Fall TV Forecast: How NBC Can Break Into 3rd Without Breakout Hits

NBC launches new slate with “Up All Night” and “Free Agents,” holding half its new shows until midseason

Last Updated: September 14, 2011 @ 10:56 AM

NBC doesn't seem to have a single breakout show this fall — but it may not need one to move up from fourth place.

As the network launches its first fall season under new entertainment president Bob Greenblatt and new owner Comcast, it hopes to shake off the failures of the past and surpass third-place ABC as quickly as possible. It may be able to do it this season.

In our latest installment of our five-part, network-by-network predictions for fall, we take a look at NBC's offerings.

Also read: Rating the Comcast-NBCU Merger: The New Culture Settles In

NBC kicks off its new slate Wednesday night with the comedies "Up All Night" (right) and "Free Agents." They could help the network establish a Wednesday comedy block — if it has some patience. "The Playboy Club" has the potential to surprise us, and "Prime Suspect" looks safe. But don't get too attached to "Whitney" or "Grimm."

NBC is holding half of its new shows until midseason, when it will also bring back "The Voice," the biggest new show of 2010-11. Until then, it has the highly successful Sunday Night Football. And on Feb. 5, it will have both football and "The Voice," when the show scores the coveted spot after the Super Bowl.

It may all be enough to help the network surpass ABC, which, like NBC, is playing it safe this fall.  Last season, ABC narrowly beat NBC for third place in the 18-49 race, averaging a 2.5 rating/7 share for the season vs. a 2.3/6.

Also read: Fall TV Forecast: Fox's 'X Factor,' 'Terra Nova' Can't Live Up to Hype

Here are our NBC predictions:

FREE AGENTS/UP ALL NIGHT

NBC does comedy better than anything else. Anchored by "Saturday Night Live," the network is home to all of the best comedies on broadcast television except ABC's "Modern Family."

With its two-hour, Thursday night comedy block a TV institution, it now hopes to gain traction on Wednesdays. Its new comedies there deserve to succeed, which doesn't mean they will. 

Both "Free Agents" and "Up All Night" (left) are intelligently written and acted shows that address grown-up problems. That would usually mean instant cancellation. But they're also genuinely funny. And their challenging time slot could work in their favor. (NBC is previewing the shows back-to-back starting at 10 p.m. Wednesday, before they move to their normal time in the 8 p.m. hour.)

The shows face both CBS's enduring "Survivor" and Fox's new "X Factor" (which we expect to pull strong ratings, without quite living up to its incredible hype). But their real problem might be ABC.

Both NBC and ABC have counter-programmed the slickly produced reality competitions with sitcoms, and ABC's look formidable. ("The Middle" gained an audience last year thanks in part to its Wednesday pairing with "Modern Family," and the new, funny "Suburgatory" has great buzz.)

But the competition may actually work in NBC's offerings favor. If its shows don't thrive there, NBC will have to realize that not much else would, either. And might give them more time.

"Free Agents" stars Hank Azaria as a divorced man and Kathryn Hahn as a woman whose fiance has died. They work together and sleep together. Then she decides they shouldn't do it again, and tries to stick to that. It sounds like a dull rom-com setup, except that each of them have believable, sympathetic conflicts. Azaria breaks down in tears in the first minute or so of the pilot. Hahn's character drinks a lot. They make mistakes and address them realistically, with the humor coming from the rawness.

Sounds fun, right? Anyway, your humble correspondent liked it.

"Up All Night" is an easier sell. It has a great cast in Will Arnett and Christina Applegate, as flustered new parents, and Maya Rudolph, as Applegate's talk show host boss. Her role was expanded after the success of "Bridesmaids."

Arnett's "Running Wilde" failed on Fox last year, in part because Arnett was willing — he often is — to play unlikable. His "Up All Night" character plays it straight — but bewildered — and he nicely sets up Applegate's comic freakouts.

WHITNEY

NBC has succeeded on Thursdays for the last few seasons with smart, satirical, single-camera ensemble comedies, featuring a mix of established comedians and hot newcomers: take "Community," "The Office," "Parks and Recreation," and "30 Rock."

Thursday night shows that stray too far from that approach ("Perfect Couples," "The Paul Reiser Show") tend to find themselves quickly canceled. Mostly because of that, we're predicting an early end for "Whitney," a multi-camera show about young people in love.

The mismatch in tone isn't the only problem. The main character, played by the talented comedian Whitney Cummings, doesn't get to be funny: Her show seems too intent on making her likable. If "Whitney" improves, it will likely be because the character becomes more idiosyncratic.

The actor playing her boyfriend, Chris D'Elia, is relegated to second banana, which is a shame, because he's not bad. Putting the couple on an equal footing might have added some spark.

The main hook — a happily unmarried couple resists pressure to get married — packs zero comedic tension. (Why do we care if already cohabitating people make it legal? If they were gay and there was a broader rights struggle involved, that could be interesting.)

THE PLAYBOY CLUB

This period drama, "Mad Men" with slightly more cleavage and a lot less ambition, is a wild card. That's because of sex — and Americans' fear of sex. Viewers' timidity could actually work in its favor.

The show is tame the way Hooters is tame — or, perhaps, a real Playboy Club. For all the supposed titilation, we know no one's clothes are coming off. So the curious-but-prudish can check in long enough to see how shocking it is (not very), and maybe stay for the characters.

Or, rather, the character. Amber Heard (as new bunny Maureen) is the best reason to watch the show, and not just for her multitude of skimpy outfits. The actress makes interesting-to-baffling choices (from "Zombieland" to the very panned "Informers," in which she proved she has zero hangups about nudity) that suggest either a higher intelligence or a fun touch o' the crazy. Either way, she seems unpredictable, and some of it rubs off on her character.

Male lead Eddie Cibrian could take note. He has Don Draper's steady presence down, but none of his mystery or volatility.

It also faces a tough time slot, Mondays at 10 p.m. CBS's "Hawaii 5-0" was the most successful drama of last season, and "Castle" remains steady on ABC.

PRIME SUSPECT

NBC's surprisingly violent detective series is, like "Free Agents," a remake of a British show. Maria Bello has the misfortune to play a character — or rather an American variation on a character — previously played by the great Helen Mirren.

She does a solid job. For quality acting, "Prime Suspect" is one of the best shows of the fall. Bello — and her castmates — seem happy to get their hands dirty. The show overplays the overt sexism within her department, but writers will hopefully bring it back more strategically in later episodes.

Will the show find an audience? Maybe. It may seem odd to follow NBC's Thursday night comedies with a terse cop drama, but a smart audience is a smart audience. It faces "Private Practice" on ABC and "The Mentalist" on CBS, both of which are well-established. But it may appeal to people who prefer their human tragedies not served up with a side of "will they or won't they?"

GRIMM

"Grimm" is a show in which real criminal cases overlap with characters from Grimm fairy tales. Much of the early buzz has been bad, and it's on Friday nights, which is never a good place to be. Adding to its obstacles, it shares Fridays with Fox's "Fringe" and CW's "Supernatural," two other shows with fantasical elements.

It's almost like the networks think people who stay home on Friday nights are nerds.