Reviewing the NBC Upfront: Seriously Musical

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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,