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Upfronts Watch: CBS: Eye on the Prize

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Lorey Sebastian/CBS

The stars of Vegas include Michael Chiklis (left), Dennis Quaid (second from right) and Jason O'Mara (right).

“You know what we do,” said CBS scheduling executive Kelly Kahl at a Wednesday-morning announcement of the network’s fall schedule. “We do pretty much the same things every year.” To be fair to Kahl, he was talking about scheduling strategy—how it positions and promotes its returning shows to build their ratings, which paid off for shows like The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother in recent years.

But the statement could apply to CBS’s programming decisions in general. The network does what it does. It tinkers, it shifts, it adds another couple new crime dramas. It doesn’t make a lot of waves. And why should it? There may not be room for three or four big, broad mainstream networks with huge mass audiences anymore, but there’s room for at least one, and CBS is glad to be it.

Being a legacy industry is not always so bad, which may be why the network still attracts stars and production talent. It may not be cool and free-wheeling like cable, but the network has plenty of established lead-ins to launch new hits from, and if your show succeeds on CBS, the network should take care of you for a good long time. Getting a show on CBS is a bit like taking a job with an old-line Fortune 500 company instead of a startup; a little stodgy, maybe, but with a nice pension and good benefits, and hey, where are you going to find that anymore?

All of which is to say: I’m going to write a new post here, because CBS announced a few new shows—three dramas and a sitcom for the fall—but big picture, you could probably ready any of my CBS upfront posts from the last year. Yes, Fox has threatened it for #1 network bragging rights. (Defensively, CBS execs kept referring to the fact that they program 22 hours of primetime, not 15.) Yes, they canceled a few shows (notably CSI: Miami) and moved a couple (Two and a Half Men, welcome to Thursdays at 8:30!).

But a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is still a sigh and CBS, for one more year anyway, is still CBS. Here are the new shows that will help it be that next season:

ELEMENTARY: Not long after British TV reimagined Sherlock Holmes as an eccentric, twitchy, contemporary detective (Benedict Cumberbatch), CBS is reimagining him as an eccentric twitchy, contemporary detective (Johnny Lee Miller)–transplanted to New York City, but still British and with Lucy Liu as his Watson. Comparisons may be inevitable, but really, how many TV sleuths are not modern updates of Holmes? The show won’t need to be better than PBS, just better than your alternatives in its timeslot. The trailer doesn’t exactly reinvent the crime show, but it has promising flashes of wit. (“How did you know he was a surgeon?” “Google. Not everything’s deducible.”)

MADE IN JERSEY: Because of the title, you know that this law drama is about a stoic, blue-blood attorney with a conservative hairstyle, a chilly demeanor and a reserved, inexpressive family. Just kidding! Brassy, big-haired Italian American lawyer Martina Garretti (Brit Janet Montogmery) is going to show those snobby solicitors her street smarts count for something, and her loud talking, big-hearted family will be with her all the way! I’ll have to see if the pilot shows signs of life behind the cliches, but the trailer–in which Martina exonerates a crime suspect by noticing the condition of her manicure–played like Real Housewives of the New Jersey Bar.

PARTNERS: Joe (David Krumholtz) and Louis (Michael Urie) are straight and gay best friends trying to support each other while figuring out their respective romantic relationships. From the quippy, urbane, if not especially gut-busting trailer, it seemed less like a new CBS sitcom than one that might air on NBC—partly because the creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick essentially did air it at NBC, in the late ’90s, as Will and Grace.

VEGAS: Now here’s something a little different. While still a crime-oriented show, and thus on familiar territory, this drama goes where NBC and ABC did last year unsuccessfully: the ’60s. Here, Michael Chiklis is a mob boss moving in on the desert town just as crime, and lots of money are starting to pour in, and Dennis Quaid is the sheriff trying to hold down the law. Sleek-looking trailer, and it’s good to see Chiklis with a bad-guy role to wrap his beefy arms around. As with The Playboy Club and Pan Am, it’s a premise that could be a very good show; as with The Playboy Club and Pan Am, the question is whether it can be a good show on a broadcast network.

And yet, what’s the one big-network drama that currently does the best job reproducing the complexity and nuance of the best cable dramas? The Good Wife, on CBS. Maybe it takes a comfortable network to successfully step outside its comfort zone.