NBC at TCA: So, What Have You Got For Us? (Analysis)

THR's chief TV critic on the offerings from the third-place network -- which include bright spots like shows from James Spader and Michael J. Fox. But is it enough to turn things around?
James Spader in NBC's best shot in the fall, "Blacklist."

Let's be counterintuitive and start with what feels positive for NBC going into the fall. The third-place -- nearly fourth-place and still desperately trying to turn the ship around -- network, has two very intriguing shows for the fall.

And just to make things clear about how tight the races can be when it's network vs. network -- two intriguing shows that turn into two hits are nothing to dismiss. They could, conceivably, lift a network up a notch. 

The best of NBC's new offerings is drama Blacklist, starring a very, very compelling James Spader as an ex-government agent who crosses over to the dark side, ends up on the Most Wanted list and then one day mysteriously turns himself in. There is, of course, a catch. Spader's character, Raymond "Red" Reddington will point the FBI in the right direction of a brutal terrorist who was presumed dead. His demands include only talking to a completely green FBI agent and, you know, a nice hotel room. If the deal goes as expected, there's no way Red is going to jail. He's got a list (of course!) of others he can help the government find and prosecute. Not only is Spader fantastic, but there's something to the mystery of "why?" here -- why is he doing this now, why did he pick this inexperienced novice to train and why is he suddenly willing to cash in other people?

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Blacklist was one of the standout drama offerings among the pilots plopping onto the desks of critics from across the country and Canada. It's a procedural series dressed up in finer clothes. There's a list of bad guys to nab, so the forward-moving storyline won't be that difficult to suss out, thus retaining viewers. But there are also a couple of buried secrets that can be revealed slowly (that keeps serial TV lovers in the mix) and Spader has wisely glommed on to a role that gives the lead all the good lines, freedom to move and a chance to be the singular sensation in the ensemble.

So, all good there.

The second series giving the Peacock some hope is The Michael J. Fox Show, a comedy that was given a full order of 22 guaranteed episodes right from the start. It's about a beloved New York news anchor whose Parkinson's disease (from which Fox has suffered for years in real life) derails his professional career, sending him home to annoy his family until they finally get rid of him by sending him back to where he belongs -- on the air.

The risk in the funny new series is that the self-deprecating jokes Fox spews could take their toll on the audience. That is, Parkinson's itself is the butt of the jokes -- but those jokes are delivered by an actor suffering from it, which can be at times uncomfortable. But, initial reaction seems positive, and Fox is in good form on his timing and likability -- two major pluses.

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The rest? Well, this will be interesting.

Welcome to the Family, which NBC kicked off its panels with on Saturday, is a blended-family sitcom that seems to have some potential, particularly because Mike O'Malley pretty much nails whatever he's in. And the pilot was solid. But the show itself is not one of those generating a ton of heat (few shows are) and will be left to fight for its life as usual. NBC's other fall sitcom, Sean Saves the World, starring Sean Hayes, is unlikely to save anything at the network (even though it was created by the excellent Victor Fresco).

That leaves the Ironside reboot with Blair Underwood to prop up another night. Other than the modernity of it, there's just too much familiarity in the mix and, yeah, good luck with the battle ahead.

Are any of these shows enough to turn around NBC's fortunes? Well, ask yourself how many times that question has been asked since NBC was driven into the ground by Jeff Zucker. Answer: More than you can probably count. So the short answer is probably no, unless Blacklist and The Michael J. Fox Show and maybe Welcome to the Family pop. Beyond that, existing shows can't backslide. On the plus side, Sunday Night Football is going to dominated for NBC as usual, and the Olympics are not to be dismissed.

Since every network will likely be in CBS' rearview mirror, the battle is really for second. That's not out of the picture for NBC. However, neither is fourth. And there you have it.

E-mail: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine