Critic’s Notebook: NBC Takes Big Swings for Fall With ‘This is Us’, ‘Timeless’ and ‘The Good Place’

NBCUniversal Events - Season 2016
Mark Davis/NBCUniversal
NBCUniversal Summer Press Tour, August 2, 2016 -- Party at BOA Steakhouse -- Pictured: (l-r) Mandy Moore, Milo Ventimiglia, "This is Us" -- (Photo by: Mark Davis/NBCUniversal)

Less could be more for NBC this fall.

With a fairly stable schedule dominated by sports—this month the Olympics, soon after the NFL on Sundays—and elastic hit franchises like The Voice (now with Alicia Keys and Miley Cyrus) and Dick Wolf’s ever-expanding Chicago empire, NBC is only introducing three new series to its lineup this fall. Each represents a fairly big swing.

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Starting with this critic’s new favorite: This Is Us, which NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt hyped at Tuesday’s TCA sessions as “the most anticipated show of the new season,” citing some 90 million viral views of the unorthodox family drama’s evocative trailer. The series premieres Tuesday, Sept. 20, following The Voice (initially at 10/9c, moving to 9/8c starting Oct. 11). It doesn’t have big stars or a particularly high concept—”a simple show about life: real families going through real things,” says Greenblatt—but its emotional impact, especially in a reveal being kept under wraps until the pilot episode airs, invites comparisons with tear-jerkers like the network’s much-missed Parenthood.

Creator/executive producer Dan Fogelman sees the show, ostensibly about the connections among characters who share a fateful birthday, as an antidote to a dark and cynical time. “Maybe it’s the right place and right time for a show that has a little bit of hope and optimism and can make you cry, make you feel, but also make you feel good.” The 30-something characters introduced in the pilot include a loving couple (Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia, pictured above) about to welcome new additions to their family, a businessman (The People V. O.J. Simpson‘s Sterling K. Brown) seeking the vagrant father who abandoned him as an infant, and a pair of unhappy twins: a disillusioned sitcom-star hunk (Justin Hartley) and his plus-sized sister (Chrissy Metz, a breakout performance).

“There’s a kind of romantic melancholy to the entire thing, like a romantic optimism but melancholy, that kind of feels like life, but a little bigger than life,” Fogelman explains, citing Lost as a genre-busting precedent in the way the story bends its timeline to unspool its secrets. Clearly, this won’t be the season’s easiest sell. But it’s definitely worth a look.

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Hewing much more to formula, and reflecting one of this year’s most prevalent high-concept trends of time travel, is Timeless, which hopes to become the next action-adventure series (following Blindspot and The Blacklist in seasons past) to get a big boost from airing after The Voice on Mondays. (For those keeping score, Blindspot is moving to Wednesdays at 8/7c in September, with The Blacklist now airing Thursdays at 10/9c.)

This time-travel thriller, from producers Eric Kripke (Supernatural) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield), involves a chase through the centuries—although not as far back as the Pyramids or Greek mythology, the producers hasten to explain. The heroes include a dashing Special Forces agent (Matt Lanter), a historian (Rectify‘s Abigail Spencer) and an African-American technician-pilot (Malcolm Barrett), all pursuing a terrorist (Goran Visnjic) to the scenes of historic events like the Hindenburg disaster, Lincoln’s assassination and the Alamo. The goal: to try to stop history from being changed, for better or worse.

In developing the series, Ryan says that while the characters may experience personal consequences to their time-tripping, it was important “that this not be the kind of show that falls down some serialized rabbit hole and sort of loses itself and turns on itself. The show is much more like Back to the Future and Quantum Leap than it is like 12 Monkeys in that way. Time travel is something that we use as a device to tell this pretty epic historical adventure show.”

Evoking Quantum Leap is all I need to hear. The pilot is slick and enjoyable, and if doesn’t require a flow chart to keep up with the comings and goings, I’m in.

Next stop: comedy. To be precise, Thursday night comedy, which back in the “must-see” era NBC once dominated, but has since conceded to broad-based CBS hits like The Big Bang Theory and Mom. NBC is attempting a modest comeback this fall with last midseason’s working-class charmer Superstore (8/7c), followed by the quirky new afterlife comedy The Good Place, starring Veronica Mars‘ Kristen Bell as a newly dead slacker who somehow finds herself in the “real exclusive club” of Heaven. How exclusive? Think “1 out of every 450 people or so gets in,” says creator Mike Schur (Parks and Recreation), who warns that this very high-concept series “is never going to be a wash-rinse-repeat kind of [formula].” Schur says Lost was his model (the day’s second reference), with “cliffhangers and big events and dramatic things that change the course of people’s lives.”

For NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke, this new Thursday comedy block represents a return to shows with “sophisticated, smart, great creators’ point of view.” When Superstore premiered last January, she recalls, “You really felt a collective breath across the company of everyone who had been there for so long through this comedy roller-coaster saying, ‘Finally, this feels like we’re back to an NBC smart, specific show that has heart, but it’s not a soft trying-to-please-the-whole-world kind of show. And I think the same with The Good Place. … There’s heart, but it’s wholly original. And I think we’re back in our sweet spot.”

Whatever the ratings story turns out to be, and it’s likely to be another uphill climb, there’s no way that the fantastical The Good Place could be mistaken for ordinary TV. And for now, that’s a good thing.