1. Arts & Entertainment

NBC pits brassy ladies of Wednesday against sexy nerds of Thursday

Published Jan. 9, 2012

You don't know this, and NBC might not even realize it.

But this week, 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 followed by 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 moved Christina Applegate's quirky sitcom about new parents, Up All Night, 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, which was 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.

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 and leads 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 seem to prefer the funny nerd to the boozy bombshell.

And that feels like a step forward for everyone.

Show to watch

If you read this story early enough, you still have time to catch CBS' grand experiment in mornings; a revamped CBS This Morning debuting at 7 a.m. with PBS host Charlie Rose and Gayle King as its primary anchors.

So many critics have already pronounced this show dead on arrival, it makes me want to see them succeed. And the executives crafting this reboot — led by ex-Morning Joe producer Chris Licht and CBS News chairman Jeff Fager — are some of the smartest guys in TV.

Still, I'm wondering why CBS is trying to win the morning show wars with a format cribbed from MSNBC; a cable channel that isn't even top-rated in mornings. And, as many have noted before me, Rose and King seem so mismatched that it will be hard to avoid a schizophrenic feel in the A.M. hours.

So here's hoping This Morning is more Moneyball and Apple iPod than New Coke and, well, The Early Show.

Because, after trying everyone from Bryant Gumbel to Bob Saget in their morning show, CBS — and its viewers — could certainly use a break.


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