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Upfronts Watch: NBC Tries to Turn Around Its Turnaround

NBC is using family sitcoms, genre dramas, and a lot of familiar faces to try to do what it tried to do a year ago.

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Eric Liebowitz/NBC

Fox, right, returns to NBC

Last season was to be turnaround year for NBC. Struggling in the primetime ratings, the network was going to move away from niche sitcoms like Community and Parks and Recreation and aim for “broader” comedies with more mass appeal. It would use the promotional power of shows like The Voice to launch new big hits like genre drama Revolution. And new chief Robert Greenblatt was now fully in charge to work his programming magic on the network, taking gambles on shows like his pet project, Smash.

Now, for 2013–14, NBC is trying to turn around its turnaround. Smash is canceled. So are most of NBC’s sitcoms—except Community (returning midseason) and Parks and Recreation. The Voice is a huge hit; the shows that have followed The Voice, meh. And at its upfront presentation to advertisers at Radio City Music Hall in New York, Greenblatt introduced a new schedule of broad-aiming sitcoms and genre dramas.

There’s no reason it can’t work. But there’s no denying that NBC is, at best, pretty much where it was when it started the season.

Its problems are much the same. With few existing hits–basically, The Voice and football–many of NBC’s new shows will need to be self-starters. Last year, they didn’t self-start. Now, for instance, the network will try to relaunch most of Thursday, with the once must-see night bookended by Parks and Parenthood–two fine shows, neither a mass ratings hit.

NBC is trying to compensate, partly, with familiar names: there will be a sitcom with Michael J. Fox and one with Sean Hayes, a remake of Ironside with Blair Underwood, and an espionage drama with James Spader. It is also, as it does biennially, promising that the Olympics will be a great launch platform to promote its midseason shows. Let us be blunt. NBC has been saying this for over a decade. The only show that the Olympics are a great, tested promotional platform for is the next Olympics. NBC’s new crop of shows may succeed, but it will have to be on their own merits.

So you can’t blame the network for, as one does at the upfronts, for focusing on the good news–or at least the not-yet-bad, hopeful news. There will be a new Tonight Show host, Jimmy Fallon. There will be a new Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers. The network focused on that in particular, having The Roots warm up the crowd before the presentation, and having Fallon and Jay Leno record another taped duet about the succession.

And NBC spent a lot of time talking about, and previewing the next season’s pilots, which Greenblatt averred have been the network’s best-testing in years. You’ll be hearing that again, so let us be blunt again. It means nothing. It may not necessarily be bad, but I’ve heard the claim made about so many dogs–and monkeys like last fall’s Animal Practice–that I know it means little more than that the network needed some sort of quasi-empirical claim to impress advertisers with. (High test scores also often result from familiar faces in the pilot, and NBC has a lot of those. Back in 2000, Emeril tested off the charts.)

As for the new shows, there were a ton, which I’ll list in part and in brief:

About a Boy: sitcom adaptation of the Nick Hornby-based movie, from Parenthood / Friday Night Lights’ Jason Katims

The Family Guide: another family sitcom, among many; blind man (J.K. Simmons) and his family adjust to life after divorce

The Michael J. Fox Show: Fox plays a newscaster (who, like the Actor, has Parkinson’s) returning to work after a long absence in, yes, a family sitcom

Sean Saves the World: NBC vet Sean Hayes is a gay dad single-parenting with help from his mother (Linda Lavin)

Undateable: Chris D’Elia rebounds from Whitney in a comedy about guys who can’t get dates

Welcome to the Family: a teen girl gets pregnant and engaged, the two families meet, hijinx ensue; with Mike O’Malley as the dad hijinx-experiencer

Believe: J. J. Abrams / Alfonso Cuaron paranormal drama about a girl with mysterious powers, and the forces who want to control her

The Blacklist: James Spader is a notorious criminal working with a young FBI profiler in a premise very much like a Hannibal Lecter scenario (related: no Hannibal on NBC’s new schedule)

Chicago PD: Spinoff of Chicago Fire, except cops

Crisis: More children in peril! Conspiracy drama about a plan to abduct the children of powerful elites to use as leverage–for what?

Crossbones: Jon Malkovich is the pirate Blackbeard!

Dracula: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is a vampire!

Ironside: Blair Underwood is not Raymond Burr!

The Night Shift: The eccentric workers of a hospital late shift, as written by two Freaks and Geeks alums

As always, a caution: a trailer of a TV series isn’t usually good for much other than figuring out if you’re interested to see more. (NBC has posted trailers online if you’re interested.) Judging only by what I’ve seen so far, I’m most interested in About a Boy and the Michael J. Fox sitcom (whatever it ends up being called). For the rest, I’ll wait and see the pilots. Testing or no testing, Olympics or no Olympics, these shows will have to turn NBC around on their own.