The new CBS lineup.

The new CBS lineup.

The new CBS lineup.

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May 21 2009 12:55 PM

The Baddest

CBS and LL Cool J strut their stuff at yesterday's upfront.

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Chris O'Donnell in NCIS: Los Angeles

If, for some perverse reason, you choose to believe everything spurting from the mouths of TV executives this Upfronts Week, then you'll get the idea that there are three No. 1 networks. These people are prodigies of showbiz math, wizards of interpretive demography. There could never exist a FactCheck.org of the television industry, as its servers would break down under the strain of every ratings-report press release.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.

Given this truthiness in wooing advertisers, we must rely on other indicators to divine which network is actually on top. Yesterday, CBS staged its Carnegie Hall presentation with such brazen swagger that you had to believe it's the reigning champ. The execs were so self-assured that they skipped the bar graphs and pie charts that make other networks' pitches feel like math homework. They felt no need to talk up the supposed TiVo-busting innovations that lesser networks gainfully hyped. By way of encouraging confidence in the power of television at large, they bragged about Fox's American Idol. Where other networks pared back or at least downplayed their after-parties, CBS went retro and made jokes about shrimp cocktail and casual sex.

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Best, they ragged on fourth-place NBC. This is a popular hobby in the industry, true, but rarely do Ben Silverman's peers—I mean network bosses, not circus clowns—attack his outfit so publicly and so viciously. It turned out that ABC's Jimmy Kimmel had merely been providing an appetizer the day before in saying that NBC had "destroyed" itself. CBS's Les Moonves got off my favorite dis: "There's a big difference between the model being broken and not being able to find any hit shows for years." Jo Ann Ross, the president of network sales, likened NBC to a T-ball team. Then Nina Tassler, president of entertainment, got down to business.

The Good Wife stars Julianna Margulies as the wife of a disgraced politician. She goes back to work as an associate in a law firm 13 years after her last court appearance. Fox canceled Margulies' last legal drama, Canterbury's Law, after six episodes. What's the over-under on this one?

Accidentally on Purpose, a comedy of mismatched lovers with an unexpectedly delightful clip reel, stars Jenna Elfman as a career gal approaching a certain age. Knocked up by a younger man in a one-night-stand, she gets sucked into Liz Phair's "Rock Me": "I want to play Xbox on your floor/ Say hi to your roommate who's next door." Cue the roommate using her grandmother's cremation urn as a bong.

Three Rivers is a hospital drama, starring the guy who starred in Moonlight, whom CBS claims to believe is an actual star.

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NCIS: Los Angeles, a jacked-up spinoff of a hot new old show, stars LL Cool J and Chris O'Donnell as agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. LL popped up on stage to blaze through "Mama Said Knock You Out," to which one imagines the average ad buyer had not publicly grooved since his days in the Sigma Chi house at Hamilton College. LL told the crowd to stand up, and none stood. He told the people to put their hands in the air, and they again demurred, literally unswayed by his charismatic exhortations. This was getting awkward. Forlornly did the floor vibrate as the bass went boom. Finally, LL implored the ad buyers to stand up while putting their hands in the air. This got some response in the prime parquet seats, though only Jenna Elfman complied with both requests. Then we got to two midseason replacements I've already forgotten about. Then we got two reality shows.

Arranged Marriage. I'm there—though I'm not actually sure that it'll be as fun to review as you might expect. Too easy. Where's the challenge? There's a difference between shooting fish in a barrel and having a barrel of shot fish delivered to your office via courier.

Undercover Boss. In the pilot, Larry O'Donnell, president and COO of Waste Management, quits shaving, dons a jumpsuit, breaks his back performing menial labor, and gains a new appreciation for the rigors of the workplace. At once a fanfare for the common man and a revenge fantasy, this got the warmest response from the room. Alas, we missed the opportunity to see Carly Fiorina changing toner cartridges.