Nothing But Clunkers

It isn’t easy being the Peacock these days. Consider this: NBC’s Next Big Thing in reality this fall was supposed to be the boxing competition The Contender, originally scheduled to premiere on Tuesdays this month.

But after the ratings debacle of Fox’s The Next Great Champ, NBC filled Contender’s time period with a supremely cheesy time-waster called The Biggest Loser.

From Contender to Biggest Loser. Do metaphors come gift-wrapped any more perfectly?

Whatever halo effect the Summer Olympics was intended to have on NBC’s fall schedule has all but vanished. NBC’s aggressive (some would say arrogant) strategy to premiere some of its new shows even before Labor Day seriously backfired when audiences finally got a look at what had been hyped so relentlessly during those golden days and balmy nights in Athens.

The early bird didn’t get the worm. It was the worm.

In a season when risks and originality have paid off, NBC decided to play it safe, with a lazy new lineup of cynically dumbed-down and overly familiar concepts. The consequences have been disastrous, especially for a network that used to boast it’s “Where the Quality Shows.”

Look what has happened. NBC gave us the season’s first scripted casualty in the haplessly junky, hopelessly retro Hawaii. And now that the equally uninspired airport melodrama LAX has moved into Hawaii’s Wednesday time period, opposite ABC’s widely acclaimed buzz magnet Lost, we’ll no doubt be saying a flight attendant’s “buh-bye” to Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood before long.

NBC wasn’t the only network firing blanks this fall. CBS’s new shows (with the no-brainer exception of CSI: NY) are mostly duds, too. But NBC had a far wobblier foundation to fall back on.

Comedy is every network’s Achilles heel, but on NBC, it’s especially glaring in the wake of the departure of Friends and Frasier.

To say that the much-heralded Friends spinoff Joey has failed to live up to creative and ratings expectations is about as obvious as Drea de Matteo’s New Yawk accent. It’s not a loss, but Joey needs work and fast if it’s to regain any momentum in a time period made even tougher in the young-adult sweepstakes by the return of Fox’s upstart soap The O.C. (a show that most weeks is actually far funnier than Joey).

NBC’s other new comedy, the painfully mediocre Father of the Pride, is probably unfixable. Best just to press the delete button on these computer-animated creatures and find a more compatible companion for NBC’s most innovative (and least appreciated) comedy, Scrubs.

Among NBC’s newbies, the sole bright spot—though it’s hardly blinding—is Friday night’s scientific mystery drama Medical Investigation, which is every bit as generic as it sounds. The show stars Neal McDonough, previously featured in NBC’s distinguished but short-lived Boomtown, which despite low ratings enjoyed the sort of critical and cult buzz that eludes NBC’s schedule these days.

As it turns out, NBC’s best and brightest tends also to be its oldest, and even those cultural icons aren’t what they used to be.

The ubiquitous Law & Order franchise, the value of which probably inspired NBC to merge with Universal in the first place, has taken major hits on two of its three nights, while a fourth version (Trial by Jury) waits nervously in the wings. Criminal Intent is being rightfully clobbered by ABC’s delightful smash Desperate Housewives. And the original L&O sorely misses Jerry Orbach’s sardonic Lennie Briscoe in the Law half and has found its audience of procedural junkies (especially the younger ones) cannibalized by CBS’s gloomy hit, CSI: NY.

Meanwhile, the fading West Wing has been upstaged in a year of overheated real-life political combat. Its own “Season of Change” has yet to catch fire. There have been plenty of pivotal events: C.J. has taken over as Chief of Staff. Leo suffered s a massive heart attack (accompanied by a major bout of overacting) in the woods outside Camp David. No one seems to care.

The perception of NBC’s decline is nowhere greater than on Thursdays, with CBS now in complete domination of this all-important night.

Far from growing in its second season, The Apprentice has stalled against the CSI juggernaut, and at 10 p.m., the once-unthinkable: ER has been outpaced in total viewers by the riveting missing-persons procedural Without a Trace.

So is it curtains for the doctors of County General? I doubt it. Even in its 11th season, ER is still capable of surprise.

This week’s remarkable sweeps-stunt episode (Nov. 11) is at least a momentary return to greatness and a reminder of a not-so-distant time when NBC once ruled the water-cooler talk on Friday morning.

ER’s “Time of Death” packs an enormous emotional punch. It plays out 44 minutes in the ebbing life of a disoriented, dying patient (actor Ray Liotta) coming to grips with his mortality and the tragic wreckage of his past as the doctors work over him.

It’s a heartbreaker, not just in its impact but in the memories it evokes of NBC’s glory days.

If the network could get that kind of quality from its new and veteran shows, maybe it could be a contender again. Look at ABC. Anything’s possible.