LOS ANGELES - NBC’s brand new executive team unveiled some old faces, ranging from the beloved to the baneful, as they presented their network’s new programming slate at a meeting of North American TV critics here Monday.
NBC programming bosses Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff, hired just last month after the network’s fall lineup was already set, did their best to put their own stamp on it with moves that range from interesting to startling to bizarre.
The network is adding to its talent roster not only legendary producer Norman Lear, but disgraced gay-bashing actor Isaiah Washington and weird 1960s psychic Uri Geller, who claims to be able to bend spoons and start stopped clocks with his mind but whose most formidable task may be convincing audiences that he’s still alive.
The other surprises include comedian Jerry Seinfeld returning to network comedy for the first time since he retired his smash hit sitcom nine years ago, guest-starring as himself in the backstage-TV comedy “30 Rock,” and the news that NBC is considering giving Jay Leno a prime-time program when he leaves “The Tonight Show” in 2009.
Perhaps the most welcome news - at least, that’s the way NBC hopes television viewers will see it - was the return of Lear, who remade the face of TV comedy when he convinced CBS to air “All In The Family” in 1971. It was the first in a long run of Lear hits built on topical and politically incorrect humor.
Absent from television since 1994, when diminishing audiences and heightened network sensibilities about ethnic and gender humor pushed him to the wings, Lear will produce an as yet untitled hour-long comedy-drama, a battle of the sexes set on Wall Street, that NBC hopes to get onto the air early next year.
“Norman Lear is an idol of mine,” said Silverman, “and bringing his voice back to network television is the fulfillment of a personal dream.”
The return of Isaiah Washington to network television is more likely to seem like a nightmare to many viewers. Washington was fired from ABC’s hit drama “Grey’s Anatomy” last month (or “became available,” as Silverman delicately phrased it) after being accused of calling a gay member of the cast a “faggot” during an altercation on the set. Washington denied it - but then used the word to reporters backstage at the Golden Globe awards.
Silverman shrugged off questions about Washington’s problems on “Grey’s Anatomy”: “He’s a wonderful actor and a great performer.” He’ll guest-star in five episodes of “Bionic Woman” as a shadowy and morally ambiguous representative of a mysterious scientific organization that builds robots.
Geller, too, was controversial in his day, which was back when Lyndon Johnson was president and “Gunsmoke” ruled the airwaves. His claims that he could rearrange matter with his brainwaves got him into Life magazine and attracted a legion of debunkers. Recently he’s been more famous for being an unpleasant (and unauthorized, he’s alleged in lawsuits) character in a Nintendo game who can give his enemies bad headaches.
NBC will team Geller and magician Criss Angel in a reality show entitled “Phenomenon,” a talent search for what Silverman called “the next great mind-blower, the next great mentalist.” And, he added to the TV critics: “If any of you can turn your computers on and off without touching them, this is your show.”
Seinfeld will play himself in the season debut of “30 Rock” on Oct. 4. In a tongue-deeply-in-cheek statement released by NBC, the comedian said that “it’s going to be refreshing for me to be playing myself in a show that has nothing to do with neurotic, dysfunctional New York characters.” 30 Rock is the story the neurotic, dysfunctional cast of a “Saturday Night Live”-like show that’s broadcast from New York.
The NBC executives were less definite about their plans for Leno, but confirmed they’re talking about him staying on the network after he leaves “The Tonight Show.” “Prime time is a definite alternative ... That is something that we’re talking about,” said Graboff.