Debut of NBC's Are You There Chelsea? and 30 Rock sets up battle of brassy ladies vs sexy nerds
You probably don't know this, and NBC might not even realize it.
But on Wednesday, an amazing Rorschach test is about to play out on your TV screens, courtesy of the Peacock Network, thanks to their newest scheduling moves for winter.
Let's call it the brassy ladies versus the sexy nerds.
On Wednesday, NBC debuts Are You There, Chelsea?, an odd sitcom created by and loosely based on stand-up comic Chelsea Handler, in which Handler plays her own frumpy sister and That '70s Show alum Laura Prepon plays Handler's hard-drinking, oversexed character.
That show is preceded by a newly transplanted Whitney, comic Whitney Cummings' new self-titled series, focused on her life with a boyfriend she doesn't plan to marry.
To make that lineup happen, NBC flipped Christina Applegate's quirky sitcom about new parents, Up All Night, from Wednesdays to 9:30 p.m. Thursdays, where it will cap a run of comedies kicked off by the return of Tina Fey's 30 Rock — a landmark series featuring TV's reigning sexy nerd.
Cummings and Handler are comics who seem cut from the same cloth; known for in-your-face routines where they curse, drink and talk sex as much or more than any male. They're brassy, bold and pushing the envelope of taste all the time, which NBC likely hopes translates into a comedy block drawing the Spike TV crowd.
NBC's Thursdays are a much different universe. Led by Fey's 30 Rock and Amy Poehler's Parks and Recreation, this is a night for pop culture nerds, filled with self-aware comedy aimed at fans who can quote the lyrics to Saturday Night Live's "D--- in a Box" video from memory. Fey, Poehler and Applegate all play women a little overwhelmed by life, seemingly unaware of how attractive or smart they really are.
Which lineup will viewers choose? The results could help shape the future of NBC's comedy direction, which has so far been dominated by critically acclaimed comedies struggling for popular success.
NBC's Thursday nights, in particular, have been propped up by The Office; always popular with wealthy audiences and young men, despite lower total viewership totals.
But the departure of star Steve Carell has left the show a bit rudderless, further weakening a night already hobbled by low interest in Whitney and a limp Prime Suspect remake.
This won't be a fair fight. Are You There, Chelsea? is a fitfully flawed enterprise, doomed by the decision to cast younger sitcom veteran Prepon as the star, when fans likely would prefer seeing Handler in the spotlight. NBC's ads for the show acknowledge as much, featuring the Chelsea, Lately host as much as Prepon, showcasing jokes that feel cribbed from an old Joey episode. (they even took the name of Handler's favorite beverage out of the title, despite basing the show on her bestselling book Are You There, Vodka? It's me, Chelsea.)
Indeed, NBC has turned Wednesday into Old School TV Night, starting with two sex-filled sitcoms filmed by multiple cameras '90s style, leading into venerated Oscar winner Kathy Bates in Harry's Law and the last Law & Order standing, Special Victims Unit.
By contrast, 30 Rock returns fresh off Alec Baldwin's airplane scandal, leading into a Parks and Recreation that is hitting its stride, The Office and a comedy much more in line with the smart comedy vibe of the evening, Up All Night.
NBC might luck out and find audiences for both nights. But I'm thinking the nerds are going to take this one, and not just because the Thursday shows are generally more experienced and funnier.
These days, audiences just might prefer the funny nerd to the boozy bombshell.
And that feels like a step forward for everyone.