NBC Wants to Resurrect the Era of Must See TV

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For decades, if you wanted reliable laughs, NBC on Thursday night was the place to find them. Over the past five years, you may have noticed, new technologies have torn TV from the calendar — in the age of “Peak TV,” networks don’t tell viewers where and when to watch; we tune in when we want, where we want, Nielsen ratings be damned. But networks aren’t quite ready to cede their precious territory. You’ll have to pry Thursday nights out of NBC’s cold, dead hands.

In the lore of American television, NBC’s storied Thursday-night lineup — christened “Must See TV” in 1993 — has occupied a lofty perch. In the late 1980s, the channel had The Cosby Show, Cheers, Family Ties, and A Different World; in the ’90s, it added Seinfeld, Frasier, and Mad About You. By the early 2000s, NBC’s primetime Thursday block was home to Friends, Scrubs, and Will & Grace. The 2010s saw the dominance of The Office, Parks and Recreation, Community, and 30 Rock.

This year, for the first time since Community and Parks and Rec went off the air in 2014, NBC has a lineup worthy of its tagline. Beginning September 28, between 8 and 10 p.m., the network will air Superstore, The Good Place, Will & Grace, and Great News. (The Good Place premieres on the 20th, with a special hour-long episode.) It’s a solid two hours of comedy, knocking lackluster dramas like The Blacklist and Dick Wolf’s Chicago franchise out of that 8–10 Thursday-night sweet spot.

There’s a whiff of déjà vu to NBC’s 2017–18 Must See TV lineup. The deadpan Superstore, starring America Ferrera and Ben Feldman, is The Office for a new era, a single-camera workplace comedy centered on the disillusioned employees of a big-box retail store called Cloud 9 (the show’s creator, Justin Spitzer, was a producer on The Office); Great News, another single-camera comedy, which quietly aired its first season in the spring and was created by 30 Rock writer Tracey Wigfield, feels like a reboot of Tina Fey’s screwball behind-the-scenes sitcom — its protagonist (Briga Heelan) is a romantically challenged, professionally ambitious young woman who works as a producer at a local news station, where her mother (Andrea Martin) has decided to intern. And Will & Grace — back in its 9 p.m. Thursday time slot — is, of course, an actual revival of the late-’90s/early-2000s comedy about two gay guys and their straight female besties, a show widely credited with helping to nudge the American public in favor of gay marriage.

The Good Place is the outlier here, the only one in the lineup that feels truly original. Created by Michael Schur — who wrote for Saturday Night Live and The Office before co-creating Parks and Rec with Greg Daniels and, later, Brooklyn Nine-Nine with Dan Goor — The Good Place is a sitcom for the post-network era. Its first season, which premiered in 2016, introduced us to the nihilistic Eleanor Shellstrop (a perfectly cast Kristen Bell), who has just died and arrived in “the good place,” as Michael (Ted Danson), a sort of celestial concierge, informs her. (The show doesn’t actually name-check heaven or hell, but the good place is, of course, where you want to end up.) As Michael shows her around his idyllic “neighborhood” and introduces her to her soul mate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Eleanor comes to realize she’s been mistaken for a different, and much more virtuous, Eleanor Shellstrop. She’s not supposed to be there at all.

In the season finale, The Good Place initiated a twist (spoilers ahead): Eleanor’s predicament is a special kind of torture — she’s actually in the bad place, along with Chidi, a Nigerian-born philosophy professor; a supposed Buddhist monk named Jianyu who’s actually a bro from Florida named Jason (Manny Jacinto); and Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a gorgeous British heiress who’s lived her life in the shadow of a brilliant younger sister. Michael isn’t a benevolent custodian but an evil minion who’s painstakingly designed his neighborhood for the express purpose of driving these four humans insane. Abstract enough for you? The second-season premiere takes yet another conceptual leap as Michael decides to “tinker” with his plan, erasing the foursome’s memories and trying, again, to find “a better way to make humans miserable.”

With The Good Place, NBC’s finally found a sitcom for the digital age, one that feels as untethered and limitless as the internet itself. The series is also cunningly diverse: Like Netflix’s prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black, The Good Place uses its blond-haired, blue-eyed protagonist as a Trojan horse. (Like prison, the afterlife is colorblind.) Despite what NBC’s marketing department would have you think — the subway ads exclusively feature the show’s two white stars, Bell and Danson — The Good Place is a showcase for its ensemble, which includes a black man, a British-Indian woman, and a Canadian of Filipino and Chinese descent. Perhaps it’s appropriate that the godlike figure maneuvering these subjects like pieces on a chessboard is an older white man.

There’s one treasured NBC comedy that won’t be returning this fall. At the end of June, the network abruptly canceled The Carmichael Show, a multi-cam living-room sitcom created by and starring the young comedian Jerrod Carmichael. In the vein of Norman Lear, who has praised the series, The Carmichael Show was a talky sitcom driven by issues: Any given week might see the show’s central family debating gun control laws, Bill Cosby, police brutality, or date rape. Its season two finale, which aired in May 2016, was ominously titled “President Trump.” It was also, conspicuously, NBC’s blackest show.

Despite widespread critical acclaim, Carmichael’s cancellation isn’t much of a surprise. NBC has a long, weird history with this show, burying the second half of its short first season in the backwoods of late August in 2015, then dragging its feet before renewing it for a second and third. Ratings could be a factor, but, as cultural critic Mark Harris pointed out, in the digital age, ratings are just one indication of a show’s success, and NBC has demonstrated that it’ll go to bat for an under-watched series if it really wants to (see: Parks and Recreation, Superstore, and The Good Place).

NBC’s new Must See TV block is still fairly diverse: Aside from the Good Place ensemble, Superstore features a realistically varied cast in terms of ethnicity, gender, and even body type. It’s set in St. Louis, and for the most part, its characters look like real people. It also hasn’t shied away from socially aware storylines, like one in season two featuring an undocumented employee. That’s all great, but this is still a programming block marketed with white faces, created by white writers who, unlike Carmichael, had worked on one or more tried-and-true NBC sitcoms in the past.

In the first-season finale of The Good Place, Eleanor has a revelation. “You thought we would torture each other,” she tells Michael. “And we did, for a little. But we also took care of each other. We improved each other. And the four of us became a team.” They outsmart Michael by taking his most cynical assumptions about what people really want and throwing them back in his face. If only the gods at NBC were paying attention.

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