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NBC: Same-Old Same Old

For all of our scientific advances, our devotion to Aristotelian logic, our fancy book-learning, we've done a frightfully bad job at coming up with definitive answers for The Big Questions. Sure, we can rattle off why the sky is blue and how a bill becomes a law and who led the American League in home runs in 1987. But gather together the best and brightest minds, throw out one of those Big-Picture-meaning-of-life-type questions -- Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Where do we go when we die? Are we all alone in this big, wide universe? -- and you'll be lucky to get some half-baked theories cribbed from the footnotes of Stephen Hawking's latest opus and enough hemming and hawing to drown out jet engines.

We may keep coming up snake eyes whenever it's time to noodle out some of the great metaphysical puzzlers of our day. But we have within our grasp the answer to at least one question that's flummoxed scientists, stumped philosophers and touched off many a bar argument for well nigh a generation. And we'll likely have the answer by September.

Because this fall, we finally learn whether NBC can broadcast a watchable show at 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays.

You may recognize the 8:30 Thursday night time slot by its more common designation as the roach motel of NBC's prime-time lineup -- sitcoms check in, but they don't check out. Ever since Alex P. Keaton packed up his tie and blazer and headed off to entertain America with clever, life-affirming fare like "Doc Hollywood" and "Life with Mikey," the Peacock Network has filled the Thursday-8:30-p.m. slot with an unending parade of slop, the sort of shows that make films like "Doc Hollywood" and "Life with Mikey" actually seem clever and life-affirming by comparison.

Jonathan Silverman, Brooke Shields, Christina Applegate, whoever that simp was in Inside Schwartz -- all of them have watched their hopes and dreams disappear into the gaping maw of NBC's Thursday night sinkhole. Each year, the network swears on a stack of Bibles that it's finally found the show that will break its decade-long losing streak, and each year, we wind up with another serving of The Single Guy. And the stars of these shows, who once entertained dreams of joining the likes of David Schwimmer and Kelsey Grammer and that guy who plays Will (or possibly Grace) in the Must-See TV firmament are reduced to starring in community theater productions, soft-core pornography or, worst of all, direct-to-cable movies.

Well, no more, NBC has decided. The sound you hear at 8:30 p.m. every Thursday will no longer be that of a million remote controls changing the channel the second Friends ends. Instead, NBC vows, you will hear laughter -- honest-to-God laughter. And damn if the Peacock Network isn't poised to deliver on its promise.

Of course, the network isn't filling its haunted time slot with a newly developed program. That would be foolish -- this is NBC, after all. Instead, the network plans to airlift in Scrubs, a fresh, funny sitcom that's unlike anything you've seen on NBC in years, largely because it is fresh and funny. With superb writing and strong performances, Scrubs gives NBC something it hasn't had in a long time -- a good show in that Thursday-Night-at-8:30 hole. And it gives you and me something to do after Friends, other than clean the dishes or polish off that Cervantes novel or maybe even check out the last half-hour of Survivor.

Then again, if you subscribe to the theory that NBC's 8:30 p.m. time-slot troubles are not a matter of competence but rather some sort of other-wordly force at work, like Warren Littlefield's alleged pact with the devil in exchange for programming success, or the possibility that NBC may have built its Thursday night lineup on an Indian burial ground. If that's the case -- and we're too circumspect to rule it out -- then we'll soon have ample proof, should Scrubs make the move to Thursday night and immediately begin sucking wind. Look for the little signs -- the additional of a laugh track to hee-haw at the slightest joke, John C. McGinley getting replaced in the cast with Carrot Top, the decision to move the show in New York, and have all the actors move into a spacious, single, swinging apartment.

We're spending so much time discussing the impending move of Scrubs -- eight paragraphs and counting -- because the rest of NBC's schedule for the 2002-2003 season is so deadly dull. The Emerils and UC: Undercovers of the world have long since been dispatched to the happy hunting ground; the only shows to get the axe this week are The Weakest Link -- we'll pause so you can enjoy your own pithy witticism at the expense of Anne Robinson -- and Watching Ellie. Meanwhile, your NBC favorites -- otherwise known as the shows I can't be bothered to watch on a regular basis -- will be returning, largely in their existing time slots. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, in fact, will maintain the exact same lineups this fall as they sported a week ago. And NBC's prime-time schedule will again be anchored by the likes of Law & Order, Fraiser, Friends and ER -- just as it was five years ago, three years ago, last year and for every year from now until the earth is a burnt-out cinder. So look for Friends: 2012 a decade from now when a toothless, crotchety David Schwimmer ends up impregnating every cast member -- yes, even Joey -- and Anthony Edwards makes his triumphant return to ER as Dr. Greene's evil twin brother, Bart.

NBC can warm over last year's offerings and make like it's serving up a brand new entree, you see, because it can afford to. It was the top-rated broadcast network during the 2001-2002 season, a fact that the Peacock Network didn't balk at mentioning during this week's fall season preview. "America's most-watched network!" the NBC press releases proclaimed. "Number one in key advertising demographics in every daypart!" crowed silver-tongued NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa. "Coasting to victory on wave after wave of inertia and indifference!" agreed yours truly.

OK -- that last one wasn't included in NBC's press materials. But if the network wants to use that as a blurb in future marketing efforts, by all means, go ahead.

There's a difference, obviously, between being popular and being good -- sort of like the difference between sitting down to watch an evening of Providence versus an episode of The Sopranos. NBC may be the ratings king, with its programming capturing the biggest number of eyeballs. But that doesn't mean it's providing those eyeballs with something worth watching. After all, more people eat at McDonald's than Tavern on the Green, but I wouldn't recommend stopping by the Golden Arches to sample the fois gras. More people probably own Michael Jackson's "Thriller" than "Birth of the Cool" by Miles Davis; I know which one I'd rather hear on the radio. And nobody got more votes in the last presidential election than Al Gore, and look at all the good that did the big stiff.

But that's someone else's problem. No one ever went broke catering to the tastes of idiots, and idiots, as it turns out, appears to be Friends' core demographic. So NBC is going to keep serving up the same schedule until ER is carted off to the glue factory, until Fraiser's heart explodes, until the emaciated cast of Friends shrivels up and flies away on the evening breeze. And then, NBC probably will still keep flogging away at its dead horse of a schedule, long after every last one of us is sick at the sight of its programs.

So until that day comes -- and I say it's going to be mid-November, at the latest -- here's what you can expect to watch on NBC for the foreseeable future.

Monday's lineup remains intact, led off by Fear Factor -- which gives grateful TV critics and social commentators something to decry for another year -- and followed by Third Watch and Crossing Jordan. On Tuesday, Fraiser marks its seventh decade of entertaining America, while Just Shoot Me moves from the coveted Must-See Thursday lineup to the much-less-coveted Tuesday night at 8:30 slot. This is the network programming equivalent of the aging, rubber-armed pitcher getting sent down to Triple-A. But don't cry, Just Shoot Me fans -- the show will likely live on forever in syndication.

OK, now the rest of you, stop crying.

Wednesday features the return of Ed, a once quirky and delightful show that slipped badly in its sophomore season to become the dour chronicle of a desperately miserable cast of characters. Of course, Ed's stumble looks like a hardly noticeable misstep compared to the full-on face-plant delivered by The West Wing this past year, as the show's creator turned a once-brilliant program into a 60-minute weekly forum for settling petty grievances with critics, wrestling with his innumerable demons and otherwise producing unremitting crap. Those shows are joined on Wednesday by Law & Order, which I believe is now created entirely by a Unix-powered server running a simple perl script.

Thursday offers Friends, Scrubs, Will & Grace and ER. Please do not deviate from your pre-established viewing patterns.

Friday marks the return of Providence, Law & Order: SVU and Dateline NBC. Please do not deviate from your pre-established pattern of not caring.

As for the weekend, you'll get a second season of Law & Order: Criminal Intent and a third night of Dateline (joining the Tuesday and Friday installments of Stone and Jane's News Funhouse). On Saturday, NBC broadcasts a movie, so that it doesn't have to bear the ignominy of having to admit that it provides one less night of original programming than the Fox network. The Saturday night movie won't be anything you can't rent at the local Blockbuster without having to watch enough commercials to fill a three-hour timeslot.

For those of you keeping score at home, that's 22 hours of prime-time programming, with 84 percent of it filled by returning material. This fall, NBC only plans to introduce five new shows -- three half-hour sitcoms and two hour-long dramas. And while there's not an Emeril-esque disaster or an XFL-flavored embarrassment looming on the horizon, there's not a spark of creativity or originality, either -- certainly nothing that's going to make you want to mark your calendars four months in advance of the series premieres.

NBC, of course, sees things differently. "We're in a great position to build on [last year's] strength next season with the innovative, distinctive new programs we'll be launching in the fall," insists Sassa, who clearly doesn't read the descriptions of the shows he's touting before making such grandiose statements.

"NBC again this year sticks with an incredibly stable schedule of proven hits. Our development team cast the net wide, took some risks, and delivered some programs with real potential to break out," says NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, and isn't that a particularly bizarre thing to say?

Standing pat, and yet taking risks? Stable, yet innovative? How are such seemingly contradictory tacks possible without physics-defying contortions, a crate-load of gin and enough denial to drive a case study for the psychiatric department at a leading university well into the next olympiad? The questions raised by Sassa and Zucker are simply staggering.

And even if we assume that -- perish the thought -- NBC's top programming executives aren't talking out of their respective asses, we have a whole new set of questions to consider. Like, just exactly what does NBC mean when it describes its new programs as "innovative?" Are the shows filmed entirely through a fisheye lens? Do the actors only speak French? Are we talking about a cast composed entirely of puppets and small children?

The mind reels...

Here's what NBC means. In-Laws, which kicks off Tuesday nights, features a pair of doe-eyed newlyweds (Elon Gold, Bonnie Somerville) who move in with her parents (Dennis Farina, Jean Smart) while he attends cooking school. Turns out that Dad is a bit of a grumpus and that he and the new son-in-law are always clashing.

A comedy about squabbling in-laws? Man, that's never been done before.

Also on Tuesdays, at 9:30 p.m., there's Hidden Hills. It stars Paula Marshall -- who was seen in Cupid, which TeeVee loved, and Snoops, which TeeVee didn't -- and Justin Louis, formerly of Trinity (and the less said about that show, the better for all involved.) Also in the cast are Dondre T. Whitfield and Tamara Taylor, whose past work we can neither endorse nor demean. The show, in NBC's words, "explores the wild, sexy and funny side of the 'burbs -- where apparently everyone has a lot more to reveal than what first meets the eye."

A show about suburbanites who enjoy frisky sex lives? Good Lord -- can they even put that on prime-time television?

Joining NBC's Thursday night lineup -- and apparently moving the Curse of the 8:30 Time Slot back by an hour to 9:30 -- is Good Morning, Miami. The show marks the latest attempt to put over Mark Feuerstein as a sitcom star, while the still smoldering ruins of Conrad Bloom burn fresh in the memory. Feuerstein plays a talented TV producer -- clearly a part not based on anyone in NBC's employ -- who takes a gig with the lowest-rated morning show in the country and its cast of crazies. When not dealing with his wacky co-workers, Conrad Blo... er... the Mark Feuerstein character is pitching woo with a down-to-earth hairdresser (Ashley Williams) and matching wits with his "risqué" grandmother. "Risqué," incidentally, is NBC marketing-speak for "Nana talks dirty."

And I don't think you need me to tell you how a wacky workplace comedy complete with a down-to-earth hairdresser and a bawdy grandma redefines the word "innovative."

Really, if NBC wanted to really innovate, it would be better off taking its three new shows, throwing them into a blender, and hitting "liquefy." Give me a show about a talented young TV producer who moves in to his father-in-law's suburban home to work on the lowest rated cooking show in Miami while pitching woo with a risqué grandmother. That way, I have only one rotten show to assiduously avoid next fall instead of three. And I don't have to find nearly so many synonyms for "banal" in my thesaurus.

As for new dramas, NBC gives us American Dreams -- an "evocative drama set against the memorable, upbeat sounds of the early 1960s." Those are NBC's words, not mine. I would have gone with "tedious nostalgia show."

American Dreams, airing on Sunday, focuses on two girls -- one of them "good" in the "doesn't tramp around with boys" sense of the word, the other "bad" in much the same way. They both dream of becoming dancers on American Bandstand.

No -- I'm not being snide. They actually want to be dancers on American Bandstand. That's the show.

Please. I'm deadly serious here. Stop looking at me like that.

The other new drama, also slated for Sunday, is Boomtown. It's an ensemble drama focusing on the lives and loves of Los Angeles cops, paramedics, reporters, and officials. Any differences between this and Third Watch are completely lost on my tiny brain.

Not that NBC entertains the notion that any of these shows will falter, but just in case America's taste for gruff in-laws, horny suburbanites and Mark Feuerstein and his risqué grandma prove to be fleeting, the Peacock Network also has a trio of mid-season replacements waiting in the wings. It's Not About Me is another one of those innovative comedies, this time about a corporate lawyer who chucks it all to become a schoolteacher. How is that innovative? Well, the corporate lawyer's pal talks directly to the camera.

Apparently, no one at NBC has ever watched Malcolm in the Middle. Or Titus. Or The Bernie Mac Show. Or the thousands of other programs that have used this device since the dawn of time.

Not that I'm complaining. It's Not About Me also features Nikki Cox, and that's innovation enough as far as I'm concerned.

The other replacement shows are a pair of dramas. Kingpin is a Sopranos-like crime drama with a distinctly Latin flavor. And Mister Sterling is the story of an idealistic new senator from a West Wing writer. Apparently, NBC is hoping to capture that show's good government vibe without its off-camera hallucinogenic hijinks.

Look for these shows to appear on NBC's schedule some time around January. Or even earlier if it turns out that the bad juju of the Thursday at 8:30 time slot turns this year's Scrubs into next year's Inside Schwartz.


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