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Deep Space, Early Nights & Medical Thoughts: The 2009 NBC TCA Summer Press Tour – Feature

The angle of NBC this year is reinvention. With the introduction of Jay Leno, the network is trying to change the landscape but this path sometimes peppered with obstacles. Kinks still need to be worked out as the process continues.

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Exec Sessions – NBC President Angela Bromstad With the impact of Jay’s moving to 10pm, Conan’s beginnings on “The Tonight Show” and the letting go of “Medium”, the tension in the room was palpable as the focus of the progression of the network continued. Talk first turned to “Heroes” and the specificity of Brian Fuller’s quick hire and then his departure. Bromstad indicates that Fuller was simply brought in to put the series back on track. When that was done, he turned his focus back to development which is their deal with him anyway.

Exec Ben Silverman’s departure Bromstad said was always part of “his” plan which drew some unintentional laughter which she seemed annoyingly puzzled at by saying that he wasn’t planning on being there for a long time anyway. In regards to Leno, she kept pushing off her perception but says that she hopes for a 5 cumulative rating which by structure is a little misleading. She confirmed that they be producing 6 “Weekend Update” specials this year and also admits that this fall with be the true test of Conan’s staying power as “The Tonight Show” host. There seems to be a little bit of tension in the transition as evidenced by an earlier marketing ploy dubbing him the new “King Of Late Night” which they agree was a little premature. They seem much more reserved now in terms of outlook.

Bromstad also speaks of the new series “Day One” which unlike “Heroes” tends to look at more narrow drama. However, any possibility of a second season will obviously hinge on its success in the first.

Another ambitious series: “Kings” (since canceled) was discussed as an experiment. Bromstad said it was an “amazingly big swing” and was “a great production”. However, in a crowded marketplace where you have to sell something, she says that it was ultimately not the right sell. She even admits that when they first developed it with Susan Lancaster, they thought it was a bit too highbrow.

In terms of the new series “Community”, it has been placed to premiere after “The Office” at 9pm which is why the “SNL Update” got the 8pm time slot. In response furthermore to “Southland” which is entering its sophomore season, Bromstad emphasized that the show needs to be more focused, especially on the cop angle of the story coming together.

“Medium” is another angle addressed (in that CBS picked it up after NBC declined to renew it). She says that they were thinking of picking it up until the very end. On an up note, she says that the new season of “Chuck”, which was saved despite lower ratings than expected, is on a great track creatively.

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Community This new comedy follows a guy who basically scams his way into a job at a community college as teacher but finds out that he something to give to his students. Dan Harmon, the creator of the show, got the idea from actually going to a community college in Glendale when he was 32. He went to do it with his girlfriend at the time so they could do something together other than sex. His interaction with the different people there is what gave him the idea and jokes that it has the musings of something like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” He says that community colleges to him are funny but sardonically adds that he also thinks farts are funny.

Joel McHale, who stars as the would-be embodiment of Dan, says that he will continue to do “The Soup” on E! but warns jokingly that it will take a lot of uppers and downers to maintain his productivity. He admits that he can’t look at clips at that show the way he used to. He looks over at Chevy Chase (who makes his first venture into television here) and admits that the legendary comedian is “more god than man”.

Chevy, for his part, gives the advice back that “if you are going blind, then you are doing it right” which is a very sinister but subtle quip showing he still has it. He effuses in his Griswold way apologizing for the fact that he is a comedian. Seriously, he admits that right now films are not as good as TV. He, for one, never thought he would be in a situation comedy but the great writing hooked him. The reality he admits is that he doesn’t improvise a lot with his style of comedy. However, he also says, in good natured, ironic, self imposed ignorance on his part that he knows nothing about pop culture from 20 years ago until now.

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Trauma By comparison, this view into the emergency response angles of the first response units comes off more “Die Hard” than “ER” simply by the aspect of its teaser footage. There seem to be too many explosions but not enough character traits. This however might only be sizzle and part of the initial pilot run to get viewers interested but, if they have to keep up that level of production value (especially with the bigger chopper explosion that ends the teaser), then the show might become quite expensive.

Exec producer Peter Berg says that the key with shows like this is always to up the ante. He makes the point that medical dramas will always be relevant, saying also that his personal experience on “Chicago Hope” as an actor was a great one. His fellow exec producer Dario Scardapane follows this up emphasizing Peter’s point that the legacy of a medical show lies in the characters. Some of the episodes will revolve around MCIs (which are Mass Casuality Incidents). Dario points to the fact that in the footage we saw, the pile up was such an event. The question he poses (which was my concern) is keeping up the production value which he hopes they can. This, however, is an obstacle from the start, ambitious but also a battle to be fought. The key is that with this show, you increase the pace because you are seeing the action 20 minutes before it hits the hospital doors. It is about working outside of the box although the specter of “ER” still looms large over many medical shows as to what can be done. How do you up the ante for the next generation of medical shows? Bigger is sometimes an option but that can quickly get out of control.

Dario mentions that they shut down the 280 Freeway for the pilot for five days, which is something you would do for a feature (and one that was most assuredly not cheap). The area explore with “Trauma” lies in the fact that “paramedicine” does what the doctors cannot. He says it takes a long time to get to this job but there is a burn out factor. People never step down but sometimes they are asked to leave because the pace and pressure become too much to handle.

Anastasia Griffith, who plays Nancy Carnahan, says that her character is the drug pusher of the clan. She went to medical school but she wants to work on the ground. She has a big heart and wants to connect to the individual which at times is very detrimental to her because it leaves her feeling very isolated in her personal life. She ends up self-medicating with sex.

Cliff Curtis, who plays Reuben Palchuck, angles to the endurance of a second archetype. His character, while being confidant, exudes a coldness in his personal life because he is serving an overall kind of ideology in the essence of service to humanity without judgment. The pilot, he says, serves a certain set up in that they go in like gangbusters on this certain event but a lot of the team dies which causes repercussions in the emotional and physical lives of the surviving members. Curtis says that the series is intense but if they can keep it grounded, it will be a great ride.

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White Collar Building off a certain penchant in both “In Plain Sight” and “Breaking Bad” which made them so relevant, USA’s “White Collar” builds from two people who seem to have respect for each other and are more water than vinegar than they would like to relate despite some severe past incidents. It all comes down to an agenda. Like “48 Hrs”, one is a cop and one is a criminal who are working together towards a common goal. How it works is within a state of thought.

Jeff Eastin, the creator of the show, says ultimately the show is about these two guys and their interaction. Two aspects of the story hit him that were important as he was developing it. One, you don’t want one of the guys to look dumb and the other one smart. Tim DeKay’s character Peter Stokes, however, doesn’t want to show that his cards like that yet it shines through. These have to be guys you want to hang with. The key crux for them within the series is based in trust issues. Eastin also relates that when he talked to Tiffany Thiessen about her role as a wife, he told her to look at Abigail Adams (as the “John Adams” miniseries premiered to acclaim at the time they were developing this). Dihann Carroll also makes an appearance in half the episodes of season one as a recurring character called June who adds a delicious edge to the proceedings.

Matt Bomer, who plays Neal Caffrey, the erstwhile criminal serving a different agenda, says that his character is humanized by the fact that he comes from a quixotic place. Ultimately in the overall picture, he is searching for a girl Kate (a lost love) which dominates all his thoughts. The fact that the show is shot in NYC also gives the series, he believes, a distinct mood and tone, which is something that DeKay, who plays his nemesis Peter (who is on the right side of the law), echoes in sentiment citing a scene they shot with Dihann Caroll [on a roof] with the Empire State Building in the background. DeKay admits that Peter, even as a good guy loves a good con but he also likes to solve a good con which points to the fact that the character internally might enjoy working with this guy. But, as DeKay puts it regarding any criminal, “like any 4 year old, you have to hold their hand in the parking lot”.

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Stargate Universe This telling attempts to reinvigorate the Stargate franchise by creating more of a “Star Trek” base with an almost “Lost In Space” theme. The selling point on a lot of this is bringing in Robert Carlyle who is mostly known as a film actor. More of these kinds of actors are entering this space because of the increasing production value and acceptance of television as an accepted form in terms of career path.

Robert Cooper, one of the exec producers who has shepherded “Stargate” through its many incarnations on TV, relates that he was a big fan of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” which set the pace for the world of “Universe” in bringing in a visual style of say “The Shield” or “Friday Night Lights”. When conceiving this new series, they thought in paradox of terms to “SG1” and “Atlantis” in making it less referential. The angle that comes up quite new and fresh is the ability for some of the characters within this new structure to switch consciousness with people on Earth, which can be a “suspension of belief” deal breaker if it is not done right. The crux of the story of “Universe” is that there is not really good guys or bad guys, simply different agendas. Cooper also reveals that the forst episodes will examine different elements in terms of thematics like earth, wind, fire, etc.

Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays Colonel David Telford, says that when was approached, he saw that Robert Carlyle was attached to the property which raised the bar and Ming Na, whom he had known for years, was also involved as an actor. He says he always looks at new things as a life experience and thought this might be a different angle. He sees a series like “Stargate” as comfort food for the American public. Like any genre based show, it works within an unknown or, at least, partially alien setting. The angle with “Stargate” in his mind has iconic characters who are very real and relatable which negates the impact of the setting.

Robert Carlyle, who plays lead character Dr. Nicolas Rush, says that Robert and [co-creator] Brad [Wright] had contacted him around a year ago (September 2008). He was initially caught off guard by it and asked them if they, for sure, had the right guy. When he read the first script “Air” (which is the two hour pilot), he saw it as a challenge and it brought him to a place of enjoying science fiction more. He says that his character is a very dangerous man because, as an audience member, you are not sure what he actually is. He does some dodgy stuff which would probably make some of the other characters want to airlock him. The rub is that he is the one who knows how the technology works.

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Alice This new miniseries from ScyFy comes almost in tandem with the feature version that Tim Burton is telling next spring. While that film is a more a telling of the traditional story, this version is more the neo-gothic portrayal using the urban city and casinos as a backdrop instead of the forest.

Nick Willing, who directed this fusion of worlds like his earlier “Tin Man”, said the key was to make the approach both funny and fresh but also with a strong visual flair. The base of the story is that the Mad Hatter is bringing over people from the real world to play at the Queen’s Casino in Wonderland. Like Pleasure Island, if you lose, the Queen gets to take your essence. The people of Wonderland can then drink it for a variety of intents including lust. The thought is that just as we have evolved in the modern world so has Wonderland. The question is what would it be like now as a real place but also how would it be relevant to us today?

Caterina Scorsone, who plays Alice, says that her reaction to the material in the way it was approached here was a bit more visceral. When you are growing up, in her words, you see the real world as not always logical. For her, the illogical here became part of the draw because the whimsy itself then isn’t as threatening. Beneath the surface though, for her, this “Alice” is a compelling love story even though right now it is heavily in the zeitgeist

Kathy Bates, who makes one of her first forays into the fantasy genre, plays the Queen Of Hearts which had always been a dream of hers. The key for her in terms of challenge was to have something psychologically compelling within the character but also to be able to perform without feeling that you have one leg tied to the floor. The key in understanding the Queen within the confines of this world is that she is fascinated by the ideals of feelings and emotions but is, in fact, terrified by her own.

Matt Frewer, who recently appeared in “Watchmen”, said he couldn’t turn down playing The White Knight who, according to the script, is “as crazy as a box of frogs”. The vision of the future as shown in this “Alice” is one where people are innoculated and tranquilized by gambling and the Queen Of Hearts’ nefarious ways. This, in many ways, he says, mirrors some of themes covered in “Max Headroom” in terms of turning large populations into blank canvasses.

Harry Dean Stanton, who plays the Caterpillar, describes this “Alice” as a well defined acid trip. This mirrors some of the production thought of legendary TV producer Robert Halmi who says that this world was mostly built because no locations like this exist. Hence most of it was against green screen in Vancouver. In the computer you can fly with flamingos over the Alps so it just becomes a question of vision.

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Mercy This new medical series, which premieres September 23rd (8pm), follows the element of nurses in a less subversive way than say “Nurse Jackie”. Liz Heidens, the creator of the show, wanted to represent a real female friendship where the girls can be wild together. Nurses, as a rule, tend to pick up the pieces in the hospital but they also happen to be heroes and save lives, according to Heidens. For her, this felt like a way to depict real working women. They don’t have martinis in Manhattan…they drink beer in New Jersey. She also says that they will make sure to examine stories about people without health insurance. Her interest primarily lies more in characters that are wrong…and these women are still trying to figure out who they are. Women are usually played with kid gloves on TV and she wanted to change that.

Michelle Trachenberg, who plays Chloe, relates her decision in connecting to the show saying that once when she was in the hospital, the first person to hold her hand was male nurse who had a tattoo of a unicorn on his arm. He did her IV and made sure the ice pack was cold enough. That really made her feel safe. Chloe, for her, is an adult. The character went through nursing school and has the credentials. But, according to her, unlike her in real life, Chloe is shy and quiet. The challenge for her is in keeping it realistic. In her perspective, so many many women are scared by the situation they are in. Chloe looks to the other girls in the hospital (specifically Jamie and Taylor) to support her.

Taylor Schilling, who plays Veronica, says that in researching for this role, it became clear to her that nurses are the backbone of our hospital system. She was interested by this character in that Veronica had just returned from an uncontrolled environment (Iraq). It made her feel like a streetfighter. This world she has come back to is corporate and might feel a little contrived which makes this character almost like a bull in a china shop. In her mind, it is usually the most self protected people who are the most vulberable.

Jamie Lee Kirschner, who plays Sonya, says that her character is a hard worker who gets the job done. Playing the “brown” girl, for her, highlights that. Nurses, in her estimation, are the ones that deal with you freaking out. Her character is still searching for identity but maintaining her focus.

Lloyd Braun, one of the exec producers along with Gail Berman, believes that the big influx of medical shows is just coincidence. He relates that when he was at ABC, and they first were discussing Grey’s Anatomy, the thought was “not another medical show” since there were three other pilots vying for the slot. Every show was tonally different. Here he thought “Mercy” worked the same as well as did “Anatomy”. The key was connecting these people to this moment in time.

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Exec Sessions – Rick Ludwin Before Jay Leno came out to discuss his new 10pm show, late night executive Ludwin discussed basic facts to optimize the time with Jay. His points initialized with the thought that 10pm is still prime time. Jay’s show will be on without fail for 52 weeks as a judging basis and that NBC won’t be putting it on a yardstick. Ludwin says that they did three separate studies which said that the audience would be looking forward to this kind of comedy as an alternative at 10pm, specifically in the fact that it leads into the late local news. He adds that music will be a factor in the new show but only twice a week. Comedy, of course, is the “X” factor. There will be “pretty actors” but Ludwin says that it will be more than just talk. In terms of relationships and parallels of booking with “The Tonight Show”, he says that there is a good working relationship. Ludwin stresses that this will be an “important show” but also also makes the point that they are not disappointed in Conan at all. The ratings, of course, is how they will keep score.

They will also be incorporating more advertising/product placement in Leno’s show with Lexus being the initial participant. He defends this thought saying this kind of interaction is in the DNA of television going back to the 50s. Ludwin, for his own part, says that he loves live commercials and would be shocked if the audience liked Jay and didn’t like these commercials.

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The Jay Leno Show The big dog came into the house looking svelt, very rested and ready for anything. The first elements out of his mouth was, of course, his impressions on the news of the past months since he has been off the air. For example to the Michael Jackson death and the resignation of Sarah Palin, he says that they go “hand in hand” but that “the Palin thing cheered me up”.

Returning to TV like this was like training for him. For the new show, he got in shape. When he first started “The Tonight Show”, he said that everyone said they hated him (since he was taking over for the great Johnny Carson). For him, comedy is specific because it plays to a certain audience. Leno says he grew up in the era of Jack Benny, Johnny Carson and Bill Cosby. Politics are always in play as well as everything else across the board.

Leno talks about the physical representation of his new show. He finds the new set interesting and says that it is a lot bigger. He has a whole desk but he stresses that this new show will not be a talk or variety format. For example, he has spoken to Brian Williams about doing a segment about pieces that are not good enough for The Nightly News. DL Hughley, by contrast, will be reporting on politics. Rachel Harris (who was just in “The Hangover”) will also be doing some segments.

Leno also progressed into the sardonic considering all the controversy of the past two years which he could really never speak about before. He thinks that he hasn’t changed a whole lot. He is still married to the same woman and drives the same car. His nugget of advice relates to his acronym for “NBC”: Never Believe your Contract”.

He will also have some new cool segments which he could never have done on “The Tonight Show”. Leno relates that one of his favorite TV shows is “Top Gear”. As a result, he built a race track outside the studio. He had these fast electric cars built to race. He says Tom Cruise actually asked if he could get in early and practice.

For him, he thinks 10pm is the new 11:30. The kids in their 20s and 30s don’t stay up as late as they used to (in his perspective). Television, for him, now needs to be about immediacy. His example is that “The Today Show” got the airliner as it was landing in the Hudson. Does he expect to beat CSI? No. But he will catch them in the reruns.

Leno also slips that Kevin Eubanks came up with a new theme song. His Jay Show will start in as quickly as ten seconds. His quip is that it is “good food at sensible prices”. He comments on musical guests saying that it will get you a good studio audience but sometimes not a great TV audience. He will not have three guests. He will have one…maybe two, and then the racetrack. He also reminds everyone that, with “The Tonight Show” when he came in, it was number one and when he left it was number one. “The Jay Leno Show” in his estimation will have something for everyone.

He offers a peak at his competitors saying that there are good scripted dramas out there (he specifically highlights “Burn Notice”) but says also that he is very proud of his writers saying he has “the top five guys in the guild”.

When asked about his feeling about NBC and if he thinks he is coming into save them, he responds: “The networks are on their own. Screw them. There are things I like about it. There are things I don’t like about it”. He admits towards the end of his run, he was getting complacent at “The Tonight Show”. He adds that though, that if this new show goes down in flames, “we’ll be laughing all the way down”.

He unashamedly says that his confidence (exuded here) comes from the point now that he is rich. He doesn’t need to do this. He wants to. He also wants to make the point that there is no tension between Conan and him. He says that “when you play, this is how you play”. He admits that there will probably be booking wars between them. Jay then makes a General Motors reference saying that different engines make a difference. His point: “It is a game…and you play to win.”

He makes reference to David Letterman in terms of how he had a show on the same network and moved away. He says that one thing that kills people in Hollywood is bitterness. Leno says he “got it” when they wanted to take him off “The Tonight Show” when it was still number one and he admits that “there is only so much pie you can eat”. In all seriousness, he did say he had no desire to ever go to ABC because that, in effect, would create that “bitterness” which he says is so destructive.

NBC TCA Party With the Jay pinnacle ending the day, the party headed outside to the main garden area behind the Langham where the food smelled great and the open air concept truly encouraged interaction.

After proceeding to the Patron Bar, which held everything in account (especially the new coffee version), the life of the party spread out. Across the way there was a Dutch Bar set up with chocolate and golden lagers of exquisite taste. A compatriot of mine and I proceeded over to talk to Jay with the beer girl in tow before I was able to relate to them that, in fact, Jay does not drink. After conversing briefly with Hayden Pantierre (there to support “Heroes”), the day faded into night as a content looking Chevy Chase watched over the grounds with food in hand.

After failing to light up with Robert Carlyle near the beer bar, the late conversation proceeded with the creators of “Stargate Universe”, Brad and Robert, while a couple of the cast members and I did shots of whiskey. The relation of the reboot of this series stuck very clearly in my mind with the emphasis that in re-angling the franchise and making it seen through the eyes of a civilian gives it an almost mythic quality. Although I had not seen the pilot, the casting of Robert Carlyle was genius in that he (like Tim Roth) has so much to bring to this game if they let him go and roar through the screen. It has the possibility to transcend a genre and bridge certain gaps. This critic holds high hopes for the show as they disappear into the night, heading to Vancouver in the morning to begin shooting anew.

NBC as a network has been awash with controversy in the past year but also takes chances. In actuality, its cable siblings are doing some of the best work seen on television in years, specifically USA with “Burn Notice” especially but also with “Royal Pains”, “In Plain Sight” and now “White Collar” in the mix. There just seems to be a never-ending stream of good material from that specific net. Of course though, times change fast. ScyFy is also doing well with “Warehouse 13” opening to good numbers and “Caprica” on the way along with the aforementioned “Stargate: Universe”. NBC proper is the only one not entirely surefooted. While shows like “Chuck” and “Heroes” show the possibilities at times of good writing, the overemphasis on new medical shows and an erstwhile non-studio sitcom might have trouble gaining traction along with the loss of the 10pm hour.

The biggest gamble of course is “The Jay Leno Show” which has no guarantee to work despite good pedigree. It is the move that everyone is watching. It simply becomes a wait and see game.

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