The Upfronts: NBC Gets Peacock-y

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The cast from the new NBC fall show 'Hidden Hills' arrives at the upfronts

Ah, the upfronts! The one glorious week a year when the major networks unveil their fall schedules at grand self-celebrations around Manhattan, then throw lavish parties for the marketing executives they want to sucker into buying ads. Dozens of new TV programs are unveiled here each year —comedies, dramas, specials, reality shows. It's like Christmas all week —albeit a Christmas where you know 90% of your presents will suck, and most will end up, unloved and barely used, in the garbage scant weeks after they're opened.

So in fact, it's actually exactly like Christmas.

And at NBC's upfront presentation Monday, at Radio City Music Hall, it was a Christmas where the network did a bit of — to borrow a term from Seinfeld — "regifting." The network announced one drama, set in the early 1960s, that will make liberal use of old footage from "American Bandstand" and NBC News reports. It announced "The Rerun Show," to air perhaps later this summer, in which a troupe of actors will perform scripts from old sitcoms. It announced a few new sitcoms and dramas, several of which bore considerable resemblence to old NBC sitcoms and dramas.

(A couple of ground rules. At upfronts, networks don't show entire episodes of new programs, just selected clips reels. It's like reviewing a movie on the basis of the trailer — you can often get a good sense of what will absolutely stink and you can guess at what's interesting enough to deserve a look later. Otherwise, any critical opinions here are strictly half-baked, knee-jerk judgments that I reserve to right to reverse entirely once I've actually watched the shows. Having said that, let the half-baked, knee-jerk judgment begin!)

To be fair, NBC has the least reason of any of the broadcast networks to offer anything new, given that it leads the ratings in most categories — a fact its executives hammered incessantly, to a receptive audience of ad buyers. At the upfronts, NBC has the home-field advantage. NBC shows, as a rule, are about people who have money (radio psychiatrists, doctors, lawyers), will have money (medical interns), come from money (the upper-middle-class suburban-kids-in-the-city of "Friends") or at least dress like they have money (the natty cops and DAs on "Law and Order"). Advertising executives have money, and therefore are part of the hardcore audience for NBC's lineup (except for "Fear Factor" — the high-rated reality show which took plenty of hey-we-all-know-it's-crap-but-those-morons-out-there-like-it ribbing).

So the crowd was politely receptive, even to a few cringeworthy moments in an opening musical medley by stars of NBC's prime-time: the cast of "Scrubs" singing a very lame rewitten version of "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" ("Ain't no stoppin' us now — we got the hits!"); "The West Wing"'s Allison Janney, in a dress slit up to there, doing "Makin' Whoopie" ("no one's makin' money / On Greg the Bunny!") and most bombastic, "Law and Order"'s Jesse L. Martin (a former star of "Rent") singing "Seasons of Love," backed by a choir of children, to a montage of NBC footage that started with a clip of the World Trade Center ruins.

The latter was an example of something we can expect to see a lot of at this year's upfronts: The 9/11 Moment. NBC's West Coast President Scott Sassa, in between pitches about NBC's "upscale audience," waxed self-serving about how NBC salved the nation's wounds after 9/11: "Like so many life-changing moments... it was television that brought us there [to the disaster]. After Sept. 11, Americans tuned in to ease the pain, and NBC was there." You may not have known in how many ways NBC helped to salve your wounds. For instance, the portrayals of effective cops on "Law and Order," said Sassa, "must have been just what America needed" — as were Rachel's pregnancy on "Friends" and the "messages of inclusion" on Will and Grace. No word on how "The Weakest Link" (gone next season) helped us cope, but I'm sure it did its bit.

Yes folks, in case you were wondering, 9/11 can now be used to sell ads on "Just Shoot Me." I'd like to say this is the most revolting thing I ever expect to see at an upfront, but, hey, the week is only a day old.

And what will the Peacock network have on hand to soothe our psyches next year? Entertainment president Jeff Zucker unveiled three sitcoms and two dramas for fall. Two sitcoms — in what promises to be another networks-wide trend next fall, the comedies will unfortunately also try to ride a wave of post-9/11 sentiment — were family-oriented. By "family-oriented," we mean, of course, plenty of jokes about sex and crotch injuries. On "The In-Laws," which is basically "Meet the Parents" with a married couple, two young marrieds move in with the wife's crotchety dad (Dennis Farina) who laments having to listen to "my little girl being mounted in the next room." Most of the clips we saw from comedy "Hidden Hills" involved a sexy mom in the family's suburban neighborhood who stars on a porn website. Welcome to the new, family-friendly NBC!

Also on the comedy front, say hello to "Good Morning Miami," about a TV producer brought in to salvage Miami's worst morning show — and yes, it's been noted that was a savvy show to pitch to Zucker, who used to run "Today." Media office sitcoms are well-worn NBC territory, but will it be "NewsRadio" or "Suddenly Susan"? The clips weren't exactly uproarious; most noteworthy were two cartoonish characters, a bimboish Hispanic host with a Charo accent and an inept weathercaster who also happens to be a nun. So we're going after the Latinos and the Catholics in the pilot — oh, they'll love it in Miami! (In other sitcom news, NBC has finally given up on introducing new comedies after "Friends," so in place of the next "Inside Schwartz," which we will sadly never see, will be "Scrubs.")

NBC's drama prospects at least seem more interesting. "American Dreams" —the aforementioned nostalgia show (also a trend we'll be seeing more of) —looked well-crafted, almost movie-like, but also seemed to hit exactly every cliche note you expect from something set in the early '60s: the Cleaverish white kids discovering their rebellious souls to the tune of Motown, the repressed Betty Crocker mom and authoritarian dad (with a sweet streak, of course) and — there's an FCC regulation requiring this, I think — the Kennedy assassination playing a major role. "Boomtown," a cop show set in LA —sorry, according to the trailer, "the phrase 'cop show' doesn't apply" — is an enigma so far. It has a strong cast (Donnie Wahlberg from "Band of Brothers," Mykelti Williamson, Jason Gedrick), but despite its claims of a novel approach to storytelling, the clips played pretty much like a new "Law and Order" spinoff, but set in LA.

For NBC's most-intriguing-looking prospect, you'll have to wait until midseason: "Kingpin," a violent HBO wannabe about a Mexican drug lord and the DEA agents chasing him, had touches of both amoral crime opera and glitzy soap (its creative team comes from HBO's "The Sopranos" and "The Corner"; the production company is prime-time soap czar Aaron Spelling's). The network is hyping it, probably self-fulfillingly, as the most controversial show of the season — and NBC's so bravely behind it, they're ordering a whole six episodes. (Most new shows initially get 13.)

Also in the news for later in the season: the surprising return of Julia Louis-Dreyfus's "Watching Ellie" (possibly without its real-time structure); a two-hour season (and probably series) finale of "Friends"; and — perhaps the biggest news of the week — the return of "Battle of the Network Stars" (using only NBC stars, natch).

Of course, it's not an upfront without an after-party, and NBC's put a chilly bit of a damper on what should have been a bright day for the season's most commercially successful network: an unseasonably cold May rainstorm forced the Rockefeller Center party crew to throw up tents, as waiters continually swept away a half-inch of rainwater with brooms. (Insert metaphor for the networks vainlly trying to sweep away the tide of cable and audience fragmentation here.) Still it didn't stop your valiant reporter from rubbernecking at Ashleigh Banfield (who held court around a teensy drinks table — or was it Tina Fey?) and swiping the beef carpaccio with both fists from the passed hors d'oeuvres trays.

Only a day into the upfronts, but, together with the whispers about the other networks' upcoming schedules, we're already starting to see trends. More nostalgia. More "family," however loosely defined. More stars of failed shows getting second, third, or fourth chances: today alone, Paula Marshall of "Snoops" and "Cupid"; Farina of "Buddy Faro"; Gedrick of "EZ Streets," Falcone" and "The Beast"; Mark Feuerstein of "Conrad Bloom." But perhaps the most disturbing trend of all, should it hold up throughout the week: at the NBC after-party, the little chicken kebabs were conspicuously absent.

Other networks, take heed! You may not be able to match NBC in the ratings. You may not be match them in upscale audience or self-congratulation. But there is still some leeway to beat them in the party hors d'oeuvres department. Consider the gauntlet thrown.

Tomorrow: The WB and ABC