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upfronts 2011

Reviewing the NBC Upfront: Seriously Musical

The big news from NBC's upfront presentation at the Hilton Hotel is that Trump will not be running for president, but that was just a minute of what was a strong, if overly long show. Clocking in at two hours, the presentation was yet another one where NBC swore up and down that the adults were back in charge, and that this would be the year the network would start to make its comeback. But backed by a much stronger production slate, it seemed like this year that finally just might be true. Even the glacial pace added to the effect: NBC under Comcast, Ted Harbert, and Bob Greenblatt will not be cutting corners (or costs), they will be going down the checklist, even if it takes all morning.

But for Trump, who made his announcement late in the proceedings, this upfront would have been notable for being more or less a musical upfront. As the crowd poured into the Hilton conference room, they were greeted by the Roots performing a very loud, raucous set at 11 a.m. in the morning — just the first of many musical numbers. Musicians performing before twilight for a bunch of advertising people is a real crucible of their cool: The Roots, it should be said, still have some.

Wrapping up their set, the Roots introduced Seth Meyers, who did an upfront-centric "Weekend Update" live from the stage. He started off strong, joking that under Comcast, "Seriously, I have to say things are better already. Seriously, I have to say that," and following up with a joke about The Voice: "People say we’re ripping off American idol, to which we say, if you have a better idea, I’d love to hear it." At just the mention of The Voice, there was some spontaneous whooping in the audience. Things got a little stickier after that. A Gwyneth Paltrow joke bombed (talking about NBC's new musical show Smash, Meyers said, "Gwyneth Paltrow, if you're listening, they’ll call you." Media buyers, apparently on Team Gwyneth!). A few other inside-baseball jokes at NBC's expense — about Paul Reiser and Wonder Woman — didn't quite land. The crowd seemed like it didn't really want to hear NBC beating up on itself anymore. Alternately, a joke about how the retirement of Regis Philbin, Larry King, and Jim Lehrer means CBS would get three more viewers went over very well.

Out came NBC chairman Ted Harbert, who talked about NBC's circumstance and just how great Bob Greenblatt is. He's so great that when Harbert was sending out a company-wide e-mail the morning after The Voice premiered, and he sent it to Greenblatt for edits, the only edit Greenblatt made was to take his name out of it. (But does it count as humble if you get public credit for it?) Harbert also said NBC is going for “a little less reinvention of the wheel, and a lot more broadcasting 101," which got some spontaneous applause.

Enter Greenblatt, who made a joke about the carpet ("I warn everyone not to spend time looking at the unfortunate carpet, I think it’s left over from the CW upfront"), the only moment of Hilton-related status anxiety at this upfront; this was a marked change from last year, when NBC execs spent a lot of time apologizing that the show was no longer at Radio City. Greenblatt, wearing a lightly patterned black suit, and baby-blue striped tie, struck a realistic, but un-cowed note. They have a lot of work to do, and, you know what, they're doing it. He intends "to rebuild our brand, one night at a time if necessary" and to "turn NBC into a place everyone starts talking about again."

Toward that end, he kicked things off with a conversation about NBC's new hit and "rare gift from God," The Voice. Greenblatt explained why the network was holding it until spring — so they could figure out a format that has it go for longer than ten weeks and grow it into a reliable, long-term blockbuster. He then showed a clip reel for The Voice that was nothing short of masterful: a really excellent cut, and also, lordy, what a boon this whole thing has been to Christina Aguilera, whose face gets pride of place in all the promotional materials, and thus gets promoted every time the show does. After the video, Greenblatt was sure to mention mid-season show Smash, lest anyone mistake its 2012 premiere date for anything less than total network confidence.

Greenblatt then did a walk-through of the schedule, night by night. The Sing-Off, which will keep The Voice's spot warm for it on Monday nights, would have looked better had it not aired right after The Voice's promo, which was a lot more substantial. The Playboy Club, Greenblatt swears, is not that risqué. It's "more about the fun of the early sixties, and the beginning of the sexual revolution," he said, and "is honestly quite tame to what you might see on the Jersey Shore." As Vulture's Josef Adalian pointed out on Twitter, The Playboy Club looks like Mad Men meets Showgirls (the clip for it opens with ice hitting a tumbler, and then a behind the head shot, both pure Mad Men), and the audience seemed into it, until a murder plot reared its head. Well, maybe it wasn't the murder so much as the murder being "death by stiletto in skull," a ridiculous shot which, yes, they showed. Is it a lifestyle show, or a murder drama? Can it be both at once? The audience clapped politely.

Greenblatt breezed through Tuesday (the next Biggest Loser will have a young versus old format) to get to Wednesday, where he's launching some new comedies. He said he has "no illusions about how difficult it will be to succeed here," and pledged a big marketing push and also patience (which is code for "won't be canceled immediately"). The first show was Up All Night, starring Christina Applegate, Will Arnett, and Maya Rudolph, and — sunshine and flowers! — it looks like the show might actually be a worthy vehicle for all these folks. It's about "what happens to a married couple that loves to party once a baby comes into the picture," and despite the sound in the Hilton being a little fuzzy, it looks funny, diaper difficulties and bleeped curses included. The other new show on Wednesday will be Free Agents with Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn as messed-up co-workers who keep sleeping together. Buffy's Giles is their boss (a part he played in the British version of this show), and despite too much talking about sex lives at work meetings, this could maybe be all right. What's definitely not all right, however, is the poster for this show, which has Hahn on her knees giving Azaria a suggested blow job. The two leads sure do look equal in that image!

On to Thursday, where Greenblatt gave really perfunctory props to Parks and Rec, and only slightly less perfunctory props to Community and The Office. His "number 1 goal is to strengthen Thursday night," but the comedy he's chosen to do that, Whitney, just looks ... not good. There's a laugh track and jokes like, "I have a girlfriend, so I can't engage in any kind of merriment." Girlfriends, such a drag. The clip picks up when Whitney Cummings dresses up in a nurse's outfit to spice up her sex life with her long-term boyfriend and ends up asking him to fill out forms, which is a funny idea, but would be funnier in a single-camera format. Hope this one turns out to be better than it looks here, for NBC's sake.

Also airing on Thursday night will be the American remake of Prime Suspect. For people who know and love Helen Mirren in the part, it may be difficult to buy Maria Bello. For people unfamiliar with the Mirren version of show, this looks pretty great. Ostracized by her fellow homicide detectives ("Some call it New York’s finest. Some call it a boys' club. This fraternity is all dicks, and one Jane"), Bello just has to be better than them, which means getting beaten up, flashing her gun whenever she wants to, and rocking a ridiculous fedora so hard she looks badass doing it. One quibble: Why is it that when female detectives have to prove they have something to offer it is always by bonding with the kid the male detectives can't bother to figure out? Lady cops, not just awesome because they're secretly maternal, right? Still, a great, creepy scene in the cutdown where Bello coaxes a kid to tell her what she needs to know by letting him touch her gun. The kid says. "I would kill him [the bad guy] with this." Bello responds, "I would help you." Coooool.

On to Friday. The trailer for Grimm, just looks ... ridiculous. A detective can see fairy-tale creatures, and it turns out the Little Red Riding Hood story is real, it's just Little Red Riding Hoodie now, and the wolf is both a wolf and a pederast. Bad people, bad because they are actually fairy-tale people. No good.

At this point, we should be wrapping things up, but no. There's a late-night montage. Then Jimmy Fallon comes out in an untucked plaid shirt and sings a song: "Have a Comcast-ic day, have a Comcast-ic night, throw a bunch of cash at these new shows, and everything will be all right." He blows a shofar and yells Bob Greenblatt's name. There's a way-too-long sports clip, showcasing each matchup of the coming NFL season, and then the Olympics. Greenblatt comes out and introduces clips for the three "backup comedies," Are You There Chelsea, It's Me Vodka, Amanda Peet's Bent, and BFF (for those of you not up on "text," that's Best Friends Forever, Greenblatt explains, although Best Friends Forever definitely pre-dates text). None of these look great; only Are You There Chelsea looks bad. The best thing about BFF is Happy Endings' Adam Pally, who will have to be recast. The poster for BFF, shows one of the lead women holding up oranges like they are her breasts. After they reshoot the Free Agents lead art, they can do this one next.

People are starting to sort of mosey out at this point. It's been an hour and a half. There's a clip for Awake, the mid-season drama starring Jason Isaacs, and it looks pretty cool: A guy toggles between two lives, one where his wife is alive, and one where his son is alive, and he can't tell which is real, and doesn't want to quit either.

Brian Williams comes out to say the NBC news team is the best, and they will be doing a new newsmagazine show using all their deep talent, but he has no specifics to offer. They haven't even planned it yet, and "it's going to be tempting to compare it to things, but I’m not going to have it." So, please, don't compare this show that has no format yet, to a show that does. Okay?

Then Greenblatt invites the Donald out to tell us all that he is not running for president. There are cheers. It's weird, though, because it's at an upfront, where people clap at everything, so it's hard to tell if this is actually, like, cheers of joy, or just cheers of politeness. Certainly, there is some clapping from joy, but more from habit.

And now the last clip of the upfront! And, not going to lie, Smash, a Greenblatt favorite, looks great. Debra Messing plays a producer who is putting together a musical based on Marilyn Monroe, and she and her director, producer (Anjelica Huston), and writer are auditioning Marilyns. One of them is played by Katharine McPhee, who is clearly the star of the show, Messing and Huston's bigger names aside. McPhee sings Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" (NBC: Now promoting Christina Aguilera on all platforms!), and it's great. Later, the director calls her over to his house and makes her seduce him, "Happy Birthday, Mr. President"–style. She does this, too, and it's also great. The production values on this look good, and it suddenly seems like there is a way to do musical TV that is not exactly like Glee. Two people next to me spontaneously say, "Wow."

To end the show, Greenblatt wants to leave us with three thoughts: "We know we have to rebuild this network." There will be no "scrimping" at the margins; NBC is going to pay up. And finally, "We know this is all going to take time." Until then, though, NBC has The Voice and Christina Aguilera, who comes out to sing. She performs with the Roots and some backup singers. People are leaving in earnest now, but, it. is. not. over. Aguilera calls out Cee Lo. He sings "Crazy." And it's still not over! Marianne Gambelli comes back out, but NBC has already made its point: NBC, the musical channel, with a solid development slate, is going to be a serious player again. Seriously.