A Critical Look Back As Upfront Week Approaches

by , May 4, 2012, 7:43 AM
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Programming executives at the broadcast networks next week will be locked away in conference and screening rooms, making all-important decisions about their 2012-13 schedules. The following week, they will each try their best to convince advertisers and journalists they have a roster of fresh and exciting new shows that will play well with their veteran series. What better time to remind them what they did right and wrong last year? As we hear what they have to say the week of May 14, it could be helpful to remember the many misfires noted below.

Let’s start with CBS, arguably the network with the strongest identity and the one most in sync with its audience -- even if some of its veteran franchises are showing their age. Last year CBS introduced “2 Broke Girls,” an often delightful comedy filled with raunchy sexual references that turned out to be the most successful new comedy of the 2011-12 season. But the network also gave us one of the worst new comedies in the already forgotten “How to Be a Gentleman” and two decidedly ill-conceived dramas in “Unforgettable” and “A Gifted Man.” The high-tech crime drama “Person of Interest” has found an audience, but it hardly lives up to CBS’s rich tradition of successful procedural crime shows, which includes the “CSI” and “NCIS” series. Let’s hope the network does better this time around.

I’d like to see CBS deliver another sophisticated adult drama (legal, medical, procedural or otherwise) that might stand alongside “The Good Wife,” still the best series on broadcast television. Here’s a late suggestion: How about a spin-off from “Wife” that centers on Nancy Crozier, the irresistibly ruthless young attorney played by recurring guest star Mamie Gummer? Something about her reminds me of Brenda Leigh Johnson, the deputy police chief winningly portrayed by Kyra Sedgwick on “The Closer” and a character that has captivated millions for many years.

ABC last May introduced the most wide-ranging and genre-diverse selection of new series. They included three definitive successes: the dark and twisty serial “Revenge,” the clever fantasy “Once Upon a Time,” and “Last Man Standing,” a somewhat traditional family sitcom that brought Tim Allen back to prime-time television. The rest -- “Pan Am,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Work It,” “Man Up!,” “Suburgatory,” “GCB,” “The River,” “Scandal,” “Missing” and “Don’t Trust the B in Apt. 23” -- were either half baked or half dead on arrival, depending on one’s point of view. I am confident that ABC this season will cobble together a similarly intriguing group of new shows, but I hope it does a better job at developing each of them into a series that lives up to the promise of its premise.

NBC was in the worst position last May. Twelve months later nothing much has changed. The musical drama “Smash” and the supernatural thriller “Grimm” are very modest performers (to call either one a success seems like too much praise for what they turned out to be), but everything else the network unveiled last May has flopped. The mind-boggling mess includes the cheesy period drama “The Playboy Club”; the tepid-to-terrible comedies “Whitney,” “Up All Night,” “Free Agents,” “Best Friends Forever” and “Are You There, Chelsea?”; the uninteresting reality show “Fashion Star”; the hopelessly muddled procedural crime drama “Awake”; and “Prime Suspect,” an unfortunate remake of an outstanding British franchise. It certainly hasn’t helped that so many of NBC’s veteran series, especially its Thursday night comedies, have totally overstayed their welcome. The one NBC failure that really hurt was “Bent,” a smart, sexy, ambitious rom-com that deserved better than it got. NBC’s publicity division does a great job of promoting its shows. Here’s hoping the quality of that programming rises to meet its own outstanding support.

Fox last May introduced the two biggest new series of 2011-12: The sci-fi adventure “Terra Nova” and the singing competition “The X Factor.”  The underwhelming “Terra Nova” proved to be the biggest dud (too many cooks among its multitude of powerhouse executive producers, I think), and the overproduced “X Factor” the biggest disappointment (too much self-confidence from Simon Cowell, perhaps). Fox also gave us “I Hate My Teenage Daughter,” a sitcom so execrable that it rivaled ABC’s “Work It” and a number of NBC’s super-flops as the season’s worst. The animated “Allen Gregory” also fizzled. More recent failures have included “Bones” spin-off “The Finder” (which should have worked), and “Alcatraz” (truly a what-the-hell-were-they-thinking concept). Fox can take some pride in the popular comedy “New Girl,” even if it never quite lived up to the promise of its pilot, the best last fall of the five networks’ largely botched batch.

And speaking of failed opportunities, The CW this season had huge problems with all of its new series. The fact that the network yesterday renewed the almost-invisible “90210” proved just how bad the current season turned out to be. Expectations were high for the mystery drama “Ringer,” which proved to be a perfectly pointless exercise in dark drudgery. The romantic drama “Hart of Dixie” and the supernatural chiller “The Secret Circle” weren’t much better. The less said about unscripted efforts “H8R” and “Remodeled,” the better. If those were the shows the network last year picked as the most promising, one shudders to think what it rejected.

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