The upfronts in New York City—that yearly rite of spring in which networks unveil their fall lineups for the benefit of their advertisers—are typically cheerful but tense affairs. It's not unlike attending a Beautiful Baby pageant: There's so much promise and purity to the untested shows on parade, but we know in our hearts they won't stay this cute. Some may flop, despite flawless genetics and/or stunt-casting. Some may transcend their humble surroundings, like roses potted in manure (or in this case, the CW). Some may even become cult classics, DVD favorites, or Lost-caliber cash cows. We won't find out until the first cold snap—oh, anticipation!
Here's just a glimpse of the horn-of-plenty we'll enjoy—or coldly reject—come autumn:
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC)
30 Rock (NBC)
A buddy of mine who hears hundreds of TV and movie pitches each year tells of a strange psychic phenomenon: Hollywood Hive Mind. "Let's say a guy sends me a treatment for—oh, say a killer-clown movie," my friend explains. "A week later, I'll inexplicably get another killer-clown pitch from an unrelated writer. Then another. Next thing I know, my inbox is a veritable circus of gore. Somehow, this random and not especially good idea has embedded itself in the collective consciousness of hacks from coast to coast. It's not plagiarism; it's a zeitgeist thing."
Maybe this explains why Studio 60 creator Aaron Sorkin and 30 Rock's Tina Fey are debuting near-identical ideas this fall, both for NBC. I mean, Sorkin and Fey are both respected writers—I highly doubt there's any intentional rhyme-biting going on here. And yet both shows are peeks at the mayhem behind the scenes of a live sketch comedy show.
Obviously Fey has the upper hand in terms of backstage cred; plus, unlike nutty Sorkin, she's never been busted for crack and 'shrooms. However, Studio 60 stars Matthew Perry (oh, how we've missed our Vicodin-popping, Jennifer Capriati-wooing Friend) and Bradley Whitford, who memorably played Eric in Billy Madison and also had a small, meaningless role on The West Wing.
Of course, this needn't be a death match. If viewers can comfortably support two hospital dramas, two British-nanny programs, and about five regional variants on CSI, then why shouldn't a couple of quality SNL-inspired shows survive? Plus, you know Sorkin's show is going to be dry and self-important, while Fey's will be hilarious and self-referential. Sometimes you feel like a nut, etc.
Seventh Heaven (CW)
Wait. Didn't this pious little show finally join the invisible choir a month ago? This can't be happening. Surely executives at the CW know better than to debut a brand-new network by exhuming the pungent corpse of a series that sucked even at its freshest. Keep in mind that Everwood was canned to make room for this retro bullshit; the anger you feel rising is righteous indeed.
Worse yet, there are currently three characters pregnant with twins on Seventh Heaven, which means a squalling six-headed beast will storm the Camden compound in time for sweeps. The power of Christ compels you to change the channel!
Besides, isn't this cheating? Since when can networks arbitrarily bring back shows that have officially (and ceremoniously) retired? What's next, Seinfeld Moves to Brooklyn? Golden Girls: The Hospice Years? IT'S OVER! It's been over since Jessica Biel left!
What About Brian? (ABC)
This isn't exactly new, though tepid initial ratings mean it'll be new to most. I caught a couple of episodes of this show when it premiered this April and was underwhelmed. See, I had decided prematurely that Brian was going to be my new visual Häagen-Dazs, because I've "admired" leading man Barry Watson ever since he was on...okay, fine, Seventh Heaven. Please, it was like 10 years ago!
Anyway, here, Watson plays the titular unlucky-in-love bachelor whose friends—all happily coupled themselves—are desperate to find him a gal. Unfortunately, Brian has the screaming hots for his best friend's fiancée. Yeah. I'm so bored with this premise that I can't muster the energy to yawn. Obviously Bri's going to get the girl, but not before we have to suffer through weeks (years?) of will-they-or-won't-they.
Or perhaps the show will improve vastly this fall and prove me wrong. Maybe Marjorie will marry her betrothed (who's an asshole, natch) and Brian will have to rethink his dating strategy. Besides, the supporting cast is excellent, especially Roseanna Arquette as an aging hipster grappling with infertility. There's more than a flicker of hope for Brian—judging by the response on the internet, the show has some seriously intense devotees already. Then again, judging by the response on the internet, people are seriously devoted to the idea that the Mossad planned 9/11 with Dick Cheney and the Rosicrucians.
Does FOX (a.k.a. The No-Soul Patrol) even need to develop new programming anymore? At this point they could roll out a show called Kellie Pickler Nostril-Cam and still whoop CBS.
Given the staggering success of the American Idol juggernaut (seriously—the numbers are untouchable), it's no surprise that their most hotly awaited series comes to us courtesy of Simon Cowell.
Duets is like the shrewdly conceived spawn of Dancing with the Stars and Idol. "Celebrities" (and you know how loosely this term is bandied about on FOX) will be teamed with professional singers to perform live for charity. Hypothetical pairing: Nikki Sixx and Daphne Zuniga. Potential for awesomeness: highly debatable. Odds of early cancellation: nil.
So there you have it. A pristine, virginal cross section of shows absolutely no one has seen yet. Well, except for Seventh Heaven. Oh wait, and What About Brian?—that's not strictly new either. And I suppose those two sketch-comedy-based shows merely offer a meta-perspective on a series we've been watching since 1975. And Duets is an obvious retread of other celeb-meets-pro shows we've suffered through. I guess it's an autumnal rite of passage: novelty succumbing to crushing familiarity, just like a new school year.