This Is the Not-So-Bright Future of NBC

The Atlantic

I just sat through NBC's upfront presentation, which teases the new season lineup for advertisers and other assorted looky-loos, and boy, does the future not look bright for the struggling Peacock network. After clearing whole swaths of its schedule through cancellations, this could have been NBC's chance to revitalize itself with sharp, interesting fare. But I suppose the economic realities of running a major network are such that it seemed wiser to roll out a slate of boring, predictable, almost parodic shows, none of which seem likely to do the network any good.

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On the drama front, NBC is clearly taking its cues from CBS. That network has, with the exception of The Good Wife, long been the home of unthoughtful procedurals and other crime-related hokum that all functions the same except for a few specific twists. And it's been a wild success. So NBC appears to be trying to replicate the Eye's formula, stocking the 2013-2014 season by throwing a bunch of same-y crime shows at the wall and hoping a few stick. Entertainment chair Bob Greenblatt was especially bullish on The Blacklist, starring James Spader, saying that it tested higher than any NBC drama in years. Maybe so, but what we saw in the little promo reel looked like an even sillier version of CBS's Person of Interest. Spader plays a master criminal who decides to turn himself into the FBI, but will only deal with one young female agent — and it's her first day! The "larger mystery" hinted at during the presentation seems rather obvious — I mean, it's his daughter, right? — and the crook-of-the-week setup feels like something that will get pretty stale pretty quickly. But again, stale works for CBS, so why not for NBC?

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Chicago Fire has been a mild success for the network, so they've gone and added the spinoff Chicago PD to the roster, about a loose-cannon, kinda-crooked cop who's so bad he's good. Or something. It looks like a standard cop show with nothing much to distinguish it beyond the word "Chicago" being in the title. (And there was The Chicago Code a couple years ago.) Ironside, with Blair Underwood (shown above), is a regular cop show only the lead cop is in a wheelchair. That's its only point of distinction, the promo pushing that tweak by including the line "I see things different from down here" (or something).

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The programming logic here is so basic it's almost astounding. It's also shortsighted. How will Crisis, the new mystery-thriller starring Dermot Mulroney and Gillian Anderson, continue past a few episodes? It's a show built entirely out of a single, specific event — a bunch of kids of rich and powerful people are kidnapped — in the way of many failed post-Lost and Prison Break series. Same for Believe, which may have Alfonso Cuarón on board but otherwise looks almost exactly like Fox's failed Touch, only with a little girl this time. Nothing about this new stable of shows feels original, the nadir coming in the form of The Night Shift, a dreadful looking Grey's Anatomy wannabe.

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But that's OK, right? NBC's thing is comedy, not drama! Well... Not so much anymore, actually. The Office is over for good this week and 30 Rock signed off this winter, which leaves Parks & Recreation as the only Thursday night staple. So NBC has the chance to bring in a whole new batch of fresh, innovative sitcoms. Trouble is, fresh and innovative is usually ratings poison (not many people actually watched 30 Rock, after all) and NBC wants big hits. Hits like Modern Family. Meaning that Thursday night on NBC is becoming a corny family block this fall, the flagship show being The Michael J. Fox Show, which has already been picked up for a whole season. What we saw today doesn't look all that promising, the biggest laughs coming from jokes about Fox's Parkinson's disease. Jokes about that can't sustain a whole series. Nor can jokes about blindness, though that's mostly what was offered in a peek at another treacly-looking family comedy, The Family Guide.

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A pregnancy is the primary focus of Welcome to the Family, starring Mike O'Malley as a dad whose college age daughter gets knocked up by the son of a guy who was mean to O'Malley at the gym. Were this a multicamera show, it would be right at home in the '90s. NBC is not trying to reinvent the wheel here, they're using old wheels and hoping no one notices.

All told, there are few bright spots on the new schedule. While it looks deeply silly, the limited series Dracula is interesting because it's a limited series. I'd like to see that do well for no other reason than that it's a format that networks should be utilizing more often. Crisis, for example, could work as a glorified miniseries, but because that's not a model that networks are used to working with, it's been made a full series and will likely run out of gas in lurching fashion.We didn't get a look at Crossbones, the pirate show that will replace Dracula in midseason, but I'm curious about that as well. It's ambitious, if nothing else, and NBC could use some ambition. I'm also vaguely rooting for About a Boy, because it's a good story and the two leads, David Walton and Minnie Driver, are likable. The clip reel we saw was not as promising and I'd hoped, but it could be one of the standouts in what looks to be a wan, uninspired (and uninspiring) new season.

The whole event was strange for this reason, the stink of failures past and future lingering in the air while Greenblatt and others crowed about The Voice (two more cycles coming up, back to back — no way that thing will run out of steam, right?) and went heavy on the seventeen weeks of football that are always a ratings boon for the network. No one in the audience, mostly ad people in suits, seemed particularly enthusiastic about anything, dull and lifeless as the wares on display were, making the lively sprawl of Radio City Music Hall feel like a pretty depressing place. The entire enterprise is a bleak one, really, various shows reduced to glib talking points and key demo strategies, very few of which have proved effective in the past. Being there was almost unsettling. It's one thing to know the emperor has no clothes, it's quite another to sit and have a look up close.

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