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With Are You There, Chelsea? & The Firm, NBC Makes The Same Mistakes

Posted: 01/10/12 11:04 AM ET

Oh NBC. I get that you really are trying.

You finally dumped a long line of migraine-inducing executives and installed Robert Greenblatt, the respected former Showtime chief, as the head of your entertainment division. You finally have come up with some TV shows that don't smell like fail from 100 yards away, most notably "Smash," which debuts Feb. 6. Though "The Playboy Club" was idiotic and "Whitney" makes us cringe, those who watched your smart version of "Prime Suspect" actually wanted it to succeed, and even if the Internet melted when you put "Community" on hiatus, if you give that cult comedy a fourth season, all of Twitter will do a collective jig of glee.

Still, despite NBC's attempts to head in the right direction, it's hard to root for the network when it keeps on shooting itself in the foot.

Two cases in point: "The Firm," the legal drama that debuted to weak ratings on Sun., Jan. 8, and "Are You There, Chelsea?," which premieres 8:30 p.m. EST Wed., Jan 11.

Though "The Firm," which arrives in its regular time slot on Thursday at 10 p.m. EST, is a drama, and "Chelsea" is a comedy, the shows have some things in common: They aren't much good and, to an almost uncanny degree, both programs were founded on the same set of mistaken assumptions.

Don't get me wrong, other networks make the following mistakes as well, but as NBC has flailed, it has tended to rely on the following flawed premises more than most. And though "Chelsea" and "The Firm" each boast quite a few individual faults, their biggest problems are actually quite similar. To wit:

They both assume that what works in books will work on TV.

"Chelsea," which stars Laura Prepon as a fictionalized version of Chelsea Handler and is based on the E! host's persona and vodka-centric best-sellers, doesn't do anything to make the TV version of Chelsea interesting, likable or winning. The TV show's writers (which include Handler, who makes wooden appearances on the show as Chelsea's uptight sister) have come up with a long list of euphemisms for private parts and smutty one-liners, all of which land with a thud, and that is pretty much that.

Handler's liquor-soaked memoirs aren't exactly literature, but they are at least irreverent and superficial. They don't demand your attention for 22 minutes at a time, and if the supporting characters are more or less one-dimensional stereotypes, at least the book version of Chelsea keeps things moving -- she's on to the next anecdote every few pages. The TV version of the character, on the other hand, just seems self-absorbed and "wild" in ways that haven't felt radical since Patsy and Edina first burst on to the scene in "Absolutely Fabulous" two decades ago. It's no longer revelatory to have a female character who is pro-sex and pro-partying; what would really help "Chelsea" is a lead character who seemed like an actual person, not just a sex drive accessorized with a vodka bottle.

Though it's been a while since I read John Grisham's first blockbuster, I recall "The Firm" as having far more energy on the page. It's not exactly great literature either, but it certainly kept me turning the pages, while the two-hour pilot of "The Firm" just seemed very, very long. I can't think of a single reason why the premiere needed to take up that much time, and it's not as though two-hour premieres have really worked well for any other network in recent history. ("Lost" is the last broadcast pilot that worked at that length -- but ABC aired it over two weeks.) If all the screen time for lawyer Mitch McDeere (Josh Lucas) and his colleagues had made me want to spend more time with them, however, I would have been OK with the lengthy first episode. Sadly, that wasn't the case. The pilot was merely stuffed with three or four legal story lines, none of which made a ton of sense or grabbed me the way good thriller stories should.

They both assume that "name" talent attached to a project will make it more popular.

Grisham's name didn't do squat in terms of attracting viewers to "The Firm": The ratings for the show's debut were terrible. Same goes for lead actor Lucas, who has a number of film credits to his name, but failed to bring an audience to the project and didn't exude much charisma in the lead role.

It remains to be seen whether Handler's presence in "Chelsea" will attract her fan base to the comedy, but nobody should expect to be wowed by her acting skills; she tends to take one-dimensional material and make it seem even more thin and shrill. Laura Prepon, who plays the title character in the sitcom, is a much more skilled actress, but even she can't elevate this plodding material. (So yes, what I'm saying here is, if you enjoy braying, faux-rebellious comedies starring women who helped create their own shows, NBC's Wednesday "Whitney"-"Chelsea" block is made for you.)

They both assume that witless, underdeveloped characters will pass muster.

There are a lot of dumb or half-baked ideas in the pilot for "The Firm." First, despite having angered a Mob family years ago, Mitch and his family left the witness protection program and went back to using their real names (idiot move of the century, genius). Then, despite being desperate to catch Mitch and presumably do bad things to him, two bad guys declined to chase him through an ankle-deep wading pool. And despite taking place in the present day, Mitch used a pay phone at a key moment in the pilot. A pay phone? Really? It "represents his paranoia," executive producer Lukas Reiter said at the Television Critics Association press tour on Fri., Jan. 6. All these moves also represent failures of intelligence on the part of the show's writers.

Still, if Mitch and his relationship with his wife and associates were compelling, we might forgive the plot holes and logic lapses that riddled "The Firm." As it was, the only character who registered at all was Tammy, Mitch's trashy secretary, who was played with scenery-chomping glee by Juliette Lewis. At least Lewis appeared to be having fun, which can't be said of anyone else in this rather grim production.

As for "Chelsea," it should obviously be diverting and amusing, but, as noted above, the character is little more than a punchline-delivery robot, and the other characters exist mainly to set up Chelsea's forced jokes. And let me be clear, raunchy characters are not a problem, but Chelsea and her friends just aren't dirty-minded in any notably creative ways. They just hang around and sling phrases like "dry humping" and "lady wood," as if we're supposed to find those kinds of words shocking. They might be, if I was in sixth grade.

Like "The Firm," "Chelsea" simply makes the same points about its lead character over and over again. Despite his witless witness protection move, Mitch is supposed to be a smart lawyer who breaks or bends the legal rules, and Chelsea is a not-very-bright waitress who breaks or bends the social rules. How do we know these things? Because the shows break out the two-by-fours and beat us over the head with that information.

Despite the network's adherence to questionable ideas, there are still signs of hope for NBC -- maybe.

Greenblatt may have been trying to strategically lower expectations for "Smash" -- he said that it merely "could be one" of the shows that could turn things around for the Peacock network at a recent TCA event.

But why hide the truth? "Smash" really is the most exciting show NBC has come up with in a long time, and even if "Smash," which is set among Broadway hopefuls, is a riff on some ideas that "Glee" once had and casually abandoned, the NBC show takes those ideas and executes them in smart and entertaining ways.

If there's any danger here, it's that "Smash" might just be too smart to be a huge mainstream hit; you don't have to be a Broadway insider to enjoy the show, but "Smash" doesn't telegraph every message and idea using a kindergartener's crayons, as "Glee" so often does.

"Awake," another of NBC's promising new shows, is also wildly ambitious -- perhaps a bit too ambitious for its own good. It follows a policeman's journey between two different worlds, but the show's production shut down for a bit so that its writers could get a handle on the complexities of its parallel stories. Still, aren't shows with too many ideas preferable to the kind of half-baked ideas, lazy executions and faulty assumptions we've seen in so many other network pilots in recent years?

I'm not sure Mitch and Chelsea would agree, but I think so.

 

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