Lisa de Moraes
Lisa de Moraes
The TV Column

New prime-time NBC lineup includes several female-led series

( Will Hart / NBC ) - Christian Borle and Debra Messing in “Smash.”

NEW YORK

Just three months after its new programming chief officially took over, mired-in-fourth-place NBC unveiled a new prime-time slate on Sunday that’s been festooned with female-led series.

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Pulitzer Prize winner, Peabody recipient, Medal of Freedom honoree -- Lisa de Moraes is none of these, but she is an authority on the bad direction, over-acting, and muddled plot lines being played out in the TV industry's executive suites.

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Among the network’s six new comedies and six new dramas are shows that feature Whitney Cummings as half of a committed couple; Debra Messing as the writer of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe; Christina Applegate as an acerbic new mom; Maria Bello as the new Helen Mirren in a “Prime Suspect” remake; and a comedy based on late-night star Chelsea Handler’s book, “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea.”

On the other hand, NBC is relying on the behind-the-scenes production chops of Steven Spielberg, Lorne Michaels, Brian Grazer, Tom Werner, John Grisham and Peter Berg.

“We all know that it’s a little easier to get women to come to television than men,” NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt told The TV Column of his new lineup, adding, “That’s not a bad thing.”

Except, of course, advertisers pay a premium to reach young guys, because they’re the hardest to reach. But aiming for a female audience is not a bad direction to go when you’re the mired-in-fourth-place network.

NBC will start just six of the new shows in the fall because it’s hard to be heard in the din of the fall broadcast TV new-season launch, particularly when you’re the fourth-placed network.

So big-ticket newcomer “Smash” — the so-called “ ‘Glee’ for adults” Broadway-musical drama from Steven Spielberg and starring Debra Messing — won’t be launched until midseason. That way it can be packaged with NBC’s singing competition series “The Voice” — this season’s No. 1 rated new series among young adults — when it returns in the first quarter of 2012.

Likewise, NBC’s TV adaptation of John Grisham’s book “The Firm” won’t be trotted out until it can follow the return of reality series “Celebrity Apprentice” on Sunday nights, post-football (with or without Donald Trump, depending on his presidential plans).

“We’ll be placing a great deal of emphasis on how we launch each one of our programs and on maximizing the network’s strengths throughout the fall and well into midseason,” Greenblatt said.

“Considering it’s only been three months since new management took over, I’m very pleased with what has resulted from a very strong pilot season,” he added.

In truth, some of his new series, such as a drama called “The Playboy Club,” and the “Prime Suspect” redo, were in development last year; Greenblatt just took a new whack at them, with different writers, etc. And Greenblatt had that Marilyn Monroe Broadway-musical drama in his pocket when he was still running programming at Showtime, his most recent gig before being named to the NBC job three months ago.

Meanwhile, we won’t keep the 12 of you still watching NBC in suspense any longer: The network’s returning series include “Parenthood,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Harry’s Law,” “Chuck” (for its fifth and final season of 13 episodes), “Community,” “Parks and Recreation,” “The Office,” “30 Rock” and “Dateline NBC.”

Also back — all in two-hour formats — are the already-mentioned reality series “The Voice” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” as well as “The Biggest Loser.” And the competition show “The Sing-Off,” which has garnered strong holiday-period ratings the past two seasons, has been promoted to weekly series status.

On Mondays, where NBC has struggled for some time, “The Sing-Off” kicks off the night, from 8 to 10 p.m., leading into “The Playboy Club,” from Grazer. Eddie Cibrian stars as a bigwig attorney in Chicago in the ’60s. He’s dating bombshell bunny Laura Benanti, who knows her bunny days are numbered; naturally, he comes to the aid of newbie bunny Amber Heard when she accidentally kills the head of a mob family. Hate when that happens.

On Tuesday, “Parenthood” is back at 10 p.m.; it will follow a two-hour “Biggest Loser.”

On Wednesday, NBC will try to launch a new comedy block with two new sitcoms: “Up All Night” and “Free Agents.”

“Up All Night” stars Applegate as a hot public relations exec with a new child. Will Arnett is her supportive, stay-at-home husband, and Maya Rudolph is her crazy-boss-cum-best-friend. “SNL’s” Emily Spivey writes, and Lorne Michaels is among the exec producers.

Hank Azaria stars in “Free Agents,” based on a U.K. hit of the same name, as a newly divorced public relations exec. Kathryn Hahn is his co-worker, who can’t get over her dead fiance. One night they get drunk — you know the drill.

When asked, Greenblatt told The TV Column putting two new comedies into the 8 o’clock hour on Wednesdays is his gutsiest schedule move. NBC hasn’t had much luck with comedy of late and, even under the best of circumstances, opening up a night with new shows is challenging. On the other hand, Applegate, Michaels, Azaria, Rudolph — all what we like to call “pre-sold commodities” in the TV biz — they’ve got their followers.

“We have no illusions,” Greenblatt said of the challenge facing these Wednesday comedies. “We really needed to put more comedy on the schedule.”

At 9 p.m. on Wednesdays, however, NBC’s not taking any chances, giving the time slot to its only returning freshman scripted series from this season, “Harry’s Law.” The David E. Kelley drama stars Kathy Bates as a no-nonsense lawyer. Interestingly, it’s also the most CBS-like of NBC’s new dramas from this season: a procedural that stars an older well-known star. We hear it’s the same thing over at ABC with the Dana Delaney crime drama “Body of Proof.” Maybe CBS knows something.

Anyway, “Law & Order: SVU” is back at 10 p.m. on Wednesday after “Harry.” Mariska Hargitay has a deal to come back, and Greenblatt said he was confident they’d be able to close a deal soon to get Chris Meloni back for another season. Word that Hargitay will pass the baton to Jennifer “Love to her Friends” Hewitt this season and leave early is “just another rumor,” but he confirmed Hewitt was “somebody we’ve been circling” as they looked to add another detective to the cast this season.

“Mariska just adopted a child. . . . We’re not sure beyond this season where we’ll be with her,” he said during a phone conference call with reporters to discuss the new schedule.

On Thursday — NBC’s night of the most successful comedies on cable, to paraphrase “30 Rock” head writer/star Tina Fey — “Community,” “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office” are back, starting at 8, in that order.

Hitting the jackpot and snaring the best comedy time slot NBC has to offer — the one following “The Office” — is “Whitney,” starring comic Cummings in what NBC promises is “a hilarious look at modern love.” If we had a buck . . .

At 10 p.m. on Thursdays — once the time slot of NBC’s crown jewel “ER” — NBC will attempt to climb up out of the ratings cellar with its “Prime Suspect” redo. Bello stars and Berg exec produces the remake of the British drama hit that made Helen Mirren a household name in the United States.

“Chuck” fans are no doubt celebrating its survival. The bad news: It’s been sent to Friday nights for its final resting place, where it’s supposed to deliver some kind of lead-in audience for “Grimm.”

“Grimm” is a drama about a homicide detective who starts seeing things he can’t explain until this ailing aunt — naturally — shows up and tells him they are descendants of an elite group of hunters known as “Grimms” who fight to keep the balance of humanity safe from the supernatural creature of the world — you know, all those witches and goblins from the Grimm fairy tales!

We promise to work hard to be able to discuss this series with a straight face by the time the 2011-12 TV season officially kicks off in September.

Anyway, NBC’s “Dateline” will try to follow “Grimm” at 10.

In midseason on Monday nights comes “Smash,” one of the most buzzed-about projects during this TV series development season; it follows the mounting of a Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Messing plays half of the play’s writing team. “American Idol” finalist Katharine McPhee plays a newbie who wants the lead role — but so does a Bway chorus line veteran, played by Megan Hilty (“9 to 5: The Musical”). Spielberg is credited with the idea, and among the exec producers are Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, whose credits include “Chicago” and “Hairspray,” as well as TV remakes of “Gypsy” and “Music Man,” among others.

Sitting on the bench, ready to step in where ratings sinkhole-dom happens, are:

“Awake,” about a detective whose son and wife are in a car accident and he discovers two parallel universes — one in which his wife was killed but his son survived, the other in which the son got out alive but the wife perished.

“Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea,” about a 20-something bartender (Laura Prepon) who is a force of nature.

“Best Friends Forever,” about a woman who flies cross-country to move in with her best friend when her husband files for divorce, only to discover her BFF’s boyfriend has moved in and turned her former bedroom into his home office.

“Bent,” a rom-com starring Amanda Peet and David Walton as a recently divorced lawyer with a daughter and a womanizing, recovering gambling addict contractor who’s redoing her kitchen, respectively.

No, we do not know why this show is not called “Rebound.”

 
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