"Given what's happened at the network in the last four or five years, with the general decline across the whole week and the loss of circulation, we just can't get the biggest audience for [Community, Parks & Rec, 30 Rock], but they do tend to be a little bit more narrow and sophisticated than you might want for a broad audience. I hope these new shows we've got for the fall and the spring are also clever and also smart, but can also broaden the size of the audience.
"I don't want to say anything negative about what Tina Fey does, or 'Parks and Rec' or 'The Office. Those are great shows. But it's a challenge in comedy to broaden."
-Robert Greenblatt, about his fall lineup of "broad" sitcoms on NBC
NBC has made a pledge to broaden its horizons in the sitcom landscape. It's exactly what had to be done if they ever wanted to even dream of another Must-See TV lineup again. But let me explain something: NBC has been home to some of the smartest, funniest programs in the last decade: The Office, Parks & Recreation, Community and 30 Rock are routinely wowing critics, audiences and Emmy voters. But ratings have never been big for any of the aforementioned shows. The Office rocked the 18-49 demos for a few seasons, but nothing close to Friends territory fifteen years ago.
This season, a change is gonna come, in the form of several new sitcoms joining their aging veterans in their final seasons. The Office and 30 Rock are set to end after nine and seven seasons, respectively, with four Outstanding Comedy Series Emmys combined. Community has been shipped off to Friday nights. In what alternate reality does it survive this season? Answer: none. Parks & Recreation is in its fifth low-rated season, and likely has only one season left in it, should NBC's new sitcom policy take hold.
That leaves sophomore comedies Up All Night and Whitney, neither of which is poised to rock the ratings this year. So where does that leave the peacock network? With a number of fresh programs to tickle the collective funny bone of American audiences. NBC is looking to broad comedy choices to pepper their line-up, and who can blame the perpetually fourth place net? But what exactly does broad mean in their fall lineup?
It does seem like NBC is trying too hard with their fall sitcoms. Here is what I feel NBC is telling me:
Go On: A brand new comedy starring Matthew Perry! You remember him, right? He was hilarious as Chandler Bing so many years ago. Tune in to Go On to get your Perry fix, if six nightly reruns of Friends isn't enough for you.
Animal Practice: Picture it: A smooth-talking veterinarian with a bunch of goofy co-stars and a super-cute ex-girlfriend! And the kicker: there's a monkey! That monkey from Hangover II! Hilarity will so ensue.
The New Normal: GAY! You're super-okay with gay people, right? You don't want to seem homophobic, do you? Then watch The New Normal. Unless you live in Utah. In which case you're probably too far away from a TV on your high horse.
Surely that can't properly describe NBC's new broad comedy approach, can it? That's why I'm here to review the pilots for each show just for you. Spoiler alert: one is really funny, one has potential and one will be gone by Christmas. Consider it an early gift when NBC cancels it.
Animal Practice (NBC) - Premieres September 26th; Stars Justin Kirk, Joanna Garcia-Swisher, Bobby Lee, Tyler Labine
What You Need To Know: Justin Kirk heads an eclectic cast as Dr. George Cameron, a leading veterinarian at a top animal hospital. Dr. Rizzo is played by Crystal, the same monkey from The Hangover Part II. This is Joanna Garcia-Swisher's third shot at a leading role, after Privileged and Better With You, while Tyler Labine is on Attempt No. 6 for a hit series after 2001's Dead Last, 2005's Invasion, 2007's Reaper, 2010's Sons of Tucson and 2011's Mad Love. What a resumé.
What I Think: It's a sad reality when the best acting from a comedy pilot comes from a monkey. Mind you, this is the same monkey from The Hangover Part II, but it's still speaks volumes about Animal Practice. The unfortunate part in this is that the actors involved are full of unlimited potential: Justin Kirk routinely stole scenes on Weeds and has a natural charm to his delivery; Joanna Garcia-Swisher is cute, likable and a solid match to Kirk; Tyler Labine has been a funny addition to a number of television roles, most notably The CW's short-lived Reaper. But the writing on the pilot is clunky, predictable and full of bad sight gags featuring animals. The actors do so much with so little, but in the end, they can only perform so many miracles with an empty script.
Examine deeper and you'll find Justin Kirk is just a variation on the lead character with cocky bravado (Dr. House, for example), Joanna Garcia-Swisher is just the perky girl pretending not to be in love with the guy she's supposed to hate, and Tyler Labine is the just the atypical best friend who's unlucky with women. Set it all inside an animal hospital and it's still the same boring TV cliches we've come to know in the last number of years. There's nothing fresh or exciting present. If the addition of a monkey is supposed to add a new layer, it doesn't. Animals for humor rank just above fart jokes on the funny spectrum.
The worst example of comedy I can find is when Dr. Cameron (Kirk) finds a strip club coaster in the stomach of a dog, whose owner is threatening to sue Dr. Cameron for kidnapping his dog to perform the surgery. When he acknowledges it's not uncommon for a divorced man to frequent a strip club, Dr. Cameron points out what the information will do to his young daughter, going so far as to predict the pre-teen (who's present in the scene, overjoyed that her dog is all better) will eventually be a stripper herself if said information is given to her. It feels all kinds of gross and wrong. It's the edgiest part of the pilot and does little to convince me this show should be given a second shot.
What the future holds: Certain death. By the time the series can fix what's broken, NBC will cancel it. It may give last year's marked-for-death pilot, Free Agents, a run for its money as to how quickly it will go. The only advantage it has is a decent cast that's too good for any of this.
Go On (NBC) - Premieres September 11th; Stars Matthew Perry, Laura Benanti, Tyler James Williams, John Cho
What You Need To Know: Matthew Perry plays Ryan King, a sports talk show host who's forced to join group therapy following the death of his wife. Go On premiered on August 8th following coverage of the Summer Olympics. No word on if any of those viewers will even remember there was a show called Go On by Tuesday's official premiere.
What I Think: Matthew Perry has struck out so many times since the end of Friends in 2004. He doesn't have the movie star career of Jennifer Aniston, he doesn't have the aspiring director career of David Schwimmer, he doesn't have the modestly successful TV career of Matt LeBlanc (in his Globe-winning role on Episodes) or Courteney Cox (ABC-canceled-TBS-renewed Cougar Town). At best, he's been toiling away at TV for eight years, much like Lisa Kudrow. He starred in sure-to-be-a-hit Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip in 2006 on NBC. It had everything: the writing pedigree of Aaron Sorkin, a tremendous cast, an intriguing setting. But it crashed and burned. ABC's Mr. Sunshine did even worse for the former Chandler Bing.
Does Go On have what it takes to break Perry's Friends curse?
Go On follows sports radio host Ryan King (Perry) after the death of his wife one month prior. He's forced to join a therapy group for grief. Instead of sucking it up for his required ten sessions, he engages the group with silly games, mocks the unqualified instructor and ultimately deceives everyone to get out of the group and go back to work. After a run-in with Terrell Owens, he crawls back at episode's end and finally open up about how his wife died (it's loosely connected to his outburst with Owens).
Go On handles the heavy topics of death and grief farely well. It's a sitcom dealing with dark topics, and I'm entirely skeptical about how well these worlds will balance. So few true sitcoms can balance comedy and drama. Does the pilot pull it off? Almost. But something's not clicking. The characters in group are cute and often humorous, but a tad one-note at times (especially the creepy bearded dude, and the lady that lost her cat). A genuine chemistry emerges with Perry and Tyler James Williams (playing Owen, a young man whose brother is brain-dead and in a coma). But the rest of the cast ranges from good to flat. For this type of show to work, everyone needs to be strong. And sure, it needs time to grow, but the fickle viewer may not give it a chance. There's no growth after cancellation.
But the pilot is still decent. The potential is immeasurable. Matthew Perry is a born comic actor, despite channeling Chandler too often in the 23 minute run time. And it's those Chandler qualities in Ryan King that may repel viewers. Why watch a cheap knock-off when you can watch the real deal every night of the week or on DVD? Fortunately, it's NBC. And Animal Practice sucks so much, it's a shoe-in for cancellation, leaving extra wiggle-room for Go On later in the season.
What the future holds: Smart viewers will give this a few more chances. Smarter viewers might wisely guess this could be a one-and-done show, given its 18-22 episode first season and nothing more.
The New Normal (NBC) - Premieres Sept. 10th; Stars Justin Bartha, Andrew Rannells, Georgia King, Ellen Barkin
What You Need To Know: It's gay. Really gay. If you're uncomfortable with Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family, turn back now. If you're not homophobic, the show has a few nice, romantic moments with stars Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha, breaking down barriers for those who can't relate to the man-woman relationships showcased all over television and film. Ryan Murphy co-created the series, leaving me questioning whether he could screw up comedy as well, but the pilot is great. He's off the hook, for now.
In a nutshell, the series follows gay couple David (Bartha) and Bryan (Rannells) as they realize they want a baby. Enter Goldie (Georgia King), a single mom who's moved to L.A. with her daughter, and, unfortunately for her, her grandmother Jane (Ellen Barkin) not far behind. She agrees to be David and Bryan's surrogate, much to Jane's dismay.
What I Think: End-to-end, the pilot is funny. Ellen Barkin steals the show, but enough can't be said for Andrew Rannells as the leading man, as well as cute Scottish actress Georgia King and her TV daughter, Jayson Blair. NeNe Leakes provides humorous moments here and there, though I'm against Real Housewives making it in the way Leakes has, beginning with her recurring role on Glee and now with a co-starring role on a high-profile sitcom.
The only liability in the cast is The Hangover star Justin Bartha. If I didn't know better, I'd say there was a gun to his head on this one. It's the type of roles where the actor needs to go all in if it's to be believable. Rannells is gay in real life, but to my best knowledge, Bartha is not. And it shows. Hopefully that improves.
As I said, it's refreshing to see a strong gay couple as the center of a series, rather than just the best friend or supporting characters. I strongly support equality, and as a straight man, I have no problem with watching two gay characters featured prominently here. The story has so much potential for comedy. It's actually refreshing, when you think of how limited a series like Animal Practice will be as time goes on. The New Normal will be rife with controversy, especially from the right-leaning Republicans, but I hope NBC doesn't buckle. This show deserves an audience.
One minor complaint may be that the impeccable Ellen Barkin is merely playing an older version of Sue Sylvester, another of Ryan Murphy's creations. But Barkin is so good, it's hardly worth mentioning.
What The Future Holds: Hopefully strong ratings. I feel the tide is turning, especially in America, as more people accept the alternate life styles and love lives of others. The New Normal can be at the epicenter of said tide, but it is NBC. That's troubling. It could be the start of a rejuvenated peacock network, or it could sink to the same ratings lows as Community and 30 Rock.
NBC has what it takes to gain viewers with The New Normal and Go On, and while the jury is out on how well Community, Whitney and Up All Night perform, I don't think NBC is anywhere close to out of the woods yet. It's going to take a long time to rebuild the network that is perpetually springing a leak. Expanding The Voice to two installments a year will serve to hurt NBC, but that's beside the point of this week's column.
That's all for now. My pilot roundup is officially underway with my reviews of Go On, The New Normal and Animal Practice. Next week I'll provide my thoughts on the other NBC rookie, Guys With Kids, as well as Monday night dramas Revolution and The Mob Doctor. I'll also pick the 25 most noteworthy contestants in Survivor history (IMHO, of course), pick my favorites to walk away with Emmy awards, and later this month, I talk about one of my guiltiest pleasures, Dancing With The Stars.
Until next time, stay tuned.