TCA Critic’s Notebook: Can Supergirl and Colbert Keep CBS Flying High?

Stephen Colbert CBS
Monty Brinton/CBS
Stephen Colbert, host of "The LATE SHOW with STEPHEN COLBERT" appears at the TCA Summer Press Tour 2015 on Monday August 10, 2015 at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles, CA.

With mega-hits like NCIS and The Big Bang Theory still going strong, and the 50th Super Bowl in February capping an NFL package that includes games on Sundays and Thursdays, CBS has good reason to be bullish about the upcoming season. On the network’s full day of Television Critics Association press-tour presentations on Monday, CBS smartly led with its biggest swing (Supergirl) and saved the best—new late-night host Stephen Colbert—for last.

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Although it won’t debut on Mondays (Oct. 26) until Big Bang relocates to Thursdays after the football franchise wraps, Supergirl is already generating great buzz. Starring Glee‘s endearing Melissa Benoist as Kara, Superman’s cousin who’s just learning to spread her superhero wings, Supergirl is a refreshing change of pace for CBS, closer in tone to its sibling network the CW. But Tassler believes it has the sort of “broad appeal,” with elements of workplace comedy—Calista Flockhart co-stars as Kara’s The Devil Wears Prada-styled publisher boss—”that would certainly open up and bring in new (read: younger) viewers.”

Prolific executive producer Greg Berlanti (Arrow, The Flash) cites as inspiration the Richard Donner Superman movies with “their magic and their wonder and their joy and their fun. …Our real hope was to bring just a smidgeon of that magic that those films had.” Producer Ali Adler describes the show as “a hybrid of … emotion, romance and action,” and the lavish pilot hits all those marks in an upbeat way that feels anything but niche.

Supergirl is easily the highlight of CBS’s new fall prime-time slate. Among the more puzzling entries: a series sequel to the mildly successful 2011 feature film Limitless, starring scruffy Jake McDorman (of last year’s flop ABC rom-com Manhattan Love Story) as a slacker who begins taking a magic pill called NZT that turns him into a high-functioning brainiac: shades of Josh Holloway’s 2014 CBS dud Intelligence. McDorman and the producers gushed praise for the creative contributions of original star (and series exec producer) Bradley Cooper, who lobbied for McDorman to be cast as the protégé of his now-Senator Edward Morra character. Cooper appears briefly in the pilot episode, and though he’s currently working in London, the producers insist he’ll be back. They just can’t pinpoint when. (It had better be soon. Just saying.)

RELATED: CBS Previews Upcoming Supergirl Characters

Medical dramas were all the rage this development season. “For years, we’ve been looking for a show that had the urgency and the relevance of ER,” said Tassler of CBS’s new find, Code Black, a generic ensemble melodrama set in an overwhelmed inner-city Los Angeles hospital. Inspired by a feature-length documentary of the same name, by exec producer (and actual ER physician) Ryan McGarry, the show was described by its formidable star Marcia Gay Harden as “real” and “raw.” She left out preachy, mawkish and clichéd: One of the subplots involves a first-day resident who performs a C-section in the back of an ambulance, getting instructions over the phone. An infusion of originality would be welcome.

Oddly for a network with a reputation for keeping alive the traditional multi-camera sitcom (with studio audience), CBS’s two new comedies—the Jane Lynch vehicle Angel From Hell and the multi-generational family comedy Life in Pieces—are filmed single-camera style. “It’s not about the form, it’s about the content,” insisted Tassler, championing “the rhythms, the tempo and the timing” in both series.

There’s no question Lynch is a pro who reliably delivers. But even she may not be enough to carry the weightless premise of Angel, in which she stars as Amy, the wacky and possibly deranged guardian angel of a perky doctor (Maggie Lawson). Producer Tad Quill said he was inspired by supernatural comedies Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, but there was a bubbly innocence to those ’60s classics that’s lacking in this crass one-joke set-up. “I love what a mess she is,” Lynch said, adding, “She has no shame around any of her alcoholism or the fact that she lives in her car, that she’s just kind of who she is.” Amy’s braying and belching may have you pining for the simpler days of nose twitches and genie blinks.

And while Life in Pieces owes perhaps too much to Modern Family in its tone and structure, series creator Justin Adler says it was the multi-story format of a Looney Tunes cartoon that led him to create this uneven sitcom that threads together four independent “short stories” each week (as compared to Modern Family‘s typical three-subplot design). Pieces‘ best asset is its starry cast, led by a robustly goofy James Brolin and a tremulous Dianne Wiest and featuring Fargo‘s Colin Hanks, Breaking Bad‘s Betsy Brandt and The Newsroom‘s Thomas Sadoski as their adult offspring, each in different stages of relationship/family development. They exhibited a terrific and adoring chemistry during their panel, especially when Wiest shared an anecdote about breaking her new-fangled TV twice and only being able to watch Game of Thrones with her grown kids. “I really want to watch Game of Thrones with you so much, so bad,” muttered Hanks.

Same here. We’re just not sure, yet, about the overly derivative Life in Pieces. (But with a Big Bang lead-in, first on Mondays and later on Thursdays, it will doubtless get the chance to grow on us. Or not.)

Saving CBS’s day, and upstaging all that came before, was Stephen Colbert, bounding forth in the late afternoon like a comic superhero to win over the room with candor, wit and playfulness in a revealing press conference that included a possible press-tour first: live-tweeting by the man of the hour, as he coined (and tweeted) the phrase “Dry Trumping” to describe the frustration of not having an outlet to poke fun at Donald Trump during his outrageous presidential bid. Seemingly relieved to be shed of his Colbert Report persona (“That guy was a tool”) as he prepares to take over Late Show on Sept. 8, Colbert is raring to go: “The emotion I have right now is not anxiety over doing the show. It’s anxiety about the eagerness to get on stage.”

CBS is equally ready. “It is a seminal year in late night at CBS,” said Tassler, who last season successfully replaced Craig Ferguson with James Corden in the Late Late Show slot. She called the relaunching of Late Show with a new host “a once-in-a-generation moment. And we definitely think Stephen is a once-in-a-generation talent.”

Colbert’s performance was without question a once-in-a-press-tour delight.

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