Last season, for the first time in a long time, NBC was on top. Much of that was due to The Voice, flagship drama The Blacklist and shows that struck an unexpected chord, like Hannibal. But some of it was because the competition faltered more or less across the board.
Even with its No. 1 slot, though, the network had some retooling to do, and the result is the least consistent slate of new shows this season. It's not that the shows are uniformly bad; they're not uniformly anything. There are funny comedies and unfunny comedies, pulpy dramas and Very Serious Dramas. It feels as if it was developed by at least two different teams, and the process yields shows that will probably appeal (or not) to very different audiences.
As with our previous new-show writeups for ABC, CBS and Fox, these breakdowns are based on the early episodes provided by the networks. Mostly, that just means pilots, and in one case (Bad Judge) not even that. But it's instructive for the advertising community to see what the audience's first glimpse of a show is going to be, as there's enough great material out there these days to make television a medium with near-limitless choice.
What is it? A new half-hour, single-camera romantic sitcom about a young couple's relationship with each other and their friends and family, starring Happy Endings' Casey Wilson and Childrens Hospital veteran Ken Marino. The show was created by Wilson's husband, David Caspe (also the creator of Happy Endings), and features Tim Meadows in a supporting role.
When is it on? Tuesdays at 9 p.m. starting Oct. 14.
Is it in a good timeslot? This is a tough one. Marry Me is on opposite New Girl, with which it will have significant audience overlap. It does lead out of the new season of The Voice, which worked for About a Boy last year. It also may take viewers from New Girl, which had a disappointing third season. Marry Me, in fact, is what New Girl should have tried to turn into.
Is it any good? It is adorable. It is like if kittens and puppies had babies. The leads are compelling, the writing is unforced and clever and there's an amazing running gag: Tim Meadows and Dan Bucatinsky, who play the married gay dads of Casey Wilson's character, have agreed to pretend they don't know which of them is her biological father. It's really hard to beat. This is the season of the romantic comedy, and chemistry is everything. These actors have it. Wilson and Marino are great on screen together, and their characters genuinely seem to like each other. Wilson is poised to be the breakout star, and she deserves the gig, whether or not her husband is writing it. She nails everything from the pratfalls to the line readings, and Marino doesn't waste the opportunity to play first banana for the first time (he's usually the funny friend). The supporting cast—particularly Sarah Wright and Tymberlee Hill—is good as well.
Does it stand a chance? Here's hoping. New Girl is weak, the show is getting some buzz and NBC obviously thinks it can prop up About a Boy, which is airing at 9:30 p.m. So, there's some confidence around it. It deserves to survive, certainly.
Do you want your brand associated with it? Sure! It's progressive without being preachy or strident, everybody is pretty and it targets young families, who do quite a bit of the buying in this country. Also, there seem to be good opportunities within the show to make brand integrations work.
What is it? An hour-long supernatural drama developed and written by Nolan-era Batman screenwriter David Goyer and Dexter showrunner Daniel Cerone, starring Welsh actor Matt Ryan as DC Comics character John Constantine, a cockney English sorceror created for DC by Alan Moore. The show, set in Atlanta, presumably for tax incentive reasons, follows Constantine as he tries to rescue a little girl who was condemned to hell on his watch and guides a young woman named Zed through the world of magic. Harold Perrineau has a regular role as an angel named Manny.
When is it on? 10 p.m. on Fridays starting Oct. 24.
Is it in a good timeslot? Its main saving grace is its lead-in, Grimm, another solidly written supernatural show, and that its competition is Blue Bloods and 20/20. Otherwise, it's just buried, the way NBC should have buried The Mysteries of Laura, a show that will spend the next few weeks happily burying itself.
Is it any good? Yes! If you like this kind of thing, it's terrific. Gory, weird, occasionally humorous horror ripped from the pages of DC Comics. It leans much too hard on Constantine's big monologues about how cool he is, and Ryan can't really pull those off. (David Tennant couldn't pull those off on Doctor Who and he's among our four or five greatest living Shakespeareans, so don't feel bad, Matt.) He's also slightly miscast, but given time he will turn out to be Nathan-Fillion-in-Firefly miscast, and not Scott-Bakula-in-Star-Trek miscast. The scary stuff relies heavily on expensive special effects, which is probably why it's set in the South, but there are all kinds of great places the writers could take Southern Gothic horror. I'll also say this: I think NBC is massively underestimating the appeal of the supernatural DC Universe characters. I get a much bigger nerdy thrill from seeing Doctor Fate's helmet, or wondering whether Zed's father will turn out to be Baron Winters, than I do from seeing Catwoman for the godzillionth time on Gotham. (I have it on good authority that The Spectre will be showing up. Do you know how much I want The Spectre to show up?) These are characters associated with wildly popular authors like Moore and Neil Gaiman. It would be nice to see this one do well.
Does it stand a chance? I'd say "no," but NBC buried Hannibal here last season, and fans of Hannibal are likely to storm 30 Rock and ironically eat network executives if that show gets canceled. So, it might catch on. At this rate NBC will have a large and impressive stable of horror shows it doesn't seem to like much and only one or two of the conventional dramas it so desperately covets.
Do you want your brand associated with it? If your brand skews young, yes. The demons-and-devils stuff no longer causes the stir it once did, and comic books are literally the only sector of the books industry that's growing. And if there's anything the Iron Man movies teach us, it's that the biggest name on the comics racks won't necessarily be the biggest name on the marquee.
State of Affairs
What is it? It's Scandal! No, seriously, it's a show about a CIA officer who was engaged to marry the president's son and is dealing with the aftermath of his death. But it would not exist without Scandal, and stars Katherine Heigl as Charleston Tucker, a CIA case officer who likes anonymous sex, high pressure and winning the political game while preparing the daily briefing for the president (Alfre Woodard). The show is created by director Joe Carnahan, probably best known for his dumb (but popular) action movies Smokin' Aces and The Grey.
When is it on? Mondays at 10 p.m. starting Nov. 17, when it will take the place of The Blacklist until midseason.
Is it in a good timeslot? It is a confident timeslot, that's for sure. Castle did a 2.8 last year and NCIS: Los Angeles, which is new to the time period, did a 2.7, so NBC is counting on The Blacklist to attract enough viewers to keep the slot open for its new series. Blacklist ate CBS's Hostages and Intelligence for breakfast last year, but NCIS is a different ballgame. It might be a different enough ballgame to eliminate viewer overlap and spark a fight for viewers between NCIS and Castle, leaving State of Affairs alone. Don't count on it, though.
Is it any good? It has some problems, but it's entertaining. Heigl is really good as the lead character, nicknamed "Charlie," and Woodard brings some real gravitas to what is otherwise a silly role as the president, whose son was engaged to Charlie, has been murdered (maybe) and who may have been hiding terrible secrets. The show is going to irritate some people with its opening: Charlie in therapy intercut with a montage of her trashing around Washington D.C., getting blitzed with losers in bars and then letting those losers take her from behind. "No good can come of that!" warns the therapist. "Good doesn't have to come," Heigl snarls, "I do!" Your strong female character, ladies and gentlemen, getting prophetically warned not to be such a slut by her therapist in the opening scene. If you can get over that, there's a lot to enjoy here, including scenes like CIA analysts going through dossiers of suspected terrorists and dumping the discarded printouts into paper bags that are stapled shut and then shredded. At its best, State of Affairs resembles one of those great John le Carré adaptations, only with a female lead and snappier dialogue. But, like its dumber clone on CBS, Madam Secretary, it steps in a huge pile of breaking news: someone who looks just like Charlie's late fiancé is the focus of a subplot about a beheading video.
Will it survive? Unlikely. It looks a lot like a dozen other things on TV, and NBC is probably asking too much of it.
Do you want your brand associated with it? You should be fine. Unlike Madam Secretary, it's on late and it announces right away that its viewers will be seeing a lot of sex and violence. It has callbacks to every major international news story from Tora Bora to Benghazi, but it's not self-serious about them and that should keep angry politicos at bay.
A to Z
What is it? Another half-hour, single-camera romantic sitcom, created by Cars 2 screenwriter Ben Queen, and starring Ben Feldman and Cristin Milioti. It's produced by Rashida Jones, Will McCormack and Queen. The lead characters are Andrew Laughlin (A), who works at an online matchmaking startup, and Zelda Vascoe (Z), a do-good lawyer. Their relationship, narrator Katey Sagal tells us, lasts eight months, three weeks, five days and one hour.
When is it on? Thursdays at 9:30 p.m., starting Oct. 2.
Is that a good timeslot? Well, its lead-in is so bad that NBC is recutting the pilot as we speak (see below), and it will compete with the second half of Scandal, the second half of Gracepoint and The McCarthys. Of course, if you're in the mood for Scandal you're definitely not in the mood for A to Z, so perhaps there's enough room for a comedy here. Not two comedies, though. I'm not in love with The McCarthys, but smarter men than me have lost money betting against CBS's multicam sitcoms. It's definitely an accelerated timeslot—whatever happens to A to Z will happen quickly.
Is it any good? Not really. The writing is about 15 years older than the characters, and the pilot's controlling idea is that some people were just meant to be together, which is a tough pitch to viewers under 40. The show's not selling it gently, either—it leans really hard into the flatulent written-in-the-stars thing, and life is fairly unforgiving for Today's Youths. When Sagal can't sell your starry-eyed worldview, reconsider it. Individually, the lead characters are interesting, but they don't seem to interest each other, which is problematic. Moreover, the main characters are plucky idealists, and good people make for bad comedy. Ultimately, the high concept of a relationship limited by a specific amount of time just seems like it's been artificially imposed to gin up some urgency, rather than being organic to the story.
Does it stand a chance? No. I don't know what possessed NBC to greenlight two different pilots about childless couples in their late 20s or early 30s, but this is clearly the weaker one and its competition is fierce.
Do you want your brand associated with it? Sure. It's inoffensive. Don't waste money on an integration, though, as it's unlikely that this will ever last long enough to reach syndication.
What is it? A half-hour, single-camera sitcom written by Funny or Die co-creator Adam McKay that's about an irresponsible judge and the little boy she takes under her wing. Executive produced by Will Ferrell, Anne Heche and McKay, the show stars Kate Walsh, best known from her role as Dr. Addison Montgomery on both Grey's Anatomy and spinoff Private Practice.
When is it on? Thursdays at 9 p.m., starting Oct. 2.
Is it in a good timeslot? Very much so. Its only real competition is CBS's Two and a Half Men, which is ending this season. There's probably not much crossover viewership with Scandal or Gracepoint.
Is it any good? No. I mean, it's not cruel or offensive or cynical but it is so wildly inconsistent tonally as to be confusing to watch. Is it saccharine? Is it irreverent? Does it have some mild gross-out gags? Is it slapstick? The answer is yes. Is it funny? Eh. The kid adopted by our heroine should be named Network Note. The dialogue is filled to overflowing with cringeworthy exposition. Walsh is a fantastic actress given absolutely nothing to work with. Not a single character has a remotely believable station in life, from Walsh's ridiculous band-babe drummer judge to the lawyer who talks smack to her all the time and suffers no consequences to the kid who's a ward of the state and hands out adorable, wise-beyond-his-years life lessons. Chris Parnell shows up briefly and steals the show, which is petty larceny at best.
Will it survive? Nope!
Do you want your brand associated with it? No content concerns, although the tone of the whole thing suggests that McKay et al really wanted to create some content concerns but were cut off at the knees. Enjoy your ADUs come midseason.
The Mysteries of Laura
What is it? An hourlong crime dramedy set in Brooklyn and starring Debra Messing as Laura Diamond, a cop whose marriage to Jake Broderick (played by Josh Lucas)—a fellow cop with whom she has two hellraising kids—is hanging by a thread. It's an American adaptation of Los Misterios de Laura, a Spanish series created by Carlos Vila and Javier Holgado. Running the American version is Jeff Rake, who wrote for The CW's The Tomorrow People and co-created NBC's own Alicia Silverstone dramedy Miss Match, which was canceled after 18 episodes in 2003.
When is it on? Wednesdays at 8 p.m. starting Sept. 24.
Is it in a good timeslot? It's in the filet mignon of drama timeslots. CBS and Fox both have reality shows—Survivor and Hell's Kitchen—and ABC starts the hour off with aging comedy The Middle, which did a 2.3 in that timeslot last season. If I were an hour-long drama with no content issues, that's where I'd want to live.
Is it any good? Heavens, no. It's dreadful. What an utter waste of a half-dozen terrifically talented actors, all trying their absolute, pitiful hardest to deliver jokes nobody bothered to write. This show thinks Jamaican people and women with eating disorders are hilarious, and it pivots from jokes about toddlers peeing on each other to jokes about golden showers while toddlers are still present. Its bid for your sympathy is a pair of NYPD officers who violate due process, threaten people, live in a gigantic brownstone and are just stretched to the limit by the ordeal of how to get their misbehaving kids into the right pre-school. If I overheard this couple on the subway, I'd switch cars.
Will it survive? Hard to say. It's among the worst pilots I've ever seen, but NBC gave it the best real estate on the block. It managed a 2.1 average during a sneak preview Wednesday night, but it dropped below at 2 at the half-hour—not great, but not fatal. Viewers will tune in initially to watch Messing, a wonderful actor who's a joy to see, but will probably tune out because the show around her has no idea what it is.
Do you want your brand associated with it? Sure. It's a cop drama set in Manhattan. Knock yourself out. Actually, knock me out, too. Consciousness is a drag.
So that's it for NBC's new fall shows. If I had to pick a single word to describe the lineup, it would be "schizophrenic." ABC knows it wants to be the Network of a Brighter Tomorrow, CBS is the uncle who finally understands that he can't whine about the Democrats at Thanksgiving every year and has toned it down, but NBC? It's a mystery. The network got rid of comedy head Tal Rabinowitz earlier this year, but that just seemed like scapegoating. NBC hadn't had a comedy hit in forever; Rabinowitz, however, had developed Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Mindy Project, both of which are now living happy lives at Fox.
That's not to say that everything here is worthless. Marry Me is flat-out great, and Constantine and State of Affairs are fun. But the gap in quality between good and bad shows suggests a pretty serious communication breakdown between the people who read scripts and give notes, and the people who decide what airs.