August 03, 2011 1:44am PT by Tim Goodman
Analysis: NBC Might Not Be as Bad as Expected
Could there be a light that's not a train at the end of NBC's tunnel?
Nobody realistically expects NBC to be anything more than the No. 4 in a four network ratings race by the end of next season, not even Robert Greenblatt, the network's entertainment president. At least that's the lowered-expectation mantra he's spreading around.
Which is not only the perfect approach to take, it's something the last three or so NBC presidents would never have said, so considere the culture at the Peacock network already minutely, but importantly, changed. As NBC leaves the Television Critics Association press tour having said most of the right things and shared its wares, it might not be such a ridiculous notion to think NBC might turn around a lot earlier than anyone expected.
Greenblatt is a smart executive and after he turned Showtime around so spectacuarly, the knee-jerk reaction is that his taste won't work in the network world. But that's just too simple, given that he's been a network guy before (at Fox), developed series outside the network system (Six Feet Under) and is a lot more wiley than being square peg unable to fit in round holes. Do not bet against him, in short.
But here's the other thing to consider about NBC and Greenblatt: What if he gets lucky? He graciously said that he's responsible for the fall line-up (he's not -- they were developed before the got to NBC), a stand-up move because the entire schedule could implode. He's had his fingers on them, though, and no doubt has lots of notes going forward. But it's not like he's inherited a pile of crap. One or two of the series could actually work and if he's even a smidge lucky (or really patient) he might see gains or creative development with the others.
Consider: NBC has two half-hour comedies premiering Wednesday nights starting Sept. 14 that could make a small dent on the night. Free Agents and Up All Night. The pilot for the first just flat out doesn't work -- but it has a funny cast and very talented group behind the scenes. In case you've forgotten, the pilots for both 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation were disasters. It took four episodes for 30 Rock to find some semblance of a show, then it took off to greatness. Parks and Recreation had a six episode first season and five of those shows were bad. There was almost no hope the series would be renewed, but it was, and Season 2 was easily the best Comeback Show of the Year.
So, get some perspective on Free Agents. It was created by John Enbom (Party Down, a series a lot of critics adored) and is executive produced and directed by Todd Holland (Malcolm In the Middle, Wonderfalls, The Larry Sanders Show) and stars Hank Azaria, Kathryn Hahn, Anthony Head, Mo Mandel, Natasha Leggero, Al Madrigal and Joe Lo Truglio.
Up All Night, starring Will Arnett, Christina Applegate and Maya Rudolph is very good and could be a sleeper hit, which would help Free Agents if the latter gets its act together. Yes that duo will get killed by Fox's The X-Factor and CBS' Survivor but it has a very real chance of beating ABC's The Middle and Suburgatory in the hour. That's a faint glimmer, but it's there.
Beyond that, The Playboy Club isn't likely to work and Whitney is dreadful, but don't be surprised if Grimm gets some genre traction on Friday nights. And the debate about whether Prime Suspect will hold up to the original is now moot since they are nothing alike. What's left is the making of a strong procedural that could do a little business against vets like Private Practice and The Mentalist. OK, not a lot of business, but at this juncture I'd definitely go with Prime Suspect, despite the annoyance of the connection to the original. Maria Bello should not be underestimated in that role.
This is not a revolution, of course. NBC is still the decided underdog in this race. But you could almost make out a faint Cheshire cat smile on Greenblatt's face periodically during the TV press tour and he may be on to something (or maybe I was projecting it on to him while double-checking these NBC series). The network has two buzz-worthy shows in midseason -- Smash and Awake. Again, no promises of success. But I'm beginning to think this lengthy turnaround at NBC everyone is talking about might be shorter than anyone is currently guessing.
And all the while, credit Greenblatt for both keeping the network humble (now there’s a first for NBC) and perhaps artificially lowering the bar. Look no further than this doozy of a quote he gave USA Today: "So even if a couple of these shows work and we have The Voice, I don’t know if in the next one, two, three years we’re going to see any kind of significant lift. Everybody’s realistic about it, and we’ll do the hard work," he says. "And hopefully find a Glee or Modern Family."
Is he good or what? Because he's completely right. And if he's not right, he's the new king.