Dispatches From the Upfronts

Conan Woos Advertisers with a Willie Nelson Impression
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May 19 2010 5:26 PM

Dispatches From the Upfronts

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How about this weather? Rough winds did shake the darling buds of Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon, as did raindrops the size of quail eggs. Consequently, the men swaggering into Avery Fisher Hall for a glimpse of ABC's fall schedule were squishing in their Cole Haans. And the women? It looked as if Diane von Furstenberg had teamed up with Señor Frog's to put on a wet wrap-dress competition.

Things were even wetter and messier indoors as the network chose a deliberately sloppy way to introduce its clients to its new head of sales, Geri Wang. The ad buyers hooted and giggled at taped footage of Wang testing herself against the slapstick rigors of Wipeout, ABC's lowbrow-brilliant obstacle-course reality show. She flopped around in no fewer than two types of mud while, on the soundtrack, the show's broadcast team joked about her travails in language geared to tickle insiders' insides, making metaphors about CPM and the like.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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Initially, all of this wallowing in the muck looked like mere ritual humiliation akin to frat hazing. Then Wang took to the stage in person, and it became clear that the video was a client-relations necessity. For all I know, Wang is the greatest salesperson since George Babbitt, but her public-speaking skills are wanting. "ABC's top priority is to build advertising solutions," she said in a teacher's-pet tone suggestive of Lisa Simpson (though lacking Lisa's bluesy saxophone cool). Elsewhere she was notably robotic, as if the teleprompter were wirelessly connected to her voice box: "Just look at the number. Of different platforms. On which people are watching. Each of these ABC shows!" The video very much helped to humanize her, demonstrating, for instance, that she does not fizzle and short out when dropped into water.

Meanwhile, the speaking style of Steve McPherson, ABC's president of entertainment, was all too human. At the start of his presentation, he stated that the typical American watches 34 hours of TV a week, and then he failed to turn a joke: "For the record, my daughters, if left alone, could easily double that." Not even the crickets could make some noise for that one, and McPherson proceeded haltingly through a rundown of his new shows, visibly just a bit nervous. Given his lineup, I don't blame him.

Let me qualify that: Mr. Sunshine (a Matthew Perry midlife-crisis sitcom) seems to have potential, and the reel of No Ordinary Family (a suburban-superhero drama) had the press audience riveted, and Detroit 1-8-7 has a lot of guns and car chases. But if the shows listed below are half as generic as their titles, then McPherson may soon find himself with a lot more time to supervise his girls' viewing habits.

Body of Proof. Does this title make you think that it's a sitcom set at a law firm? A reality show about drinking tequila from the navels of Señor Frog's patrons? A math thriller? In reality, it is House meets Quincy, M.E. but with two X chromosomes. Dana Delany plays a brilliant grumpy medical examiner with "a reputation for graying the lines of where her job ends and where the police department's begins." Death warmed over, Q.E.D.

Happy Endings. A show should be called Happy Endings only if it's a reality show set in a massage parlor. Even then, America's Toughest Hand Jobs would be a superior appellation, I think you'll agree. What we have here is "a really fresh look at a relationship show" about a sundered perfect couple wrangling for custody of their friends.

My Generation. A rule of etiquette: When you hear a network executive use the words Facebook and zeitgeist in close proximity, cover your mouth before you scoff. This is a drama with a trendy structural conceit and an intensely risible premise: "In 2000, a documentary crew follows a disparate group of high-schoolers … as they prepare for graduation, then revisits these former classmates 10 years later." ABC definitely has its thumb on the pulse with this one. Sample dialogue: "I watched that video you sent me on YouTube."

McPherson's confidence picked up when he debuted Off the Map, the latest from Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes. Dr. Meredith Grey meets Dr. Livingstone, I presume, in a drama about attractive physicians making the best of it at a clinic in the Amazon. Not merely doctors without borders but also colleagues without proper relationship boundaries, they hook up and stuff. The preview, which was scored to the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter," inspired one thought in me: Can we start a campaign against scoring these previews with the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter"? (It's shocking how frequently production teams resort to that number as a mood-enhancer; the only song more played-out is "Under Pressure.") Maybe someone could get Scorsese to shoot a PSA?

Shortly, Jimmy Kimmel was on stage doing the omnidirectional insult comedy that has become the upfronts' de facto centerpiece. Is anyone tallying all the many thousands of jokes being made at NBC's expense this week? If so, then maybe later we can give out awards in such categories as "best knock-knock joke" and "best why-did-the-peacock-cross-the-road joke" and "most creative use of 'Zucker' in a limerick." Kimmel would be a shoo-in for the "best set-up" trophy: "There are some very big things going on at NBC. They canceled Law & Order and picked up Law & Order: Los Angeles. You know, the last time NBC took a show that had been on for 20 years in New York and moved it to L.A., it wound up as the lead-in to George Lopez on TBS."

O, Conan! TBS—eager, like other ambitious cable channels, to play with the broadcast big boys this week—briefly reintroduced us to a bearded O'Brien over a Wednesday breakfast at the Hammerstein Ballroom. "Thank you!" said he. "I love doing comedy at 10 in the morning." Yes, the room was even more tepid than the free coffee, but Conan managed to rouse the audience with a musical performance. Strumming an acoustic guitar, backed by a second axe and a standing bass, he paid homage to Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again," pining for "my own show again/ on any network, even Oxygen." Though Conan did not even offer a hint about the specifics of his new show, his invocation of Willie, combined with a throwaway reference to Cheech and Chong, left me with the idea that this American absurdist might become a kind of stoner-comedy folk hero.

For the record, Conan left the bulk of TBS's NBC-bashing to an executive named Steve Koonin, who, after expressing appreciation to his customers and colleagues, allowed himself a pause, then pulled back his piñata bat: "I'd be remiss if I didn't give a special heartfelt thanks to a certain NBC employee." The large screen at Koonin's back lit up with a photo of Jay Leno, a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi troubling my sight.

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