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The Television Upfronts: Michael J. Fox is back! Faris & Samberg get their own shows!

May 17, 2013

This is “What’s Making Me Happy This Week,” a weekly feature inspired by the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. It’s pretty self-explanatory.

What’s Making Me Happy This Week is the announcement of the 2013-14 television schedules[1] for the four major networks[2], aka, the upfronts. Once upon a time the upfronts were a reason for excitement, as the networks roll out their stars and show their best 3-minute trailers and announce that this coming year is going to be better than ever! The best analogy I can think of is spring training baseball, when all of the stories coming out of camp in Florida and Arizona are about how pitcher X has found the fountain of youth and is poised for a bounce-back season, and batter Y added muscle and is hitting for more power and rookies A, B, and C are all ready to make significant strides and help the big league club. The sun in shining, everyone is optimistic … this year is going to be our year.

The television landscape has shifted dramatically though in the last decade, for three reasons:

  1. Original programming on cable TV, where the networks can get away with a lot more – not just in terms of language and content, but also with regards to scheduling, length and style of shows, and in just about every other way imaginable – has minimized the relevance of the big four networks when it comes to innovative programming. More people may watch The Big Bang Theory than any other show, but very few people would look to CBS for the next big thing in comedy or drama. This started with The Sopranos on HBO in 1999 and has expanded into even the most unlikely cable outlets, like AMC with Mad Men and Breaking Bad today.
  2. DVRs. They are no longer a way to watch scripted television, they are the only way. Part of the excitement of the upfronts revolved around seeing which shows would be placed in prime spots, like Thursday nights at 8pm, and which would be sanctioned to death without actually being cancelled (anything scheduled opposite American Idol in the early 2000s). Comedy blocks like NBC’s Must-See TV on Thursday nights mattered; nowadays they are still promoted that way, though the networks fail to realize that the days of watching Wings because it aired after Cheers are long gone. If your big announcement is that Parks & Rec is changing nights, I have a big announcement for you – I watch Parks & Rec, and I have no idea what night it airs.
  3. Snarky television bloggers. I love what Tim Goodman and Alan Sepinwall and Andy Greenwald and the folks at the A.V. Club and Television Without Pity are doing. Television is so much more interesting with this new style of critic around. But with any internet blogger comes a degree of cynicism that cannot be avoided. Instead of the glowing spring stories spun only by the network hype machines, we have more objective (and therefore more brutally honest) stories about the expected hits and misses of the fall. As a viewer with way too many choices, I would be lost without the “up front” work done by these dedicated taste-makers. The upfronts do lose a little charm though when we know months before a show’s aired that it is destined to be canceled by mid-season. Sometimes even a Pittsburgh Pirates fan just needs to believe.

I look at all those factors, and all the television series that have been canceled in their infancy over the years, and for some reason I don’t care. Most of the new shows turn out to be pretty awful, and occasionally good ones don’t make it through despite critical acclaim.[3] I don’t care that the rookies rarely pan out, that the past-his-prime pitcher will inevitably get injured again, that my team that was so full of promise in March probably won’t even be in the hunt come the All-Star break. Because just like a fan of those perennially disappointing Pirates, I don’t look at the season as a zero-sum game, playoffs or bust. Television programming will inevitably disappoint if you expect to hit a home run with every swing. I find my victories in the little things – surprise hits, returning favorite stars, new performers I’ve been rooting for finally getting their chance, and, every so often, rare as it is, an overhyped show actually meeting expectations. There are dozens of new shows slated for the 2013-14 season; just by virtue of dumb luck, a few of them will be gems and a few others will be worth some time. So here’s what’s making me happy in this week of upfronts:

  • Michael J. Fox is back on television. This makes me happy for the obvious reasons, but also because I grew up on Alex P. Keaton and Marty McFly. More Michael J. Fox can only be a good thing.
  • The Goldbergs, courtesy of Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production company.  Per Greenwald, it “fast-forwards The Wonder Years into the VHS era and replaces the family Christmas tree with a bright and shiny menorah.” What’s not to love?
  • Michael Schur (of The Office, Parks & Rec and Fire Joe Morgan fame) has created a new show starring Andy Samberg. I have a feeling that in true Schur tradition, it will take half a season to find its voice and then be a hit for the next five years at least.
  • Two funny, talented and underrated (not to mention beautiful) female actresses, Anna Faris and Malin Akerman, each have their own show. Finally. I don’t care that Faris’s is called Mom and Akerman’s is called Trophy Wife, and therefore I am obviously not the intended target audience for either. Now I can watch and enjoy Farris without paying $15 to see a terrible movie and I can watch and enjoy Akerman without the inanity of Childrens Hospital.
  • About a Boy is being adapted into a sitcom. As a Nick Hornby fan, I’m intrigued.

And a few notable things that I’m not particularly excited about but could surprise me:

  • Robin Williams is back on TV for the first time since Mork & Mindy. Will Arnett is also back with another new show, which feels like an annual tradition.
  • 24 is back, but for only 12 episodes. It will still take place over 24 consecutive hours, but we will only see the 12 most meaningful ones. Seems like someone was desperate to get this show back on the air by any means necessary.
  • SNL writer John Mulaney created a show called Mulaney that was not picked up. Every year there is one of these, a show that could be great[4] yet doesn’t even air, while Two and a Half Men enters season 73. I’m hopeful though that this means that Mulaney is finally on people’s radar screens and that one day he’ll have his Louie.

Like I said, there’s a good chance most of these shows won’t make it, and with good reason. And a few won’t make it despite my belief that they deserve to be on the air. It could be better to be Mulaney, never seeing the light of day, than Faris, in the off chance she gets canceled after a few bad episodes. You don’t get many chances to be a lead in a prime time show, unless your name is Will Arnett. Those are worries for the fall though; right now it is spring, and hope abounds. Alex P. Keaton, Mork from Ork and Jack Bauer are all back!

And that’s What’s Making Me Happy This Week.

[1] The actual full schedules can be found at these links: NBC; CBS; ABC; Fox.

[2] That is CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox. I’m leaving out the CW because I just don’t care. If you do, I respect that, and offer this CW upfront preview courtesy of TWoP.

[3] Though every once in a while something wonderful like this happens.

[4] Apparently the pilot was great, not to my surprise. Read this.

From → Television

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