TV Column: New shows of interest? CBS trots out a twist from J.J. Abrams

May 18, 2011

Will fans of J.J. Abrams’s dive-down-the-rabbit-hole dramas follow him to CBS on Thursday night if he’s signed on to do a show that’s less J.J.-trademark mythology maze — and more CBS procedural?

CBS suits hope so, because they’ve tossed “CSI” out of their very best drama-series time slot – Thursdays at 9 p.m. — to make room for “Person of Interest,” starring Michael Emerson of J.J.’s “Lost.”

Meanwhile, the best-testing pilot in CBS history — so the network says — has landed between “How I Met Your Mother” and “Two and a Half Men” on Monday nights for the 2011-12 TV season. It’s a comedy called “2 Broke Girls” from “Sex and the City’s” Michael Patrick King and stars two chicks you’ve probably never heard of.

CBS also is getting back into the touched-by-an-angel-cum-talking-to-dead-folks business on Friday nights.

And in one of this week’s bigger scheduling surprises, a broadcast network has actually scheduled a series on Saturday night, bucking the “Saturday, Rerun Theatre” trend. Sure, it’s just one sitcom, and it’s just CBS’s utility player “Rules of Engagement,” but the network gets props for testing the theory that David Spade fans will follow him anywhere. If it works, it will drive more viewers into the half-hour that follows, where CBS plans to “double pump” its new comedies, to get them better sampled.

“We had an embarrassment of riches,” CBS programming chief Nina Tassler told The Reporters Who Cover Television and TV critics at a Wednesday-morning Q&A before the network’s afternoon presentation of its new schedule to advertisers.

“We needed another night,” she said. “We needed Sunursday.”

“Person of Interest” is CBS’s highest-testing drama pilot in 15 years, CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl said at the breakfast news conference.

“We were looking for an opportunity to hit a home run,” Kahl said of the “CSI” swap for “PoI.” The new drama, Kahl said, had “crazy broad appeal you don’t usually see” in testing.

“PoI’s” Emerson stars as a software billionaire who invented a program that uses pattern recognition to identify people who are about to be involved in violent crimes. His character also teams with a presumed-dead former CIA agent.

One reporter — noting that CBS suits have scoffed at J.J. shows because they tend to be drenched in mythology, burn very bright and flame out fast — wondered whether they were worried that this one would go the way of, say, “Fringe.”

No, said Tassler, because this show was neither created by J.J. nor is it being run by J.J. Turns out, it was created by “Memento’s” Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher) — a devotee of the old “The Equalizer” series. And it will be run by Greg Plageman, who has a track record with CBS, having worked on “Cold Case.”

The show, Tassler insisted, has all the “bells and whistles of a great CBS procedural” but one that has been “tweaked” with J.J.’s sensibility.

On Mondays, in between “How I Met Your Mother” — CBS’s youngest-skewing show — and Charlie Sheen-less “Two and a Half Men,” CBS has scheduled “2 Broke Girls,” which execs said was the network’s highest-testing show ever.

“Are you serving more alcohol at the testing sessions?” one reporter snarked.

“Who knows? It’s Vegas,” Kahl, the CBS scheduling guru, shot right back.

“2 Broke Girls” started out as a spec script — shopped around town late last year — from King and Whitney Cummings. She is also starring in a new NBC sitcom called “Whitney” on Thursday nights.

“2 Broke Girls” is about two waitresses at a greasy spoon who are saving money to launch a cupcake business.

And “out of respect” to “Two and a Half Men” creator Chuck Lorre, CBS execs will not say how he’s going to bump Sheen’s character off the show. On Wednesday morning, they would only say that Lorre has “cooked up something fabulous.” Oh, and they’re “thrilled” about Ashton Kutcher joining the cast.

“It’s awesome to be here!” Kutcher told advertisers Wednesday at CBS’s Carnegie Hall presentation.

Flanked by his “Men” co-stars Jon Cryer and Angus T. Jones, Kutcher said he’d received so many e-mails congratulating him since the announcement, “you’d almost think I’d won the Lotto or something.

“Which I kind of did,” Kutcher smirked.

The audience guffawed. The “Men” production house Warner Bros. had said emphatically that whoever replaced Sheen on the show would not make Charlie Sheen dollars.

“And by that,” Kutcher added coyly, “I mean I got the best job” in showbiz.

In the only change for Tuesday nights, CBS has thrown over “The Good Wife” at 10, in favor of Poppy Montgomery in “Unforgettable.” She plays an enigmatic former police detective with a rare condition that makes her memory so flawless that she remembers literally every place, conversation and moment of her life — except details that would help her solve her sister’s murder.

“The Good Wife” has had to relocate to Sundays at 9, where it will compete against the “Desperate Housewives” of ABC.

Meanwhile, displaced “CSI” has landed on Wednesdays at 10, replacing canceled “The Defenders” and whatever else CBS tested in that hour this season.

On Thursday, in addition to its new sorta-a-J.J.-drama, CBS has added a new comedy companion to “Big Bang Theory.”

The new comedy is inspired by the book “How to Be a Gentleman,” which is lucky, because that’s what the new series is called, too. It’s from — and stars — David Hornsby of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” fame. He plays an etiquette columnist at an Esquire-ish magazine that has been bought and turned into a more Maxim-like rag. So his editor, Dave Foley, tells him to change the column or else. (Etiquette Guy turns to a “reformed” bad boy from his past, who has inherited a fitness center and yet somehow manages to retain the rude, loud, sloppy style that made him so popular. Rude Loud Guy teaches Etiquette Guy how to become less “gentle man” and more “real man.”)

Hey, don’t look at me — this is CBS’s description of the show. We’ve already elected ourselves captain of Team Eye Roll on this one.

On Fridays at 8, CBS will have “A Gifted Man,” about a brilliant charismatic surgeon who lacks a decent bedside manner until his deceased ex-wife shows up to teach him the meaning of life from the “hereafter.” Think “Ghost Whisperer” meets “Touched by an Angel” meets “House.”

“Gifted Man” is from Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”). And how excited were CBS execs Wednesday that they got to say that Jonathan Demme (“Silence of the Lambs”) directed the pilot?

“We had a problem this year,” Kahl said, moving on to discuss Saturday’s schedule. “Too much product.”

So after “Rules of Engagement” at 8 will be a half-hour that’s been dubbed “Comedytime” and reserved for second broadcasts of the network’s new Monday and Thursday comedies — to help get them sampled by more viewers.

Expectations for “Rules” ratings are modest, said the CBS execs, who noted that wherever they put the show, its fans find it.

Before walking ad execs through the new lineup at Carnegie Hall, CBS trotted out news division chief Jeff Fager so he could introduce Katie Couric’s replacement, Scott Pelley.

Pelley, in full-throated anchorman mode, spoke of this and that. And did you know that: Pelley + gravitas + Carnegie Hall = Dan Rather? It was genuinely unnerving.

“Thank you, Jeff and Scott,” said Tassler as we gaped. “We are looking forward to June 6,” she said — which was the closest we’ve yet heard from anyone at CBS to: “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Katie.”

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