In the middle of the pilot for NBC’s new Matt Perry vehicle, Go On, Perry’s widowed radio host confronts his group therapy moderator (played by Laura Benanti) in Benanti’s car. The two have a tense exchange, and it becomes abundantly clear that they’re at opposite ends of the jaded/idealistic spectrum. And that, despite their various defenses and façades, each shares some of the other’s jadedness and optimism. Without going into specifics, it all feels somewhat familiar—possibly because it recalls a key moment in the first episode of The Peacock Network’s much-loved, forever-beleaguered Community.
And yet, there’s no sense from this half-hour that a possible mid-third-season episode of the show would take the form of a Ken Burns documentary. Or a loving Law & Order homage. Or a side-scrolling video game adventure. And from what NBC bosses Robert Greenblatt and Jennifer Salke told the Television Critics Association this morning, that’s the type of vibe Go On and the three other comedies premièring on the network ought to be projecting. NBC makes a killing in sports programming (have you heard that it’s airing the Olympics this year?), reality fare, and late-night series (President of Alternative and Late Night Programming Paul Telegdy was nothing but steely assurance during the session, as one usually is going into an election cycle that will drive monologue jokes and goose Saturday Night Live into a pair of primetime specials), but it’s had a major problem finding audiences for the acclaimed scripted comedies that have comprised the majority of its Thursday night lineup for the last several years.
The response: Broaden, broaden, broaden. “We didn’t sit down and say ‘Let’s find shows with animals and babies,’” Salke said—but it did greenlight a show where The Monkey Formerly Known as Annie’s Boobs sports a lab coat. They love Community, Parks And Recreation, and “Tina Fey” (but not 30 Rock as a whole?)—it’s just been an uphill battle to garner Modern Family- or Big Bang Theory-sized numbers for those shows. And they probably never will. Greenblatt’s statement on the older shows in NBC’s comedy stable didn’t rule out that the network is done with fostering and protecting the niche shows you love—it just doesn’t have the liberty to do so at this point. The execs are on the lookout for new comedies with strong visions, but that strong vision, they admitted, can’t be so specific. “Does this spell the end for Community?” the critics ask, pretending that they haven’t spent most of the show’s existence repeating that question over and over again, a nagging anxiety that keeps them awake at night as they clutch the Inspector Spacetime notebook they bought from Etsy close to their chest. “I would categorically not rule out that it’s not the last season,” Greenblatt answered in the twisty language of one question from the gallery. So, there’s that.
There’s also the fact that Greenblatt and Salke willingly let one potential boon to the network slip through their fingers: Salke related the story of Universal’s decision to generously grant The Mindy Project to Fox, this despite the fact that it was developed for NBC by a writer/creator/star who honed her vision on the network’s biggest sitcom. It’s part of a bright future foreseen by Salke and Greenblatt where the flagging U.S. broadcast networks lend one another a hand by fostering a generous, open exchange of programming development, and no, why would you suggest that anyone at NBC is disappointed that it lost The Mindy Project? Why cry over spilled Mindy when Ryan Murphy’s ready to offer up a “love letter to families” in the form of his sure-to-be-button-pushing comedy The New Normal? This fall will see the network making a big play for a mass audience with a wide-nozzle spray of laughs; a show with strong echoes of last fall’s biggest comedy première, New Girl, just didn’t fit into that plan.
In other vague mentions of shows that you care about that: NBCs execs are “inordinately proud” of Parenthood—which wasn’t mentioned by name, but was alluded to by timeslot (Tuesday night) and genre (drama)—but they wish more people would watch it. You know, like nearly every scripted offering on the schedule. That’s a statement that’s as familiar as the aforementioned scene from the Go On pilot, but unless the bottom entirely falls out on NBC’s new fall slate, it may be the last time it’s applied to the likes of Parenthood, Community, or Parks And Recreation. Then again, this is NBC we’re talking about, so maybe we’ll get to hear it all over again next year.