NBC: Crime Doesn't Pay
Well, we goofed in this very space a few weeks back when we incorrectly reported that Jeff Zucker was the new head of programming at NBC. This error was by no means intentional. NBC insisted that it had hired Jeff Zucker to run its prime time affairs, and who were we to dispute them? NBC may not be able to successfully launch a sitcom in the post-Friends time slot and it may have been the only network in the English-speaking world to believe that America was aching for minor league football on Saturday nights, but we assume the folks doing the hiring over there are at least able to identify their employees by name.
Besides, Jeff Zucker sounds like a fairly benign name. It's not like NBC announced that its new programming chief was Guy Incognito or Richard Cranium or that the duties would be split by the dynamic duo of Ben Dover and Al Drive. How were we supposed to know that we were being had?
But had we were. Jeff Zucker is no more the programming chief at NBC than I am the starting nose tackle for the Green Bay Packers. That became apparent this week when NBC unveiled its prime time schedule for the 2001-02 season, a line-up that ditches the Peacock Network's past fondness for sitcoms in favor of three new dramas in which the protagonists fight crime.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow us to introduce the new entertainment president for the National Broadcasting Company... Mr. Dick Wolf.
What's that? You doubt that the Law & Order über-producer seized the reins of power in some sort of Rockefeller Plaza-based palace coup? You find it highly dubious that a power-crazed Wolf forced his way into the NBC board room, axed disloyal executives as quickly as he dispatches Law & Order cast members and remade the network's prime-time line-up in his image? You just can't believe that Dick Wolf is the fiendish puppet master pulling the Peacock Network's strings?
Neither could I. But the evidence is just too obvious to ignore.
This fall, NBC will air as many hours of Law & Order-themed programming as it will of its ubiquitous Dateline franchise. Jill Hennessy returns to the airwaves in a new show, apparently part of Wolf's scheme to populate the NBC universe with his army of Law & Order progeny. And he's brought one-time Homicide detective, occasional First Watch guest star and full-time hack Jon Seda back to your television on a weekly basis -- all three moves perfectly in tune with the Wolf m.o.
Although that last one about Seda could also be the work of a sadistic madman.
Meanwhile, there won't be much laughter around NBC this fall... and not just because of that Seda thing. Instead, NBC -- which used to lunge clumsily for comedy like Robert Downey Jr. diving for his last dime bag -- will only add three sitcoms to its schedule this fall. At the same time, the network is giving Third Rock from the Sun a belated farewell while axing the aforementioned Steven Weber Show, DAG, and The Fighting Fitzgeralds. They join the likes of Tucker, The Michael Richards Show, and others too numerous and unfunny to mention on the ash-heap of history.
In fact, the only new sitcom returning to NBC in the fall is Three Sisters, a show with about as many laughs as the Anton Chekov play of the same name. Don't feel bad if you didn't realize Three Sisters was still on the air -- NBC probably forgot, too.
Joining Three Sisters as the only NBC freshman show to live to see another morning is the wonderfully quirky Ed. It will return on Wednesday nights to join Law & Order -- now featuring its 263rd new cast member -- as the bookends for NBC's latest flagship show, The West Wing. Tune in next season as President Bartlet breaks out the Christmas tree lights, puts on a Floyd album and tries to get his head together before the big Cabinet meeting. Try some of the brownies, Mr. Secretary -- I baked 'em up special this morning.
Friends, Frasier, and ER are all back as well, for reasons I think Issac Newton explained pretty well when he was talking about the finer points of bodies in motion.
So where does that leave NBC? With crime shows, and lots of 'em. And we have Dick Wolf to thank.
First, there's the unceasing clamor of the unstoppable Law & Order machine. Besides the original Law & Order, for folks who like their crime-fighting old school, and Law & Order: SVU, for people who like their crime-fighting tawdry and lurid, there's now Law & Order: Criminal Intent on Sunday nights, apparently for folks who like their crimes with... um... intent. Look for Law & Order: Outtakes, Bloopers and Practical Jokes to hit NBC sometime around midseason.
Whereas those other Law & Order permeations focus on crime and punishment from the standpoint of law enforcement officials, Criminal Intent will look at it from the point of view of the criminal. Along with law enforcement officials. Because it's different. But not really.
"Executive producer Dick Wolf extends his popular, Emmy Award-winning Law & Order franchise on NBC with Law & Order: Criminal Intent, a new drama series that offers an additional dimension to crime investigations," NBC says in its press materials. And who are you going to believe -- me or NBC?
In Hennessy's Monday night drama, Crossing Jordan, the one-time Law & Order cast member plays a native New Englander who, after a professional crisis in Los Angeles, returns to the land of wood-covered bridges and tedious Kennedy offspring. There, she is reunited with her father, played by the star of a beloved 1970s TV show, who is still mourning the untimely passing of his wife. Back in New England, with dad by her side, our heroine starts life anew, finding personal and professional fulfillment.
If you're thinking, "That sounds an awful lot like Providence," NBC would like to plant a big, sloppy kiss on your forehead. Of course, the difference this time around is that Hennessy plays a coroner, not a doctor, the star of the beloved 1970s show is Ken "White Shadow" Howard and not Mike "B.J. Hunnicut" Farrell, and mom was brutally murdered in a mystery that remains unsolved until this day.
But hey... the fall colors in New England are just stunning.
So really, Crossing Jordan is more like Providence meets CSI. Presumably, Mom doesn't appear from beyond the grave to help Jill Hennessy solve crimes. But we can always hope.
NBC's third new crime drama, following Law & Order III: This Time It's More Profitable on Sundays, is UC: Undercover. I guess that makes the actual title of the show Undercover: Undercover. The last NBC program with a title that just repeated the same word over and over again was Encore Encore, so you would think the network might want to avoid evoking that kind of imagery. But I guess when your cast is headed up by Jon Seda, duplicative titles reminiscent of failed Nathan Lane sitcoms are the least of your worries.
Yes, that's right. This taut drama about an elite Justice Department crime-fighting unit counts among its cast members a two-time winner of the TeeVee award for worst actor. Seda plays a lamp, I think. Or maybe a desk. He's very believable, from what I understand.
Wait a minute... I think there's been a mix-up. It turns out that Seda plays Jake Shaw, whom NBC describes as "a chameleon-like agent who can slip undetected below the radar." So long as Seda goes undercover as a guy who mumbles a lot or disguises himself as a terrible actor, it seems like a perfectly plausible scenario to me.
Continuing with its crime theme, NBC will add a second night of its inexplicably popular game show The Weakest Link to its fall lineup. That's not really crime-related programming, I suppose, unless we want to broaden our definition to include crimes against humanity.
After an evening of having an ill-tempered British woman snipe at you for not knowing the name of the bassist for Motley Crüe, you could probably use a laugh. So why are you turning to NBC? This is the network, after all, that threw a pile of money at Michael Richards to star in a premise-free sitcom, blanched when it saw the finished product, ordered a complete overhaul, blanched again when it saw that nothing had improved and still pushed the show out over the airwaves in the vain hope that someone somewhere would laugh, even if it was out of guilt.
At first glance, NBC appears to be making the same mistake again with Emeril, its lead-off show on Tuesday nights. Emeril looks like yet another star-driven comedy in which the producers handle casting first, premise second, and then, if they have time, actual scripts and storylines. The difference is that programs like The Michael Richards Show and DAG and The Steven Weber Show were all built around sitcom veterans and comic actors. Emeril is built around a chef -- Emeril Lagasse, the Bam!-invoking TV cook, in case you're not familiar with his oeuvre.
Hey, it doesn't make any less sense than giving Mike O'Malley his own show.
NBC runs a terrible risk with Scrubs, a Tuesday comedy about wet-behind-the-ears medical interns at a hospital filled with daffy doctors and peculiar patients. What if viewers tune in, see all the crazy shenanigans and goings-on and think, "Man, this is the worst episode of ER ever." Which is a baseless fear, really, because the worst of episode of ER is, by definition, any one that features Erik Palladino for more than five minutes.
Finally, there's Inside Schwartz, which is about... Oh, let's allow the wordsmiths in the NBC promotional department to tell the tale:
This sporting comedy provides a novel take on the life and times of young Adam Schwartz (Breckin Meyer, "The Insider," "Clueless"), an athletics-obsessed sportscaster whose inner thoughts and fantasies are revealed through personal conversations with sports figures. As the occasional voice of a minor-league baseball team, Schwartz takes a brushback pitch when his longtime girlfriend dumps him, but he dusts himself off and gets back into the dating game with the help of his friends, including the attractive and adoring Julie (Miriam Shor, "Bedazzled"), the uncensored David (Bryan Callen, "MAD TV"), David's driven wife, Emily (Jennifer Irwin, "Exit Wounds") and Schwartz's gregarious father, Gene (Richard Kline, "Three's Company"), the owner of a sandwich-shop chain.
If that sounds to you like a Saturday Night Live sketch -- one of the really lame ones they stick on right after the second musical number -- stretched into a half-hour series, then congratulations: You have a keen understanding of the problems facing the sitcom genre in this, the early days of the new millennium. And if it also sounds to you like the sort of place-holder show that NBC's been sticking in the post-Friends time slot since Jonathan Silverman was just a gleam in Warren Littlefield's beady eye, then you clearly are familiar with how NBC operates. Maybe there's even a job waiting for you in the programming department at Rockefeller Plaza.
Provided Dick Wolf hasn't beaten you to the punch.
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