Friday, May 29, 2009

My Network Upronts Recap (and I'll Be Nice to NBC, I Promise)

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Last week, the five broadcast networks held their upfront presentations in New York, revealing what their Fall 2009 schedules would look like. (You can download the grid from It's hard to be surprised by much, since information leaks out early, and NBC no longer adheres to the upfront system, announcing its new programs in advance. But now that the decisions are in black-and-white for all to see, some observations have seeped into my brain.

Getting Ratings Isn't Enough
It was a rough scheduling season for some fairly successful shows that had either become too expensive to produce, or which the networks figured were trending in the wrong direction. One shining example is "My Name Is Earl." The lead-off program on NBC's demographically successful Thursday night lineup of single-camera comedies, "Earl" garnered ratings in line with "30 Rock" and "The Office." But after four years on the air, "Earl" had become more expensive (as all programs do over time), and the comedy did not have the same kind of pop culture buzz, critical acclaim, and Emmy-success as its Thursday night neighbors. Apparently, that was enough for NBC to show "Earl" the door. It's a shame. "Earl" was an innovative, smart and funny comedy, unafraid to take chances to keep from falling into a premise-induced rut (something I wrote about last November). I won't be surprised if ABC or Fox snaps up "Earl," which, according to Entertainment Weekly, is a possibility.

A very different program met a very similar fate on CBS. "Without a Trace" has been on the air for seven years, and it's been a Top 20 show all seven seasons, including the one that just concluded. But CBS canceled the police drama anyway. The network can't be upset that it skews to an older demographic, since most of its cop shows fall into the same category. But the ratings, while good, apparently weren't high enough to justify its cost.

ABC also got into the act, handing walking papers to "Samantha Who?". The show shot out of the box in the spring of 2008 with strong ratings, in no small part due to its cushy post-"Dancing With the Stars" time slot. While the ratings fell to earth this season, "Samantha" maintained respectable numbers. I had read that ABC wanted the producers to consider going to a multi-camera production format, though I don't know if it was an effort to control costs, boost ratings, or both. In any event, when ABC's Fall schedule was announced, "Samantha" wasn't on it. I liked the comedy, although, as I wrote last November, the second season was uneven. Still, I'm a bit sad to see "Samantha" go. It still had the capacity to be very funny, and Christina Applegate showed range that she had never demonstrated before.

ABC is Still Smitten with Smart Comedies
If some shows were canceled despite solid ratings, ABC, at least, seemed happy to give new life to comedies that received positive notices, but which few people were watching. I gushed over "Better Off Ted" when it debuted in March, lauding the off-beat comedy for taking wild chances and delivering laughs. But even then I expressed concern that it was too "out there" to find an audience, and the show routinely lost in the ratings to its comedy competition on CBS. Thankfully, ABC seems to be as big a fan of "Ted" as I am, so it will be a mid-season replacement next year. And I bet it will be paired, again, with ...

"Scrubs." Seriously. Has any show lasted for so long, with so few viewers? And survived so many near-death experiences? "Scrubs" is the Evel Knievel of network programs. Oh, and did I mention that "Scrubs" aired a fantastic series finale in May that included a brilliant closing montage revealing everyone's future in a flash-forward projected on a video screen, set to Peter Gabriel's beautiful "The Book of Love"? (Yes, I know that J.D.'s final line reveals that it's his fantasy, but still.) I am a huge fan of the pioneering single-camera comedy, but how do you come back after that? Well, creator Bill Lawrence answered that question when he asked fans to think of next season's "Scrubs" as being like "Frasier," a new show using a character from an established, long-running program. I know much of the cast has signed to do the first six episodes of next season to transition the story to its new incarnation. And I'm not sure Lawrence and the network know exactly what that story will be (a clue might lie in the fact that Donald Faison's pilot was not picked up for next season, so he will, presumably, be available for "Scrubs" duty if called upon). But given the show's brilliant run, I'm willing to give Lawrence a chance. Let's hope the new episodes are worthy of the "Scrubs" name.

I don't know how much Lawrence will be around "Scrubs" next year, though, since ABC picked up his new pilot, "Cougar Town," set to air on Wednesday nights (at 9:30 p.m. Eastern). The network's decision to not only bring "Scrubs" back despite its low ratings, but to give its creator another slot on the network schedule, really demonstrates how ABC approaches programming. It seems that quality can actually overcome past lousy ratings. As a viewer, I'm impressed. If I was a Disney stockholder, well, I'd need some more convincing before getting behind such a plan. But since I am a viewer and not a stakeholder in the Mouse House, I'll be happy to watch "Cougar Town" and "Scrubs" next season. Hopefully "Cougar Town," which stars Courteney Cox as a recently divorced single mother re-entering the dating world, will earn ratings that justify ABC's faith in Lawrence.

ABC's Wednesday night will be filled with two hours of new sitcoms, with "Cougar Town" joining three comedies with solid pedigrees: "Hank" (8:00 p.m. Eastern) stars Kelsey Grammer (his comeback after the under-appreciated "Back to You" was canceled after one year) as a deposed CEO who moves back to his small town; "The Middle" ("8:30 p.m. Eastern), which features Grammer's "Back to You" co-star Patricia Heaton as an Indiana wife and mother (with Neil Flynn, the janitor on "Scrubs," also on board); and the faux documentary "Modern Family" (9:00 p.m. Eastern), from Christopher Lloyd ("Frasier") and Steven Levitan ("Just Shoot Me"), and starring Ed O'Neill and Julie Bowen from "Ed" (one of my favorite shows).

Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out
At some point during the run of the egregiously horrendous "Kath & Kim" (which wrapped up in March), I read a quote from someone at NBC that the show would most likely be given a second season. The logic went something along the lines of that the performers were talented, but the scripts were not up to par, so if they just fix the writing, the show would be great. Which is kind of like saying if I just got 15 years younger and more athletic, I could play center field for the Yankees. Maybe it was the decision to give five hours a week to Jay Leno, or maybe it was just good old-fashioned coming to one's senses, but the network changed course and canned the Molly Shannon vehicle. Based on my karma-influenced vow to be nicer to NBC, we will assume that the programmers at the network showed improved judgment in deciding that "Kath & Kim" was a disaster that had no business blighting the airwaves. So good for them. (I made my opinon of this "comedy" quite clear last November.)

I also think it is important to note that the 2009 upfronts will go down in the annals of history as the moment when "According to Jim" officially dropped off of ABC's schedule. Like the killer in a cheesy teen horror movie, "According to Jim" just wouldn't die, lasting an unexplainable and indefensible eight seasons (eight freakin' years of Jim Freakin' Belushi!). I'm still traumatized by my decision in December of 2007, during the writers' strike, to watch an episode to review. It was truly awful. In fact, I'd have to research this, but I'm not sure you would be able to find any other year that tops the double-whammy of sitcoms as awful as "Kath & Kim" and "According to Jim" departing at the same time. I'm starting to think this is worthy of some kind of recognition from Congress. Freedom from Insultingly Awful Sitcoms Day?

I'll Miss You
As I said, I'm sad to see "My Name Is Earl" and "Samantha Who?" go. And while I held out little hope that "Privileged" would survive for a second season (especially once "Melrose Place," a historically natural fit to be paired with "90210," was announced), not seeing it on the CW's schedule made me a bit sad. While the show lost its way a bit towards the end of its first season, I enjoyed some of the sharp writing, and I stand by my assertion that Joanna Garcia has star quality. I also wish "Cupid" had gotten another season to see if it could find an audience, but the low ratings didn't really warrant such a leap of faith. (I made my peace with the loss of "Life on Mars" when ABC ended the show earlier this year.)

Looking Forward to Meeting You
There is more to preview in the new schedules than I could possibly get through in one section of one column. So, going network-to-network, here are some nearly random thoughts:

As I wrote when NBC first announced its new shows, the network has some potentially funny comedies coming, including "Community." I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Joel McHale/Chevy Chase-led ensemble sitcom had been slotted into the network's Thursday night comedy lineup, first in the space that "30 Rock" will later occupy at 9:30 p.m. Eastern, and then moving earlier in the night when the prime-time edition of "Weekend Update" wraps up. (Or, maybe by then NBC will realize that "Parks and Recreation" just doesn't work, and that will affect how the lineup shakes out.)

And, again, I think it's exciting that ABC has put together two hours of new comedies on Wednesdays.

I'm curious about "Accidentally on Purpose," a new CBS comedy that will join the network's Monday night comedy block (the funny "Big Bang Theory" is being moved to 9:30 p.m. Eastern to follow the awful "Two and a Half Men," while the stellar "How I Met Your Mother" slides back into its old lead-off position at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, with "Accidentally" following it). Starring Jenna Elfman, the premise of "Accidentally" sounds like it is well-suited to her quirky persona, as she plays a woman who gets pregnant after a one-night stand with a younger guy and decides to try and make the relationship (and being a mother) work. These kind of high-concept comedies are high-risk, high-reward. But Elfman made the odd-couple pairing work on "Dharma & Greg," and the preview on made me laugh, so I'm going to give the comedy a shot.

Speaking of high-risk, high-reward efforts, Fox is really walking a tightrope with its new sitcom "Brothers." The siblings of the title are played by former professional football player Michael Strahan and Daryl "Chill" Mitchell ("Ed"), who, unfortunately, might be best known as the actor who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 2001 motorcycle accident. Who knows if Strahan can pull off the acting gig, but, smartly, he is not being asked to venture too far from known territory. Strahan is playing a former NFL player who moves back home to help his disabled brother (Mitchell) keep his restaurant afloat. Bonus points to the producers for employing the talented CCH Pounder as the boys' mother, and Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed in the "Rocky" movies and a former football player himself) as the family patriarch. I will never look at Weathers the same way ever since his very funny portrayal of "himself" (I really hope the quotation marks are necessary) on "Arrested Development."

I will also be very interested to see if "Glee," which I enjoyed when Fox previewed it last week, attracts good ratings.

Finally, while I doubt I will sample either of the CW's younger-skewing new dramas, "The Beautiful Life" (following the lives of two supermodels, one female and one male) and "The Vampire Diaries" (following the lives of two vampire brothers, one good and one bad), I'm afraid I just may have to take a peek at the new "Melrose Place." I didn't watch the original (even though, at the time, I did watch "Beverly Hills 90210"), but this remake has all-time bad television written all over it. One of the stars is Ashlee Simpson-Wentz. Need I say more? If she acts like she sings, the show could be really ugly. At least she won't get caught lip-syncing here.

Wait 'Til Next Year (or at Least Until September)
Assessing the upfronts is like judging NFL and NBA teams the day after the draft. You can make certain judgements, but you don't really know how things will be until the new season starts. But like with the drafts, it's a lot of fun to speculate, anyway.