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Upfronts 2011: CBS Unveils New Shows, Erases Sheen and Couric

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The TV upfronts are a big fast car with no rear-view mirror. The shining vista of the future is extolled. The good times of the present are celebrated. And the flaming car wrecks of the past, littering the highway behind? Never happened! Moving forward!

CBS, to be fair, is doing well enough not to need a lot of egregious spin this year. Its ratings are strong, its schedule relatively stable. But it has also hit a few PR bumps the past few months: the meltdown of Charlie Sheen and the departure of Katie Couric. And at its presentation to advertisers at Carnegie Hall, CBS—like most networks would—mostly erased them from the picture.

In selling advertisers on its news division, for instance, they brought out Scott Pelley—who gave a quick, bland speech praising the news team—and told us how excited they were to have him anchor the news starting next month. And is Pelley taking over from anyone? Someone who was anchoring the CBS Evening News that very night? Someone whom CBS CEO Les Moonves stood up, way-back-like-five-years-ago, and called the future of the news division, a change from the “voice of God” anchors the evening news audience didn’t want anymore?

Apparently not. Katie Couric didn’t get so much as a mention, probably because so much as a “we wish Katie the best” would have reflected badly on Moonves, who introduced the presentation. So CBS showed a CBS Evening News logo with Pelley’s name already in it, and showed a long clip reel of CBS News highlights that omitted the current CBS anchor. Moving on!

CBS programming chief Nina Tassler did directly mention the Sheen saga, though after a reel of Two and a Half Men clips, heavy on Jon Cryer, from which Sheen was left out like a disgraced commissar from a Kremlin portrait gallery. “Deep cleansing breath,” Tassler said wryly, before alluding to the Sheen news, and introducing new Men star Ashton Kutcher, who came on stage dancing with Cryer and Angus Jones. In his most earnest mode, a bearded Kutcher said he had landed “the best job in show business” and promised “I will work my ass off.” If only Scott Pelley had done that!

Again—moving on. In a brisk presentation, Tassler showed clips from two new sitcoms and three dramas (see CBS’s YouTube channel for preview trailers), none of which broke ground radically, but then this is CBS. We saw:

Two Broke Girls. A street-smart waitress (Kat Denning) makes friends with a gone-broke trust-fund princess (Beth Behrs) when they get a job at the same diner. They’re the original Odd Couple! So, yes, it’s an old setup, updated with a dialogue like Dennings telling a rude patron that his snapping his fingers is “a sound that dries up my vagina.” Dennings does show some spark in the trailer, and a lot will depend on the chemistry between the two leads, so we’ll see.

How to Be a Gentleman. We have a trend! This is yet another sitcom based on the premise of the Emasculated American Man. A metrosexual magazine columnist gets machismo lessons from a trainer, played by Kevin Dillon, who seems essentially to be playing Johnny Drama. On the plus side, I like the cast, including Rhys Darby, Dave Foley and Mary Lynn Rajskub. On the minus side, this whole “man up, sissies” trend makes me want to don a linen suit and start ordering drinks with parasols in them.

Unforgettable. Poppy Montgomery plays a cop who forgets almost nothing—literally; she is one of a rare set of people who can remember every moment of their lives. (The subject of an amazing 60 Minutes report involving Marilu Henner in December.) The catch: the one day she can’t remember is the long-ago day here sister was murdered. So—a somewhat science-based CBS crime procedural with one long-term serial element. Worked for The Mentalist.

A Gifted Man. Patrick Wilson, an actor I admire, plays an insufferable but brilliant surgeon who gets life lessons from the ghost of his ex-wife, a premise I resist. The pilot has lots of shots in Brooklyn, though, so I suppose I should be biased in its favor.

Person of Interest. My chief drama of interest, because of the involvement of Michael Emerson and J. J. Abrams. Emerson plays a software billionaire who developed a program to analyze surveillance material gleaned by the government. With it, he can discern patterns and determine when a crime will occur before it happens; he recruits an ex-agent (Jim Caviezel) to be his, well, vigilante. (Not just my term! CBS used it repeatedly for the show, apparently approvingly.) On the minus side: totally creepy idea! On the plus side: maybe it’s supposed to be! Emerson has the same kind of eerie unbelievability he did as Ben Linus, but he’s a good enough actor that I believe it’s intentional. (See video, top of post.)

In any case, my first impressions don’t really matter, because, according to Tassler, Person of Interest was CBS’s highest-testing drama in 15 years. It was the second time she made such a claim—Two Broke Girls was CBS’s highest-testing sitcom in years.

Does that matter? Not really: a quick Google search (and my memory of over a decade of upfronts) turns up such past “highest-testing pilots” as Shark, Big Shots, Emeril, The Eleventh Hour, and Greetings from Tucson. (Here’s a pretty good feature from a few years ago on why audience testing is basically nonsense, though networks keep using it.)

Now The Cosby Show was also a high-testing pilot, so its just as likely these shows actually could be hits. If they’re not, though, will we hear about it at next year’s upfront? Never happened! Moving forward!