TCA Critic’s Notebook: NBC Hits TV’s Bland Spot

NBCUniversal Events - Season 2015
Ben Cohen/NBCUniversal
NBCUNIVERSAL EVENTS -- NBCUniversal Press Tour, August 2015 -- NBC's "Heroes Reborn" Session -- Pictured: (l-r) Zachary Levi, Judi Shekoni, Tim Kring, Executive Producer; Kiki Sukezane -- (Photo by: Ben Cohen/NBCUniversal)

The sense of anticlimax pervading NBC’s Thursday presentations at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour can’t entirely be attributed to the fact that the network held court on the very last day of the three-week event. Press-tour fatigue might have been a factor, but a lack of showmanship, both in the mostly unimpressive new fall offerings and in the way they were pitched, generated more shrugs than buzz.

“I’m a live (TV) junkie,” said NBC’s entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt as he emphasized the network’s upcoming event programming, including this December’s live musical, an all-star version of The Wiz (which already sounds so much more promising than last year’s Peter Pan misfire), and Neil Patrick Harris’ eight-week experiment in mostly live comedy-variety entertainment, Best Time Ever. Though oddly, outside of a sizzle reel promo, the session for that show was a straight-up Q&A, one of nine during the overstuffed day, and included no attempt at demonstrating a stunt or game or anything to convey the flavor of this risky gambit. It wasn’t even the day’s best panel ever.

That honor went to Dolly Parton, charming the room with her timeless shtick of glitz and schmaltz, as she led a discussion of her disarmingly old-fashioned holiday movie Coat of Many Colors, one of several projected TV-movies based on her prolific catalog of inspiring country tunes. (Unlike at NBC’s Upfront presentation in New York last spring, where Greenblatt famously accompanied Parton on the piano, Dolly didn’t perform—although Jennifer Nettles, who will play the 8-year-old Parton’s mother in this period piece, did sing at the network’s party the night before.)

NBC’s new shows aren’t much more cutting edge—epitomized by another Windy City spinoff, Chicago Med, the third Dick Wolf series in the franchise that began with Chicago Fire. Oliver Platt, a Wolf favorite who plays a shrink in the new-in-name-only hospital drama, described the interlocking shows as an “active matrix” forming a “sense of community.” Indeed, there will be at least three crossover stunts this season, including a four-way “jumbo crossover” in February that will once again involve the detectives of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. “The crossovers are incredible ratings engines for us,” Wolf said. “What we can’t do is have them become commonplace.” Too late.

Two high-concept action dramas hope to recapture the vibe once enjoyed by Blacklist (until NBC moved it to Thursdays), and Blindspot—which takes over Blacklist‘s old Monday time period—has the best chance, in part because of the still-robust lead-in provided by The Voice. But it also boasts a strong lead performance by Jaimie Alexander as an amnesiac Jane Doe-meets-Jason Bourne who is discovered in Times Square zipped in a bag, naked and covered in tattoos, including one with the name of an FBI agent (Sullivan Stapleton), who becomes her partner in solving the puzzle of her identity and the clues within the tattoos. (Alexander’s anecdote of starting a female wrestling team in high school to help young women learn self-defense endeared this kickass leading lady further to the audience.)

Stapleton’s Strike Back co-star, Philip Winchester, has his work cut out for him as The Player, a preposterous Transporter-style action fantasy in which a Las Vegas security consultant is recruited by a suave mystery man (Wesley Snipes) to avert violent crimes while unseen high rollers place bets on the outcome. When challenged about the “ridiculous” premise, series creator John Rogers quipped, “Ridiculous is a valid artistic choice,” noting, “Pulp was the word we were really landing on when we were developing the show.” Pulp as in Shonda Rhimes-style melodrama, he explained: “Any story that’s high velocity, big characters making big decisions, big emotional stakes, and every episode is a thrill ride.” This is how people talk at press tour. Whether viewers will swallow this hokum following Blacklist on Thursday remains to be seen.

The less said the better about Truth Be Told (previously titled People Are Talking), NBC’s only new fall sitcom, a smarmy and smug wallow in political incorrectness about neighbors who incessantly joke-talk about sex, race and other hot-button issues. Show creator D.J. Nash hopes all of this strained, awkward banter “will start a national conversation.” Which would probably go like this: What am I doing watching this on a Friday night?

NBC ended its day, and the press tour, with an extended and mystifying clip of the Heroes Reborn reboot. (The two-hour opener isn’t ready for viewing yet.) Fan favorites like HRG (Jack Coleman) and Hiro (Masi Oka) will be back, with a set of new everyday heroes and lethal adversaries—including Zachary Levi—and while there was skepticism among the critics that the series could ever regain its first-season mojo, creator Tim Kring pledged that with a 13-episode (instead of full-season) order, less will be more.

“The biggest pitfall for us always was the amount of story that we had to tell in a year,” Kring said. “But with 13 episodes, it means that we can tell this very aggressive form of storytelling. And by that, I mean putting 50 pounds of story in a 10-pound bag. And it’s what gives the show and the audience this kind of exhilarating feeling at the end of every episode where they can’t believe they’ve seen that much story happen.” Here’s hoping, because if this sequel can boost NBC’s fortunes on Thursdays, giving Blacklist a lift, then they really will look like heroes.