Fall TV Pilot Watch, Part 1: The death of NBC smartcoms?

As has been my custom in other places*, I plan to take on the self-flagellating exercise of watching every fall network pilot I am even remotely interested in (and some I’m not) in an attempt to see what has potential in the television landscape. As someone who loves television but has a limited amount of time (and who didn’t have ready access to TV until only a few years ago), I’m always worried that I might miss something good amidst all the dreck that’s churned out in a given year. The fall pilot marathon is my way of singling out the shows I think have potential, a personal tradition that I share with you.

This year, NBC has done me the courtesy of airing two of its pilots well ahead of time in order to capitalize on the ratings of the Olympics, which along with the Super Bowl is the only thing that most people watch on NBC. I now present the brief first leg of my 2012 pilot-watching experience.

I had heard mostly bad things about “Go On,” the Peacock network’s new Matthew Perry sitcom. As such, I was surprised to be kind of won over by this comedy about a quirky grief support group, the damaged and ethnically diverse members of which will presumably learn how to “go on” in life by relying on and supporting each other, almost like… a “Community.”

But more on that later.

I was a little more hopeful for “Animal Practice” because – much like the purebred canines that come through the doors of the quirky veterinarian clinic in which the show is set – the show has a fine pedigree. It’s helmed in part by the Russo brothers, famous among TV nerds for the pioneering directing work they’ve done on “Arrested Development” and “Community,” and perhaps soon to achieve more fame as the directors of the next Captain America flick. My love for the duo’s previous work notwithstanding, I was not a huge fan of their latest output.

Go On

NBC, 8 p.m. Central on Tuesdays, Comedy

Would Watch Again? Tentatively yes

Premise: Talk show host Ryan King (Perry) joins a diverse grief support group after his wife dies in a car accident. The smartass, too-charming-by-half King finds his defenses slowly lowered by this genuine group of people and their crazy antics.

I was surprised by how engaged I was by this. Yes, Perry’s King often takes the most bedraggled and snippy version of Chandler Bing and puts him on display, but Perry’s delivery can sell it, and the writers give him a few good jokes along the way (my personal favorite: “Here’s a quote. Sign my thing!”). There are also a couple of genuinely touching emotional moments, the best being a montage of the group members reflecting on their lives after loss.

The show suffers from frequent tonal shifts, and there are a couple of warning signs that a few of the ancillary characters could become too over-the-top. But the show’s biggest problem is one that probably wasn’t noticed by most of the people who watched the pilot.

I’m far from the first person to say this, but if you’re a “Community” fan, this is all going to seem strangely familiar. King in particular seems to be made from a slightly modified Jeff Winger mold, and the “quirky gang of misfits” idea, while not trademarked by “Community,” also seems like an attempt to do a more homogenized and mass appeal version of the folks at Greendale. At the very least, the idea that NBC thinks “Community” would be better if it was more normal will be a tad irritating for hardcore fans of the beleaguered comedy.

That being said, there is promise in a relatively sharp script (for a pilot, anyway) and what appears to be a talented ensemble. The pilot is worth seeing for the “March Sadness” bit teased in the trailers alone, and while I don’t ever see the show transcending Dan Harmon’s masterpiece, I actually thought “Go On’s” pilot had more laughs than “Community’s” did.

Animal Practice

NBC, 7 p.m. Central on Wednesdays, Comedy

Would Watch Again? No

Premise: Arrogant-but-effective veterinarian George Coleman (Justin Kirk) finds his misanthropic approach to animal care confounded by his clinic’s new owner, former flame Dorothy Crane (Joanna Garcia-Swisher).

If this were to come out next fall, I might have given it more of a chance. The 2012-2013 season is likely the last hurrah for a lot of the shows I watch, and with the end in sight for “Fringe,” “30 Rock,” probably “Community,” possibly “Parks and Recreation” and “How I Met Your Mother” and hopefully “The Office,” I would have a lot more time to indulge in shows that are light on laughs but contain a sliver of potential.

But not this year.

The dialogue is snappy and quick like the Russos’ past shows, but it’s not nearly as funny. While the three vets at the clinic have a winning chemistry that’s alternately collegial, pathetic and abusive, Crane’s appearance and drive for professionalism seems to dampen the fun and tamp down the comedic potential of the setting, all for the purpose of providing the obligatory romantic subplot with Coleman. Plus, Betsy Sodaro’s Angela is almost annoying enough by herself to make you want to tune out of the whole show.

The possibility of improvement is here. Kirk delivers an effortless deadpan, and some of the other cast members are showing clear talent. But the jokes aren’t hitting, and I’ve got other shows to watch.

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TV trend-watchers are seeing a sizable shift back to broader comedy at NBC, which has been known in the last decade for its poorly-rated but highly-praised smartcoms. “Go On” and “Animal Practice” seem to be a confirmation of that trend, but at least they appear to be broader comedies with an NBC, rather than CBS, mentality.

It’s hard to imagine that either of these shows will be amazing, but “Go On” in particular could turn out to be at least consistently amusing, and neither show signs that they’ll resort to the bottom-of-the-barrel frat boy humor that characterizes some of CBS’s smash hits. I’m just holding out hope that the broadening of the Peacock will still leave room for the shows I really love on the margins.

* Sorry for the bad formatting and developing writing of my older posts. Also, I would no longer express excitement in a Rush Limbaugh cameo in a show I watch. Out of the pilots I reviewed both years, I am still watching “New Girl” and “Up All Night.” I’ve seen “Running Wilde” through to completion, and I watched both “Pan Am” and “Undercovers” until they were canned, at which point I didn’t finish out their episode runs.

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One thought on “Fall TV Pilot Watch, Part 1: The death of NBC smartcoms?

  1. Pingback: Fall Pilots, week one: Fox strikes first | Matinee Culture

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