NBC: Keep Your Friends Close and Your Emmys Closer
Last week the New York Daily News -- the paper of record for pun-laden headlines -- seemed to carry daily updates on NBC's frantic search for a Friends replacement. The New York Times, in what we can only presume is a break from the newspaper's recent tradition of reportage based on fraud and deception, led off its coverage of NBC's fall-schedule announcement by raising the specter of Friends' imminent departure. And the most recent issue of Fortune features a picture of Zucker, bestriding the world like a short, bald Colossus, next to the headline "Jeff Zucker Faces Life Without Friends."
Then again, Jeff Zucker faced the exact same problem at this time last year. Nearly every indication was that Friends would wrap things up following its ninth season, go gently into that good night, and leave NBC high and dry and without a marquee show for the first time since Bill Cosby tried on a sweater and invited us all to enjoy a nice, refreshing pudding pop. Zucker's solution was a simple oneÑconvince the cast and crew of Friends to come back for a 10th season that would conclude in May 2004. And this he did, through what was undoubtedly a multi-front effort involving begging, dump trucks filled with money, and a weekend long film festival entitled "My Poor Career Decisions" featuring consecutive showings of The Pallbearer, Almost Heroes and Ed until Matt LeBlanc began sobbing uncontrollably and David Schwimmer's belt and shoelaces had to be taken away.
(As if to drive this point home, the Fortune article -- on newsstands now, featuring cover boy Steve Jobs vowing to revolutionize the music industry via 99-cent downloads of "Soak Up the Sun" -- features a picture of Zucker surrounded by the cast of Friends. He is chatting away amicably, happy and visibly relieved. The actors, on the other hand, look vaguely annoyed, hanging around long enough only for the oversized novelty check to show up for the photo opportunity before they can retreat to the safety of their mansions and their hangers-on and their David Cox-Arquettes.)
So who's to say that a year from now, Zucker won't pull the same rabbit out of a hat? Another year of boffo ratings, the promise of even more money, and the realization that America's cineplex patrons are not exactly clamoring for "Kissing A Fool II" or "Three More to Tango" might convince everyone involved in Friends to re-up for an 11th season. Who cares if we're rapidly approaching episodes in which Joey receives his AARP card and Monica and Chandler get into a hilarious squabble when they miss the early-bird senior's special at the local diner and Rachel shatters her hip? Ratings are ratings.
Make no mistake: NBC will need something to fill the breach if and when Friends ever leaves the airwaves. The network hasn't enjoyed a true breakout hit since Will & Grace -- and that will be six years ago, come this fall. Sure, Scrubs is an outstanding program, but its creative achievements haven't met with equal success in the ratings. It's not the like the show's audience has sunk into the sea in the Thursday-at-8:30-p.m. time slot, but the fact that we're wrapping up a Scrubs-free Sweeps with NBC having burned off all the new episodes by late April should tell you all you need to know about whether the network feels as warmly toward Scrubs as it does toward, say, Friends reruns from the late '90s.
The rest of NBC's roster of hits has either begun aging in dog years or watched helplessly as the heights of its creative apogee grow ever smaller in the rear-view mirror. Or -- in most cases -- both. Like Friends, Frasier could be headed into its final season; unlike Friends, the curtain call may not necessarily be completely voluntary -- though it is entirely overdue. With the departure of Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing is losing its creator and primary writer -- rather fitting, since the show has already lost its direction, critical buzz, 22 percent of its audience and its marbles. NBC proudly announced that ER will be with us for another four years, thus fulfilling the wishes of anyone who's ever dreamed of watching Noah Wyle age rapidly on camera. Not to pick on ER, since it's gone from being the top-rated show in the country to getting systematically pimp-slapped by different portions of CBS's Thursday night lineup, but to call that show a shell of its former self is an insult to the intricate, durable and thoroughly utilitarian qualities of shells the world over.
How grim are things for NBC? Dateline, the news magazine program that once enjoyed a Starbucks-like ubiquity on NBC's schedule, has been pared down to a mere two installments per week, thus slashing America's intake of lurid-crime tales and jury-rigged product exposes by a full third. Somehow, I think we as a nation will be able to pull through, though I can't make the same promise for Stone Phillips and Maria Shriver.
Of course, NBC's other franchise -- the mammoth, unstoppable juggernaut of Law & Order-themed programming -- continues to thrive, ceaselessly beating its paddles toward the shores of prime-time dominance. There's Law & Order: Original Flavor, of course, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Law & Order: Chunky-Style, I think -- all going strong no matter how many cast members Dick Wolf throws over the side. Also returning to Monday nights is Third Watch, which isn't a Law & Order spin-off -- Law & Order: Vanilla? Law & Order: Now with Firemen? Law & Order: Bosco's Revenge? -- though it very well could be, were it not very interesting and if people weren't stunningly indifferent toward it.
Three of the five shows NBC introduced in the fall return for a second season, led by American Dreams which sated viewers' insatiable appetite for pabulum, self-indulgent Baby-Boomer nostalgia and ham-fisted The-Turbulent-'60s-As-Metaphor-For-Family-Life hackery. Those same viewers were probably less pleased with the unconventional narrative approach and relentlessly depressing tone of Boomtown -- their loss, since Boomtown was among the handful of really good shows to make it to prime-time this season. NBC is moving the show to Friday nights where it's likely to find a more receptive audience without the expectations that come with a Sunday night timeslot. Boomtown's renewal can only be considered a pleasant surprise. Equally surprising, though decidedly less pleasant is the return of Good Morning, Miami. With the equally terrible sitcoms Hidden Hills and In Laws slated for a one-way trip to the boneyard, Good Morning, Miami's renewal means it will head into next fall as the undisputed worst sitcom in the English-speaking world. Still, on a positive note, the show's return will be welcome news to... well, not humanity, certainly, but I'm sure the cast and crew are thrilled to know they'll still receive paychecks. Even if it is blood money.
(Actually, Good Morning Miami's return to the airwaves is rumored to be on the condition that Heather Locklear join the cast, in the apparent hope that Richie Sambora's better half can do for this turkey what she did for Spin City -- namely, keep the show on the air long after anyone notices or cares.)
In another surprise, NBC decided to bring Ed back for a fourth year, restoring it to its pre-West Wing timeslot on Wednesdays. This move will undoubtedly astonish and please fans of the show as much as it will shock Ed's producers, who were so convinced that they were helming a death ship that they wrapped up the seemingly interminable Ed-loves-Carol contretemps in the season finale last month. Long-time fans of the show hope that, with the Ed-Carol silliness resolved, the show will regain the luster of its freshman season and explore new, wonderfully quirky directions. Cynics figure that the producers will probably panic, pretend that the season finale was a Bobby-Ewing-is-lathering-up-in-the-shower-style dream and backslide into the will-they-or-won't-they tedium that's made Ed unwatchable for the past season-and-a-half.
If you're wondering what camp I fall into, you're probably new around here. In fact, I suspect you just started reading a couple of paragraphs ago.
Crossing Jordan isn't on the fall schedule -- for now. NBC expects it to return midseason, after Jill Hennessey has had her baby and can go back to being the sexy, halter-top-wearing coroner with the nice bosom that America has clutched to its bosom. Not so lucky are the aforementioned dreck, In Laws and Hidden Hills, both of which were officially canceled this week. So were A.U.S.A., Just Shoot Me and Mister Sterling, the latter show having everything going for it that The West Wing enjoyed, except for maybe critical praise, a self-destructive megalomaniac running the show, and a slavishly uncritical fan base. Finally, NBC axed Watching Ellie -- the second spring in a row, in fact, in which it has handed Julia-Louis Dreyfus her walking papers. Perhaps Jeff Zucker hopes to make this an annual tradition, like the swallows returning to Capistrano.
And say what you will about Michael Richards and Jason Alexander and their terrible post-Seinfeld shows -- nobody ever had to cancel them twice.
So that covers NBC's returning shows. But it doesn't tackle the central problem facing the Peacock Network -- just where to find that elusive breakout hit now that Chandler Bing and company are living on borrowed time. To that end, NBC is pinning its hopes on six new series -- three comedies, three dramas -- with the hope that at least one will register with viewers come the fall.
I say they bungle it, not because I've seen any of the shows in question, but because NBC's road map to post-Friends success is littered with the same mistakes that have put the network in such a desperate position in the first place. It's all there in the Fortune article -- a step-by-step textbook on how to drive your network into a wall. The rote reliance on thread-worn premises. The compulsion by Zucker and his acolytes to meddle in every stage of the creative process. The childlike trust in focus groups. Then again, every network does all that. Where Zucker and company attain an almost zen-like commitment to failure is their insistence that star power is the answer to all of life's problems. Got a lame, run-of-the-mill premise? Cast yourself a well-known star and even the most banal tripe about single parents and their precocious, smart-mouthed offspring seems fresh and lively. Your scripts read like they were pieced together by a team of writers who never actually met or were told of each other's existence? Have a star utter those jumbled, rambling lines and get ready to watch the ratings soar. Are you staring at a big gaping hole in your schedule where an actual programming should be? Just grab yourself a star, and build the show around them. That trick never fails.
Except that it does. All the time. And usually on NBC.
Hey, I don't want to rain on Jeff Zucker's parade. But if that approach failed to produce monster-TV hits for Nathan Lane, Emeril Lagasse, and Kirstie Alley, what makes Zucker think it's suddenly going to work for John Larroquette, Rob Lowe, and Alicia Silverstone? Pluck and stick-to-itiveness? Lucky rabbit's foot? Assurances from mobsters? No, really, I want to know why. Because Jeff keeps insisting, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that it is so.
"Certain people," Zucker explains to Fortune in talking up the prospects of a Heather Locklear-led sitcom, "are television stars."
Which doesn't explain what Whoopi Goldberg is doing on NBC next fall. I mean, we're talking about a performer who, upon winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, has spent the subsequent remainder of her career half-assing her way from one role to the next. Has anyone in the last decade done a better job of putting in the barest amount of effort necessary for getting paid than our gal Whoopi? Madonna? Oliver Stone? Ted Kennedy? All pale before the mighty coasting powers of Whoopi Goldberg.
And yet, there she is, anchoring NBC's Tuesday night lineup with a self-titled sitcom -- that's Whoopi, by the way, and not Lazy, Self-Satisfied Deadwood Goes Through the Motions, as you might have understandably assumed -- about a grouchy ex-diva turned hotelier who clashes with her uptight, conservative brother and schemes with her faithful Iranian handyman. I'm not sure which part Whoopi plays. The uptight, conservative brother happens to be a dating a white girlfriend, who -- in the immortal worlds of those fly hipsters in the NBC P.R. department -- "talks like a sister and is just too much fun for [Whoopi] to ignore."
Oh, Whoopi -- come back to the center square. Your awesome talents are wasted elsewhere.
Following Whoopi at 8:30 on Tuesdays this fall will be Happy Family starring Larroquette and Christine Baranski. They play an older couple who are looking forward to getting a chance to spend their golden years together -- only their grown idiot screw-up kids keep hanging around the house and mucking things up. It sounds haunting and poignant, which is not often a direction you want to go in with a comedy.
James Caan is a big star -- assuming you've jumped into a time machine and traveled back to 1975 so that you can catch the late showing of "Rollerball" down at the Bijou. Nevertheless, he's headlining Las Vegas, the new Monday night drama that will air at 9 p.m. and bump the otherwise forgettable Third Watch to 10. In Las Vegas, Caan heads the security team at a swanky Vegas casino. Thrill as Caan and his team of impossibly pretty young people catch card-counters and break up crooked keno games and give the bum's rush to patrons abusing the casino's free cocktails policy. And while it's easy to point and make fun, in Las Vegas's defense, I should point it out that it does feature two of the greatest inventions of the western world -- gambling and Nikki Cox, who plays a high-priced escort. Throw in someone reading off baseball scores, and it's like you've hit my own personal trifecta.
Compared to John Larroquette -- whose last popularly received TV show signed off during the first Bush administration -- and James Caan -- now in his fifth decade of entertaining America! -- Alicia Silverstone can at least claim to be a star solidly within the 18-to-49-year-old demographic that NBC so ardently craves. Silverstone stars in Miss Match as a high-powered divorce attorney who develops a lucrative and spiritually rewarding avocation as a romantic matchmaker (Don't you see? She helps people break up and she brings them together! Aren't you just floored by the stark contrast that is her life? No? Um...) Her dad, a fellow divorce attorney who watches Alicia's newfound matchmaking efforts with pained bemusement, is played by Ryan O'Neal. I guess love is never having to say you're sorry, and, hopefully, there'll be nothing so embarrassing about Miss Match that he'll have to.
NBC's final new drama, The Lyon's Den, marks the triumphant return of Rob Lowe to NBC's prime-time lineup after a harrowing six-month absence. Lowe plays the son of a U.S. Senator who lands a job with a powerful Washington D.C. law firm. But this ain't just any law firm. In the words of NBC's marketing spiel -- which may have been subcontracted out to a southeast Asian sweat shop before it was returned to New York and translated back into the original English -- Lowe's new employers "may or may not be hiding some dark secrets." I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that the firm is hiding dark secrets. I mean, otherwise, that's not much of a show, is it?
As tantalizing as all of this sounds -- Rob Lowe ferreting out dark secrets, Nikki Cox dressed up all pretty-like, Whoopi Goldberg mailing it in, and I mentioned the Nikki Cox thing, right? -- none of the above shows are likely to replace Friends in the hearts and minds of America. No, if NBC hopes to find itself a new breakout hit, it's likely to be the sixth new show it will introduce this fall -- a blatant carbon-copy of an overseas comedy right on down to the scripts and jokes the producers plan to lift wholesale from the original.
And for once, this isn't a bad thing.
Maybe you've caught an episode or two of the British import Coupling when it airs on BBC America or at your friendly neighborhood PBS station. If not, you're missing a hell of a show -- Coupling is a funny, original take on relationships, with each episode featuring at least one laugh-out-loud-and-scare-the-neighbors kind of moment. Often wrongly dismissed as the British version of Friends, Coupling employs every conceivable narrative trick -- split-screens, flashbacks, "Rashomon"-style replays of the same scene -- to detail the painfully funny interactions of six friends who can't seem to stop dating one another. NBC saw how entertaining the show was, going so far as to buy the rights to Steven Moffat's original scripts. Presumably, after changing the references about "lifts" and "loos" to "elevators" and "toilets," Coupling will be good to go on this side of the pond, giving NBC a prefabricated hit. There's no possible reason why this shouldn't work.
Until you think about it. And then the reasons why it won't work begin to back up like jetliners at La Guardia during inclement weather.
There's the alarming prospect that a lot of Coupling's admittedly racy subject matter could be watered down so as not to shock easily excitable housewives in Des Moines. Then, there's the realization that the last time NBC tried to transplant a fairly well-regarded British series to its airwaves, the result was the pedestrian Cold Feet, which took the pipe long before anyone could compile the numerous ways in which the American knockoff fell short of the British original. And then after scanning the Coupling cast list, you realize that some mad fool has hired Rena Sofer for one of the parts. Not to single out Ms. Sofer for undue criticism before we've even seen a frame of her efforts in Coupling, but a quick review of her curriculum vitae reveals that her most recent television roles include an extended stint on Ed that launched that show's descent into madness, some simply execrable work on the otherwise entertaining but nevertheless canceled The Chronicle and a guest appearance as a murderous hussy on CSI: Miami where she was... well, no worse than anyone or anything else on that terrible, terrible show. In other words, Rena Sofer is Paula Marshall 2.0 -- a relentless show-killing machine for the new millennium whose very presence up until now has been enough to doom every project she's been involved with.
I guess Ted McGinley wasn't available.
Look, if NBC really wanted to guarantee a successful successor to Friends, it would have written out a nice, big check to the BBC and bought up the rights to show the original Coupling over here on prime-time network TV. Or -- if the network feared an uprising from dimwitted viewers put off by the funny English accents -- it could have hired Moffat and the original cast to come up with an alternative version of Coupling -- identical to what's been on for the BBC -- where everybody just speaks American. The point is, you have a great show that's already been written, filmed and released to DVD -- why not take advantage of that? Why remake it and run the risk of screwing things up beyond recognition? Because if the Americanized Coupling fails to attract the soon-to-be dissolved Friends audience, then NBC is royally hosed.
Unless, a year from now, Jeff Zucker is telling us to get ready for Season 11 of Friends in which Monica and Chandler tell the kids down the hall to turn down the raucous music and Phoebe moves to a retirement community outside of Phoenix.
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