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One of the benefits of upfront week is gaining an early glimpse into what the networks are most passionate about — or at least most confident in.
Seven years ago, ABC executives, feeling bullish about what they had, screened the entire Modern Family pilot for its Lincoln Center audience. The move paid off, and the series — a five-time best comedy Emmy winner and perennial ratings driver — remains on the air all these years later. While no network has been gutsy enough to do so since, the presentation, airtime, scheduling and degree of praise all offer insights into a network’s sense for whether they think a show will (or won’t) work.
With that data, coupled with dozens of conversations with studio and network executives throughout the week, here are the 10 new series that seem to have the most heat. And no, heat does not necessarily translate to viewers.
Lethal Weapon (Fox)
Yeah, it’s a reboot — and the last thing Hollywood needs is another unoriginal idea. But the Warner Bros. TV-produced drama was showered with praise by Fox TV Group chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman from the Beacon Theatre stage, and backed up privately by several others who have screened the pilot. Much is being made of star Clayne Crawford (Rectify), an eleventh-hour find who’s moving with his family from Alabama to Los Angeles for the role. In fact, he’s said to be Warner Bros. TV’s highest-testing character ever. Additionally, the pilot was the year’s highest-testing drama at the network, which will pair it with juggernaut Empire on Wednesdays.
24: Legacy (Fox)
Yes, another reboot. But this one is said to have come in extremely well, too. So much so that it was granted the post-Super Bowl slot, which tells you everything you need to know about the network’s confidence. That it can help bolster studio 20th Century Fox TV’s library is a nice bonus. In recent weeks, much of the 24 chatter has focused on the series lead, Corey Hawkins, best known for his performance in Straight Outta Compton. Mere mention of the project garnered cheers at the Beacon; and in the few days since, 24 has generated more social media buzz than any other new show save for, you guessed it, Lethal Weapon.
Designated Survivor (ABC)
Fox may have 24, but ABC landed Jack Bauer himself. The pricey Kiefer Sutherland drama nabbed a straight-to-series order, with rival execs acknowledging envy after catching the high-octane cutdown. Similarly revealing: it scored the ABC presentation’s plum closing slot — with a lengthy trailer and an appearance by Sutherland on the Lincoln Center stage. He told the theater full of media buyers that while he wasn’t particularly keen on doing TV again (recent forays include short-lived Touch and the 24 reboot), he was swayed by the script: “On page 25, I was like, ‘Shit!’ I was potentially holding the next 10 years of my life in my hands.” Several hours later, ABC execs were still repeating the line with giddiness — and praying for prescience.
Sure, the half-hour centered on a family with a special needs child was initially developed and passed over at Fox. but once that network let it go, the 20th TV entry landed at ABC, where many note it’s a considerably better fit care of the net’s diverse family comedy brand. In fact, it’s the only freshman entry to land a spot in ABC’s popular Wednesday comedy block, alongside The Goldbergs, Modern Family and Black-ish. With only one episode in the can, the project already has a big fan in head honcho Ben Sherwood. But if the applause level was any indication, the ad buyers at Lincoln Center seemed to like what they saw, too.
This Is Us (NBC)
No, it doesn’t have Blacklist in the title or Dick Wolf among its producers. But ensemble dramedy This Is Us has several passionate supporters within NBC, including entertainment chief Jen Salke, which explains the network’s decision to place it behind The Voice on the fall schedule. Already, the series — which many at the net are comparing to former NBC darling Parenthood — has seen its trailer shatter records on Facebook. The 20th TV-produced series comes from Dan Fogelman, who also is behind Fox newcomer Pitch, which earned fans with its cutdown as well.
The Good Place (NBC)
NBC’s struggles in the comedy space are well documented, but Mike Schur’s The Good Place has several — internally and externally — hopeful. The half-hour pitch garnered a straight-to-series order in the room last summer, and in short order lined up recognizable stars in Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. The network’s entertainment chairman, Bob Greenblatt, showered it and its creator with praise during a pre-upfront call with reporters, and then slotted it behind the net’s only comedy performer, Superstore, which is being given this year’s Olympics boost.
Internal enthusiasm is high for legal drama Bull, which is loosely based on the early career of CBS daytime star Dr. Phil. And it only grew stronger when Michael Weatherly — of NCIS, until this week — landed the starring role. In a shrewd scheduling move, Bull will premiere in the time slot behind long-running smash hit NCIS, giving those who inevitably will miss Weatherly at 8 p.m. a chance to catch up with him an hour later. Judging by the upfront reception at Carnegie Hall, ad buyers will be happy to see him there, too.
Kevin Can Wait (CBS)
You may have trouble finding many within CBS’ halls willing to tell you the Kevin James vehicle is the greatest comedy ever produced; but almost anyone you’d bump into would likely tell you it will — or at least very much should — work. After all, James is a proven comedy star (see King of Queens), and convincing him to return to network TV was a big (and pricey) coup. He walked out on the Carnegie Hall stage to thunderous applause, and kept many laughing as he did a very brief set. The network’s confidence in James is evident in the series’ scheduling: The show, from Sony TV and CBS Studios, scored the cushiest slot on CBS’ fall lineup, right behind The Big Bang Theory on Monday nights.
No Tomorrow (CW)
The CW isn’t making many bets this fall, what with four D.C. superhero shows and a cadre of critical darlings in Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend already occupying shelf space. But ask those at the network about the few new additions, and you’ll likely hear how No Tomorrow is poised to be “the next Jane” — and not simply because the series hails from Jane writer Corinne Brinkerhoff. It is worth noting that that same line was uttered last May about Crazy Ex, and some seven months later creator/star Rachel Bloom snagged a Golden Globe. An even stronger sign of confidence: No Tomorrow landed a cushy slot behind network hit The Flash on The CW’s fall schedule, and already there’s plenty of internal chatter about the breakout potential for star Tori Anderson.
Well sure, Supergirl isn’t exactly new. But its move from CBS to The CW makes it new for the latter, and CW president Mark Pedowitz wasn’t subtle in expressing his enthusiasm. Not only did he suggest the DC superhero drama belonged on his network from the start, but he also publicly proclaimed it’s poised be a top three ratings performer for the network. To be sure, figures that were not at all impressive at CBS would make for a big hit at corporate cousin The CW — assuming viewers migrate with the series, that is. Pedowitz trotted out star Melissa Benoist on the City Center stage to heavy cheers, and made several mentions of the new addition during both his upfront presentation and his pre-presentation conference call with press.
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William Jackson Harper
Friends: The Reunion