Seasons change, pilots come and go, but it seems there's one constant these days at NBC: their comedy brand lags far behind their drama brand; in fact, at this point it's arguably non-existent. NBC president George Cheeks said otherwise at last year's upfront, calling comedy the "heart of the NBC brand," but if that's the case the network needs heart surgery right quick. NBC has only two returning long-running comedies going into this year's upfronts: Superstore, but without its star America Ferrera; and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which they saved from cancellation at FOX. Both shows are charmers, but let's be real: these are not the comedy juggernauts upon which you hang a brand. As for this past season, The Good Place was terminated for artistic reasons, Will & Grace for financial ones, and new entries Sunnyside, Perfect Harmony and Indebted all failed to register much of a pulse with viewers.
Before the coronavirus crisis, NBC was set to be home to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which is always a great platform for introducing fall programming to a large audience. They prepared for it with some straight-to-series orders. Without the Olympics, they'll have to fight harder to catch any fire with these projects, but technically they won't need to order much more.
They have The Kenan Show, an order from last year that was supposed to launch this summer. It stars Kenan Thompson as a newly widowed dad who is determined to be everything for his kids while begrudgingly letting his persistent father-in-law become more involved in their lives. It's cute. Also a Tina Fey-produced comedy (yet untitled) starring Ted Danson as a wealthy businessman who runs for mayor of Los Angeles for all the wrong reasons and who wins. This script was not available at press time. Finally, there's Young Rock, featuring none other than old Rock himself, Dwayne Johnson. (More on that in a moment.) Here are our script-based rankings for NBC's comedy pilots this development cycle:
1. AMERICAN AUTO (Universal Television)
At the headquarters of a major American automotive company in Detroit, a floundering group of executives try to rejuvenate their company's identity amidst a rapidly changing industry.
Superstore creator Justin Splitzer, who stepped down as showrunner last summer to focus on development under his overall deal with Universal TV, first pitched this idea in 2013. The first American Auto script did not go to pilot back then but this redeveloped version did, and would make a great companion for Superstore since they share more than a writer. Like Superstore, American Auto is a single-camera blue-collar workplace comedy with strong energy, a love story at the center and funny characters all around — from the female CEO (Ana Gasteyer) of the car company who doesn't get cars and people who love them; to the ambitious type-A head of communications who's afraid of making mistakes and in the process make a lot of them; the old lady who doesn't get technolgy; and the white racist guy who doesn't know he's actually racist. A good set up and some great lines make this script a big winner.
2. UNTITLED JACKSON/GOOR COMEDY (aka GRAND CRU) (Universal Television)
A group of black friends, their dating lives and wine.
This very short official logline, while accurate, doesn't really do the show justice. It's a bit like a black Cougar Town but the characters are younger and there is no comedy star in it. Or maybe a black Happy Endings. The pilot script begins with a narrator (they hope to get Samuel L. Jackson) explaining that despite stereotypes to the contrary, black men are sensitive creatures, setting the tone for this funny, smart and modern comedy co-created by Parks And Recreation's Dan Goor. I don't know if NBC is the right place for it, but they should try to find it one.
3. JEFFERIES (Universal Television)
A comedian has a unique and often controversial take on modern life, relationships and co-parenting with his best friend.
Jim Jefferies stars as a fictionalized version of himself, surrounded by a competent cast including Anthony LaPaglia as his father, a recent widower who has moved into Jim’s guest house, and Besty Brandt as his best friend and mother of his child. Despite a tired setup, I was surprised to find the script for this multicam comedy efficient and charming. That said, it's seriously old-school, to the point where it feels the only place it could survive is on CBS. .
4. SOMEONE OUT THERE (Universal Television)
Two set-in-their-ways adults are challenged by very unexpected strangers to become the best versions of themselves in order to find love and possibly each other.
This romantic comedy based on a Spanish format comes from Amazon's Forever creator Matt Hubbard and the writing team of Josh Siegal and Dylan Morgan from The Good Place. To understand exactly what we're dealing with here, I have to reveal the show's twist. In other words, SPOILER ALERT. The "unexpected strangers" of the logline are actually the male lead's young daughter (who hasn't been born yet) and the female lead's imaginary friend. In the end, it's about two lonely people who can't quite figure out who they are and what they want. It's an interesting and original premise, even if the idea behind it — that you can only be happy if you find love — is not. Anyway, it's How I Met Your Mother-esque in a way that may make you feel like we've been here before, but a series order wouldn't be the worst thing.
5. NIGHT SCHOOL (Universal Television)
A unique mix of adults at a GED prep class unexpectedly bond over their shared experience and find themselves helping each other both inside and outside of the classroom.
Why does NBC keep trying to replicate the Community formula? Do they not remember this beloved show was on the verge of cancellation every year for most of its life? Wasn't Sunnyside's recent flop proof enough that people aren't responding to it? Same goes for A.P. Bio before that. And Go On. Based on the 2018 movie of the same name, Night School was considered a hot project at sales time. It's from Marlon co-creator Christopher Moynihan, the film’s star/producer Kevin Hart, producer Will Packer and director Malcolm D. Lee. I get why NBC wanted it and it's probably the most likely pilot to get a series order based on these auspices, but the script is not where it should be. It's predictable from start to finish, and the only two characters who really click are its two leads, the teacher and the most reluctant student. Worst of all, I didn't find it particularly funny. Not a fan.
6. CRAZY FOR YOU (Universal Television)
With her life stalling, Daisy re-enters the dating scene only to discover that while she was out of the game, the game totally completely changed. Realizing she is a bit rusty at being “normal” and “appealing” on first dates, she’ll need the support of her friends as she strives to be her true self in today’s quick-to-dismiss dating culture.
Crazy For You is another romcom that feels fairly conventional until a twist is revealed that makes it a little more interesting. Again, SPOILER ALERT. After an excruciating round of Tinder dates, our heroine finally finds the man of her dreams... then he disappears. Is he ghosting her, or did something bad happen to him? We don't get an answer and as a consequence we're not quite sure what to expect from subsequent episodes. Is it a comedy-thriller, like Search Party, or will it go more in the direction of Crazy-Ex Girlfriend? In any case, I found most of the show's characters downright irritating, including the leading lady. Some jokes are good and there's a compelling vision of the modern dating scene but I'm not convinced that's not enough.
7. YOUNG ROCK (Universal Television)
About Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson’s formative years.
A better logline might reference about Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's daddy issues, because that's what this is all about. Young Rock is from Fresh Off the Boat creator/executive producer Nahnatchka Khan and as mentioned above, it's already received an 11-episode straight-to-series order. Dwayne Johnson is set to appear in each episode. In fact, the show starts with him doing a big interview by a fireplace with none other than Oprah, as he is running for President of the United States in the year 2032. Every episode will consist of him telling her one particular memory from his childhood and/or teenage years, from Hawaii to Miami. I get why this is a big show for NBC and Dwayne Johnson is actually big from all perspectives, but I'm not sold on the idea. It wants so much to be emotional and sincere that it comes off as staged and fake. And while I can only assume that the show's overly celebratory tone toward Johnson is meant to be taken at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it's not clear from the reading the script, which has surprisingly few laughs. That being said, it's probably NBC's best chance at a hit right now, so they'd better make it work!
Jean-Maxime Renault is a TV addict based in Paris who writes about television and movies on AlloCiné (aka "the French IMDB"). In 2015 he created Season Zero, a website about television development and pilot season, which is now a part of Primetimer. Follow him on Twitter @SeasonZeroCom