In a game of limbo, staying alive gets harder as the bar gets lower. In network television, survival works the opposite way. Just a few short months ago, NBC was riding high, actually winning key demos on most nights and bragging about the growth potential of its not one but two potential hits: Go On and Revolution. The rare burst of good news for the beleaguered network suggested that entertainment president Bob Greenblatt's gambit had been successful: that the correct way to rebuild the fourth-place network's fortunes involved investing heavily in new, broader programming on new nights. Only by radically reinventing the brand could the brand be saved. The unspoken assumption hidden beneath this strategy was that Thursdays, long NBC's crown jewel, were now officially an afterthought. The Office and 30 Rock were scheduled for final hurrahs while critically adored, universally ignored companion shows Community and Parks and Recreation were given little chance of survival. It was a new era and a new king was on the throne. And that king was a milquetoast, high-voiced balladeer sitting upon a red pleather throne featuring the latest in slow-spinning technology.
With Labor Day in the rearview mirror, it’s time to focus on the main business of the fall: schoolfootball television! All week, Grantland will be previewing the new TV season, one network at a time, and evaluating the first efforts of each incoming freshman. Today: NBC.
Not losing isn’t necessarily the same thing as winning. Despite all the chaos, change, and Chelsea marring what proved to be an inauspicious debut for entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt, NBC didn’t finish the 2011-12 television season in last place. Well, OK, it did — but that’s only if you count all of the viewers. If you pour yourself a healthy tumbler of Canadian Club and consider the situation only as an advertiser, then NBC actually bested ABC in the sexiest of relatively meaningless demographics, 18-to-49-year-olds. Screw you, ABC! Enjoy life in the basement! The Peacock flies again!
Of all the critical invective and fan anger hurled at the bumbling peacocks of NBC over the past few seasons, there is at least one small portion that remains undeserved. The notion that the network isn’t invested in the success of Community — its low-rated, highly tweeted meta-sitcom — is a lie bigger than the one Dean Pelton tells himself every morning when he gazes into his Broadway makeup mirror. On paper, Community ticks every box on NBC’s checklist for comedy success (one scribbled on “From the Desk of Brandon Tartikoff” stationery and kept safely behind glass deep inside Willard Scott’s recharging station in the bowels of 30 Rock): a mismatched group of outsiders brought together by outrageous circumstance, admirably casual diversity, zippy zingers tempered by honest emotion, and high potential for hookups and/or animal guest stars. The problem was that Community creator Dan Harmon stubbornly insisted on delivering a show that commented on the canned nature of this setup; instead of celebrating it, he subverted it. Through three increasingly odd seasons, the standoff continued. NBC wanted pathos; Harmon gave them paintball. Guess which side eventually got splattered?
This week on the podcast, Andy and I once more wade fully clothed into the in-ground pool that is Breaking Bad. We address the anvil-on-the-chest charm of Walter and Skyler White's domestic life, with a special segment dedicated to their aversion to turning on lamps. Has Walter White become too evil? And does that matter? Also, can we get a show that's just Mike, Lydia, and Jesse eating at a diner?
We then move on to lighter fare to discuss one of the few premiering shows this summer, NBC's new Matthew Perry vehicle, Go On. Somehow we go off on a tangent about accordion-friendly 1980s stand-up comic Judy Tenuta. Don't ask.
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.
It’s upfronts season in New York City, when all the networks are spinning their new fall shows as fast as they can. To celebrate, Chris Ryan and I took a first pass at a bunch of them (1:10), separating the maybe-winners (Fox’s The Mindy Project, NBC’s Revolution) from the kinda-losers (NBC’s Next Caller, Fox’s on-the-nose-like-bifocals-titled The Mob Doctor). We also touched on NBC’s returning Thursday-night lineup and what to expect when you’re expecting The Office to be bad and Community to be buried on Friday nights. Some conversation about our Sunday-night anchors, Mad Men (15:40) and Game of Thrones (22:10), helped ease the pain. Then it was off to the multiplexes, where Chris gushed with excitement over Battleship (27:30) while I rolled my eyes at The Amazing Spider-Man (32:45). We finished up by defending the honor of rapper Freeway (37:50), our fellow Philadelphian, and unveiling the latest entry into our Double Down Summer Reading Club (43:45), Alan Furst, whose stylish, atmospheric World War II thrillers (including The Polish Officer and The World at Night) should be more than enough to erase any painful memories of wisecracking Naval petty officer Rihanna. Boom, indeed.
Taking a cue from Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, NBC is reportedly considering whether to fire its own starter’s pistol on the 2012-13 television season. By launching their early pilot pickup Go On (starring Matthew Perry as an “irreverent yet charming” sportscaster — as if there were any other kind!) and the second season of it’s-a-hit-if-you-squint Grimm in August, the Peacock hopes to get the drop on its better-rated rivals. (UPDATE: And now comes word they might be throwing two more sitcoms in the mix, Anne Heche's Save Me and Ryan Murphy's The New Normal.)