Earlier this week, NBC did a very NBC thing: It placed Parks and Recreation, its most critically adored comedy, on hiatus for much of the rest of 2013. The news came as a surprise, and certainly not a welcome one: Parks has been just about the best thing to air on any channel this fall, not to mention the lone bright spot1 on NBC's once proud, now disastrous Thursday nights. (There was a time when the advertising revenue from Thursday nights paid for NBC's entire schedule. Now it's losing to Univision.)
The thinking behind the move is as follows: Parks and Recreation, though wonderful, is in its sixth season and unlikely to grow its audience much further. (You try convincing a waffle-hater of the error of their ways.) It's also a vestigial tail from a smart and successful past from which NBC seems increasingly eager to separate itself. In an attempt to stop the bleeding of what has been yet another disastrous fall in a decade of them, NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt has made the decision to try to salvage his heavily hyped throwback sitcoms Sean Saves the World and The Michael J. Fox Show by giving them the best lead-ins possible. Which, in this case, means sacrificing a few months of the beloved Parks for weeks of stunt programming based on the network's twin successes, The Voice and Saturday Night Live. The hope being, I suppose, that viewers will forget to change the channel once these relatively higher-rated shows have ended, thus goosing Sean and Michael's numbers back to respectability. (Or, as they call it on Univision, respetabilidad.) The truth is, there's no reason to think this "shiny object" strategy will work. What's worrisome is that Greenblatt has no other immediate fix that might conceivably work any better.
At this point, NBC has cut off its nose to spite its face so many times it should probably consider replacing its peacock logo with a rainbow-colored Voldemort. The much-maligned Ben Silverman/Jeff Zucker years were marked by an almost willfully obtuse refusal to invest in long-term thinking, and instead the network lurched from stunt to stunt — think The Jay Leno Show and the rebooted American Gladiators and Knight Rider, or, you know, don't — while the ratings sank from bad to worse. The one bright side to this dark time? NBC's complete inability to launch a hit show allowed its more modestly viewed programs to flourish. 30 Rock, Parks, Friday Night Lights, and others all owe their lives to quality scripts and patient development, sure. But their survival? Credit that to a dollop of good old-fashioned executive incompetence.
That incompetence has continued well into what was meant to be a return to stability under Greenblatt. Last spring, Greenblatt canceled every single new comedy he had ordered the previous year2 while Parenthood, the network's unkillable punching bag, went from the scrap heap to pride of place on Thursday nights. The news isn't all bad so far in 2013. Football still dominates on Sundays and The Blacklist has emerged as a breakout hit on Monday nights — though it'll be worth seeing how it fares once The Voice falls silent. (Revolution, last year's beneficiary of Cee Lo's afterglow, is currently dying like a nine-volt battery on Wednesday nights.) And, to his credit, Greenblatt actually did seem to enter the season with a plan more detailed than his previous one.3 The new goal was to reclaim the network's glory years by slavishly re-creating them with graying stars like Sean Hayes, Blair Underwood, and Michael J. Fox and hoarier concepts like Ironside, a wildly unnecessary remake of a show that went off the air in 1975.4
That this nostalgia rocket has flamed out so utterly is, sadly, not particularly surprising. Viewers don't need to be reminded of the way things used to be — in today's hyper-stratified, niche-dominated industry, there's already an entire channel devoted solely to jogging their memories. Reaching for familiar faces without bothering to come up with fresh ideas is just another type of short-term thinking,5 no different from Super-Sizing episodes or naming Jon Bon Jovi "artist in residence." What NBC desperately needs is a long-term blueprint for the sort of lasting success that's not dependent on tight spirals or spinning chairs.
Bob Greenblatt's Comcast overlords recently extended his contract until 2017, which, deserved or not, means he has both time and security to try once more to turn things around. And so, contrary to what you might imagine, I have no intention to bury NBC further. (With the dreadful Dracula still a week away, they're well on their way to doing that for themselves.) Besides, those postmortem pieces, like flowers, tend to bloom in spring. Instead, what I've laid out below is a humble, not entirely radical five-point survival plan for a network that I mock only because, for some silly reason, I still can't help but love it. Some of what I've suggested is strange; even more of it might be impossible. Remember, I am not a programming professional. But, then again, neither are many of the people directly responsible for this mess in the first place.
1. Send the Comedy Department Packing
Though it may be confusing to children weaned on Whitney and Outsourced, TV watchers of a certain age will always have a soft spot for NBC due to its two-decade-long run of unparalleled sitcom excellence. From The Cosby Show and Cheers to Seinfeld and Friends and up to and including The Office and Parks and Recreation, NBC's comedy department built an unimpeachable legacy of humor and heart — and built right alongside it was a trust that not even 12 episodes of Are You There, Chelsea? can completely shatter.
Cementing the connection even further is that, unlike that faceless behemoth CBS, NBC has a physical home: 30 Rockefeller Center, in the heart of midtown Manhattan. It's a place to which many of us saps still feel a sentimental attachment. It's where Saturday Night Live is filmed, where David Letterman and Conan O'Brien once made mischief, and where Brian Williams and Questlove can hold the elevator doors for one another and jockey over the last SoyJoy in the office vending machine. And even though Tina Fey is no longer roaming its halls, 30 Rock is doing better than ever: Saturday Night Live, in its 39th season, is often the highest-rated show on NBC full stop, and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon has become an equally dependable resource for generous, goofy humor, infectious viral videos, and some really stupendous music. These are coastal traditions to be embraced, not run from in pursuit of an imagined, milquetoast middle.
Meanwhile, out in L.A., Greenblatt's comedy team took the money-losing farce they inherited and turned it into a tragedy. The days of Must See TV are long over. In his quest to reach a possibly fictional "broad" audience, Greenblatt has abandoned the clever comedies6 that once defined NBC's brand. (It's a mistake the sly executives over at Fox have been all too quick to take advantage of.) Even if the unremarkable Sean Saves the World manages to stay afloat for a few listless seasons, what does it say about the network's vision, its goals, its future? (Hint: Nothing much, but at least it says it loudly and with a braying laugh track.) NBC was once the envy of the industry because, in the ageless SNL, it had its own farm team for future comedy stars. Now it's throwing millions at Meg Ryan and Susan Sarandon in the hopes of catching 1992 in a bottle. The fact that brilliant SNL writer John Mulaney saw his self-titled sitcom project rejected by NBC and promptly given a six-episode order by Fox ought to have been the last straw. Forget broadcasting savvy, it's Farmer 101 not to let others make hay out of the contents of your own barn.
So, step one for NBC's comedy rebirth: Hand the whole thing over to Lorne Michaels and his team in New York. The transfer of power has already begun: Next year, The Tonight Show will move from its longtime home in Burbank back to Manhattan. With Fallon moving up an hour and current SNL head writer Seth Meyers taking over at 12:30, Michaels's late-night dominance will be complete. Now it's time to see what he can do in prime time. Would anyone object to integrating Fallon and the SNL gang into the nightly lineup? Bloopers from dress rehearsals, teasers, and song fragments would all make for more interesting interstitial programming than, say, Mike O'Malley, from the doomed Welcome to the Family, "introducing" us to the night and essentially begging people to watch his show.
Furthermore, Michaels could actively encourage — possibly even by "paying them extra" — the very talented writers and performers on his various staffs to spend their off hours scribbling scripts and sitcom treatments. An idea generated in-house, one that takes advantage of in-house talent, is not only likely to be better than one bought on spec, it's probably a good deal cheaper too. And it's no secret that more original — if not downright better — work tends to emerge far from the artificial good cheer of Hollywood pitch meetings. (To say nothing of the reflected light of a thousand laptops, all bearing their own blank Final Draft document, that shines in every coffee shop from Echo Park to the Pacific Ocean.) Being in New York allows Michaels and his minions to keep tabs on the original UCB theater as well as whatever other comedy scenes are bubbling underground, long before they geyser themselves out to the West Coast in search of bowdlerized fame and fortune.
And, as result of his deep Rolodex, Michaels is also the right person to secure the talents of the types of established producers and writers necessary to shore up a leaky department. His first call ought to be one of apology to Paul Feig and Judd Apatow for the shoddy treatment of Freaks and Geeks all those years ago. Sure, Seth Rogen and James Franco are too busy for a regular sitcom, but Jay Baruchel and Craig Robinson look pretty free to me. Making this even easier, the next three names on Lorne's list are all alums of Studio 8H and all currently under contract to NBC/Universal Studios: Mike Schur (Parks and Recreation), Greg Daniels (The Office), and Robert Carlock (30 Rock). Not only are all three brilliant writers in their own right, they're also proven mentors, able to shepherd and groom younger talent. The three have been consorting with the enemy of late: Fox outbid NBC for Schur and Dan Goor's Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Carlock and Matt Hubbard's untitled college comedy while Daniels, after being burned the past two pilot seasons at NBC (first with his adaptation of the British sitcom Friday Night Dinners and more recently with a Craig Robinson project), has been cooling his heels directing episodes of another NBC woulda-shoulda, The Mindy Project. Get these guys in the building and don't let go until they're either writing or mentoring — and preferably both.
Oh, and if none of the above should work, Lorne should just adopt his best Dr. Evil voice and offer Tina Fey and Amy Poehler one hundred billion dollars for whatever the hell the two best friends want to do next. If it's good enough for the Golden Globes, it's plenty good enough for bronze NBC.
2. The Blacklist Is Working? Boom. There's Your Brand.
For the past few years NBC has spent its summers desperately casting about for a new identity like a rising ninth-grader the week before high school. For awhile it flirted with being a geek, then dabbled with being a goth before settling for just generally being a square. Now that The Blacklist is a hit, it only stands to reason that NBC might rush to remake itself in its Spaderiffic image. But here's the thing: That's exactly what the network ought to do.
I'm not much of a fan of The Blacklist itself; it's too noisy, too pleased with itself, and hammier than Paula Deen's Easter dinner. But the show's appeal is not in the least bit mysterious: It takes a popular star, pairs him with a younger, prettier actress, and sparks off of their mismatched chemistry. Though The Blacklist dazzles and distracts with expensive set pieces and talk of global masterminds, it is, at heart, a very old-fashioned and modest series; it's a cop procedural with a criminal as the lead investigator.
Taking old bones, shining them up with new ideas, and then scuffling them back down with a roguish good cheer sounds to me like a fine blueprint for a network drama department, particularly one caught between the serialized high style of cable and the rote, bad-guy-catching profit-generating anagrams of CBS. The fact that NBC's corporate sibling USA has been doing this exact thing for years should be more instructive than it is frustrating. Greenblatt has far more money at his disposal than USA, and the latter network has been making noises of late about changing up its focus, making it the perfect time for NBC to steal its thunder.
So who cares if NBC will never land prestige projects from Vince Gilligan or Matt Weiner? Greenblatt should've been on the phone yesterday to proven showrunners like Matt Nix (Burn Notice) and Aaron Korsh (Suits) to see if they're ready to bring their escapist fizz to the big leagues. Even if you change the channel from USA but stay in the same aesthetic, it's not hard to cherry-pick talent. Ted Griffin wrote Ocean's Eleven and co-created the late, lamented Terriers for FX. Are you telling me he doesn't have a killer caper series rumbling around in his brain? Graham Yost (Justified) is plenty busy, but, in the words of Don Draper … well, I'll let him tell it. And maybe Adam Reed, the cartoony genius behind Archer, would like a shot at playing spymaster with actors instead of pixels?
Now that we're burning friends-and-family minutes, you know who is really deserving of a call? David Gordon Green, the talented filmmaker who pinballs between brows high (All the Real Girls) and low (Eastbound & Down). Unlike most of the show-pitching chancers who will say anything to get their parking validated, Green carries a deep, unironic love of genre — I once saw him introduce a screening of The Dion Brothers, an incredible, forgotten '70s flick about goofball brothers and a heist gone wrong — making him the perfect guy to both celebrate and resurrect the kind of knockaround drama that hasn't been in favor since James Garner was living on the beach. In fact, maybe Green is the right choice to oversee the remake of The Rockford Files that NBC was so hot for a few years back before botching it in what is reportedly spectacular fashion. With Timothy Olyphant and Josh Holloway otherwise engaged, it might be a long search before Green is able to find an actor with the charismatic machismo and louche nonchalance necessary to pull off such an iconic role. But it'd be time and money well spent. In an age of dwindling antihero interest, there are far worse things for networks to strive for than "fun."
3. Law & Order Is Your Rushmore, Your North Star, Your Guiding Light
One of the things that has protected CBS and ABC from the more extreme swings of fate and fortune is their investment in steadier foundations. In TV terms, this means the type of shows that can be depended upon: for ratings, for a modicum of buzz and fan loyalty, and, above all else, for schedule stability. CBS's many crime procedurals are all essentially interchangeable, and that's part of their appeal. On ABC, Shonda Rhimes's classy soap factory has kept the network afloat when a flood of NBC-like decision-making threatened to drown it entirely.
NBC once had a similar bulwark. For 20 years Law & Order was a chung-chunging workhorse smack-dab in the midst of the network's schedule. It was never glamorous, it barely won any awards. But Law & Order did more than keep Broadway actors from waiting tables during lean periods. For viewers of all ages, it was a comforting blanket, a dependable friend. Where cable exults in showing the seams and cracks in the world, network TV, at its best, lulls us with competence and resolution. Law & Order ripped stories from the headlines, constantly rebooted itself, and yet was always, wonderfully, exactly the same. TV doesn't always need to rock the boat. Sometimes TV is the boat.
The mother ship L & O went away in 2010, but its lurid cousin, SVU, trundles on, brandishing rape kits the way Jerry Orbach once flashed a knowing smirk. There's no reason to mess with a good thing: even without Christopher Meloni, SVU is a consistent performer for NBC. But it's foolish to settle for consistency. Law & Order is a limitless franchise, one that's as much a part of NBC's DNA as those signature chimes. Why limit it to one tawdry corner of the justice system? My suggestion: Reboot Law & Order prime as a giant, multi-headed hydra of fast-paced interrogations and remarkably efficient trials. SVU would be canceled, its cast and crew swallowed back into this new mother ship series. The fresh format would allow the show to tell all types of stories, from the bread-and-butter one-and-dones to longer, more serialized cases that could, in a nod to changing tastes, stretch for four to six episodes or so. Each new case would utilize a different cast and focus on a different precinct and courthouse, all of which exist within a shared, fictional New York City.7 When Mariska Hargitay and Ice-T are done putting the screws to another rapist, they can take a few weeks off, recharge, and then be ready to put the latex gloves back on when it's once again their turn to catch a case.
Old retired friends would be welcomed back on occasion — hello, Jack McCoy! Greetings, John Munch! — but the real draw would be new faces. To make this creaky concept feel like an event, NBC should open its checkbook and play up the gig's many perks. Joining Law & Order prime's large ensemble would require nothing more than living in New York (something many actors, especially older actors, love) and working only occasionally. Dustin Hoffman has shown a willingness to do TV. Maybe he could be Godfather-offered into phoning in a performance as Manhattan's crotchety new DA. If he says no, I bet Kevin Kline might be interested in staying close to home. How about Joan Allen and Alfre Woodard as police captains? And casting directors could have a field day nabbing a killer lineup of interesting and underemployed performers as a new generation of cops and lawyers. (Off the top of my head, how about Amy Ryan, Derek Luke, Michael Raymond-James, Martin Starr, Victor Rasuk, Dania Ramirez, and Mamie Gummer?) But really, the star of Law & Order is Law & Order itself. It's still a dynamite story engine in an industry that's running on fumes. The only way to possibly make it better would be to make it bigger.
4. Horror Night Done Right
Since the moment it launched in 2011, Grimm has been a surprisingly dependable performer for NBC on Friday nights. And in an industry founded on meddling, one of the better decisions the network has made is simply leaving well enough alone. Grimm is a modest show that has found a modest audience on a night that seems to work best as a showcase for fringier fare. I don't blame Greenblatt for trying to complement Grimm with a new Dracula series, but the reality of the show — starring the Irishman Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as the Transylvanian bloodsucker who is, himself, pretending to be an American industrialist for no known reason — is more of an insult.
Instead of snatching a public-domain story and trying to retrofit a show around it, why not invest in spooky creators who might actually have something to say? You think someone like Ti West (VHS) might want a crack at remaking Kolchak: The Night Stalker — the creepy-crawly '70s series that inspired The X-Files and gave David Chase his start? If guys like Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) or — dream big! — Guillermo del Toro don't want to snag the 10 p.m. hour for themselves, the next best thing might be an anthology series. I'm thinking more Masters of Horror than The Twilight Zone: a showcase for talented, touched-in-the-head visionaries to get their weirdest ideas out into the world.
There aren't many benefits to NBC being in such awful shape, but one of them has to be flexibility: With so many holes to fill on its schedule and so little expectation from viewers, NBC can afford to experiment. What it can't afford to do is to play it safe. Just remember this: There's nothing Tobe Hooper or John Carpenter could come up with that'd be scarier than Ironside's ratings.
5. Limit Yourself and Go Big
Let's not mince words: The only thing keeping NBC from falling to CW levels of relevance is football. And the problem with football — at least as far as Bob Greenblatt is concerned — is that it ends after the Super Bowl. This leaves a gaping black hole in NBC's schedule on TV's premier night, one that threatens to suck all of the network's modest gains and wobbly hopes into oblivion. Great leaders look at difficulties like this and see only opportunity. With half a season to play with and little to lose that hasn't already vanished, Greenblatt can't just plug in another cycle of The Apprentice here. It'd be like treating a punctured artery with a paper towel.
Speaking of blood: NBC's most surprising creative success in recent years was with Hannibal, a viscera-soaked project that arrived with low expectations and promptly exceeded all of them. (The trick was marrying the preexisting subject matter with a showrunner — in this case Bryan Fuller — with a strong aesthetic sense and a distinct point of view.) That the odd and artful Hannibal is, despite anemic ratings, set to return in 2014 is a good thing, but its very existence says something very positive about NBC's much-maligned drama development: It's a sign that somebody's awake over there and not afraid to get his hands, or his network, dirty.
Where am I going with this? Back to the future but with a quick detour into the past. Mini-series and telemovies dominated the television landscape back when the star of The Michael J. Fox Show was wearing life preservers but have fallen out of favor since. All of a sudden, though, they've been making a comeback, one fueled, in part, by contemporary audiences' insatiable appetite for both serialization and closure. FX's John Landgraf, one of the smartest programmers in the business, recently identified limited series as the next great market inefficiency. Part of his plan to make the new FXM a channel worth watching involves reaching out to filmmakers frustrated by the glacial pace of the movie business and putting them to work on the small screen instead. Thus far it has paid off handsomely with the much kvelled-over announcement of limited series from the likes of the Coen brothers, Alexander Payne, and Sam Mendes. NBC can't (and shouldn't) be distracted by art-house allure and Oscar gold. But it can (and should) find a dynamite, finite story and stop at nothing to tell the holy living hell out of it.
Knowing network TV's history with epic mini-series, the past is probably where NBC would head first. But to stand out, it should shift its thinking from the making of our world to its possible ruin. Fox and Ridley Scott hold the rights to Justin Cronin's terrific postapocalyptic vampire novel The Passage, but I have a feeling they could be pried away, especially now that, after five years of development, it's clear that reducing a 900-page book to a two-hour movie isn't just difficult, it's ridiculous. The story spans 100 years and the length and breadth of the continental U.S. before eventually settling on a group of plucky teens and their attempt to find out what happened to the world: why it was beset with a plague that transformed 99 percent of America into a scourge of darkness-clustering, flesh-tearing creatures known as virals. It's both expansive and intimate, terrifying and uplifting — in other words, exactly the sort of thing that plays better on TV than in the movies. Letting Fuller and his Hannibal director David Slade take a crack at transforming The Passage into a 15-hour "event series" would be aces, with Battlestar Galactica's Ronald D. Moore in the wings as a fine second choice. It'd be plenty expensive, but when you're trying to save a cratering network you have to spend money to make money.
Could any of these ideas actually save NBC's tarnished tail feathers? I don't know. But this is the moment to find out. Self-improvement gurus like to say the best way to dance is as if nobody's watching. NBC's already got the latter part taken care of, which means the time for the peacock to face the music is now.