Network upfronts in the Silver Era of television

network-logos

Apart from a few notable exceptions, the Golden Era of Television has been a cable phenomenon. Network TV has only had a handful of dramas (Buffy, 24, Lost, Friday Night Lights) that have been able to compete with cable. The score is more even when it comes to comedy (30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, peak Office, Community… so basically NBC for a few years, plus Modern Family), but network TV has mostly been playing a rigged game with an increasingly worse hand.

If it’s not already over, the Golden Era will finally conclude when AMC finally runs out of ways to prolong Mad Men. The Silver Era is and will be marked by loads of Very-Good-Not-Great shows across network, cable, and Internet channels. In that way, there’s almost a leveling of the playing field: The Good Wife is better than cable prestige simulacra (look how brilliantly it has skewered something like Low Winter Sun with its in-universe Darkness At Noon). So maybe the networks will be fine, after all.

Personally, I’m watching more network dramas than I have in years: not only Good Wife, but also the deliciously dark Hannibal and the harmlessly fun Grimm. The networks still run the sitcom game (Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, Parks), even as cable catches up (Archer, Broad City). So how’s 2014-15 looking? Here’s what the networks have, good, bad, and other (shows without trailers).


ABC: How Not To Name Shows

ABC has spent the last few years mismanaging its comedies (Happy Endings, Suburgatory) and becoming more and more reliant on Shonda Rhimes. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a glorified SyFy show for much of the season (although it apparently finished strong), and there’s nothing on the fall schedule that inspires confidence; the only hope for ABC is in a handful of midseason options.

The Good:

Fresh Off The Boat: It has a horrible title but a good pedigree, with Nahnatchka Khan (American Dad, Don’t Trust The B) writing and Lynn Shelton (Your Sister’s Sister, New Girl) directing the pilot. Based on Eddie Huang’s memoir, its Asian immigrant family in the suburbs and ’90s setting might pair nicely with something like The Goldbergs (or Suburgatory, RIP).

Galavant: Essentially Princess Bride, the musical. It’s a formula that Disney built its empire with, so why not try live action? ABC has had some success with the fantasy genre (Once Upon A Time), and musical fans only have a handful of Glee episodes left.

American Crime: It has Oscar winner and TV veteran John Ridley (12 Years A Slave) running things, an indie film cast (Timothy Hutton, Felicity Huffman, Benito Martinez), and a murder mystery premise. It looks promising, but with several red flags: expect heavy-handed treatment of race and drugs, and difficulty with extending the show beyond one murder mystery.

The Bad:

  • Selfie: Pygmalion for the social media age. It’s fucking called Selfie.
  • Black-ish: There’s a concept here (affluent black family struggles with racialized culture) but it’s being done about as poorly as possible. It’s fucking called Black-ish.
  • Manhattan Love Story: I don’t want to spend time with these characters, let alone hear their stupid thoughts.
  • Cristela: George Lopez ran for 6 seasons, I suppose.
  • Secrets and Lies: the same concerns as American Crime. How many of these murder investigation shows do we have to import (this one’s from Australia) before we realize they don’t work?
  • The Whispers: a sci-fi melodrama about aliens using kids to takeover.
  • Forever: House meets Groundhog Day with a touch of Pushing Daisies and none of the nuance.
  • How To Get Away With Murder: After medicine and politics, Shonda Rhimes hits Bingo with “legal drama.” Viola Davis deserves better.

The Other:

Agent Carter: I’d watch a competent noir homage, but can ABC support two Marvel also-rans?


NBC: RIP Must See TV

Thanks to the Olympics, The Blacklist and The Voice, NBC became a #1 network again. Comedy is now hour-long blocks on Tuesday and Thursday, sandwiched by more popular shows. Still wondering how About A Boy survived the annual comedy bloodbath.

The Good:

Marry Me: the trailer is 100% premise, but the combination of David Caspe (Happy Endings), Ken Marino and Casey Wilson is a winner, especially with The Voice lead-in.

A to Z: 500 Days of Summer meets How I Met Your Mother. A high concept comedy (series starts with meet-cute and ends with break-up) with two great leads in Ben Feldman (Mad Men) and Cristin Milioti (HIMYM), which means it’ll probably be dead by the time Blacklist comes back.

Bad Judge: Bad title and hacky Skinemax jokes aside, Kate Walsh is good as the titular character, who gets her life back together thanks to the love of a good man and a Magical Negro child. A Ferrell & McKay project.

Constantine: NBC is doing great with Hannibal and Grimm; this one has a plot like the latter and a look like the former.

The Bad:

  • State of Affairs: Katherine Heigl gets into the minds of terrorists after terrorizing audiences for years.
  • Zero Dark Thirty meets Blacklist.
  • Mysteries of Laura: She’s a detective… and a mom!

The Other:

  • Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Tina Fey’s post-30 Rock project with Ellie Kemper as a fish out of water in the Big City.
  • Mission Control: The other Ferrell / McKay project, a 60s NASA workplace comedy with Krysten Ritter and — in the best casting of pilot season — Lem and Phil from Better Off Ted!
  • One Big Happy: Elisha Cuthbert in another New Normal (aka Modern Family rip-off).
  • Allegiance: The Americans in the present day. George Nolfi has done some real crap.
  • Odyssey: being described as Traffic for TV; didn’t that already fail once?
  • Shades of Blue: Jennifer Lopez’s vanity / procedural project.

FOX: RIP Animation Domination

Between running only two hours of programming a night and adding two hours of a new reality show, there isn’t much new here (yet). Sunday night adds live action for the first time in years, but they picked the right shows, at least. Kudos for figuring out that serialized mysteries benefit from short runs.

The Good:

Last Man on Earth: Will Forte reunites with Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Clone High!) in a super-high concept show that is probably too smart and weird for TV. How do you make a series out of a Twilight Zone episode?

Mulaney: John Mulaney is Seinfeld in a show NBC passed on. A great cast, including Martin Short, Elliott Gould and DC ex-pat Seaton Smith. By the way, who knew Nasim Pedrad had been on SNL for 5 years!?

Gotham: Fox gets into the Smallville game, and while the creative team is uninspiring, the adventures of Lil Wayne should be fun enough. Plus, Donal Logue!

Backstrom: Rainn Wilson is Detective House in a show CBS passed on. From the creator of Bones, so you know what to expect, but the casting is good.

Empire: A black family drama with tons of palace intrigue. Some star power from Terrence Howard and Taraji Henson, but expect Lee Butler to be heavy-handed.

Wayward Pines: a shameless Twin Peaks homage (read: “rip-off”) and a limited “event series.” Promising, but it’s M. Night so the Shocking Twist Ending will almost certainly feel cheap and unearned.

Gracepoint: I haven’t even had a chance to watch Broadchurch yet!

The Bad:

Red Band Society: The Breakfast Club in a hospital with a sassy black nurse. Are you inspired yet?
Hieroglyph: Actual palace intrigue, in Ancient Egypt. Don’t get attached.

The Other:

  • Weird Loners: Sitcom retreads Becki Newton and Zach Knighton from a guy who has been working since Family Ties.
  • Bordertown: Family Guy does American-Mexican cultural exchange. Can’t be worse than Dads… right?

CBS: CSI: NCIS: WTF

With How I Met Your Mother over and How I Met Your Dad DOA, The Good Wife is the only quality show on the schedule (which seems to be an in-joke over there).

The Good (by CBS standards):

Scorpion: The A-Team for nerds. It may be a show about geniuses, but the brand of fun is decidedly dumb.

Madam Secretary: The latest attempt at turning Hillary Clinton into a TV Show. The cast is solid but there’s no way this is done with the right touch. Let’s compare it to legal dramas: Best case is Good Wife, worst case is Judging Amy — guess which one the creator developed?

The Bad:

Stalker: Maggie Q and Dylan McDermott as Odd Couple cops on the stalker beat. This passes for psychological drama on CBS.
The McCarthys: Boston Irish family has gay son, hilarity ensues.

The Other:

A pair of Odd Couple shows that sound uninspired despite the talent involved: Vince Gilligan’s Battle Creek does cops, Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon do roommates on an actual Odd Couple remake.


Bonus round!

Over in basic cable, TNT continues to churn out Mom Dramas, while TBS is turning The Island of Misfit Toys (Cougar Town, American Dad, Ground Floor) into a decent comedy block. They’ve each got one promising show, while USA’s Benched has an impressive creative team and the very funny Eliza Coupe (it has a series order but no trailer, strangely).

Angie Tribeca: a surreal cop parody a la Naked Gun, with the very good Rashida Jones and executive producers Steve and Nancy Carell. Literally nothing like it on TV and a weird fit on TBS.

Public Morals: Ed Burns writes/directs/stars as the Cowboy Cop/Dirty Cop in New York, 1967. The world could be a lot of fun, but it has the same problem as Mob City: how “gritty” can you get on TNT?


When I started, I didn’t realize it had been three years since I last attempted this, and not much has changed: a handful of promising sitcoms that will inevitably struggle, plus a couple of dramas that just might be worth watching. See you in the Fall.

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