NBC: Nothin' But Conventional

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If you want to understand network broadcasting today but don't have time to read my whole week of reports from the upfronts, save yourself some time and simply read these first two paragraphs. NBC Monday announced its upcoming season schedule for advertisers at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. Two of the most prominent announcements were the return of "The Apprentice" and the debut of "The Contender," a boxing reality show also from "Apprentice" and "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett. NBC has been trying and failing for several years to find new hit sitcoms and dramas, but it's had the most success instead with reality shows. It seems that TV viewers are finding new scripted shows boring, overfamiliar and repetitive. If only somebody could figure out why!

In other news, NBC announced "Joey," a spinoff of "Friends," and a fourth edition of "Law & Order."

There really isn't much more to know about network TV than that. There is an old saying that it is wiser to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally, and it's just a shame that whoever coined it did not live long enough to get a big corner office in Burbank. Even NBC's unconventional moves this year are conventional. "Father of the Pride," an expensive, computer-animated sitcom about a family of lions in Siegfried and Roy's Vegas revue, comes from the people who brought you "Shrek" and "Shrek 2," which puts in the great network tradition of From the Makers of... (Translation: if you loved their first movie, you'll love watching them cash in it repeatedly!) Later in the season, NBC debuts "The Office," perhaps the network's most intriguing project; but it's intriguing mostly because it's a remake of a truly great British sitcom, the year after NBC remade "Coupling," which translated worse to American tastes than steak and kidney pie.

Is "The Office" any good, you ask? You'll have to wait. At the upfronts, networks only screen short previews of their new shows, so any critical judgments I make this week would be sorely uninformed. (Which is not to say I won't make some anyway.)

The one exception is "Joey," which NBC is so excited — and/or anxious — about that they screened the entire pilot, something NBC president Jeff Zucker said the network had only ever done for "The Cosby Show" and "The Golden Girls." (Both, I assume, were meant as flattering comparisons.) Why take such an extraordinary step? Because you want to create the impression that "Joey" — on which more paychecks than usual are riding — is itself extraordinary.

I'm not sure, short of that step, that many people would be using "Joey" and "extraordinary" in the same sentence. But given NBC's track record with "Must-See Thursday" comedies — "Coupling," "Inside Schwartz," "Leap of Faith," "Stark Raving Mad," I'll stop for your sake — they'd settle for having "ordinary" in the same sentence. And often, the pilot is even, well, better than ordinary. If it was not like watching a great episode of "Friends," it was like watching a pretty good "Friends" subplot stretched out to a half-hour.

"Joey" moves Matt LeBlanc's lunkhead character from New York to L.A., introducing "The Sopranos'" Drea deMatteo as his loud-mouthed, gum-snapping sister. (NBC may not be able to match HBO quality-wise, but it's catching up in the derogatory Italian-American-stereotype business!) On the plus side, the script has the kind of nicely set-up jokes you'd expect on "Friends"; in the first scene, Joey gives a long expository spiel about his reasons for moving to L.A. to the cab driver on his ride from the airport (acting auditions, getting close to family). So, the cabbie asks, what are you doing here in Dallas? There's a classic Joey moment of slowly-dawning realization, then: "I did have a layover in Dallas!" Clearly, this is the same lovable dimwit we remember from "Friends."

On the other hand, this is the same lovable dimwit we remember from "Friends." And it's all about him, at least so far. None of the supporting characters show signs of interest yet, and they'll need to in order to draw more dimensions of a character who mainly provided comic relief for 10 years. This may not be fair to say, but I missed the six-person setup that bounced one-liners off one another like pinballs. And, perhaps for that reason, the script occasionally makes Joey, well, smarter than we remember him being. At one point, his sister — who has a 20-year-old son — mentions how great it is she got pregnant at 16, because she looks so young now. "You rarely hear the argument for teen pregnancy," Joey says. It's a great line. For Chandler.

In the end, Joey got respectful but not thundering applause from the friendly crowd. And that may have been all that Zucker wanted: confirmation that NBC had, simply, not screwed "Joey" up. Welcome to network TV, home of big dreams.

Elsewhere in the two-and-a-half-hour presentation (yes, two and a half hours — the network's strategy is to sell ads through exhaustion) NBC crowed about its recent merger with Universal, home of a movie studio and cable channels from Bravo to Telemundo. "Imagine... two media powers, visionaries from the start..." intoned Katie Couric in a dead-serious filmed intro, as she, Sean Hayes, Jay Leno and Jesse L. Martin tried to convince advertisers of the synergistic possibilities of having Donald Trump and the guy who yells "gooooooooooooooooooal!" during Spanish-language soccer broadcasts under one corporate roof.

Besides "Law and Order: Serial Repetition" (OK, actually it's subtitled "Trial by Jury"), NBC's new dramas include "Medical Investigation," perhaps the most boring title in television history (close runners-up for that honor are "LAX" and "Hawaii"). These dramas concern, surprisingly, medical investigators, Los Angeles International Airport (airport code LAX) and police in Hawaii. Later in the season we'll see "Revelations," a spooky looking eight-episode "limited series" about the end times that will try to ride the "Left Behind" apocalyptic craze — although in what may be a slightly tone-deaf way. The series focuses on characters who are working feverishly to head off Armageddon, which is a weird way to capitalize on the millennialism that fuels "Left Behind" and "The Passion of the Christ"; for true believers, after all, the end of the world — at least, the return of Jesus and the establishment of His kingdom — is a good thing. But hey, there's no such thing in TV as a script that can't be twiddled with. Why should the Bible be any different?

While Jesus may be returning on NBC, here's who will not: "Whoopi," "Happy Family," "Ed" and sundry other shows you forgot the network had aired in the first place. Which brings us the one true innovation from this year's upfronts: following Fox, which is debuting many of its new shows in June, NBC will begin rolling out its series in late August, following its broadcast of the summer Olympics. With any luck, many of the shows you're reading about this week could be canceled before the beginning of fall. Who says nothing ever gets better in television?

Tomorrow: ABC and The WB