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Critic's Notebook: The CBS Upfront

Date May 17, 2012

CBS

Whenever CBS unveils a new fall schedule, it's like watching an impressive round of chess, as powerful pieces (of programming) are moved strategically around the board (the prime-time line-up), operating from a position of strength to shore up weak spots and holes on the schedule, proving that an aggressive offense is a great defense against stagnation and decline. (See the full lineup here.)

"What are we going to do this year to make things interesting?" challenged CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler, presiding over the shortest, punchiest and — take that, stodgy CBS image! — most energetic upfront presentation to date this week. Highlights: NCIS: LA's LL Cool J led a rap, punctuated by an opera singer's aria, getting the audience on its feet. And 2 Broke Girls' Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs opened the show with a taped comedy bit, serving Tim Tebow, David Letterman and Regis Philbin in their fake diner, then entering Carnegie Hall in person, bearing cupcakes. Super Bowl champ Eli Manning also dropped by, touting this season's big game, airing on CBS this winter.

But back to Tassler's question. CBS is the most traditional, the most stable and in many ways the most formulaic of the broadcast networks. But it has never been the most complacent. They could easily leave successful nights like Monday and Thursday alone, letting those hits stay put indefinitely until they calcify, but that's not their style. Instead, they make things interesting by shaking things up. One of the loudest cage-rattlings involves moving the long-time crowd-pleaser The Mentalist from its dominant perch on Thursdays to Sundays (replacing CSI: Miami, the first of that franchise to be retired). I'm sure I'll be getting mail soon from Mentalist fans wondering if CBS is trying to kill the show, because it's unlikely to pull the same ratings on Sundays, especially during the months of lengthy football overruns. But CBS knows that fact of TV life as well as anyone, and as long as The Mentalist delivers — and there's no reason to expect it won't — it will be fine as long as there's life in the show.

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Perhaps the most unexpected move is shifting longtime Monday anchor Two and a Half Men to Thursdays, where it will go into its twilight reunited with CBS' best and most powerful sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, comprising what Tassler calls a "super comedy hour." Taking over Two and a Half Men's pivotal time slot (9/8c, Mondays) is last season's breakout hit, the crude but popular 2 Broke Girls. Too much too soon? We shall see.

Hammocked on Mondays at 8:30/7:30c between the resurgent How I Met Your Mother — Tassler called it "HimYim" (as in the shorthand HIMYM) — and Girls will be one of only four new series CBS is launching this fall: Partners, from the creators of Will & Grace and based on their professional and personal relationship as best buds. Think of it as Straight Will & Jack, with Numb3rs'David Krumholtz as the "Straight Will" and Ugly Betty's Michael Urie as his flamboyant BFF "Jack," each with their own "Grace." Krumholtz is engaged to One Tree Hill's Sophia Bush, while Urie is dating a male nurse (Chuck's Brandon Routh, who seems awfully stiff for this company). The clips (not always a reliable barometer) lack the theatrical flourish we associate with Will & Grace, but the premise is as appealing as the cast, and like most CBS shows, it looks like a good and smart fit.

The rest of CBS' new slate consists of (take a guess) variations on crime and legal dramas, each with a twist. The broadest, in a manner of speaking, is the working-girl lawyer show Made in Jersey, joining the Friday lineup nestled snugly at 9/8c between the durable CSI: NY — which survived the cut again this year — and the solid Blue Bloods. Looking like Snooki's more successful and polished sister, British actress Janet Montgomery plays a tough Jersey girl from a large and rambunctious Italian family who brings her brash attitude to a stodgy Manhattan law firm. Its light tone may be more suitable for Friday than last year's earnest medical drama A Gifted Man.

The stakes are much higher for Elementary, a modern-day Sherlock Holmes caper taking over The Mentalist's high-profile Thursday slot (10/9c). Yes, we know a brilliant version of this already exists on PBS — the astounding climax to Sherlock's second season airs this Sunday, by the way — but this is by no means a clone. Set in New York and starring Jonny Lee Miller as a possibly edgier version of the celebrated and mercurial sleuth (we first see him shirtless and lavishly tattooed, fresh from rehab), Elementary teams him with a female Dr. Watson (Lucy Liu, who was a revelation this year on Southland). Comparisons with the British version will be inevitable, but Miller is as charismatic here as he was on the short-lived Eli Stone, and this is playing to a potentially much wider audience, so there's probably room for both. (In an added irony, Miller and Sherlock's Benedict Cumberbatch recently appeared opposite each other in an acclaimed London stage version of Frankenstein, switching roles from performance to performance. Please let there be crossover cameos.)

CBS waited until the end of its presentation to introduce what represents its greatest risk, and best possibility to do something out of the ordinary: a '60s-era crime saga, Vegas (Tuesdays at 10/9c, following the NCIS juggernaut combo), about a local sheriff who'd really rather be a rancher. He's played by Dennis Quaid (his series debut), the very model of a natural CBS star. But with Las Vegas rising from the desert to become the next Sin City, complete with mobsters (including Michael Chiklis) ready to seize opportunity, it's up to the sheriff and his brother (Terra Nova's Jason O'Mara) to keep things from getting too lawless. NBC and ABC crashed and burned last year with their period pieces (The Playboy Club and Pan Am), but Vegas appears to be putting character and conflict first, which is wise.

You'd never confuse this with Mad Men, and believe me, CBS wouldn't want you to.

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