When the ship’s going down, any piece of flotsam can look like a life raft. So it was yesterday at NBC’s executive session at the Television Critics Association Press Tour, where, according to Alan Sepinwall, Peacock President Bob Greenblatt crowed about his network’s recent third-place finish in the much-desired 18-to-49-year-old demographic. But it doesn’t take overpaying for the Olympics to know that the bronze medal is hardly good enough. With that in mind, Greenblatt went on to describe his vision for NBC’s future, and it was wildly different from its recent past.
According to Sepinwall, Greenblatt “heaped praise” on his ratings-challenged, critically beloved Thursday night comedies, but then quickly qualified his enthusiasm: returning shows like Community and Parks and Recreation, he said, “tend to be a bit more narrow than we’d ultimately like going forward.” In their place, Greenblatt is banking on broad, from the monkey hijinks of Animal Practice to the shrieking emotional babies (and the cute newborns they’ve fathered) of Guys With Kids. The apparent cream of this rather corny crop is Go On, a sitcom starring the always-game Matthew Perry, which will be getting a special preview next month in between pole vaulting and hurdles. Go On isn’t a bad pilot, just a creaky one: it concerns an acerbic radio DJ (a job more overrepresented on television than “architect” or “sassy ethnic friend”) who recovers from the death of his wife via a quirky support group. One could be charitable and say it’s a remake of Dear John, or be honest and call it what it is: Community with kindly Bill Cobb in place of Chevy Chase and a wilted pile of Megan Fox jokes where the Dreamatorium should be. (Doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result isn’t the definition of insanity. It’s the definition of Hollywood.)
Look, I’m plenty sympathetic to Greenblatt’s plight. He’s running a theoretically for-profit enterprise, which means he could probably figure out a way to support one or two charity cases, but not an entire night of them. If Parks and Rec is allowed to finish out its upcoming fifth season with some dignity and more than a little closure, that will (and should be) seen as a triumph for a brilliant show that never quite managed to connect with the mainstream. But declaring you’re in the business of “soulful comed[ies] that can make you laugh, make you cry,” as entertainment president Jennifer Salke put it yesterday is one thing, actually succeeding in that business is the other. It’s as if the last place Houston Astros, in a plea to their disgusted fanbase, announced that going forward they were going to be a home-run-hitting team: It sounds good on paper, but if you don’t have the players, switching strategy isn’t so easy. In his eighteen months on the job, Greenblatt has shown questionable taste in comedy — championing the wretched Whitney and Are You There, Chelsea over the unjustly buried Bent, for example — and his new offerings (which include a half-hour starring Dane Cook as, wait for it, an acerbic radio DJ) don’t inspire much faith.
Furthermore, Greenblatt has appeared to go out of his way to marginalize creator Greg Daniels — the man responsible for The Office, which is still, even in its current, unkillable zombie form, NBC’s highest rated sitcom — first by passing on his promising Friday Night Dinner pilot back in May, and then by lumping the Dunder-Mifflinites in with the rest of the struggling line-up: "I don't want to say anything negative about what Tina Fey does, or Parks and Rec or The Office," Sepinwall quotes him as saying. "Those are great shows. But it's a challenge in comedy to broaden." If a beloved eight-year-old show about a surrogate workplace family isn’t broad enough, Greenblatt might be better served scheduling a two-hour block of puppies falling asleep.
But NBC’s biggest red flag going forward is equally broad. Heading into his second fall season at the helm, it’s clear Greenblatt is angling for an NBC that’s an awkward amalgamation of CBS and ABC, blending schticky multi-cam laffers with touchier, feelier fare that’s more sensitive than cerebral. But last I checked, Chuck Lorre isn’t leaving his billion dollar crashpad in Les Mooves’s helicarrier anytime soon, and Modern Family is the simplest sitcom to imitate but the hardest to duplicate. What should really concern the suits in Burbank is a simple case of identity theft. While NBC was dithering over pirates and vampires, the upstarts at Fox ate the Peacock’s lunch, suddenly reinventing themselves into the go-to place for smart, urbane comedy. Greenblatt can’t be faulted for missing on New Girl, but The Mindy Project — one of the best pilots of the fall and Zooey D’s new crafting partner on Tuesday nights — was developed in-house at NBC. One of the things Matthew Perry is told in his support group (after the Ryan Gosling gag and the bit about the Google Streetview truck) is that the first step to recovery is acceptance. It’s advice worth heeding in the executive suite as well.