Tag Archives: NBC

How two midseason replacements portray female friendship

Ah, midseason. That not-quite-magical time in a TV network’s year when shows passed over in the fall get jammed and squeezed into the schedule like so many square pegs. As is often the case, The Simpsons — itself a midseason replacement due to production issues — said it best:

Announcer: The start of television’s second most exciting season – midseason – is just two hundred exciting seconds away!
Lisa: Isn’t midseason just a dumping ground for second-rate shows that weren’t good enough for the fall schedule?
Homer: You’re thinking of all the other years.

This month, NBC and ABC will debut two sitcoms that continue TV’s Year of the Woman: Best Friends Forever and the regrettably redacted Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23. While the two shows have different comedic voices, they also have drastically different views on the concept of female friendship.

Best Friends Forever is the brainchild of real-life BFF’s Lennon Parham
and Jessica St. Clair, who along with writing the show, play fictional versions of themselves. The show’s inciting incident occurs as Jessica unexpectedly receives divorce papers. Distraught and unable to deal, she decides to move back to New York to live with her old roommate, Lennon. Complicating matters is Lennon’s live-in boyfriend, Joe (Luka Jones), who while generally supportive, isn’t looking forward to having a squatter in their apartment.

Jessica, meanwhile, is immature and miserable to be around in a way usually reserved for guys in sitcoms (does that count as breaking a gender barrier?). For most of the episode, Jessica is a self-centered pain in the ass, a grenade thrown into Lennon and Joe’s relationship – which seemed to be working pretty well. Plans are broken, tears are shed, but fear not – everyone ends up in a group hug. The needy co-dependence on display is like a more unhealthy version of the threesome on Up All Night.

While the characters in Best Friends Forever start that way, the title of Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 portends differently. Wide-eyed and right off the bus, June (Dreama Walker) can’t wait to start her new job and live in her company-owned apartment with a view. Unfortunately, her firm implodes on her first day, leaving her both jobless and homeless. Her roommate search yields Chloe (Krysten Ritter), who is literally too good to be true. The titular bitch, Chloe cons new New Yorkers into first, last and deposit before her antics (rudeness, public nudity, fourways in the living room, theft, etc.) drive them from the apartment.

June’s Indiana farm girl personality belies the fact that she’s an equally smooth operator. When she figures out Chloe’s MO, she turns the table on her, earning her respect and a détente. But it’s only after Chloe exposes June’s fiance as a cheater does a friendship actually take root.

An earlier conversation between Chloe and best friend James Van Der Beek (hysterically playing himself) revealed some humanity beneath the horror, even if the show plays the moment ironically:

James: Do you think maybe this is why you don’t have any female friends?
Chloe: Whatever, I don’t want any, girls are too mean.

By the end of the pilot, June is a barista (with a slightly-sociopathic roommate and without a fiance), Chloe has a female friend, and they both seem fine. Created by American Dad writer Nahnatchka Khan, Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 is not only funnier and sharper than Best Friends Forever, but it also presents a healthier, more relatable portrait of friendship. Trust me.

Is "Awake" the drama NBC has been searching for?

It’s been a while since I was legitimately excited about an NBC drama – five years, to be exact (2007, the year of Journeyman and The Black Donnelleys). As can be expected from the fourth place network, the post-ER years have found NBC scrambling with half-baked concepts and lame rip-offs; even when they had a possible hit, they ended up fumbling the ball (Friday Night Lights, Southland). So imagine my surprise when NBC revealed an intriguing drama during upfronts last May. Even more surprising is that it’s a network crime drama, a genre I usually eschew.

Yes, Awake is a(nother) crime procedural, but with a captivating high-concept that doesn’t rely on gimmicky quirks. Instead, it borrows from dream-reality mindfuck Inception. Before the show starts, Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) is in a terrible car accident with his wife and son, and his life becomes a series of waking dreams: in one, his wife survives, and in the other, his son does. Despite talking with two department-mandated psychologists, he can’t tell which outcome is reality. To help, Michael uses a different color wristband to signify which of his family members is alive. To help the audience, Awake imbues each with a separate color tone, a la Traffic. As in Brotherhood, Isaacs is great as a distant yet precise operator who struggles with personal connections.

The duality ripples through Michael’s professional life, as well. In one reality, he’s still paired with his longtime partner (Steve Harris of The Practice); in the other, he’s assigned a partner/babysitter in Wilmer Valderrama‘s Efrem Vega. But the realities are not separate entities – they’re starting to bleed over. Efrem is just a beat cop in the first reality, and clues and signifiers from one case appear in the other.

In the pilot, it takes a few scenes for the viewer to keep things straight: who’s alive, which case is this, where did this clue come from, and so on. But the confusion actually helps the viewer identify with Michael’s plight, as he’s having difficultly doing the same. Here’s hoping that audiences are willing to labor through the complexity. As NBC is learning, the easy path is rarely the best.

Awake premieres on Thursday, March 1 at 10PM, but NBC is streaming the entire pilot on Youtube.

What's next for "Community?"

If Seinfeld was the show about nothing, Community is the show about sitcoms. Since its first episode, it has been a meta commentary on the very concept of “meta.” It deconstructs the tropes that decades of television have established, and it does it with a fantastic ensemble cast and some of the funniest writing on TV. Community challenges the audience’s expectations about what a sitcom is and can be.

Unfortunately, audiences don’t want to be challenged, at least not by sitcoms (premium cable dramas are a different story). Community is in rarefied air; the show closest to its intellectual exercise is 30 Rock. Before that, there was Arrested Development, and we all know how that turned out.

With this in mind, the news of Community’s absence from NBC’s midseason schedule should not surprise anyone. Even as the show has gotten better, moving further down the rabbit hole and certifying show creator Dan Harmon as an evil genius, ratings have declined. It averaged 5 million viewers in the first season, down to 4.48 million the next, and finally 3.68 million this season. Those are extremely low numbers, even for NBC, the fourth place network. Ironically, NBC’s across-the-board struggles may be keeping the show alive.

This year, the Thursday night comedy block has consisted of The Office, Parks and Recreation, Community, and the incongruous throwback Whitney. With 30 Rock’s midseason return and Up All Night’s promotion from Wednesday to Thursday, NBC was left with six shows for four slots. The network continues to stand by its heavily promoted Whitney, shifting it to Wednesday with the similarly-schlocky Are You There, Chelsea? leaving Community as the obvious choice for the bench.

NBC could have avoided this, if they had stuck with an old idea instead of scrambling for something new. At midseason last year, NBC tried a three-hour comedy bloc, featuring Community, Perfect Couples, The Office, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and Outsourced. The experiment failed because Perfect Couples and Outsourced were weak offerings, but Up All Night and (the already cancelled) Free Agents would have been perfect fits for a three-hour powerhouse of comedy. Instead, we’re left with this. C’est la TV.

As of now, Community hasn’t been cancelled, and production hasn’t stopped (as it has for fellow benchwarmer Prime Suspect). So is there any hope? Some, thanks to the financial windfall that is syndication. Traditionally, shows needed to cross the 100 episode barrier before being sold to syndicators; these days, 88 episodes will do the trick. Community is about a season and a half away from making Sony Pictures Television a lot of cash, giving the production company an incentive to lower its price for NBC (possibly by cutting production and cast costs).

Could NBC decide to ax Community, only to see it show up on Netflix or Hulu? Community is an established property, but clearly without the audience share that its fervent fan base would suggest. Netflix seems like a better fit, if only because of their willingness to spend and their desire to bring Reno 911 back from the dead. To this point, however, streaming revivals have all been hypothetical, and don’t count on Community to break that trend.

Six seasons and a movie seems unlikely at this point, but fans should find solace in the fact that Community made it this far. Challenging audiences isn’t easy, yet Harmon and company continue to raise the stakes, week after week. And if cancellation is imminent, just imagine how meta things will get. If the final season of Arrested Development is any indication, impending doom is a great motivator for television excellence.

Update: With this weekend’s news that Netflix will bring back Arrested Development, the chances of Community joining the video giant certainly uptick – contingent on how well the experiment does.

Originally posted at The Couch Sessions.

TV's new "girls" undermine the Year of the Woman

After a few years of think pieces about the women of comedy (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, et al) and that eternal question, “can women be funny?,” we got Bridesmaids. To the industry, $283 million at the box office proved what we already knew: of course, women are funny, and audiences want to see them.

Capitalizing on this development, this season was supposed to be The Year of the Woman, where shows created by and starring women would returned to the forefront of TV comedy. Unfortunately, this fall’s first offerings rely too heavily on tired stereotypes and tropes, missing their chance to build interesting, relatable female characters.

2 Broke Girls, from Sex and the City mastermind Michael Patrick King and it-girl Whitney Cummings (more on her later), stars Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs as the titular broke girls, Max and Caroline, a pair of mismatched waitresses at a dingy Brooklyn diner. The premise is both “odd couple” and “fish out of water:” Max is street smart and razor tongued while Caroline is a naive “Manhattan socialite diva,” and you can tell by her pearl necklace and hooker heels.

The rest of the diner is rife with lazy stereotypes that range from stupid to offensive. There’s Earl, the jive-talking cashier with puns and one-liners for every occasion (“Don’t talk to him unless you want to feel whiter than you already are,” Max warns Caroline). The diner is owned and operated by Han Lee, who swaps his L’s and R’s and changes his name to Bryce Lee — see what they did there? The gang is rounded out by Oleg the horny Russian line cook.

While a few jokes aim for twisted (“Are you sure we can’t get the meth addict back? She was really good at cleaning.”) most go for the easy gross-out (a clam chowder / semen joke, twice) or Amelia Bedelia-type idiocy (Caroline doesn’t know what “marry the ketchups” means). When Caroline accidentally tazes Max on the train, the ensuing rape joke feels misguided.

Apart from obvious, stereotypical characters and lazy humor, the worst part of the show is how Max is characterized. She works two jobs with low pay and no perks and is clearly on her own. Yet when she gets home, she’s putty in the hands of her scummy, slacker boyfriend, characterized only by his 8-pack abs. Not only does The Boyfriend make a move on Caroline, but he’s also screwing around. After dumping him, Max confesses that his muscles “make smart girls stupid.” No, bad TV writers do.

In the same vein, Fox adds New Girl, keeping things simple and sticking with the working title. From “Fempire” member Liz Meriweather, New Girl is a starring vehicle for indie fave Zooey Deschenal in the role she’s most comfortable in, that of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

For the uninitiated, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Deschanel’s Jess is Quirky in a entirely predictable way – she sings her own theme music, wears a bathing suit in the shower, and generally carries herself with the gravitas of a cartoon character. But in classic fashion, take off her glasses and put her in a black dress, and it turns out this girl is a knock out!

The show’s inciting incident is a striptease gone wrong, as Jess catches her boyfriend in flagrante. Tired of living with her friend Cece because she’s a model (which makes no sense, by the way), she moves in with three men, mistakenly thinking their ad was written by an apartment full of women.

Nick (Jake Johnson) is the most redeemable of the three, a recently-dumped bartender with a dour look on life. Schmidt (Max Greenfield) is a self-obsessed, misogynistic frat boy, whose bro-tastic antics are penalized by his roommates with a Douchebag Jar. Coach (Damon Wayans Jr., who will be replaced by Lamorne Morris due to his spot on Happy Endings) is a personal trainer who has no idea how to talk to women, or worse, without yelling.

In the pilot, the three guys do their best Pygmalion, trying to get Jess out of her post-breakup stupor and back in the dating game. The results are predictable; even when she gets a date, she overtexts her way to loneliness. When Nick finds this out, he chooses Jess over a chance to reignite a relationship with his ex; his bros come along too. The producers seem intent on getting their money’s worth for the licensing on “Time of My Life,” as the cast all sing the Dirty Dancing theme in a crowded restaurant. One episode in, and Jess is already teaching these guys to “embrace life and its infinite mysteries.” Let the adventures begin.

Predictably, both shows are already hits. 2 Broke Girls notched 19.2 million total viewers; 10.1 million watched New Girl. Numbers like that will certainly lead to more of the same. Already, there’s Whitney Cummings’ abominable Whitney, which rode an Office lead-in to 6.71 million viewers, more than both Parks and Rec and Community. At mid-season, NBC will add Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea to the list. Unfortunately, while created by and starring women, these shows don’t share much with 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. It may be the Year of the Woman, but the networks are determined to give audiences the same old girls.

Thoughts on "Up All Night" and "Free Agents," NBC's new comedy bloc

When NBC rolled out its upfront plan, the network revealed a slew of new comedies. Among regrettable multi-camera schlock (Whitney, Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea) and boring mid-season fodder (Bent, BFFs) were two sitcoms that would fit right in with NBC’s revitalized Thursday night bloc.

Up All Night stars Christina Applegate and Will Arnett as new parents Reagan and Chris Brinkley, beleaguered by parenthood and the tenuous work-life balance. Created by Emily Spivey (SNL, Parks and Recreation), the show has the documentary feel popularized by The Office and Parks and Rec, although Up All Night forgoes the talking head testimonials of those shows. Tight shots and quick cuts give the show a manic quality: the kind of over-tired energy one gets from being up all night. As Chris struggles with his new life as a stay-at-home dad, Reagan returns to work for Ava (Maya Rudolph). Ava stars in an eponymous talk show that is equal parts Oprah and Tara; Reagan is the Liz Lemon to her Jenna Maroney. While 30 Rock has beaten that dynamic into the ground, it fares better here: Ava is over-the-top and self-obsessed, but with some vulnerability and sweetness.

This is Christina Applegate’s third sitcom foray since Married… with Children, after the short-lived Jesse and Samantha Who. With her comedic timing (and age-defying good looks), it’s just been a matter before she finds a well-suited vehicle; this might be it. The same can be said about Will Arnett, minus the age-defying good looks. One of the funniest men on television, Will Arnett gets a role that is more grounded than his on Arrested Development, Running Wilde, and 30 Rock. As always, his deadpan delivery slays: “Your beats are so tight after three Jager Bombs.” As a couple, their chemistry is real, and the pilot ranges from twisted (Matt Lauer breaking the fourth wall) to sweet and vulgar (neither can get over how “fucking beautiful” baby Amy is).

Free Agents is an adaptation of a British workplace comedy (sound familiar?). Helmed by original series creator Chris Neil and John Enbom (Veronica Mars, Party Down), the dialogue is as sharp and quick-witted as anything NBC has done – while also decidedly darker. Alex (Hank Azaria) is recently divorced and the tiniest thought about his children sets off the waterworks. Helen (Kathryn Hahn) is dealing with the death of her fiancee, and despite constant reminders (a staggering 22 portrait-style photos in her apartment) and an over reliance on wine and frozen meals, she’s handling things a bit better than Alex. In true sitcom style, the two have a drunken one-night stand, yet are determined to keep things professional at the PR firm they both work at.

The “will they, won’t they” formula has been done before, but hopefully it is a plot device and not the entire premise. There is a wealth of situational and character humor to mine here, with a fantastic ensemble of comedic talent. Free Agents actually reminds me of Newsradio in that way, with the sexual tension between the leads, an off-beat secretary (Natasha Leggero), off-putting co-workers (Al Madrigal, Joe Lo Truglio), and a zany boss (Anthony Stewart Head, reprising his role from the UK series). Newsradio as a single-camera black comedy? Sign me up. The reference to Party Down (“I have no plans to DJ at an Armenian man’s acquittal party”) is icing on the cake.

NBC’s strongest new offerings, Up All Night and Free Agents officially premiere next week (the network is calling the airing of these pilots a “preview”). While these might be the network’s best efforts at eventually replacing the aging flagships The Office and 30 Rock, they’ll have to build an audience on Wednesdays first, against Survivor and ABC’s surprisingly strong comedy bloc (including powerhouse Modern Family). Hopefully, NBC gives them the support they’ll need to do that.