Good news for the Office & L&O but not a great time slot for FNL.
First, the good news (that we've been cheering since late last week): NBC's hail-mary reprieve to the low-rated but critically worshipped Friday Night Lights is something to celebrate. True, the move to Fridays is a bit worrisome. Those with long memories will recall the fast fade of a similarly themed high-school football drama, Against the Grain (starring a then-unknown Ben Affleck), which aired on Fridays in 1993. Its failure was largely attributed to being scheduled on a night when much of the target audience was actually attending high-school football games. (But that was before the age of DVRs, downloads, online streaming, etc.) One upside: Expectations on Fridays are significantly lower. And with a summer in which (let's hope) Emmy nominations and a presumed DVD release can help promote the show and stimulate more buzz, maybe this underdog will do OK in the long run.
Next, the strangest news in all of NBC's fall announcements, the first in a week-long wave of network Upfront presentations: the full-season renewals of all three Law & Order series (SVU already a done deal), but with significant caveats. Criminal Intent will now become a USA Network original, with replays to be repurposed on NBC (no doubt on Saturdays or anywhere else holes inevitably open up). Meanwhile, the original Law & Order, heading into its 18th season, will be held until after football in January, at which time it will become part of a new Sunday lineup that will pit poor Medium against Desperate Housewives. A clear sign of Dick Wolf's unusual clout within the NBC-Universal corporate family — in other words, don't look for other shows to follow this example — this pervasive and long-lucrative franchise will continue to limp along, feeding Wolf's coffers and his ego, as he desperately hopes for the overexposed mothership to beat Gunsmoke's 20-season record for longevity.
This isn't the only dinosaur dragging down NBC's lineup, of course. ER is back for what one can only hope is its final year — and if that's the case, NBC should make the most of it — capping the one weeknight on NBC's schedule that is returning relatively intact.
And the saddest news? Further evidence of the decline of network comedy. NBC has ordered no new comedies for the fall (which does at least leave Thursday's first-rate current lineup untouched). Only one new sitcom, The IT Crowd, an Office-style adaptation of a British comedy about workplace techies, is officially on tap for midseason.
On the other hand, in a significant and encouraging reflection of how hard the network business has been hit by audience defection during cycles of reruns, NBC has upped its episode order for The Office to 30 half-hours, including five hourlong episodes, and My Name Is Earl to 25 episodes (no doubt a few of them "supersized" as well).
Heroes also got an extra boost, with the surprise announcement of a mysterious spin-off, Heroes: Origins, that will presumably air during what would normally be the show's perilously extended spring break. Combined, that makes 30 hours of Heroes for next season. Brave new world.
Here's a very preliminary analysis of NBC's new lineup, night by night.
Monday: Looks strong, with Deal or No Deal again leading into Heroes, and NBC trying to capitalize on this season's breakout hit by teaming it with another fantasy-based drama, Journeyman, which has a time-travel element that sounds reminiscent of former NBC hit Quantum Leap.
Tuesday: Another offbeat hero fantasy, Chuck(which sounds a bit like a more comical version of UPN's cult fave Jake 2.0), is oddly sandwiched between reality (The Biggest Loser) and NBC's darkest procedural, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Still, hammocking a show like this between proven franchises could give it a shot at some early tune-in.
Wednesday: One of NBC's shakier nights gets a makeover by following the network formula: leading off with reality with a second edition of Deal or No Deal (see a trend?), moving on to another fantasy-based adventure at 9/8c (see another trend?) in the "re-imagined" update of Bionic Woman, and finishing with a serious crime drama (Tuesdays redux!), Life, about a detective who spent years in jail for a crime he didn't commit. (Trivia: Both Journeyman and Life are led by British actors with serious quality-TV cred: Journeyman's Kevin McKidd was a star of Rome, and Life's Damian Lewis is well remembered from HBO's Band of Brothers and PBS's recent Forsyte Saga remake.)
Thursday: No major changes here, which is probably a good thing for a rebuilding network. Moving The Office later in the evening pits it against its rivals' powerhouse shows (Grey's Anatomy and CSI), but is also a sign of how this has become the network's signature comedy. Scheduling 30 Rock between the more established My Name Is Earl and The Office is as good a chance as any to help increase that quirky gem's exposure. And while it's nice to see that NBC hasn't held Scrubs to midseason for a change, the decision to expand The Office's episode order and increase it to an hour from time to time has limited this expensive hospital comedy's own episode order to 18 this season (which realistically is probably its last).
Friday: Going very mainstream on a tough night in the early hours makes sense, with a "game night" franchise kicking things off (1 vs 100 to be spelled by the karaoke-style The Singing Bee), followed by Las Vegas. Then the risk: Putting Friday Night Lights at the end of the night. It had to go somewhere, and while this isn't an optimum position for such a fragile show — I might have preferred it to be hammocked between the game shows and the likable Las Vegas — let's see how it works before we start wringing our hands.
Saturday: As usual, my night off.
Sunday: Football in the fall (a sure-fire hit), followed in January by an intriguing lineup of established franchises: Dateline, Law & Order and Medium, leading into the femme-power dramedy Lipstick Jungle, from Sex and the City's Candace Bushnell. Will Patricia Arquette, Brooke Shields and Kim Raver make inroads on ABC's female-friendly duo of Desperate Housewives and Brothers & Sisters (if ABC keeps it there)? Such battles is what makes covering the TV beat so interesting.
Up next on Tuesday: ABC.