Compared with the upfront presentations of NBC (which is starting a gut renovation), Fox (which is tinkering loudly with experiments), and ABC (which is firing off a birdshot spray of 13 new shows), the sales pitch that CBS put together this week was quite straightforward. Perhaps NCIS star Michael Weatherly put it best in a taped bit at the top of Wednesday's Carnegie Hall show: "BUY BUY BUY!"
But how to give that message more nuance? After crowing that CBS will finish this season as the "most-watched network for the eighth time in nine years," CEO Les Moonves pointed to a new spirit of optimism in the republic and the end of the hard times. "Without question," he said, "the advertising community has been a major driver of the country's recovery." Translation: It is your patriotic duty, widget salesmen of America, to buy commercial time on the fat-joke sitcom Mike & Molly.
But wait—there were more angles once Nina Tassler, the network's president of entertainment, hit the stage. Permit me a brief digression? More than a few of the American women shopping at the upfront are in the middle of wedding planning. At the parties, you can hear them chatting about particularly inspiring canapés and lusting after the zillion red-velvet morsels on Fox's epic dessert buffet. If any of them are writing their own vows, they could do worse than to plagiarize Tassler's presentation, with its paean to CBS's consistency and stability and its pledge to remain "faithful to our audience and our advertisers."
Tassler announced two new sitcoms for fall, each of which is readily shoehornable into a conversation about fall TV and gender. 2 Broke Girls, from Whitney Cummings and Sex and the City's Michael Patrick King, oddly couples a brunette sassypants (Kat Dennings) with a blonde princess (Beth Behrs) as New York City roommates and coworkers at a diner. Tassler boasted of its "modern sensibility," perhaps a clue that the show will interrogate the way we live now, perhaps just a way of saying that the broke girls' improbably large apartment will be in Brooklyn rather than Manhattan. Later, Tassler ventured that How To Be a Gentleman will contribute to the current "debate about what it means to be a man." Kevin Dillon gets up to his usual Johnny Dramatics as a bro teaching a wimpy prep how to "man up."
Then we got a look at Ashton Kutcher, who is stepping into Charlie Sheen's spot on Two and a Half Men, CBS having decided that it is no longer viable to continue doing business with that particular degenerate. Ashton looked great, but the wimpy preps in the crowd had two questions about how he'll do on the show: 1) Given the contours of his persona—the easy warmth, the basic human decency—how will he ever fill Sheen's shoes? 2) What kind of conditioner does he use?
In accordance with the dictates of good business and the advice of a competent lawyer, Tassler did not mention Sheen by name, but I did catch a sly reference to him when she went through her schedule night by night and explained the show's place on a rejiggered Monday lineup: "We've definitely got our night back in #winning form."