Fall TV previews: If NBC is in such great shape, why do its shows look so sad?

Fall TV previews: If NBC is in such great shape, why do its shows look so sad?

Matt Ryan (NBC)
Matt Ryan (NBC)

It’s that time of year again, when television networks announce their upcoming fall lineups with a big party for advertisers in New York City. But upfront presentations also give the rest of us the chance to plan our future viewing schedules and season passes based on the same small snippets of footage on which major corporations are betting millions of dollars—with those lowered stakes, why wouldn’t you make snap judgments about the upcoming fall premieres. Judging a series based on an upfront sizzle reel is probably just as ill-advised as judging that same show by its pilot, but like upfronts and pilot season, such knee-jerk reactions are a TV tradition that our rapidly accelerating TV culture has yet to evolve beyond. As part of The A.V. Club’s continuing upfronts coverage, Erik Adams, Sonia Saraiya, and Todd VanDerWerff will be weighing in on these trailers all week long, fully aware that a new favorite may be hiding behind bizarre editing choices or poorly emphasized jokes. First up: NBC.

Constantine

Sonia Saraiya: I want Constantine to be great, so maybe I was reading a bit into the trailer. I’m wary of NBC’s take on this supernatural comic-book story, and the trailer indicates some messiness. But Matt Ryan looks well-cast as John Constantine, and the show has the necessary elements of horror and mysticism that round out the Hellblazer story. I’m less sure about the special effects, which veer between zombie-movie freakouts and Sleepy Hollow-style necromancy. But I’m interested to see what happens next, which is more than I can say for most of the other trailers on this list.

Erik Adams: What’s heartening to me, and what will likely help this series differentiate itself from the glut of new comic-book shows arriving this fall, are the pages Constantine appears to have ripped from the Sleepy Hollow playbook. We were all ready to write that series off this time last year, but then it proved to possess (no pun intended) the sort of devil-may-care (pun definitely intended) sense of fun that Fox exiled from Gotham. The Hellblazer concept has some inherent campiness that should provide the smirking antidote to its grim-and-gritty contemporaries. If not: Hey, at least we get Harold Perrineau with angel wings.

Marry Me

EA: Here’s where you can tell that upfront trailers are a poor indication of what these shows might end up being. This is two-and-a-half minutes of the latest show from the creator of the very funny Happy Endings, a show toplined by the very, very funny Casey Wilson and Ken Marino—and yet the editing and scoring for the preview has sucked most of the laughs out of the proceedings. Why are the first looks at all of these sitcoms so damn maudlin? I love Wilson, Marino, and Happy Endings, so I’m already pretty deep in the bag for Marry Me, though I suspect it’ll take a few weeks for the show to properly calibrate the rhythms and humor of these characters who appear to love one another very deeply, but have bad rom-com timing. That’s something that should come across better in a 22-minute version of this story.

SS: Yikes. I am glad you’re optimistic, Erik, because this one looks awful to me. The jokes aren’t funny even in the trailer, and the couple’s torturous dynamic can’t ever improve if the show is going to hold on to its premise. And that cast of thrown-in supporting actors screams desperation. I’m amazed at how sweet Ken Marino is in this trailer—but I’d be very surprised to see more than one or two episodes of this.

A To Z

EA: The cynic in me watched the A To Z trailer and immediately asked, “Well, which of one of these kooky kids is going to die and leave the other to tell the complete story of their relationship?” And not just because of the presence of Cristin Milioti, America’s favorite dead Mother, though the How I Met Your Mother echoes are abundant: Sensitive guy, costume parties, a totemic object of a specific color, the fact that Ben Feldman comes right out and says “This is the type of story people tell their kids.” There’s a “based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks” feel to this trailer, and the more treacly elements on display seem to be setting up a series that’s as much of a tear-jerker as it is a knee-slapper. Maybe more of a tear-jerker, even: The big laugh of the trailer involves Feldman’s character crashing a car because a bee flies down his throat, so it looks like A To Z might end up being the type of lightly comedic single-camera fare that only just started working for NBC in the form of About A Boy. (So that’s one thing A To Z doesn’t have in common with How I Met Your Mother.)

SS: Oh my god, this is the cutest trailer ever, but how are they going to sustain this heady rom-com feeling for a whole television show? Do not misunderstand me, Erik: I will watch the heck out of this show, as long as it provides me with cute kissing between America’s Cutest Supporting TV Characters, Michael Ginsberg and The Mother. But I’m a little wary of moving the rom-com formula to television—even though The Mindy Project has gotten much better, it still had to flounder through a season and a half to find itself. 

Bad Judge

SS: Okay, I liked this one, but I’m worrying that might be a reflection of my own terrible taste more than its actual quality. In the comedy Bad Judge, Kate Walsh plays a judge who does not have her life together—in a charming, silly kind of way, instead of the terrible and desperate addicted-to-something way. She shows up late to court and cheerfully exchanges details of her hangover with the lawyers and her court officers. She has a ridiculous love life which seems to involve sleeping with a district attorney in a socially sanctioned way. She also has a heart of gold, naturally, so she rescues kids from group homes when she can! It’s all very light and quite amusing, especially because Walsh is a gifted comedienne who hasn’t been given much of a chance to be the star of the show. This could be a pretty good little comedy.

EA: I’ll accept this as your official application for weekly Bad Judge reviews next fall, Sonia—I don’t anticipate you having much competition. The plus side of Bad Judge: This looks like the perfect follow-up for Walsh’s work as the widow Hess in Fargo, and from what little we can see here, she’s managed to make Judge Wright feel real and lived-in in a short amount of time. The downside of Bad Judge: There’s the touchy-feely subplot with the foster kid grafted onto this concept, which makes this show the one case in the new NBC lineup where a mushy, uplifting trailer is justified. (Semi-related: I hereby charge Florence + The Machine and Edward Sharp And The Magnetic Zeroes with egregious crimes against trailer-kind.)

State Of Affairs

SS: This is a mess. The trailer feels like a very quick summary of an action film of dubious quality—or a rom-com that has taken a terrible turn towards situation-room antics à la Scandal. I can see, on some level, how an action-drama by the creators of The Blacklist about the woman whose job it is to filter through the thousands of threats to international security every day so that she can present a concise report to the president. But I’m not sure that that woman needs to be played by Katherine Heigl, that her relationship needs to be complicated by the fact that she’s dating the president’s son, or that the son ends up dead and Heigl’s character swears to kill everyone responsible—which ends up being a bunch of vaguely Arab terrorists. It looks like it’s trying to hit every interesting note that Homeland, Scandal, and 24 ever played. On the plus side, Alfre Woodard plays the president. On the downside, the trailer packs about a season’s worth of plot in just three minutes, suggesting the producers are playing a smoke-and-mirrors game.

EA: NBC chose to give the fuller, cut-down treatment—essentially the main beats of a complete pilot, the better to let the advertisers know what they’re getting into—to the goofier pair of its fall dramas. Neither of those dramas is Constantine: High on the success of The Blacklist, The Peacock is eager to parlay those viewership numbers into another series centering on a female government operative surrounded by a swirling mass of international conspiracy and intrigue. There’s a promise of a smarter show in having that protagonist play off of Alfre Woodard rather than James Spader in full-blown ham mode—but everything else about State Of Affairs looks alternately to complicated or too generic. And let’s not kid ourselves: Obviously the president’s son is still alive.

The Mysteries Of Laura

EA: The prevailing narrative leading up to upfronts has been NBC’s miraculous reversal of fortunes, a brick-by-brick rebuilding process centered on big sporting events, first-season breakouts, reliable earners from the Dick Wolf stable, and broadcast’s biggest reality competition. It would appear that the bad decision-making that has plagued the network since the mid-’00s has finally subsided, and it can prepare to rule with—goddammit, someone at the network is still hellbent on making sure that at least one former Must See TV star gets their second chance on NBC, huh? With Will & Grace alum Debra Messing onboard, The Mysteries Of Laura looks like the actress’ consolation prize for sticking with both seasons of Smash. (It also looks like the requisite levity to an all-cops, all-night Wednesday lineup provided by Greg Berlanti and McG.) Placing the cherry on top of these trailers’ difficulties with tone, the Mysteries Of Laura cut-down doesn’t know if it’s a wacky law-enforcement comedy like Brooklyn Nine-Nine or if it should be practicing a grimace to go with that of Mariska Hargitay. (Splitting the difference: Here’s a Law & Order: SVU joke!) Prepare to hear all about this one from your aunt at Thanksgiving dinner; meanwhile, I’ll be quoting that weird ADR soundbite where one of the Diamond twins (we’re not talking enough about how Messing’s character is named Laura Diamond) does a sing-song “Superman” as if we couldn’t recognize the crest on his Underoos. Or maybe someone in editing is trying to convince us that NBC actually picked up two DC properties for the fall.

SS: Uhhhhh. Is this supposed to be a parody of something? (Seriously, I thought the “count to three” bit was a joke. Apparently it’s not a joke, and is a crucial part of how Laura takes down the real criminal. Uhhhh.) I can’t imagine this one surviving either, Erik: It’s all premise and no execution. Messing is flat in the role, greeting both criminals, her ex-husband, and her children with a deadpan, eyeliner-rimmed stare that is either brilliantly hilarious or a sad attempt at seriousness. The music of the trailer is Tom Jones’ “She’s A Lady,” which rather shamelessly recalls Miss Congeniality—a much better story with vaguely similar leads. But where Bullock was flawed and charming, Messing’s Laura is already perfect and just busy, which is… kind of boring, as it turns out!

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