Of NBC’s comedy pilots, A to Z feels the most complete. This isn’t to say that none of their other comedy pilots were good—I liked Marry Me, for example—but rather that A to Z has a clear premise and announces its intentions in very plain terms. It is the story of a relationship between two characters, told from A to Z, that will span a set amount of time and reach a meaningful point of conclusion by the end of its first season.
For some pilots, press tour is about critics looking for answers because the show is purposefully vague, or because—as discussed in a separate piece—there are changes going on behind-the-scenes. In the case of A to Z, though, the critics in the room have questions about details that are offered by the pilot, which is structured to the point where critics have enough information to have specific lines of inquiry that the pilot itself forces into the conversation.
While both Cristin Milioti and Ben Feldman got questions about their chemistry as the romantic couple at the heart of the series, as well as questions about their notable fates in their previous projects (How I Met Your Mother and Mad Men, respectively), a lot of questions were directed to creator Ben Queen and producers Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. How will the show balance its “relationship comedy”—they avoided “romantic comedy” as a term—with its workplace structure? How will the season be structured relative to their relationship? And how do you intend to have a series run for multiple seasons if you’re setting such a clear timeframe for the story of this relationship to unfold in? (I should admit at this point that two of these questions were mine, so it’s possible I’m more invested in the structure of the series than your average person.)
When NBC launches its fall lineups, its shows have the potential to be very different from the shows that were originally sold to advertisers and sent to critics when they were picked up in May.
This is not uncommon. It also doesn’t mean that the shows in question were outright terrible to begin with. But the reality of creating a pilot and the reality of mapping out a season of television are often at odds with one another, and in other cases new producers are brought in to take over a series and have different perspectives on where the series should be heading. At the same time, though, the public nature of this retooling inevitably places those pilots in a different category than those pilots that go through no such “public” changes. When Alexi Hawley departs State of Affairs as a showrunner, or Liz Brixius steps in to take over Bad Judge, or Constantine trades out its female lead for another female character entirely, it creates a different conversation than for shows with more subtle post-pilot changes that would logically occur when a writer’s room is in place and the experience on the pilot has revealed spaces for subtle inflection.
In January, Warner Bros. Television gathered journalists in Pasadena for an event built around their comedy slate. Although there were screenings for both long-standing hit The Big Bang Theory and freshman success story Mom, the centerpiece of the evening was NBC’s Undateable, which debuts tonight at 9/8c with its first two episodes.
When the event took place, Undateable didn’t even have a release date. In talking to executive producer Bill Lawrence, though, this wasn’t necessarily a sign the show had no support. Even moving beyond the fact that Warner Bros. was using the evening as a platform for the series, NBC was also in then process of greenlighting what would become the Undateable Comedy Tour, a preview of which was offered to journalists to close out an evening that began with the screening of an episode of the series. It’s more support than you’re expect for a show airing at the end of May, a sign of the new state of summer programming and also the basic logic that pervades Undateable as a series and as an experience.
As news broke of Dan Harmon’s potential return to Community, it felt like an Internet rumor that Deadline would start in order to drum up potential hits. That’s because that’s what it was, of course, another one of the myriad of “scoops” that Nellie Andreeva gets from her sources at Sony TV who use her as a pipeline to the Internet rumor mill. This doesn’t mean the story is untrue, of course, but rather that there’s a good chance it’s an idea being floated as opposed to an actual, factual thing that’s happening. And so I admittedly didn’t give it a second thought, at least until it became clear that it was—at the very least—something that Sony and Harmon were negotiating about following the confirmed departure of season four showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port.
My immediate reaction to this was confusion. Why would Sony want Harmon to return to a show that he publicly admitted to mismanaging? And why would Harmon want to return to the show after making a show of moving on with his career? After asking variations on these questions on Twitter, I got some interesting responses, and I think I’ve got a clearer sense on the circumstances that would lead to both parties reconciling their differences to work together again on a fifth season; I also think we need to disassociate this development from any sort of idealistic notion that either party is in this for the fans’ best interest.
While I’ve spent some recent late nights leaving lengthy comments over at The A.V. Club’s nightly Olympics coverage, where my colleagues have been breaking down each night of NBC’s Primetime coverage, I’ve largely avoided more formal writing in the interest of academic pursuits (in this case studying for preliminary exams).
However, today was the first time I watched an event—the 10m Men’s Platform Diving Finals—in its entirety live during the day and then watched the same event during the evening session, and so I wanted to expand on a few tweets I sent out that rest on a few educated assumptions and general frustrations with the temporal wonkery of NBC’s Tape Delay strategy.
The 2012 Primetime Emmy Nominations
July 19th, 2012
While Cultural Learnings has certainly been put on the backburner as I spend my summer studying, my willpower to keep myself from writing about television is at its weakest during Emmy season. While you would think that an early analysis of the leadup to the nominations and a piece on the nominations itself—focusing on Downton Abbey’s successful transition to the Series category—over at Antenna would be sufficient, I found myself hitting the site’s word count limit while still having a whole collection of narratives left to play out.
Accordingly, there are two points I want to make here. The first is the way in which this year’s awards demonstrate the capacity for a show to fall completely off the radar, and the other is what this year’s awards mean for the different networks and channels who are always looking to retain a footing within the race for nominations.
How Smash Could Become a Different Show
April 17th, 2012
On the one hand, my opinion of Smash remains unchanged since the last time I dropped in on it: this is still a show that does not have a clear grasp on what it wants to accomplish, unable to move beyond the bounds of the musical with any confidence. While Uma Thurman’s arrival as Rebecca DuVall has helped flesh out the musical narrative, building on the detente between Ivy and Karen which makes them both more viable as characters, the show doesn’t know when to quit when it’s ahead: just as Julia’s personal life finishes imploding, Karen’s boyfriend Dev is elevated to a full-blown liability for both Karen and the narrative as a whole.
And yet I continue to watch. Part of me is simply riveted by the tone deafness of the series to its own creative struggles, and wonders how they believe this story should be resolved at the end of the season. However, more prominently, I am legitimately fascinated to see what this show looks like in a second season. Rarely has there been a case where that much hype has turned into this much vitriol, the squandered potential almost overbearing in our reception of the season’s final act (perhaps unfairly, even). And yet, despite all of this, the show has earned a second season since the last time I checked in on it, and so I find myself watching every episode wondering how much of this show, this near-complete mess of a show, will actually remain when it returns next season – the show, as the title suggests, survives on my DVR through its creative rough patches because it is sheltered by this anticipation for what might be to come.
Without entirely jumping the gun, given that the season isn’t yet over, I did want to offer a few thoughts on how the current model might need adjustment in the future, and why I’d argue this puts the show in a far more compelling place moving forward than its narrative alone would suggest.
Parks and Recreation launched as a shortened six-episode order because Amy Poehler was pregnant at the time, and they weren’t able to shoot any more episodes. The show that debuted was effectively an experiment, the first stab at merging together the mockumentary-style of The Office (the show originated as a spinoff before being turned into an entirely disconnected project) with the show’s cast as performers (or thespians, to refer to them with the respect they deserve).
Parks and Recreation was an experiment that NBC nurtured (likely because of its pedigree), giving the show a plum post-Office time slot and renewing it despite continually plummeting ratings. Now finishing its fourth season, and likely to be renewed for a fifth, the show will be heading into syndication with the potential to make NBC Universal a not unsubstantial sum.
Bent was ordered as a six-episode first season, and positioned as a midseason replacement simply because NBC was unwilling to commit to a larger order. The show never quite found the right gear for Jeffrey Tambor’s character, but the cast dynamic was strong and the central chemistry with David Walton and Amanda Peet gave the “romantic comedy” side of things some definite credibility.
Bent was a perfectly solid show that NBC turned into a scheduling experiment, airing the six episodes in three one-hour blocks spread out over three weeks. Although Josef Adalain has NBC sources on record suggesting this was actually an attempt to help the show, that doesn’t change that the choice to experiment effectively doomed the show before it had a chance to become, well, anything.
Given that Walton was cast in another pilot this morning, the chances for a renewal are effectively nil, but I want to expand on this comparison briefly and reflect back on the two weeks and six episodes that are likely to remain the extent of the charming, pleasant Bent.
February 13th, 2012
As is evidenced by the limited output here at Cultural Learnings, I don’t have a lot of free time right now, which is why I’ve been prioritizing watching television (an exercise that I find particularly useful in teaching contemporary television) over writing about television (which, while still something I enjoy, often ends up taking up time that I simply don’t have). As a result, I didn’t review the pilot of NBC’s Smash beyond my initial thoughts after watching the episode on iTunes ahead of its airdate.
However, as Noel Murray has quite rightfully pointed out in his review of tonight’s second episode, “The Callback,” I wasn’t exactly quiet about the show last week. I’m not sure what exactly had me so punch on Monday evening as I watched the pilot for the second time, but I think Noel is right to suggest that I was being “provocative” in my attempts to boil down Smash to its most basic qualities. One of my Twitter followers actually called me on being evaluative so early on, but I did clarify that I didn’t see my tweets as evaluative: the show is still finding itself, which means I’m willing to give it time to grow.
That being said, there is something about the Smash pilot that seemed markedly prescriptive, clearly delineating how we were to feel about the onscreen action despite the inherently subjective nature of musical theatre (and performance in general). While I agree with Noel that parts of “The Callback improved on the exclusivity of the pilot’s narrative, grounding the dueling narratives of Ivy and Karen in more concrete performance styles, the show is still operating with a baseline: while it might be open to your opinion on which of the two performers is better, you need to accept that both of them are world class talents. It’s a notion that I’m still struggling with, and a notion that reflects the problems of narrowly defining and serializing a circumstance that would be considerably more complex (if less immediately marketable) in reality.