If May's upfronts are when the networks eagerly unveil their shiny new toys for the coming season, the TV Critics Association summer press tour is the place where said playthings are relentlessly poked and prodded by a couple hundred
cynical toddlers TV writers determined to prove why "TV writer" is a position that newspapers should not eliminate. Every day for the next week, a different network gets its chance to highlight its new (and some returning) shows via panel discussions with the casts and creators, as a roomful of grumpy, hotel-incarcerated scribes struggle to come to terms with the fact that another hour of their lives is about to be wasted watching Eric Balfour explain why his latest endeavor actually stands a chance of surviving more than a year. It's sort of the anti-Comic-Con, with an audience of jaded journalists rather than drooling fanboys. This summer's Death March with Cocktails (the apt term coined by the San Francisco Chronicle's Tim Goodman) — kicking off today in Beverly Hills — could prove to be particularly brutal: The early buzz suggests critics aren't all that enamored with the freshman class of 2010. This could lead to some awkward panels as critics struggle, for example, to come up with multiple ways of asking the producers of $#*! My Dad Says to explain just how they plan to make the show even remotely funny. Look for dispatches from TCA through next week; we'll also be tweeting live from the tour via @vulture.
Here's what to look out for:
• Lots of talk about the future of American Idol, post-Simon. Fox execs have been downplaying the likelihood of Cowell's replacement being named by the time the network meets with reporters on August 2, but at least one insider tells Vulture that Fox would very much like to have some morsel to offer the assembled press corps (and we don't mean just confirming that Nigel Lythgoe is returning as an exec producer). In recent days there's been talk about blowing up the judging panel, but a wholesale revamping seems hard to imagine. It would hint at panic over a show that, even during an off-season, remains far and away TV's most popular series. That said, if you were going to do something super-bold, like part ways with Ellen DeGeneres, the press tour would be a good place to start damage control ("We realized having four judges just didn't work").
Also, while Fox's new Cowell series The X-Factor won't premiere until fall 2011, there's always a chance the network could use TCA to start the buzz on that show, perhaps by naming a host or one of the three judges slated to be hired.
• Expect much griping from critics about the glut of relationship comedies. Will anyone be able to tell the difference between the press conferences for Better with You, Mike and Molly, and Happy Endings? To further the Friends vibe of this year's tour, Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc are both touting new series and will no doubt each be asked about a possible reunion show or movie. They will both demur and make a joke, and then they will be asked all over again.
• Conan O'Brien isn't scheduled to make an appearance at the tour. But NBC execs will still probably face questions about L'Affaire Coco, while rivals at CBS and ABC will probably be asked for their take on how O'Brien's new TBS show will impact the late-night landscape.
• Anglophiles should pay special attention to dispatches coming from TCA. American versions of U.K.-born Skins and Top Gear will both have panels, while Starz will reveal details of its new addition to the Torchwood series.
• Behind-the-scenes drama could be front and center at the tour. ABC's surprise sacking of boss Steve McPherson means reporters will be trying to figure out what's going on with the network and likely new boss Paul Lee. Over at NBC, expect executives to repeatedly dodge queries about the pending acquisition by Comcast and what it means for execs now in power (the current thinking: This could be the final press tour for many current Peacock suits). And while he's not expected to formally meet the press, journalists may try to corner new Showtime boss David Nevins to see how he plans to keep that network's momentum going.
• Most of the summer tour's focus is on new shows, but there will be some returning series putting in TCA visits. Fox has scheduled a session on Glee, the cast of Modern Family is scheduled to stop by for a coffee break with reporters, and everyone from The Big Bang Theory will be on hand to remind us the show is moving to Thursdays (in order to crush the beloved Community). Fox is holding a lunch with the producers of American Dad (it's apparently still on the air), while a number of cable series — Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia — will also present at the tour. It's all about to start today with CBS's presentation so let's get jaded!