NBC is in a dramatic bind. Despite their perpetually low ratings, the struggling network has several of the most critically-beloved sitcoms on the air (Community, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation) and others (Up All Night, Best Friends Forever) that might reach those heights. Although the less said about the painfully lame Whitney and Are You There, Chelsea?, the better.
But the Peacock just can't catch a break with its hour-long dramas. NBC only premiered six new dramatic series during the 2011-12 season, and despite enormous amounts of hype, nearly all failed to catch the audience's attention. Let's review the situation.
This intriguing and twisty mystery debuted to impressive reviews and strong numbers, scoring NBC its best ratings in nearly two years at 10 pm Thursday. But although the series, starring Jason Isaacs as a man whose life switches between two different realities every time he wakes up, has maintained a devoted fanbase, casual viewers have rapidly dropped away: the sixth episode had less than half the pilot's audience. But as one of their few critically-acclaimed dramas, NBC would do well to nurture those core viewers.
Remember like 15-20 years ago, when John Grisham novels were all the rage? This strangely old-fashioned legal thriller updating the storyline of Grisham's 1991 best-seller and its Tom Cruise-starring film adaptation sure hopes so, but apparently not many folks do. It has an appealing cast, with Josh Lucas in the Cruise role of idealistic lawyer Mitch McDeere, supported by beloved Canadian indie stars Molly Parker and Callum Keith Rennie as his wife and brother. But the show's pacing and direction are so stodgy that even new episodes feel like reruns. After only a month, The Firm was booted from Thursday to the television Siberia of 9 pm Saturday, and likely won't be renewed for a second season.
One of the few relative success stories of the season, the fantasy/police procedural mash-up Grimm hasn't gotten the critical buzz that its doppelganger Once Upon A Time has over at ABC, but its fans are positively rabid, especially online. The show has been deservedly renewed for a second season, and will hopefully build on its cult following.
Honestly, this one never had a shot. Even Pan Am was better than this limp attempt to remake the swinging cool of Mad Men. Filled with unlikeable characters and plots that made no sense, The Playboy Club was the first casualty of the season, and for good reason. Given that there was no way it could have the square sex appeal of the magazine, watching it was like only being able to read the articles.
NBC promoted the heck out of this reworking of the classic British police procedural, but the ad campaign itself destroyed any chance that fans of the original would check out the American version. Number one, Maria Bello is no Helen Mirren, and never will be. Number two, the ads tried to make Bello's character Jane Timoney "sexy," which is a slap in the face of the plainspoken, gritty original series. Finally, there was that stupid, stupid hat Bello wore in all the ads. She looked like an idiot. Prime Suspect debuted weak and got weaker: its final episode in January had barely half the viewers of the premiere.
I am not sure I have ever seen critics turn so sharply against a show so quickly: it took nearly a season and a half for people to notice that Glee was an incoherent mess, for example. But after debuting to uniformly very strong reviews, critics had their knives out for Smash within three more episodes, pointing out (correctly, I'm afraid) that the situations and characters are becoming more outlandish and unbelievable from week to week. Still, ratings have been strong enough that the show has already been renewed for a second season. The cast is great, and hopefully the writing kinks can work themselves out.
Coming Up Next Season
So far, NBC has announced three new dramas for 2012-13: County, a medical drama set in a Los Angeles hospital starring Jason Ritter, a likeable actor who just hasn't found the right show yet; Chicago Fire, a procedural drama that finds Law and Order producer Dick Wolf moving from cops to firefighters; and Midnight Sun, an Alaska-set conspiracy drama featuring Julia Stiles as an FBI agent investigating the mysterious disappearance of a cult from their compound. None sound like game-changers, but hey, people probably said that before Hill Street Blues and ER started.