLTING: Nothing much to complain about here. Just another plea for someone, somewhere to give Rebounding a shot. The Will Forte–starring basketball and bereavement comedy was a great script and (reportedly) a great pilot. It deserves a chance on the charity stripe at a network with more space in its gym.

CBS

Les Moonves has been recording new verses of Shaq’s classic anti-Kobe freestyle for years — and there’s no reason for him to stop inquiring about the flavor of his own posterior anytime soon. All of CBS’s new shows seem perfectly, impossibly CBS: like they’ve secretly been running for decades, you just haven’t realized you’ve been ignoring them yet.

INTRIGUING: Vegas, a period piece about cowboy justice running up against casino glitz, boasts a bananas cast (Dennis Quaid, Michael Chiklis, Carrie-Anne Moss, and a dinosaur-free Jason O’Mara) and that grandfatherly CBS attention to detail that makes every frame seem somehow important, even if it’s just gruff, macho nonsense. But it’s not hard to think a show about a sordid, violent underworld might be better served on a network able to actually show some sordid violence without the fear of Morley Safer’s angina acting up.

PERPLEXING: Janet Montgomery is a beautiful, talented actress, best known for getting off on the original Skins and getting mostly cut out of Our Idiot Brother. But she is most assuredly not Made in Jersey — she was made in Dorset, actually, a beach town on the English Channel, and she speaks with an accent better suited to Downton Abbey than to downtown Newark. But here she is, starring in a not–Ugly Betty, as a gorgeous goomah employed by Kyle MacLachlan’s swanky Manhattan law firm. If the tone is light, this could be fun. But CBS viewers tend to prefer their fun being sent off to jail by episode’s end, not embarking on a bridge-and-tunnel journey of discovery.

REVOLTING: There’s plenty of room in this world for numerous reimaginings of Sherlock Holmes, but not even a Holmes-ian dose of medicinal opium could make me root for Elementary, a slick procedural that appears to remove all of the wit and grime of both the original tale and its brilliant BBC descendent. In their place? Lucy Liu as “Joan” Watson. Ugh. Consider me Team Moriarty.

Filed Under: ABC, Fox, NBC, The Upfronts

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald