Upfronts 2011: Highlights and lowlights from NBC and FOX

Senior Television Writer
05.16.11 24 Comments


The first, and longest, day of Upfront Week 2011 is in the books. NBC and FOX devoted close to 4 hours combined (the majority of them on NBC’s end of things) trying to sell advertisers on their new shows. They tried to dazzle the crowds with singers (Christina Aguilera and Cee-Lo for NBC, The Warblers from “Glee” and a bunch of this season’s “American Idol” finalists for FOX), with comedians (Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon at NBC, Jane Lynch again doing a Sue Sylvester intro at FOX), and – most importantly for my purposes – with clips from their many, many, many new shows. (You can see most of NBC’s clips here.)

Judging whether a TV show will be any good based on a full pilot episode is something of a guessing game, where a good pilot could easily make a bad series (“The Nine”) or vice versa (“Journeyman”). Trying to judge a TV show based on a clip reel that usually runs around 5 minutes is a fool’s errand. The sitcom in particular is a genre that doesn’t cut down well to that length – the “Arrested Development” trailer, for instance, seemed pretty terrible way back when – and it’s hard to tell whether most of the comedies previewed today genuinely aren’t funny, or just don’t seem funny when you remove all context from the jokes.

Still, attending the new upfronts allowed advertisers and reporters to make first impressions, both about the new shows and where each network finds itself going into a new season. After the jump, I have some some incredibly superficial impressions of some of the newbies, as well as other highlights and lowlights from the two presentations:

• By far the clip reel that impressed me and everyone I talked to the most was NBC’s mid-season drama “Awake,” from “Lone Star” creator Kyle Killen. Of course, “Lone Star” was by far the most impressive clip reel any network showed a year ago, and while the pilot lived up to that impression, the show still got canceled after two episodes (and easily could have been canceled after one). As with “Lone Star,” “Awake” is about a man (Jason Isaacs) living a double life, but in a very different way, as he splits time between two realities (or one reality and one elaborate, recurring dream) following a family tragedy. And, as with “Lone Star,” the clip reel (and premise) raise questions about the long-term sustainability of the concept. But I know that’s the show I most want to see out of the close to 20 shows previewed today. Maybe the second time will be the charm for Killen – and, if not, premiering at mid-season means he’ll have most, if not all, of his episodes in the can before he debuts, whereas “Lone Star” died after only a few episodes had been produced.

• NBC’s other mid-season drama, the backtage Broadway drama/musical “Smash,” also seemed promising. Broadway, showtunes, etc. aren’t entirely my bag, but it’s a strong cast (including Debra Messing dialed in at a human level, Anjelica Huston, Jack Davenport and, in a role that seems tailor-made to remove the “‘American Idol’ runner-up” prefix from the first paragraph of every story about her, Katharine McPhee), the production values look great, it seems like it could capture that world well, etc.

• Again, I’m going to give a mulligan to all the sitcoms for now and see how they play out in full pilot form. That said, “Party Down” fans will be pleased that one of the jokes in John Enbom’s new NBC sitcom “Free Agents” is a nice little shout-out to one of that show’s more memorable parties. (Between running into Enbom at NBC, and then Rob Thomas – whose “Little in Common” is in contention for mid-season at FOX – later in the day, it definitely made me feel nostalgic for “Party Down.”) The only comedy that stood out significantly was FOX’s “New Girl,” and that’s mainly due to Zooey Deschanel’s off-the-charts adorability factor rather than any laughs to be found.

• FOX’s “Terra Nova” clip reel was mainly what critics saw back at press tour, now with lots of digital effects shots of dinosaurs added. Hey, at least the dinosaurs looked good. I still get a bad vibe off this show (and its showrunners), but we’ll see.

• The JJ Abrams-produced “Alcatraz” looks like it could be fun, a mix of time-travel and police procedural that actually seems like it could make sense.

• Nothing else made an especially big impression, other than me watching Naturi Naughton in the clips of “The Playboy Club” and trying to imagine that the show is really a spin-off about her character from “Mad Men,” and that Lane Pryce and his stick-wielding father would turn up if the trailer just kept running long enough.

• The two presentations were a study in contrasts, with NBC going over well two hours and FOX clocking in at only a little over one, I think. It wasn’t just that NBC has lots of new shows to present, but that the network insists on having all its major divisions – not just primetime entertainment, but late night, news and sports – represented. So we got a long clip reel of all the late night shows, followed by Jimmy Fallon doing a song parody. (He went over with the crowd better last year.) Brian Williams gave an eloquent but largely out-of-place speech about the important work that his colleagues in NBC News do. NBC Sports boss Dick Ebersol sucked all the air out of the room with a long spiel about the ratings power of “Sunday Night Football” and the Olympics, complete with extended clip reels about both – the football one listing NBC’s scheduled match-ups week-by-week, not even once acknowledging that at least the first few weeks of the season are likely to be wiped out by the lockout – until he had completely pummeled us into submission. By the time Donald Trump came out to reveal – shocker of all shockers! – that he was not, in fact, going to run for president (just like he never has before, despite his many, many, previous breathlessly-reported flirtations with the idea), we were all so zonked that no one seemed entirely aware that what we had just witnessed was real. FOX, meanwhile, was brisk and efficient.

• Though the length of NBC’s presentation wasn’t ideal, it was fascinating to see new network bosses Ted Harbert and Bob Greenblatt work so hard to distance themselves from the philosophies of the Jeff Zucker regime. Harbert drew hearty applause by saying that rather than try to reinvent the wheel, they’d focus more on “Broadcasting 101” by developing good shows, and Greenblatt at one point brought up Zucker’s infamous quote about “managing for margins” rather than hits, insisting NBC would no longer do that.

Back tomorrow with ABC – and, most likely, a Firewall & Iceberg Podcast in which Dan and I discuss all of what we’ve seen so far.

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