TIME Television

Upfronts Watch: NBC, Doing Best By Doing Least Worst

A to Z - Season Pilot
A scene from A to Z, one of NBC's new fall shows announced at its upfront presentation. Trae Patton/NBC

After a decade of painful ratings, NBC is about to finish the current season number one. At its presentation for advertisers, it unveiled more of the not-too-ambitious fare than got it there.

The upfronts–TV networks’ schedule announcements for advertisers–are back, and If there’s one thing that stays the same at them each year, it’s talking about change. Fox is trying to ditch pilot season and program series year-round; broadcasters are experimenting with limited-run series and seasons of differing lengths; and every old legacy network is figuring out its place in the world of cable, streaming, and Aereo.

NBC too is trying something new this year: being in first place! For the first time since its Friends-era heyday, the network is ending the season tops in viewers among 18 to 49. (I know, measuring success among that age range is unfair–it gets less fair each year I get older!–but that’s what advertisers pay for, and this isn’t a charity.) The upfronts are all about puffing out your chest and looking big, so you’re going to boast, especially if your corporate logo is a peacock. “We’re number one, you’ve heard it a lot of times,” network head Robert Greenblatt told advertisers. “Get ready, you’re going to hear it a lot more.”

So that’s great for them. But unlike in the glory days of the ’80s, ’90s, and turn of the aughts, NBC isn’t doing great great. The network did have a respectable new drama hit in The Blacklist, the network has held its lead in late night, and The Voice still brings in the eyeballs, if fewer. But some of its success has to do with football, which is seasonal, and the Olympics, which doesn’t come around next year. And it’s ended up number one partly by default, simply doing less badly than the other broadcasters this season. Maybe fittingly, even the grandeur of the event seemed diminished; it was not, as in some years past, at one of Manhattan’s great theater palaces, but the charm-free Javits Center, located, as emcee Seth Meyers put it, “In the heart of Manhattan’s stabbing district.”

So number one or not, NBC is cleaning house (Parks and Recreation and Parenthood are gone after next year). It’s readying a lot of new shows for next season: 16 so far, depending how you count them. For the first time in ages, it has no comedy block at 8 p.m. Thursdays, maybe recognizing that comedy is not exactly the network’s strong suit anymore. (Meyers joked that he was behind on his TV watching, “So nobody tell me whether Sean Saved the World.”)

Another familiar development here: most of the stuff that sounds really compelling (at least potentially) won’t come around until midseason–for instance, the Tina Fey and Robert Carlock comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, starring Ellie Kemper. (The sitcom, about a woman rescued from a cult after years separated from civilization, was easily the best and most intriguing preview NBC showed this morning. You’ll have to keep waiting for it!) What NBC does have scheduled for fall looks–mind you, this is judging only by the promotional trailers–looks aggressively meh. Among them:

A to Z: Or How I Met How I Met Your Mother‘s Mother, a romantic comedy starring HIMYM’s Cristin Milioti and Mad Men‘s Ben Feldman (both nipples intact!) as the hopeless romantic who falls in love with her at first sight.

Marry Me: Another romantic comedy, this time with Ken Marino and Casey Wilson as a couple trying to get their relationship on track after a botched engagement proposal. Like the stars, not sure if the premise sustains a series, but NBC really believes you want to see a romantic comedy next fall!

Bad Judge: Kate Walsh follows up her naughty-widow Fargo role with a naughty-judge role in a comedy about hard-drinking jurisprudence.

State of Affairs: Katherine Heigl and Alfre Woodard take national security very, very seriously.

The Mysteries of Laura: The unconvincing trailer for this cop show starring Debra Messing features Tom Jones’ “She’s a Lady,” which also pretty much seems to be the premise of the show. She’s a woman with kids and a personal life but also a homicide cop–who’d have thought it!

Constantine: Based on a comic-book franchise, this companion to the supernatural Grimm on Friday nights stars Matt Ryan as a master of the occult fighting threats from Hell.

We’ll have to see what the finished products look like, but on the face of it these shows seem to be solidly within NBC’s current brand, namely, “Not too groundbreaking, but eh, it looks professional.” Which, to be fair, has done better for NBC–with The Blacklist and various shows with “Chicago” in the title–than radical departures like Community, which just radically departed. NBC’s ambitions may simply be the least-worst broadcast network, but these days, that strategy can just get you to number one.

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