The third day of upfronts brought us the endurance test that is the CBS presentation, held for the umpteenth year in freezing-cold Carnegie Hall. And once again, I was bemused by how defensive the executives sounded while touting the most successful network on television. CBS has the most popular drama (CSI), the most popular comedy (Two and a Half Men) and the most popular new show of the 2008-09 season (The Mentalist). And yet there's this undercurrent of resentment towards their lower-rated, but far "cooler," competitors that's actually fascinating from an armchair psychologist's perspective.
Case in point: CBS CEO Les Moonves' introductory speech, in which he kept hammering the point that yeah, Emmys and magazine covers are nice, "but you know what I really love? Successfully launching new shows year after year." Well, it helps if their titles contain a combination of C, S and I, though, doesn't it? "Nobody likes hearing they're not sexy, but the good news is we really like being number one." If he likes it so much, then why does he always come across as so passive-aggressive during these events? Every network head touts their company, of course, but Moonves always seems to have a mean edge to his gruff charm, as if the positive numbers really aren't enough. When you're truly at the top, why do you still need to take not-so-veiled swipes at other execs?
And throughout this upfront week, I've also been intrigued by how most of the major networks keep repeating stats about the still-enormous reach of broadcast television, as if that mantra can stem the incredible sea changes under way in terms of how viewers consume TV in this digital age, and what the definition of a "hit" show really is. There's a certain combination of both arrogance and sheer panic in their hype that I find alternatively sympathetic and just plain pathetic. Moonves summed up that attitude perfectly in his remarks: "Some will tell you that the network model is broken and in need of a complete overhaul. To be very clear, there's a big difference between the model being broken and not being able to find any hit shows for years." That's right, captain, just ignore the iceberg in the distance as long as the folks in the stately dining rooms are well-fed.
After Moonves wrapped up, we were treated to the obligatory ad exec spiel, followed by a montage of clips from CBS' returning dramas, some stage patter from Simon Baker and Laurence Fishburne, a montage for CBS' returning comedies and then a truly excruciating routine from poor Neil Patrick Harris, who was obliged to recite the "Upfront Bro Code of Conduct for the CBS Party." Even his talent couldn't save this horrible bit, which I pray wasn't written by anyone connected to How I Met Your Mother. But maybe I just have high standards when it comes to comedy. Judge for yourself:
"Article 1. Bros before hos.
Article 22. There is no law that prohibits a woman from being a bro. Nor is a man prohibited from being a ho. In fact, I think I spotted a few male hos here at Carnegie Hall today... I'm looking at you, Mr. Cool J. Don't front, don't front.
Article 176C. If you wake up tomorrow morning in bed with Jennifer Love Hewitt, what happens at upfronts, stays at upfronts.
Article 176D. If you wake tomorrow in bed with Morley Safer, see Article 176C.
Article 157. A good way for a bro to get girl in his room at a CBS party is to suddenly keep mentioning the dirtiest-sounding CBS shows. These include, but are not limited to, The Big Bang Theory and 69 Minutes. 69 Minutes, right? No? God, I wish The Unit was still on the schedule.
Article 169. A bro must never use Simon Baker as a wingman. C'mon bros, he is too damn hot. It's too much of a gamble. You want to go with someone safer - like, well, Safer."
After that painful interlude was over, we were forced to endure a montage for the NFL on CBS ('cause ad buyers really need to be sold on the importance of football) and even one for 60 Minutes. And then, finally, CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler introduced what I attend upfronts for: clips from new shows.
First up was The Good Wife, a drama starring Julianna Margulies as the wife of a politician (Chris Noth) who lands in jail after getting caught in a sex and corruption scandal, Spitzer-style. Margulies is then forced to re-start her career has a lawyer and deal with younger colleagues who know more than her, condescending judges, a tough boss, etc. The show has a slickness and intelligence that makes it look it might be a cut above the usual CBS fare, and I was happy to see Matt Czuchry (Gilmore Girls) and Josh Charles (Sports Night) in the supporting cast - they're talented guys that should be working more often. I was less happy when Christine Baranski popped up as Margulies' firm's head dragon lady - I have a Baranski Rule: if she's in it, I don't watch it.
Switching to comedy, we were next shown clips from Accidentally on Purpose, a laugh-track sitcom starring Jenna Elfman, the poor man's Lauren Graham. The show's about a single woman who has a one-night stand with a younger guy, gets pregnant, decides to keep the baby (natch) and then tries to start a relationship with the guy. The concept sounds mildly envelope-pushing for CBS, but in practice, it's just your typical (i.e. non-HIMYM) sitcom with the typical sitcom rhythms, punchlines you see coming a mile away and a zany supporting ensemble. I predict it'll be a hit.
Switching back to dramas, we saw a preview for Three Rivers, yet another ER-influenced medical procedural with nothing going for it but the presence of Moonlight's Alex O'Loughlin (which, considering his fan base, might be all the show needs) and a focus on surgeons involved with organ transplants. Seems a little limiting, but at least they didn't call it something cheesy like Heart of the Matter.
After that, Tassler introduced NCIS: Los Angeles, the spin-off from the phenomenal hit NCIS, which she said starred two charismatic leading men who turned out to be LL Cool J and Chris O'Donnell (wait, did she say charismatic?). We were shown a bunch of clips that looked no better or worse than the original series, which makes total sense: why mess with a winning formula, no matter how inexplicable most critics seem to find it. This was followed by perhaps the lowest point in the upfront: a surprise performance of "Mama Said Knock You Out" by LL himself, during which he exhorted the whitest, squarest audience he's probably ever been in front of to - you guessed it - stand up and put their hands in the air (though I think he left out the part about waving and not caring). But bless those ad buyers down in front, they did exactly what Mr. Cool J told them to.
Once that spectacle was over, we heard a brief plug for Medium, which CBS picked up after NBC dropped it, and then a quick run-through of the network's midseason lineup: Miami Trauma, another medical drama, didn't have any clips, while The Bridge is a not-half-bad-looking drama with Aaron Douglas from BSG as a cop who becomes the leader of his police union - unfortunately, it's one of those Canadian TV co-productions, which usually entails lesser production values and slightly annoying ambiguous accents.
Lastly, we found out about two midseason reality additions to the lineup (and I have to admit, CBS definitely knows how to craft quality reality). The first one is Arranged Marriage, for which no footage was available (but the title says it all), and Undercover Boss, which completely killed in the hall as those ad buyers gave it the loudest applause of the afternoon.
The show's about executives who pretend to be everyday wage slaves doing the dirty work that their company is built on - literally in the case of the waste-management CEO featured in the pilot. (Cue Pulp's "Common People," but only in my head.) It hit all the right narrative notes, but it felt way too earnest and tearjerky for my taste - more akin to the broad sappiness of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition or some of A&E's shows than the manipulated but entertaining drama of The Amazing Race.. But then again, as Moonves bragged at the beginning, "nobody broadcasts more broadly than CBS," so I'm sure this new Boss will fit right in.
MOST RECENT POSTS