NBC at TCAs: We want our Must-See TV

It’s no secret that former ratings darling NBC has endured an epic collapse since its 90s heyday, and network entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt refreshingly eschewed normal TV exec behavior at last week’s TCA junket by addressing this notion rather succinctly. “We had a bad fall,” Greenblatt now famously admitted, perhaps aware of the double entendre his statement evoked, referencing both the network’s disappointing autumnal performance and its more broad, allegorical fall from grace that make the memories of former peacock powerhouses all the more distant. “People keep saying the only place we have to go is up, which I do believe is true, but there’s a lot of work to do before we get there,” Greenblatt continued, also noting that NBC hasn’t had a bona fide hit series in about six years, likely since the debuts of 30 Rock and The Office, despite a promising performance from The Voice last summer and increased interest in Parks and Recreation and the inexplicably, albeit temporarily, shelved Community.

In the wake of Greenblatt’s straightforward postmortem on the fall season’s sputtering statistics, focus shifted toward the arrival of midseason premieres. The hopeful table-turners include the Broadway-centric Smash, whose deafening buzz is only growing louder as its February premiere draws nearer, Fashion Star, a runway-to-retail reality competition series, and Are You There, Chelsea? a multi-camera sitcom based upon the best-selling memoirs of comedienne Chelsea Handler. Helping reinforce the day’s eager, fresh-start atmosphere was an outdoor lunch break with actors from the upcoming summer series Common Law, airing on NBC’s cable cousin USA Network—a channel so used to churning out, ahem, smash after smash, the lingering doldrums of primetime desperation mercifully dissipated. Can NBC thwart its trajectory halfway through another lackluster season? Only the viewers can ultimately decide. Here’s a closer look at the four aforementioned series headed for the airwaves:

Are You There, Chelsea?
Other female-driven sitcoms this season preceded Chelsea’s January 11 debut with middling success. NBC’s baffling decision to order a full season of the universally panned Whitney represents the bottom of the barrel, while CBS’s 2 Broke Girls has received better word of mouth despite its own startlingly stale, laugh track-dependent structure. Handler’s success as a talk show host, author and stand-up performer gives her a head start in her newest endeavor in scripted television, but the gimmicky ploy of having her play her own sister instead of herself will only prove innovative if the other aspects of the series offer deeper insight. Laura Prepon (That ‘70s Show) stars as Handler’s semi-autobiographical, younger self, and both women offered perspectives of the show that sadly proved funnier than anything found in the pilot. When asked about the omission of the word “vodka” from the original title (taken directly from Handler’s book, Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea), Prepon was quick to point out a simple, if not wryly sarcastic, explanation: “Well, some people like tequila, you know. Some people like beer. Not everybody likes vodka,” she quipped. “We don’t want to discriminate,” Handler added, continuing, “We just thought Are You There, Chelsea? is really kind of a play on ‘Am I there? What am I thinking?’ There was all these little, you know, kind of different meanings to it. So we thought it was a funner [sic] play, you know. Not everybody is into alcohol as much as I am. It’s not cable. It’s network. We wanted to have a broader appeal and make people feel like they could be interested in watching the show, whether or not they have as big of a drinking problem as I do.”

Catch Are You There, Chelsea? Wednesday nights at 8:30/7:30c on NBC and decide for yourself if cocktails are a requirement for further viewing.

Greenblatt was modestly coy about NBC’s expectations of the (hopefully) aptly titled Smash, as he downplayed the network’s dependency on the musical drama’s (again, hopefully) inevitable success. Despite his best efforts to the contrary, it’s already common knowledge that this dazzling spectacle chronicling the beginning stages of a fictional Broadway production is not only NBC’s biggest midseason premiere, it’s possibly the most-anticipated new show of the entire year, of any network. With the impressive pedigree of producer Steven Spielberg and stars Anjelica Huston, Debra Messing (Will & Grace), real-life Broadway darling Megan Hilty, and American Idol alumna Katharine McPhee, it seems hard to imagine NBC’s playbill has anything besides a hit when it comes to Smash. Hilty confirmed the show’s credibility as far as capturing the most involving aspects of Broadway life is concerned, affirming suspicions that the most compelling drama isn’t found within the play. “Well, the wonderful thing about the show is that there are so many people here that come from this world that it keeps it very authentic,” the Wicked star declared. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been backstage, looking around, going, ‘Where’s the camera? There needs to be a camera here.’ Because the drama that happens behind the curtain is way more interesting than what’s happening on the stage.” Oscar winner Huston (Prizzi’s Honor) was asked why this show is what lured her into a regular television gig, and her simple, confident answer reliably sang Smash’s already echoing praises. “Because it’s beautifully written. It’s a fantastic cast of actors, a phenomenal team of people behind the scenes,” Huston said. “We’re working with the best of the best. I’d be a fool not to participate.” In spite of Smash’s preemptively positive buzz, plenty of insiders can’t help but draw comparisons to another musical series that burst onto the scene with equal publicity in 2009. Executive producer Craig Zadan (Chicago, Hairspray) acknowledged Smash’s inevitable association with Glee and its role in paving the way for a modern musical format on primetime television, but assured reporters the two series have only the broad concept of music in common, and little else. “When Ryan Murphy did Glee he broke a great barrier. He allowed the networks to really believe that there was room for drama, comedy, and music in one show week after week,” Zadan began. “I don’t think that any of us feel that the show is like Glee, but we feel grateful to Glee for opening that door.”

Secure your front row tickets for Smash, “opening” February 6 at 10/9c on NBC.

Fashion Star
As competitive sartorial series continue to invade basic cable, NBC decided to be the first major network to jump on the bandwagon with Fashion Star, a primetime answer to Project Runway and its ilk. Star ups the ante by offering a coveted reward every episode in addition to crowning an overall champion at the end of the season, as the winning design from each week will be available for purchase via H&M, Saks Fifth Avenue or Macy’s immediately following the show. The grand prize includes $6 million in orders for “capsule collections” in all three stores. Representatives from the retail juggernauts will join fashion mavens and “celebrity mentors” Nicole Richie, Jessica Simpson and John Varvatos on the judging panel, and model Elle Macpherson will fulfill hosting duties. While the contestants’ design and craftsmanship is a central factor in determining the ultimate Fashion Star, equal focus is applied toward the overall brand potential of the winner’s collection, something Simpson said is increasingly crucial in this finicky industry. “We really wanted to mentor all of these designers for having a lifestyle brand,” she began. “Not just trying to set trends, but to go overall and weave in and out of great trends and really make a name for yourself.” Series creator, and former NBC entertainment co-chairman, Ben Silverman explained how giving viewers the ability to actually buy their favorite designs will help shape the contestants’ careers as the series airs, instead of relying on the staying power of their work once the show is over. “We wanted to celebrate what’s amazing about American retail and these incredibly strong companies and what they do in the towns that they anchor,” he noted. “But the other side of it is building and working with accessible fashion, with clothes that actually could be worn and that our audience can relate to.”

Supplement your spring wardrobe courtesy of Fashion Star, premiering March 13 at 9/8c on NBC.

Common Law
USA Network’s trend of producing quirky, lighthearted dramedies began with the success of Monk and has only continued with the likes of Burn Notice, White Collar, Psych, Covert Affairs, In Plain Sight, Royal Pains, Suits and Necessary Roughness, all of which focus on the idiosyncrasies of the main characters within relatively stressful scenarios. Whether revolving around crime solving, police work, government secrets, courtroom drama, medical emergencies, psychological turmoil or professional sports, sometimes more than one of these options at a time, the cable channel has wisely decided to stick to its clearly winning formula with its next show, the buddy cop comedy Common Law. Michael Ealy (The Good Wife) and Warren Kole (The Chicago Code) star as a pair of police officers who are forced to attend couples counseling after their constant bickering leads to one heated argument too many for their exasperated chief (Jack McGee, Rescue Me, The Fighter). Each episode will depict their experiences in therapy with Dr. Ryan (Sonya Walger, LOST, FlashForward) and four married couples, and the resulting evolution of their working relationship in the field. All four stars of the series agree that the theme of focusing on the pair’s professional partnership as an unconventional marriage of sorts is what provides both the comedy and dramatic gravitas to keep the show interesting. Walger explained how her character’s therapeutic tactics regarding the guys’ conflicts and stubborn tendencies mirrors what most psychologists would recommend for troubled marriages, and how this notion helps drive the core narrative of Common Law. “Her approach is really kind of cool and unique because she treats them as though they were a married couple, [because] this is the only thing that’s going to work, if these guys are honest that they’re in a relationship,” Walger said. “Non-communication, lack of empathy, irritability, all of this applies between the two of them as it does between any of these married couples. So that’s where the comedy comes in, is that they’re in complete disbelief that any of this could be valuable to them.” McGee agreed, saying his personal friendships with police officers have helped him prepare for his role as the frustrated, yet empathetic boss. “[Cops] spend as much time with their partners as they do with their wives and are in a lot of precarious situations … there are the same rough edges there you need to make smooth,” he said. As for Ealy and Kole, their playfully antagonizing banter during the interview helped provide a preview for what can be expected in the series, as they explained the nature of their characters’ relationship. “Unconventional, yes, but definitely manageable,” Ealy began, to which Kole added, “To a degree. To the point where we’re almost killing each other, but not all the way [laughs] … There’s a lot of disparities between the two, there’s a lot of polarity there, but there’s also a lot of ways they’re really alike, and things that they share in terms of their beliefs and why they’re good cops and good together.” Ealy expanded on this, noting, “Despite the difference in character, we both need each other. He loves to see me suffer, and I love to see him suffer, and it’s balanced in that way … We give it as well as we take it.”

Feel the love on Common Law, debuting this summer on USA.

What upcoming shows are you looking forward to? Can NBC redeem itself? Post your thoughts on the midseason lineup in the comment section below!


For more on NBC’s 2012 Winter Press Tour, click here.

Images courtesy of Chris Haston and NBCUniversal.

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