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NBC: Two ‘SNL’ shows on one network?

Plus: You Tube favorite ‘Nobody’s Watching’ picked up, and more

As each network comes here to the TV Critics’ Association press tour to present, they bring in their own varied amount of logo paraphernalia and their own style of signage.

When I left for dinner Thursday night, I thought that NBC was falling down on the job. But when I returned later that night, I was all but blinded by colorful neon peacocks everywhere — outside the building, in front of the room where lunch is served, in the entry to the ballroom.

And perhaps the peacock is once again fitting, after some embarrassing ratings years, NBC has one of the most talked-about new shows for the fall in “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” and most of its other new offerings look downright respectable. (MSNBC, as you probably know, is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)

You can read the column straight through, or use the links below to jump to the topics that interest you.

NBC takes a risk with ‘Nobody’s Watching’
NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly began with a convoluted sailing metaphor (just reminding us peons that rich executives own boats, I guess) but won some of us back with the blunt if mixed metaphor “we’ve been sweating like pigs trying to get out of the stiff headwind.” I also appreciated his reference to Regis Philbin and David Hasselhoff from “America’s Got Talent” as “Reege and The Hoff,” which is what we all call them anyway.

NBC has an ambitious slate of new shows, including “Studio 60,” which comes from the “West Wing” team of Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme; and “Studio 60’s” comedy twin, “30 Rock.” (The shows aren’t really connected, but both are about a fictional “Saturday Night Live.”) “Friday Night Lights,” based on H.G. Bissinger’s acclaimed book, later made into a movie, will be turned into a drama, with Bissinger’s cousin Peter Berg, who directed the movie, running the show.’

NBC also seems to be the network that’s willing to risk the most on online and new ways of doing things, and I’m not just saying that because the Web site you’re reading is half-owned by them. (I have to keep pointing that out so someone doesn’t point it out for me.) NBC is picking up “Nobody’s Watching,” the pilot that found second life on YouTube. It’s a fresh-feeling comedy about two sitcom-loving guys who get a chance to make their own show.  Very Wayne and Garth. (Watch it on YouTube if you haven’t seen it already.) At a later panel, NBC’s president for digital media, Beth Comstock, showed another You Tube video, “The Easter Bunny Hates You,” which was an NBC product but was not branded as one, in hopes of silently earning some street cred.

Peacock feathers:

  • Sally Field will return as Abby’s mother on “ER,” which will also feature John Stamos in a cliffhanger that will wrap up the first half of the season on Dec. 14. Andre Braugher will also appear for six shows.
  • NBC also has a deal with Netflix, where Netflix members can see the pilots for “Kidnapped” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” weeks before those pilots air. This is either genius (will create buzz!) or stupid (who will watch on the actual premiere night?).
  • Reilly thinks “The Apprentice” will be coming back “with some juice” in January, as the warhorse reality show moves to LA for the first time. He did admit that three seasons in 2006 (including the Martha Stewart debacle) “might have put a little bit of drag on it.”
  • NBC only has plans for one TV movie, but it’s a live remake of “The Year Without a Santa Claus,” based on the legendary Rankin-Bass classic, and features John Goodman as Santa.
  • Since I’ve been commenting on the attire of the network pages, I might as well tell you that NBC’s were perhaps the most conservatively dressed, in navy blazers and ties, even the women. They look like money-market managers.

The fall’s most-talked-about new show: ‘Studio 60’It seemed that everyone knows at least someone who was left broken-hearted when “The West Wing” went off the air. The people who loved that show, LOVED that show. And they can rejoice: I’ve seen the pilot of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” from “Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin and partner Thomas Schlamme, and it’s exactly like “TWW,” only set behind the scenes of a fictional TV show, not in the White House. And yes, the two shows aren’t exactly the same, but the pacing, the snappy patter, the original feel – it’s “The West Wing West Coast.”

Sorkin, Schlamme, and stars including Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, and Amanda Peet attended the “Studio 60” panel, and almost all of the questions were for Boy Wonder Sorkin. He made the mistake of almost immediately comparing bad shows to “bad crack in the schoolyard.” (Sorkin was once arrested and charged with possession of cocaine, see story.) Matthew Perry, who’s had his own issues, gamely jumped in and made a later reference to “bad Vicodin in the schoolyard.” Perry’s as witty or wittier than Chandler from “Friends,” and oddly enough, they’re the same height. Ba-dum-bum.

When asked about Tina Fey’s new comedy, “30 Rock,” which is also set at a “Saturday Night Live”-type show, Sorkin parried “My intention is to take Tina’s ideas, use twice as many words, and turn them into our show.” On a more serious level, he compared “Studio 60” to his previous shows, “West Wing” and the cult favorite “Sports Night,” saying “it’s about a group of people committed to professionalism, committed to each other.” So if you’ve got a friend who’s been pining away since “West Wing” ended, start spending time with them now. Because as of Sept. 18, their Monday nights will be spent in the “Studio.”

Inside the “Studio”:

  • Sorkin’s reaction to his own slip of the tongue, mentioning crack, was almost as funny as something scripted. “Why did I use that word?” he asked. “Everything was fine!” He later said “Seriously, I will go person to person, giving each $100 if we can just get the crack quote out of the papers tomorrow.” Hmm, Aaron, maybe for $1000…
  • When someone asked if the TV-show setting of the show would be too insular for those not connected to show business, Bradley Whitford commented “Whenever I hear that question, I just think ‘Isn’t ‘CSI’ a little inside the coroner’s office?’ ”
  • Matthew Perry said he decided to do another TV series after “Friends” because “of how good the script is and how bad ‘The Whole 10 Yards’ was.”

That other “Saturday Night Live’ show: Tina Fey’s ’30 Rock’“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” takes a fairly serious look at the behind-the-scenes life at an “SNL”-type show. “ 30 Rock,” from “SNL” vets Tina Fey, Lorne Michaels and Tracy Morgan, is the comedy version. Michaels joked that “they are the hour show and they have a ‘60’ [in the title], and we’re the half-hour show and we have ‘30’ [in our title].”

Fey plays a character much like herself. She’s Liz Lemon, the head writer on a comedy show called “The Girlie Show.” New corporate honcho Alec Baldwin comes in from GE’s microwave oven division and requires Lemon work with troubled comic Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), who’s seen in a news clip running down the middle of LA’s 405 freeway clad only in his underwear and waving a lightsaber. Morgan was later asked if he based his character on Martin Lawrence, but he denied it, saying he didn’t personally know the comic, “but I know my Uncle Rick. … Martin didn’t corner the market on meltdowns. … only … Rick didn’t have no drawers on at all.”

The show will obviously draw on the stars’ and Michaels’ “SNL” experience, but Fey said it won’t be mean-spirited. “I have no interest in taking shots at my own family,” she said, referring to her former “SNL” co-workers. She described the show as a workplace comedy, but “a workplace that is a little more visually appealing and a little more dangerous.” And Michaels later added “Intelligence is always present in {Fey’s] work.  …You just trust that and support it.”

Pieces of the ‘Rock’:

  • I briefly met Tina Fey later at the NBC party. She was as sweet and approachable as I hoped she’d be. She was wearing a black dress with burnished coppery sleeves, and further endearing herself to women worldwide, was carrying her black high heels and walking around the grass barefoot.
  • Fey won’t be returning to “SNL,” though later she didn’t rule out the possibility of guest-hosting the show. But no more “Weekend Update.” “I’m out of the fake news business,” she said. Rachel Dratch has also left “SNL” for “30 Rock.”
  • Asked how she would juggle being the star, writer and producer of the show, Fey confessed “I’m gonna go nuts. … The one thing I have going for me is I do not understand the train that’s about to hit me.”

Looking for a few good ‘Heroes’Early on in the panel for NBC’s new drama “Heroes,” a critic compared the show’s premise to that of “X-Men.” There are similarities: In “Heroes,” people around the world begin developing seemingly supernatural powers. A clock-puncher in Tokyo can stop time and teleport (he instantly teleports himself into the women’s bathroom), a pretty cheerleader is unable to be physically hurt, a harried single mom can be in two places at once, an artist can paint the future before it happens. But the producers claim there are differences. Unlike the “X-Men” mutants, these characters will not come together as a crime-solving unit. “It’s not like the Justice League,” said creator Tim Kring. Kring warned that there may be a dark side to great power, and that some of the cast of “Heroes” may really become villains. But the panel warned: Don’t expect tights and Spandex costumes, these are meant to be relatable people with extraordinary abilities.

In the pilot, only some of the characters were introduced, with more to come later. Greg Grunberg, whose character doesn’t make the pilot’s first hour, joked that it’s OK by him. Grunberg noted that he wasn’t in the pilot for “Alias” or “Felicity,” two shows on which he had successful runs, “and when I was in the pilot for ‘Lost’ I was eaten!” Some characters seem obviously destined to be audience favorites, especially the aptly named Japanese office worker Hiro, played by Masi Oka of “Scrubs.”

There would seem to be a ready-made audience for “Heroes,” since the supernatural elements were a huge hit when the pilot was shown at this weekend’s ComiCon in San Diego. And the show would seem to have a choice time slot, Mondays between “Deal Or No Deal” and the much-buzzed-about “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” Fans of the supernatural and the superhero genre will no doubt find the show, but with its enormous cast and rather slow pilot, it remains to be seen if they will stick with it. In other words, do they need another “Heroes”?

Tidbits from “Heroes”:

  • The pilot includes realistic scenes shot in Texas, Tokyo, and India, yet it was all filmed on Universal’s back lot, next door to the famed house from “Psycho.” It fooled me: A month ago I was in Japan and rode the Tokyo Metro subway constantly, and they have recreated it perfectly, even down to the placement of advertising.
  • Fans of the supernatural and science fiction are a tech-savvy bunch, known for dissecting every little bit of their favorite shows online. Kring said since he is filming shows two months ahead of what online boards are reacting to, he’ll read online buzz to get a sense of how fans are accepting the larger plots, but will
  • Masi Oka was asked a two-part question, about whether his Japanese accent was accurate and about whether he himself is a sci-fi and “Star Trek” geek. He answered by pouring forth an untranslated torrent of Japanese, and mid-delivery, holding up his hand in the Mr. Spock’s famous Vulcan hand gesture. So, that’d be a “yes, and a “yes,” or, in Japanese, a rousing “Hai!”

Turning on the ‘Friday Night Lights’You may know the title “Friday Night Lights” from H.G. Bissinger’s wonderful 1990 book, or from the 2004 movie starring Billy Bob Thornton. It’s now getting a third life as a TV series, produced by Peter Berg, who produced the movie and is also Bissinger’s cousin. The book followed the Permian Panthers of Odessa, Texas, throughout the full 1988 season, and it didn’t shy away from issues of racism, class struggles, poverty and educational priorities along the way. Berg called himself a “huge fan” of his cousin’s book and welcomed the chance to make a weekly series to “go deeper and to explore these issues.”

Fans of the book, as I am, will be satisfied with the accuracy of the pilot. The footage mixes scenes from real Texas football games with footage of the actors playing (the young actors ran every play, ex-pros were brought in for scenes that show the crushing tackles). The famous cover, showing three captains holding hands as they walk out to the center of the gridiron, is captured in one scene. Berg himself spent a year in Texas viewing dozens of games, including one in which a player was paralyzed. His real-life experiences will definitely influence the show.

Will non-football fans watch? There is a lengthy football game in the pilot, but it’s dramatic and integral to the plot. The show promises plenty of teen angst, school scenes, and will deal with the issues faced by the real school and players in the book. Berg said that even the non-fans, particularly women, who saw the pilot appreciated it. “We’re hoping … that we’re able to transcend [solely appealing to sports fans].”

Coach’s notes:

  • Kyle Chandler, last seen as an unlucky bomb-squadder in “Grey’s Anatomy,” plays the team’s head coach.
  • NBC handed out copies of a paperback movie tie-in edition of “Friday Night Lights.” Even if you’ve half-memorized the hardcover, as I have, it’s worth at least borrowing this version from a friend because it includes an afterword discussing what happened to the real people in the book (Boobie Miles is a father of four), and talks about Odessa’s infamous reaction to Bissinger’s work (he received death threats).
  • The show found an aging stadium in Texas and plans to refurbish the stadium, film there regularly. and eventually give the updated arena back to the community. “So it was a win for us and it was a win for the stadium,” Berg said.

‘Kidnapped’: Not to be confused with ‘Vanished’
OK, let’s see if I can get this right. “Kidnapped” is NBC’s show about a rich family’s son who disappears, and Jeremy Sisto plays Knapp, the expert who hopes to retrieve him. Over on FOX, the show is called “Vanished,” it’s a rich man’s wife who disappears, and Gale Harold plays Graham Kelton, the FBI agent who hopes to retrieve her. The shows have very similar titles and premises, but having seen both, I admit I was a little more interested in “Vanished,” in which the victim may not be exactly who she claims to be, than in “Kidnapped,” where the victim is an innocent, smart teen.

Anyway, “Kidnapped” tells the story from the point of view of “the parents, the police, and the professional” (Sisto), as they say in their promo. Sisto’s character has had a kidnapping go horribly wrong on him recently, so he’s looking to redeem himself by saving young Leopold Cain. (Who picks these names? Is “Leopold” right up there with “Madison” as a popular kid name these days?)

Seeing “Kidnapped” and “Vanished” so close together did no favors for “Kidnapped.” While I’m sure it will have more than its share of twists and turns, and Sisto’s character’s knowledge of kidnappings is interesting, the show seems rather straightforward next to “Vanished.” Dana Delany’s character does receive a mysterious call in the pilot, so perhaps things will perk up. (Asked who was on the line, Delany cracked “Jimmy Hoffa.”)

Ransom-note randomness:

  • Actor Delroy Lindo played a similar character in “Ransom,” the 1996 Mel Gibson movie in which he also played a detective involved in solving a young man’s kidnapping. “I didn’t want to do what I call ‘Ransom Redux’, “ Lindo said. “[The producers] assured me that that would not be the case.”
  • Asked why she so often plays rich, amoral women, Dana Delany joked “I just like the clothes.”
  • Producer Jason Smilovic doesn’t think having a show like “Vanished” also out there will hurt “Kidnapped.” To him,”it’s like having two medical shows, or two police procedural shows.”

John Lithgow, Jeffrey Tambor team up for ‘Twenty Good Years’
It’s a rare show these days that leaves the twentysomething demographic and actually casts older actors, and that’s a shame. There’s a large, smart audience out there in their 50s and above, and they’re not seeing people who look like them on the air. Well, they will if they watch NBC’s new comedy, “Twenty Good Years,” starring 62-year-old Jeffrey Tambor and 60-year-old John Lithgow.

Tambor plays a judge, Lithgow a doctor, and they’re best buds, in a kind of Oscar and Felix, opposites attract sort of way. Lithgow’s wilder character convinces Tambor’s more conservative gent to seize the day, getting him to do things like take a Polar Bear Club plunge into icy waters. That scene and another feature Lithgow clad only in a multi-colored Speedo, an item of clothing he also once sported in “Third Rock from the Sun,” leaving one reporter to ask if Lithgow had a “banana hammock clause” in his contract. “I wear it all the time under my clothes, just in case they ask,” Lithgow shot back.

Lithgow’s character turns 60 in the pilot, and the actor said this spoke to him. “I know how it feels to suddenly think, wait a minute, I do only have a few good years left’,” he said. Producer Eric Gold said the show’s appeal to an older, overlooked audience was intentional. “There wasn’t a lot of  fresh areas to mine with everybody being twentysomething,” he said “We wanted a show that reflected society a little bit more.” And speaking of shows that the GI generation adored, creator Marsh McCall says he was inspired by reruns of “All in the Family” and that show’s measured tone and intimate characters. Boy, the way Glenn Miller played…

Rolling back the ‘Years’:

  • Tambor became both a father again and grandfather in December 2004, when his daughter Molly and his wife, Kasia, both gave birth to boys within days of each other.
  • Tambor’s played a judge before — cross-dressing judge Alan Wachtel on “Hill Street Blues.” He doesn’t think this judge has a penchant for women’s clothes, however, and claims he didn’t know his “Hill Street” character did either until the day he came to the set and was pointed towards a dress.
  • Producer Tom Werner also produced Lithgow’s “Third Rock from the Son.” That manic show came by its hyperactivity naturally, he said “We started with saying ‘let’s do the Marx Brothers’.”
  • Lithgow may be 60, but at NBC’s party, he could easily have been mistaken for 16. He was the only celebrity I saw who eschewed standing around in clumps or sitting at a table and instead stretched out on the lawn for hours.
  • Overheard in the hall: Regis Philbin asking an NBC employee “What’s the name of his show?” while indicating John Lithgow, then strolling up to Lithgow and proclaiming “Your show’s gonna save this network.” Yeah, if he only knew what it was.

Coming tomorrow: What NBC is looking for when choosing contestants for “Deal or No Deal.”