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NBC: The Great Creativity Drought of '04

Next fall promises to deliver one entertaining moment after the next over on NBC where Friends begins its second decade of tickling America's funnybone by having Chandler, Monica, Ross, Rachel and the rest of your favorite gang endure another season of madcap antics while pairing up romantically in ever strang...

Hmmm? What's that? Friends signed off earlier this month? Gee, I can't believe I missed that. You would have thought there would have been some coverage of that in the newspaper or a couple of NBC promos at the very least.

Well, Friends may be gone, but Fraiser is here to stay! Tune into NBC, as those irrepressible Crane boys argue each week over who's fussier and more refined in a comedy that just keeps getting funnier year aft...

Huh? Really? Damn.

OK then, smart guy, if those shows are gone, what's left at NBC? Will & Grace? Oh, come on -- that show ran out of gags back in 2001. Two seasons ago, it was going through the motions. Besides, thanks to syndication, you can probably flip on the TV at any time in the day and stumble upon a rerun of the show from back when it was funny. And you expect me to believe NBC allowed two high-profile, long-running comedies to leave the air simultaneous without having anything better than the tired, played-out Will & Grace to take up the mantle of the network's flagship sitcom? Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiight. Even the knuckleheads at NBC aren't that dim.

What do you mean, they did? Let me check my notes here... Holy crap, you're right.

I hope you can understand my confusion. For my entire adult life -- save for a three-year period in the early '90s when Cheers and The Cosby Show were gasping for breath and Seinfeld and Friends had yet to really take off -- NBC has usually been at the top of the ratings pile. Or, if not at the exact top, at least well positioned enough to kick CBS in the shins. And the way the network got there was through a healthy stable of flagship shows, usually sitcoms. I mean, they even coined a phrase -- "Must See TV" -- which ensconced itself in the popular lexicon. Can you say the same about ABC's "T.G.I.F." lineup or CBS' "Welcome Home" promo or Fox's "Who the Hell Are You to Judge Us?" slogan?

And now? With Friends and Frasier now in permanent reruns, what does NBC have left on the shelf? The aforementioned Will & Grace? Yawn. The West Wing? Not unless someone quickly build a time machine and travels back to retrieve leftover scripts from Season Two. ER? That show should have been consigned the boneyard long before we even got around to eulogizing Friends or Frasier. Any one of the five dozen versions of Law & Order currently on the air? Only if this is TNT, and the alternative is another showing of Bad Boys. Scrubs? Hey, I think Scrubs is on the shortlist of the best shows on television, but with the program repeatedly pre-empted and kicked around the schedule and shortened so that Will & Grace can pack in five extra minutes of Sean Hayes swanning about, it's clear that view isn't exactly shared by the folks running things in Burbank.

Ah, but do not weep for the Peacock. NBC may have lost a few of its prime-time players, but the network believes it already has the perfect show to keep its Thursday night in its customary position near the top of the ratings -- the logical heir to an evening of programming that, over the past two decades, has brought us The Cos, Alex P. Keaton, Sam Malone, Kramer, Chandler Bing, and that Italian cab driver on Wings. And his name is Donald Trump.

No, I didn't just make that up so that NBC employees reading this would feel any worse about themselves. The network is, in fact, chancing its fortunes for the next season on the proposition that America continues its odd love-affair with the self-important braggart whose hairpiece contains material not normally found in the physical world.

But don't take my word for it -- ask Jeff Zucker. "Who knew that the replacement for Friends would be Donald Trump?" Zucker, grand pooh-bah of television at NBC told the New York Times. No word as to whether Zucker immediately fell to his knees sobbing and begging God's mercy for what he'd done to television.

Yes, for the first time since 1982, when the TV version of Fame set America's toes rhythmically tapping and its shoulders indifferently shrugging, NBC will begin a fall season without a two-hour block of comedy headlining its Thursday nights. Instead, NBC is handing over its Thursday-at-nine slot to Trump and his inexplicably successful reality series The Apprentice. NBC is jumping feet-first into this reality thing -- it plans on broadcasting The Apprentice for 34 rerun-free weeks, with The Apprentice 2 making way for The Apprentice 3 round about the new year. And while I'm trying not to be skeptical here, isn't that asking people to spend a lot of time around Donald Trump? I mean, Ivana and Marla both eventually got tired of listening to that blowhard talk about how great he was, and I imagine they were probably well-compensated for their time. We're supposed to endure the guy until next May for free?

The Apprentice isn't the only reality program NBC hopes we won't be tired of by October. It's also bringing back Average Joe -- or Plain Jane or Ugly People Want to Have Sex, Too or whatever guise the show is assuming these days. That program will eventually make way for The Contender, the latest reality TV production aimed at helping Mark Burnett light his cigars with crispy $100 bills instead of the crinkly $20s he's currently forced to use. In The Contender, fake boxer Sylvester Stallone will help other fake boxers train to become real boxers. If this series proves successful, look for Stallone to appear in other reality programs based on his movies in which he helps ordinary people become country music singers, arm wrestlers, international assassins, gun-wielding judges from a futuristic dystopia, and goalkeepers on a soccer time made up of plucky POWs.

NBC is not totally forsaking its comedic roots -- nor is it entirely ready to stop suckling at the Friends teat. Kicking off Thursday nights is Joey, a Friends spinoff showcasing, appropriately enough, Joey Tribbiani. NBC took the unusual step of showing the entire pilot to TV critics during last week's upfront -- only The Cosby Show and Golden Girls ever received similar treatment -- and the critics lauded Joey as "remarkably competent." Considering last year's high-profile rookie sitcom was "Coupling," remarkably competent qualifies as dramatic progress.

In fact, if Joey proves successful, perhaps NBC should abandon the idea of coming up with new ideas for comedies entirely and just create sitcoms featuring beloved supporting and secondary characters from its more popular programs. Wouldn't you tune in for Newman!, a show about the hilarious misadventures of Seinfeld's diabolical mailman, or Eddie!, a sitcom about Frasier's dad's dog out on his own and looking for love, or Meg!, a show about the bug-eyed teenager from American Dreams?

What do you mean, American Dreams isn't a comedy? Not to you, maybe.

Joining Joey as the only other new sitcom -- and one of only four on NBC's fall schedule -- is the animated Father of the Pride. This CGI-based series -- created by the people currently rolling around naked in piles of money screaming "Wheeeeeeeeeeee!" thanks to Shrek -- chronicles the exploits of a group of white lions who appear in the Siegfried & Roy show in Las Vegas. That'd be the same Siegfried & Roy show that no longer appears in Vegas, after Roy got mauled. By lions. Who are now the subjects of an animated series NBC envisions as fun for the entire family.

Not so difficult to understand why NBC is backing away from sitcoms in favor of Donald Trump, huh?

Centering an entire sitcom around the animated adventures of lions who nearly killed their keeper certainly takes the prize for NBC's most nonsensical idea, but the premise behind LAX runs a surprisingly close second. According to NBC, the show stars "television favorites" Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood in a "dramatic series centered in a world unto itself: a major international airport." I don't mean to burst NBC's bubble, but thanks to an ever-changing set of life circumstances, I spend a fair amount of my time these days at a major international airport—to be specific, the exact same major international airport where NBC's new drama is set. And I spend every second of my time at LAX wishing that I was just about anywhere else. Now, on top of the two hours I have to allot to get through security, NBC wants me to spend another hour of my week reliving the excitement of waiting for my plane to depart? Uh, thanks... I'm just going to be flipping over to SportsCenter now, but thanks just the same.

Oh, but not to worry, NBC assures me -- "when it comes to stories to tell [on LAX], well, the sky's the limit." Yeah, I can only imagine. Thrill, as you learn that the 7:50 to Oakland International has been delayed for no apparent reason! Gasp, as you realize you've just paid twice as much for a cheeseburger at the McDonald's kiosk than what you would have paid at the McDonald's just a few miles away from the airport! Shriek, as some down-on-his-luck hobo tries to sell you poems for $5 while you wait for your plane to start boarding!

Also, if there is anyone who looks remotely like Heather Locklear working at the real LAX, she is spending her time in a different terminal than the one I'm flying out of. In NBC's defense, however, I think Blair Underwood tried selling me a poem for $5 the other day.

LAX will air at 10 p.m. on Monday, right after Las Vegas -- the only one of NBC's six freshman series from last fall to return for a second season. (Besides the epic implosions of Coupling, Miss Match and The Lyon's Den, this tally also includes the slow, painful deaths of Happy Family and -- praises be! -- Whoopi. America need no longer avert its gaze from NBC on Tuesday nights.) Just keep that stellar track record in mind the next time you come across a quote from Lord High Programmer Zucker -- "We are so much stronger than anyone expected us to be, including ourselves," he tells the Times -- declaring what a bang-up job he's doing.

NBC will introduce two other shows in the fall. Hawaii will kick things off on Wednesdays, featuring your typical cops-fighting-crime storylines airlifted over to the Aloha State. If that sounds promising, keep in mind that the last time NBC tried to set a prime-time series in Hawaii, it featured Bo Derek mooning over Lee Horsley. The other show -- known as Medical Investigation solely to throw the attack lawyers for Anthony Zuiker and Jerry Bruckheimer off the track -- will air on Fridays at 10 and feature medical investigators... um... investigating... well, medicine, I guess. It stars the guy who played the deputy district attorney in Boomtown, since he was available after NBC knee-capped that series.

The network also unveiled plans for midseason replacement shows last week. "This is no longer just about the fall season -- it's all season," Zucker says in the Chicago Sun-Times. "All the excitement of Premiere Week brings a lot of attention and a lot of coverage, but the truth is, we are now committed to 52 weeks a year of original programming, all year long, and we are going to introduce [at midseason] what normally would have been some of the strongest components of a fall schedule."

And that sounds impressive and all, until you remember that most of the words coming out of Zucker's mouth could be used to fertilize a couple acres of farmland. So let's just assume NBC is stocking up on back-up programming in the unlikely event that America tunes into Father of the Pride and is disappointed to discover that the show doesn't feature weakly, animated maulings.

Revelations, which stars some component of the Bill Pullman-Bill Paxton-Jeff Daniels triumvirate, is already on the schedule to give The West Wing a breather. In this limited-run series, Pullman or Paxton or Daniels teams up with a nun to stave off the Apocalypse. Not that you should consider Dick Wolf's dominance of prime-time a sign of the forthcoming Armageddon, but a fourth Law & Order series -- Law & Order: Briscoe! -- is waiting in the wings until the last remaining Third Watch viewers lose interest in that series. Having not learned its lesson with Coupling, NBC tries to remake another well-regarded British comedy with an Americanized version of The Office. The final two replacement shows are Crazy for You and The Men's Room, two comedies about a mismatched, neurotic romantic couple and a trio of men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, respectively. You may recognize these shows from nearly every sitcom to hit the airwaves in the last 15 years.

And that's the problem for NBC. It's been so long since the network came up with a truly original programming idea that it's seemingly forgotten how. The network stumbled across Scrubs by accident and still doesn't know what to do with the show. NBC's last two hits, Will & Grace and The West Wing, debuted seven and six years ago, respectively, and it's been a long time since either was very interesting. And now, Friends and Frasier are no longer around to keep things afloat until the reinforcements arrive.

So where does that leave NBC? Spinning off characters from old hits and building reality shows around the same formats and hoping that nobody notices that each copy is making the original idea more fuzzy and faded. For years, NBC has managed to coast on the momentum of its past successes. But there's a funny thing about momentum -- eventually, it runs out and things come grinding to a halt. And as NBC is about to find out, when that happens, it's really hard to get things moving again. Even when you're getting a push from Donald Trump.


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