The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the agents are drinking. It's upfronts season in New York! This is the week the broadcast networks throw fancy parties to announce the new shows they'll be canceling in a few months and celebrate the returning veterans whose survival was brokered through a bruising backroom combination of studio strong-arming, dumb luck, and blind optimism. Over the next few days I'll be posting my thoughts on all of the announcements, with the giant caveat that I haven't yet actually seen any of the new shows in question. Which isn't such a big deal because, odds are, you won't be seeing them for very long either.
Next up: Fox
Fox established itself in the '80s by acting brash, but it's only in the past few seasons that it began to seem cocky. Aided, as always, by its reduced schedule (Fox programs six fewer hours per week than its competitors), abetted by the stability of its Sunday-night animation block, and rocket-fueled by the dominant presence of American Idol — a ratings brontosaurus in a post-meteor world — Fox was able to take chances, make mistakes, and still come out on top. Not in terms of total viewers, of course — CBS owns that metric like its viewers own Life Alert alarms — but in terms of the much coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic. When network chairman Kevin Reilly successfully launched New Girl in 2011, he was not only thumbing his nose at his former employers at NBC (New Girl is precisely the kind of smart, urban single-cam sitcom that the Peacock used to make hay with), he was suggesting that Fox's brand was no longer a savvy mix of action-packed hours, reality singing, and general coarseness. He was suggesting that Fox's new brand was success.
Upfronts week is a propagandist’s dream, a nonstop cavalcade of lofty promises, shining stars, and room-temperature mock-maki. In lavish ballrooms extending from midtown Manhattan to the other side of midtown Manhattan, the broadcast networks trot out talent and psyche themselves up in an attempt to sell advertisers, and an increasingly attentive public, on their latest bill of goods (or at least mediocres). So why does it more often sound like they’re selling themselves too? “Why just watch when you can feel?” enthused emo ABC chief Paul Lee at the Alphabet’s shindig. It was a well-constructed bit of hokum that could be repurposed for nearly any of Lee’s rivals (CBS: “Why just watch when you can doze?"; The CW: “Why just watch when you can [SKRILLEX BASS DROP]?" NBC: “Why watch?”). ABC may be peddling a brand strategy that attempts to draw bright lassos of linkage between its tradition of heart-tugging Body Washes (you know: like soaps, but classier) and head-scratching array of newcomers, but the truth is that none of the networks have any real idea what they’re doing. In an atmosphere where an afterthought could redefine a company and a heavily hyped investment could cost everyone onstage their jobs, can those in charge really be blamed for playing it safe? Any of their new shows could fail, a very few could succeed. But anyone who tells you they know which is which before Labor Day is lying. On Tuesday, ABC led their clip package with the words, “When we share great stories, they touch our hearts and feed our souls.” Last year, the same people were touting the soul-nourishing properties of Work It. La plus ša change, la plus c’est la meme merde.
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.