Network upfronts: Comedy edition

It’s upfront season, when each TV network presents a grand vision for their fall schedule. New shows are hyped up and old shows are given the boot, all with masturbatory excitement: “this is our year!” What used to be an insider, industry-only process is now – like everything – subject to the Internet’s buzz cycle.

As someone who consumes TV exclusively time-shifted, upfronts are a reminder that things like time slots are still the bread-and-butter issues of the industry. A strong lead-in or a well constructed block of programming can make or break a show. With that in mind, what new shows do the networks have in store, and which look worthwhile? Let’s take a look at new comedies.

NBC: Buzzworthy picks and the Year of the Woman

The hype for Up All Night looks to be well-deserved. Starring Christina Applegate, Will Arnett, and Maya Rudolph, and created by writer Emily Spivey (SNL, Parks & Recreation), the parenthood-workplace hybrid has the pedigree of a comedy hit. One red flag is NBC’s decision to have it start off Wednesday nights instead of slotting it into the Thursday night block, with similarly-minded sitcoms.

Paired with Up All Night is Free Agents, an adaptation of a British series of the same name. The brilliant Hank Azaria returns to TV (after the short-lived Huff) as Alex, a PR exec coming out of a messy divorce and simultaneously carrying on a complicated relationship with co-worker Helen (Kathryn Hahn). Anthony Head (of Buffy fame) reprises his role from the UK version as Alex’s sex-crazed boss. Supporting are Joe Lo Truglio, Natasha Leggero and Al Madrigal, all veterans of underground comedy. Free Agents is being written by John Enborn (Party Down, Veronica Mars) and original series creator Chris Neil.

Building on the success of female-driven comedies like 30 Rock and Parks & Rec, NBC returns to the well with several shows created, written, and starring women. First, the Peacock is getting back in on the multi-camera game: unfortunately, both Whitney (the vehicle for fast-rising comedian Whitney Cummings) and Are You There Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea (the adaptation of Chelsea Handler’s book of the same unwieldy name) look pretty staid, especially since both Cummings and Handler will need to tone down their comedic stylings considerably for network TV. Whitney will have the advantage of taking the coveted post-Office time slot.

Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair co-created and co-star in Best Friends Forever, a single camera relationship comedy, and while the clips didn’t catch me, the show could be a sleeper. BFF could play out like new favorite Happy Endings; coincidentally, Happy Endings‘ Adam Palley appears in the BFF pilot but will be recast, due to the former’s renewal. Rounding out the line-up is Bent, starring Amanda Peet, with a limited premise that is more suited to film: high-strung lawyer meets slacker contractor, love/hate relationship ensues. At least the cast includes Jeffrey Tambor. Vodka, BFF and Bent are being held until mid-season.

ABC: Men behaving badly (mostly)

Most of the premises for ABC’s new comedies are groan-inducing takes on modern masculinity. Tim Allen returns to TV in Last Man Standing, under siege from his wife and daughter. The succinctly-titled ensemble comedy Man Up features married men who only wear the pants in their online game worlds. Worst of all is the men-in-drag (!) sitcom Work It. ABC skips the subtlety in their naked appeals to the lucrative “manly man” demographic, so feel free to skip these.

The only shows with promise on ABC are Suburgatory and Apartment 23. Suburgatory works well-worn territory – the suburbs suck! – but Jeremy Sisto and Cheryl Hines are talented comedic actors. Apartment 23 (formerly Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23) was created by Nahnatchka Khan (American Dad) and Dave Heminson (How I Met Your Mother, Just Shoot Me) and stars Krysten Ritter (Breaking Bad, Veronica Mars) as a roommate from Hell. Similar to Episodes, the show features James Van Der Beek as a fictionalized version of himself, but also like Episodes, I’m not sure how many Dawson’s Creek and Varsity Blues jokes they can manage.

FOX: It’s okay, these will be canceled soon!

Fox offers four comedies (two live action, two animated) and only one, The New Girl, shows much promise. Zooey Deschanel stars, combining her usual “manic pixie dream girl” fare with a touch of Liz Lemon and a My Boys-esque plot. Fempire member Liz Meriwether created the show, which (like BFF) will need to re-cast an actor (Damon Wayans Jr.) because of Happy Endings‘ renewal.

I doubt that the multi-camera I Hate My Teenage Daughter, uber-timely Napoleon Dynamite cartoon, or animated Jonah Hill vehicle Allen Gregory will be around next fall. If I had to choose one to succeed, I’d put my money on Allen Gregory, with Hill writing and voicing a precocious seven year old.

CBS: Procedurals pay the bills

It always surprises me that CBS is a dominant network, since I never watch it (with the exception of How I Met Your Mother). But they clearly know what 18-49 year olds want (myself excluded). CBS gave Whitney Cummings her second pilot of the year, 2 Broke Girls, which she co-created with Michael Patrick King (who wrote both Sex and the City movies, shudder). I have higher hopes for How to Be a Gentleman, written and directed by David Hornsby (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) with comedy veterans Kevin Dillon (Entourage), Mary Lynn Rajskub (24, Mr. Show) and Dave Foley (Newsradio). (CBS was the last to present, so no show previews are available to hoi polloi as of yet.)

Check back tomorrow as I examine this fall’s network dramas.

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3 responses to “Network upfronts: Comedy edition

  1. The New Girl looks really good, and I think I noticed something that you may have noticed: are they using the Happy Endings set? I’m pretty sure that’s the guys’ apartment. It’s not uncommon to use preexisting sets for pilots, as they’re already built and it’s one less thing to worry about. The first episode of Hanging with Mr Cooper was set in the Growing Pains house, while the first episode of Living Single was sent in the Winslow house from Family Matters. Just wanted to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.

    • Just re-watched the trailer; looks like it. A prominent case of set re-use is the Scrubs hospital, which has shown up in United States of Tara and Childrens Hospital. Because honestly, what are you going to do with an abandoned hospital in the valley.

      I don’t know Hahn as well, but Natasha Leggero is very funny. The last UK workplace import pulled it off (for a while, anyway).

      Sisto and Hines are going to carry that show; I bet the POV changes. I still think Bent screams film, even moreso than Apartment 23. That’s a strange one; I’m curious how it develops (if it gets the chance).

  2. I should’ve watched all the clips first, so this could’ve been one post. In any case, Up All Night looks like it has promise. Will Arnett finally has a role where he doesn’t go over the top, as he’s prone to do. Free Agents is odd because it seems like it would be better as a movie. I’m surprised to see Kathryn Hahn in a leading role, as I LOVE her, but felt she’d always be a bridesmaid. Plus, the problem with adapting UK shows is the model – they have 6 episodes a season, so can we eke out enough to carry it for the 5-7 seasons we hope to mine from the idea?

    Suburgatory would’ve been a better fit at The CW, especially since the show is from the point of view of the teenaged girl. If the show followed the entire family, a la Modern Family, I think it would hit ABC’s demo better. As it stands, it looks more youth-skewing that they’re used to. Apartment 23 would be best as a movie. It wouldn’t even be a blockbuster. It would be a modest, 3rd place opening on a slow movie weekend. I just can’t see any reason to come back to it on a weekly basis. She’s a bitch. We get it.

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