November 14, 2011 8:27pm PT by Tim Goodman
Dear NBC: Don't Tinker, Just Be Better
It’s not everyday that the fourth-place network in, ostensibly, a four-network race, gets much reaction to shaking up its schedule for midseason. After all, the lineup in question is precisely what landed it in fourth place.
In other words, some action is required.
And Robert Greenblatt, the executive who made Showtime into a player (among other achievements) certainly wasn’t hired to sit back and nod approvingly as NBC continues to founder. But he certainly woke up the critical community and a vocal bunch of comedy fans when he left Community off the midseason schedule.
And, for that matter, there’s no mention of Awake, one of the pilots that created a ton of buzz when it made the rounds. Gone, too, is Prime Suspect.
After a settling out period, post-panic, the general consensus is that both Community and Prime Suspect will return, with Community even likely to lock up a fourth-season renewal (based primarily on the fact it is co-produced by Sony and is nearing enough episodes for syndication). Lesser shows have survived on that kind of luck/largesse. Prime Suspect is unlikely to escape the inevitable ax.
When NBC ingloriously left Community off the schedule (and didn’t even mention it in the press release about midseason changes), fans of Community went -- what’s the word here? -- apeshit. Is that one word or two?
Anyway, they shouldn’t have. Sure, everybody has a right to go through the stages of grief when such a thing occurs because so many fans remember the Arrested Development situation all-too-well -- and you can insert myriad shows in there if you were never an AD fan.
(By the way, is there going to be a Community movie? I hear the script is coming along. And yes, I’m just starting that inevitable rumor now to save time.)
But let’s look at this with clear eyes, shall we? This fall schedule is not Greenblatt’s. Shows like Prime Suspect are not his stamp. Furthermore, veteran series like Community are definitely not his and he’s got no emotional investment in them. Ratings for Community are a couple of notches above bleak, with most of the loyalty coming from a huddled mass of comedy fans, geeks, TV critics, relatives of the cast and people who went to school with series creator Dan Harmon.
This is the point where I remind you that television is a business, slip the reverend 20 bucks and start this funeral up. Because like a lot of other shows on NBC, theoretically Community shouldn’t even be alive. And you can whine about the awful Whitney all you want. That show is getting more viewers, period. End of story. Show Greenblatt the ad money.
If you’re smart enough to get Community, you’re smart enough to know better when it comes to the rules of television. So let’s cut the tears and outrage for a second. It’s coming back. It could even get renewed.
What’s worth considering instead is just what the hell Greenblatt is really up to and whether it's the right thing to do. It's not, but more on that later. Here’s the current plan:
A new “season” of Biggest Loser starts Jan. 3, Parenthood ends it season Feb. 28 (this is the part where we all thank Greenblatt for keeping that one alive); and Elle Macpherson starts a new reality series, Fashion Star on March 13, none of which means anything to me, especially since Anna Kournikova won’t be on Biggest Loser anymore.
Wednesday is the new home for Whitney, which leads into the newly titled sitcom, Are You There, Chelsea? then Rock Center with Brian Williams and Law & Order: SVU. This works because Whitney and what was formerly Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, can likely be skipped en masse. And was anyone really watching Rock Center unless it was a school assignment or mistake? No.
Thursday sees the joyful return of 30 Rock, followed by Parks and Recreation, The Office and the relocated Up All Night, leading into new drama The Firm, because NBC still thinks it can launch a drama in that slot out of thin air.
The rest of it? I don’t really care. I like that Grimm is still on Fridays. I don’t care about Harry’s Law moving to Sundays. And the complete lack of Awake on the schedule is not surprising in that it was a great pilot that was almost assuredly going to pull a Lone Star. If NBC can figure out how to make it fly, fantastic. But I never thought that series, tremendous as the pilot was, would ever air. Bent is missing, too, you say? And your point?
Listen, the question now is what should Greenblatt have done differently? He’s got Smash in the right spot. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt that Awake is being retooled with care. As much as I love Maria Bello in Prime Suspect, that show was botched from the name forward. If NBC would have made her the female Kojak from the start (different name, of course), maybe you’ve got a show.
Next season is when Greenblatt will have more tools to play with. Which is why I’m a little disappointed that he’s not trying to redefine the rules a little bit at this midseason. Come on, The Firm is unlikely to launch on Thursdays – why not six comedies? Spend some money on making it a concept. Better yet, why not keep Community on Thursdays, move The Office to Wednesdays and use the 10 p.m. slot on Thursday night on a freewheeling live show where some of your sitcom actors – Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Amy Poehler, Joel McHale, Donald Glover, etc., etc., etc. sit around and riff? Let the showrunners get in there a bit. Let the audience get to know these people and maybe, just maybe, learn to love their shows.
The point is, NBC is in the unique position – last place – to do whatever the hell it wants. But it needs to be a lot more creative than trying what every other network executive has tried in the past. And, bottom line, Community is a loss-leader that will engender good will. Keep it around. Treat it with respect. Toss the super loyal fans a bone.
And listen, you can mock that live show riff-fest idea all you want. Hell, you can even tape it, if you want. But go back and look at the last eight or so seasons of NBC failure. Until you get the hits, do something different, don't repeat those same mistakes again. And maybe even if you do get hits, do something different still. Rock Center is not a solution. Neither is more Law & Order or yet another year of The Office.
Just do something – anything – differently than rearranging the proverbial deck chairs. Be bolder to get better.