Friday, May 15, 2009

NBC Offering Some Promising Shows Next Season

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

If you believe what you read, "My Name Is Earl" may not make it onto next year's schedule. NBC has indicated it will be producing a prime-time version of the "Weekend Update" segment of "Saturday Night Live," and with "Earl," completing its fourth season this week, older and more expensive, there is speculation that it will be a casualty. (Before the election, the prime-time "Updates" aired on Thursday nights.)

Since I find "Earl" to be clever, creative and funny, my first instinct was to rail against NBC for potentially taking a quality program off of the air. But then I remembered Earl's list and the power of karma. After all, I have not been kind to NBC in recent months, noting how awful "Kath and Kim" was, making fun of the network's approach in putting "Parks and Recreation" on the air, eviscerating the ridiculous and offensive "Momma's Boys" and the insanely derivative "Superstars of Dance," categorizing giving Jay Leno the 10:00 p.m. berth as an admission of failure, and placing NBC shows in all three slots on my list of programs I was not looking forward to this spring, just to name a few of my jabs.

So, taking a page out of Earl's book, I am going to court karma by making it up to NBC. It has decided to buck the tradition of holding onto information about next season until the networks make their "upfront" presentations later this month, releasing last week details on the six programs it has picked up for next season. I took the time to read about all six, and to watch the previews on, and I am happy (and a bit surprised) to report that three of them look interesting to me.

(None of the other three look awful, and might even turn out to be great. I just feel like we have enough hospital/doctor programs on the air, and two of NBC's new offerings, "Trauma" and "Mercy," are medical dramas. And the post-apocalyptic story "Day One" feels like it's two years too late, with sci fi serials a tough sell right now.)

NBC hasn't announced yet when the new shows will premiere, and where on the schedule they will reside. But here are three new NBC programs I am actually looking forward to checking out, whenever they do make their bows:

"100 Questions" is a multi-camera sitcom that will, no doubt, be called a "Friends" rip-off. From the five-minute preview on, it appears that the primary cast consists of a group of friends, three women and two men, living in New York ("Friends" minus one?). I have to admit, I had to hold back my initial instinct to mock NBC for trying to achieve success by nakedly copying another hit (and it didn't help that a scene set in Yankee Stadium used the old building for the exterior and what is obviously Dodger Stadium for the video screen), but as the preview rolled on, I started to see some interesting things. First of all, I laughed. There were some sharp punch lines, and some funny running gags (I especially liked how the smoother guy was successful with the worst pick-up lines, while the more uncomfortable guy couldn't succeed with the best come-ons, much to his aggravation). And the cast seemed to have a nice chemistry, avoiding the big comic inflections we too often see in bad sitcoms.

I especially liked the lead, newcomer (to the U.S., anyway) Sophie Winkleman. Granted, as an anglophile, I'm a sucker for an English accent (especially in a comedy), something that the show seems to have fun with (a great bit about Mary Poppins). But Winkleman seems to have the kind of charm and easy-going charisma that will lead her to greener pastures.

The premise of the show is simple enough: Winkleman's Charlotte keeps getting proposed to, but she doesn't say yes. In the preview, we see her turn down her boyfriend's scoreboard-broadcast proposal at Yankee Stadium, only to accidentally later let him think she has reconsidered, so that she has to break his heart again. (I could be wrong, but I think the actor is Travis Schuldt, who played Elliot's ex-fiance Keith on "Scrubs." Maybe he specializes in guys getting repeatedly dumped on sitcoms?) Charlotte goes to a dating agency, at which the cynical rep (Amir Talai of the late "The Ex-List") asks her the titular 100 questions that makes her examine her love life.

The rest of the cast is made up of unknowns, other than Christopher Guest troop member Christopher Moynihan, who is also a writer and executive producer on "100 Questions." Legendary sitcom director James Burrows ("Friends," of course) is at the helm, which at least gives me confidence that if the writers can come up with halfway decent material, he'll make it work.

It's fitting that Talai would be in the cast, since the premises of "The Ex-List" and "100 Questions" certainly reside in the same neighborhood. Let's hope "100 Questions" meets a better fate than "The Ex-List" did, which suffered from network meddling, the loss of the show's executive producer, and an eventual early death after only three episodes. And, more importantly, let's hope "100 Questions" deserves a better fate. If the five minutes I saw online are any indication, it just might.

I also have relatively high hopes for "Community." This single-camera sitcom follows recently disgraced lawyer Jeff ("The Soup"'s Joel McHale) as he goes back to a community college to get his degree (he fudged it the first time around). The setting is described in a speech made by an insensitive dolt on campus: "What is community college? You've heard it's loser college for remedial teens, twentysomething drop-outs, middle-age divorcees, and old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity."

Jeff is thrown into the middle of this mess. To get in the good graces of the beautiful "twentysomething drop-out" (newbie Gillian Jacobs) in his Spanish class, he pretends to be a "board certified" Spanish tutor, even though he only knows a few off-color phrases in the language (and, as someone later asks him, what board certifies Spanish tutors?).

Chevy Chase returns to the world of the living as the "old" guy, a hippie-ish buffoon with a penchant for sexual harassment. And John Oliver ("The Daily Show") plays Jeff's confidant, Duncan, who advises him on how to make it in this new world. The two share some funny lines. When Duncan asks Jeff, "I thought you had a bachelors from Columbia?" Jeff responds, "And now I have to get one from America."

From the preview on, it looks like the show is going to embrace on-the-nose, fourth-wall busting comments on pop culture, kind of in the vein of "Arrested Development" (Joe and Anthony Russo of that classic sitcom direct "Community"). For example, when Jeff turns to a total stranger to confide his feelings on something, she looks at him in confusion, which leads to him telling her, "I'm sorry. I was raised on TV, and I was conditioned to believe that every black woman over 50 is a cosmic mentor." There is also a riff on "The Breakfast Club" that made me laugh.

The roles all seem perfect for the personas of the actors. Jeff's smarmy con-man appeal fits nicely with McHale's "Soup" duties. And a supporting part as a seemingly normal but actually nuts older guy is a smart move for Chase at this stage in his career, where too much Chevy might be deadly.

With Thursday nights seemingly filled ("The Office," "30 Rock" and "Parks and Recreation" have been picked up for next year, "Earl" might still be, and "Update" is on the way), I'm not sure where "Community" will end up on the schedule. But it might just be broad enough to garner some mass appeal. I look forward to seeing if the humor in the preview can project out to a bunch of full episodes.

"Parenthood" looks like the kind of television project that can be great, or end up as an unmitigated disaster. Neither would surprise me. Based on the 1989 feature film with an accomplished cast headed by Steve Martin (and, hopefully, nothing like the 1990 failed television adaption that featured before-they-were-known turns by Leonardo DiCaprio and Thora Birch), NBC is classifying the show as a drama, but the preview on the network's site does contain some comedy, in the same tone of the original movie.

Peter Krause ("Dirty Sexy Money," "Six Feet Under," "Sports Night") steps into Martin's paternal shoes, with Maura Tierney ("ER," "NewsRadio") taking over Diane Wiest's role as his single-mother sister. Craig T. Nelson fills the Jason Robards part of their son-of-a-bitch father, while familiar faces like Monica Potter, Erika Christensen, Dax Shepard and Bonnie Bedelia round out the cast.

The film's director, Ron Howard, is an executive producer on the program, and he is interviewed in the online preview, which I hope means he will have some involvement with the television adaptation. I really enjoyed the film, and it would be nice if its spirit was kept alive on the show. It's also good news that Jason Katims, a stellar writer on "Friday Night Lights" and "My So-Called Life," is a writer and executive producer of "Parenthood." He has demonstrated that he knows how to tell a good story, and how to harness emotion without wandering too close to the land of soap opera.

For those who remember the movie, there are some familiar scenes in the preview, involving little league games, mother-daughter blowups, and a commitment-phobic boyfriend. But everything has been updated for 21st century sensibilities (the loser boyfriend to the rebellious teenage daughter, once inhabited by the dumb-but-sweet Keanu Reeves, is now a vacant, shirtless, tattooed bad boy, for example). And while I'm a big fan of both Krause and Tierney, I wouldn't have thought of either of them to fill these parts. Krause seems too confident to me to play the nervous wreck inhabited by Martin, and I don't see Tierney as the past-it spinster Wiest embodied in the film.

If it all feels too cloying and sappy, lacking the bite of the movie, "Parenthood" could be a train wreck, another example of NBC playing follow-the-leader rather than innovating programming that will capture an audience. But if the show can capture what made the movie work well, viewers may come in droves. After all, the battlefield of family dynamics is something most people can relate to. With Howard supportive, Katims running the show, and solid actors like Krause and Tierney on board (despite my concerns on their appropriateness for their roles), I can really see "Parenthood" pulling it off and being a good one-hour dramedy. And since this column is all about karma, I'll take the glass as being half-filled and look forward to watching the program when it airs.

So that's three new NBC shows that I have committed to check out when they debut. "Bashed NBC programs repeatedly in my online television column." Can I cross this item off my list now?