Reviewing the CBS Upfront: Too Much Swagger

By
CBS logo

With only six new shows on the schedule, CBS's upfront presentation at Carnegie Hall was an overly padded victory lap. Yesterday, ABC got through thirteen shows in an hour, but CBS would take an hour and twenty minutes to get through half a dozen, thanks to montages for everything imaginable (comedies, dramas, sports, news, etc), and trailers for new shows that ran well over five minutes. Look, it's CBS, and they're doing very, very well, and if they want to take an hour and change to make that point, advertisers are going to sit through it more or less happily. But crowing about one's success for so long is a braggart's move — and it's hard to make it look otherwise.

The show opened with a video clip of NCIS's Michael Weatherly welcoming the crowd to Carnegie Hall with a few "dos and don'ts": "Do pretend to pay attention at all times. Don't make direct eye contact with Mark Harmon. Do call your boss and say 'CBS, buy, buy, buy!'" That led directly into a clip of Paul Shaffer, David Letterman, and Steve Martin swilling martinis on a piano and singing "It's gonna be a big, big season" over and over again. Les Moonves interrupts them to tell them their number is cut, Martin calls Letterman incompetent, and Letterman starts chugging a martini. It makes no sense, but everyone seems to be having fun, and you gotta be impressed that Steve Martin and David Letterman do what CBS asks! Welcome to the show!

President of sales Jo Anne Ross comes out onstage and gamely sings, “It’s gonna be a big big season.” Everyone cheers. All presentation long, the ad buyers seem much happier with CBS than they have the other networks. Ross tells the audience, "We don’t have the most new shows to sell, we just have the best." There is clapping. Ross tells the audience to "sit back and enjoy the show" as a video starring Blue Bloods's Tom Selleck comes on. Bridget Moynahan, who plays Selleck's daughter, calls to tell him there's a crisis: terrorism? A hurt child? No, the CBS fall schedule has gone missing! Cut to Donnie Wahlberg, who also stars on Blue Bloods, roughing up a suspect for said fall schedule. The perp in a hoodie hands the schedule over, and it turns out the perp is ... Regis Philbin. Okay, that is sort of amusing. Regis whines, "I want to be on the schedule! I don’t want to retire!" Then there's a long car chase, and eventually Selleck walks onto the Carnegie Hall stage in a three-piece suit to introduce Moonves and hand him the schedule: "Here’s the schedule, boss. Guard it carefully, it’s worth a fortune."

Moonves takes the schedule and begins his spiel, saying "We salute Tom for going beyond the call of duty to serve and protect our schedule." It's just the first insinuation that CBS is somehow more patriotic than the other networks, and that advertisers who work with CBS are more patriotic than advertisers who don't: "A great spirit of optimism is sweeping the country ... Advertising is back, what an incredible feeling ...Advertising has been a main driver of our country's recovery." Advertisers, you fixed America's recession! Now buy more ads! Moonves also says for the first, but not the last time, that CBS's secret formula is "we make mass-appeal hit shows." There's going to be no lowbrow anxiety here, just more macho military metaphors: "At CBS we don’t rebuild, we reload."

How to Be a Gentleman seems more suited to CBS. It co-stars Kevin Dillon as a meathead personal trainer, and David Hornsby as the effete magazine writer he will teach to become a real man. (ABC is probably kicking itself for not finding this one first.) The supporting cast on this — Dave Foley and Mary Lynn Rajskub — is pretty knockout, and Entourage's ickiness aside, Kevin Dillon has the "likable douchebag" pegged. At one point in the promo a Coldplay song comes on the soundtrack. In the previous 2 Broke Girls trailer, Dennings made fun of someone for dressing like Coldplay. One of these sitcoms is hipper than the other, but we're not sure they both fit on this network.

Then the new chairman of CBS News, Jeff Fager, also the executive producer of 60 Minutes, takes to the stage in order not to utter Katie Couric's name. (Couric is just the first person to fall into the S/he Who Will Not Be Named category at this year's presentation.) Fager talks about how he's going to make over the nightly news in the 60 Minutes mold starting June 6, then shows a clip that asks, "What if you could have the integrity, experience, and world-class reporting of 60 Minutes every weeknight? Now you can," and then brings out new anchor Scott Pelley, who is the strongest-jawed human we have ever seen not in an old Superman comic book.

It's been 30 minutes, and no new shows yet. So, obviously, it's time for a montage about CBS's daytime lineup! Wayne Brady, Drew Carey, wave from the audience!

Tassler finally gets to the main attraction. "We don’t have many time slots to fill," she says, "so we are very selective about what makes the cut. Look, it’s a high-class problem." She first introduces 2 Broke Girls, a sitcom with a "modern sensibility, and a whole lot of attitude," which stars Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs, and is written by Sex and the City's Michael Patrick King. (It's also written by Whitney Cummings, but her new show on NBC must have made CBS want to downplay her involvement.) Later Tassler will say that this show tested better than any in CBS's history. We've read the script, and loved it: Unfortunately, the extremely long trailer, which hits just about every beat in the pilot, is disappointing. It's not just the canned laughs, though those don't help; it's that a cool show doesn't quite work when it's executed in the least cool way possible, i.e. with bad lighting, fake sets, and lame camerawork. At one point, Dennings snarks at a "hipster" for snapping in her face and says "this is the sound that dries up my vagina," a raunchy joke that just doesn't play well in multi-camera land. Behrs brings an unexpectedly welcoming bitchiness to the part, but our fingers are genuinely crossed that this will be better than it looks.

How to Be a Gentleman seems more suited to CBS. It co-stars Kevin Dillon as a meathead personal trainer, and David Hornsby as the effete magazine writer he will teach to become a real man. (ABC is probably kicking itself for not finding this one first.) The supporting cast on this — Dave Foley and Mary Lynn Rajskub — is pretty knockout, and Entourage's ickiness aside, Kevin Dillon has the "likable douchebag" pegged. At one point in the promo a Coldplay song comes on the soundtrack. In the previous 2 Broke Girls trailer, Dennings made fun of someone for dressing like Coldplay. One of these sitcoms is hipper than the other, but we're not sure they both fit on this network.

Time for another montage, this time of CBS's comedies. All the stars of the shows get up in their seats and wave to the audience. Like sands through the hourglass ...

Tassler begins the next segment by saying she's taking a "deep cleansing breath." There's a laugh, because everyone knows what this means: Two and a Half Men time! As with Couric, Charlie Sheen's name goes unmentioned, but he's hanging over the proceedings. "Well, it’s been an educational few months," Tassler admits, before introducing "social-media mogul" Ashton Kutcher, Jon Cryer, and Angus T. Jones. They come out snapping: Kutcher has shaggy hair and beard. He seems like he hasn't prepared very well, but is glad to be there. He says as much, "This is awesome. I could not be more happy to be here. For some reason they’re letting me talk." He then says, "It’s like I won the lotto, which I kind of did." There's a pause as the audience takes in that he's bragging about his salary. As it sinks in, Kutcher changes course, "Because I have the best job in showbiz." He then says some endearing stuff about how he was always told, "Surround yourself by the best, and work your ass off. And I am surrounded by the best, and I will work my ass off." Cryer, whose line delivery is always impeccable, chimes in to say, "Did you have to get a tall guy?" and that he has "brought [himself] to a place of incredible excitement about our new beginning, which I am going to refer to as One and Two Half Men. They skedaddle.

God forbid this thing should move along: Drama montage time! And then an extremely long trailer for Unforgettable, starring Poppy Montgomery as a woman who remembers everything, except the day her sister was murdered. She can fast-forward through her own memories to solve crimes, and after skipping out on the Syracuse Police Department (she had the "highest clearance rate in history of Syracuse PD," which is maybe the best line of these entire upfronts), her cop ex-boyfriend convinces her to join up again. It's like The Mentalist, but with a hot girl instead of Simon Baker. Should do really well.

Next is A Gifted Man, starring Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Ehle, and directed by Jonathan Demme. The involvement of all of these talented people does not keep this from being a total schlock fest that will also, probably, do really well on its Friday time slot. Wilson is an asshole surgeon who stops being an asshole when he starts seeing visions of his dead ex-wife. She ran a clinic in the Bronx, and she is going to make him not a jerk. It reminds us of both the Reese Witherspoon rom-com Just Like Heaven and the ghost Denny story line on Grey's Anatomy, and neither of those are good things.

Last but not least is the Person of Interest trailer. Tassler says this J.J. Abrams series tested better than any drama on CBS in fifteen years, including CSI and NCIS, and it's getting a plum Thursday spot to prove it. Tassler sets it up as follows: "Something terrible will happen, and all you have is a Social Security Number. It's high tech meets highly trained vigilante." Jim Caviezel, a.k.a. Jesus, plays a homeless guy who lounges around on the subway with an insanely bushy beard and secretly fearsome fighting skills, until he is picked up and forced to shave by Lost's Ben. Michael Emerson's line deliveries are so distinct, it's hard not to think this new character is just Ben, pretending. In the promo, New Ben has built a machine that invades your privacy so hard it can track down terrorists. Though the government now has the machine, he's rigged it to spit him the Social Security Numbers of, yes, persons of interest. Jesus and New Ben don't know if the number belongs to a victim or a perpetrator, but it's Jesus's job to figure that out, and also to demonstrate his fancy gun-fighting skills. "One man has the skills. One man has the resources.This fall." Dunh dunh.

Tassler now takes a few minutes to go through the schedule night by night, mentioning that Rules of Engagement will move to Saturdays, and The Good Wife to Sunday. ("The most prestigious drama, to our most prestigious night.") She wraps up with a couple of soundbites and digs at the competition — "What you see before you is the strongest lineup on television. Period"; "CBS has a winning formula: mass appeal hits, and strong scheduling strategies"; "We've never changed our strategy, or wavered with fashions and trends." It's all true. If only they didn't have to rub it in.

More Upfront Reviews:
Reviewing the ABC Upfront: Gender Issues
Reviewing the Fox Upfront: Things Are Easier When You’re No. 1
Reviewing the NBC Upfront: Seriously Musical