Critic's Notebook: The ABC Upfront
Rachael Taylor, Minka Kelly, Annie Ilonzeh
Through the first two days and three networks of the upfront week, a nagging thought keeps occurring to me. When people ask me what to look forward to in the fall, I fear my answer is going to be: Just wait until midseason!
Once again, as with Awake and Smash on NBC and Alcatraz on Fox, some of my most visceral and enthusiastic knee-jerk responses to ABC's bulging shelf of new series was reserved for the shows that are waiting in the wings for winter or spring. I'm at a loss to understand why a show with so much buzz and flash as Good Christian Belles (formerly Bitches), which seems to have the oomph and panache of early-days Desperate Housewives, is being held back — when it would make the perfect Sunday companion piece for the increasingly enfeebled antics on Wisteria Lane.
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Which isn't a slight against Pan Am, the '60s "Come Fly With Me" soap which takes over the Sunday post-Housewives slot. As Mad Men wannabes go, it looks so much brighter and, yes, airy than NBC's dark and murky '60s pastiche of The Playboy Club. And it looks like fun. Fun is always good. Especially when you're talking sexy stewardesses and hot pilots. I loved the first Airport movie, and if Pan Am can spread its wings in that direction, I could end up becoming a frequent flier.
The other midseason lurker that jolted me out of my seat at Avery Fisher Hall Tuesday is The River, an exotic thriller with touches of Paranormal Activity in its sudden spasms of terror. This show might actually benefit from a midseason launch, when more promotional muscle can be focused on its cinematic story of a family's search for a missing explorer in the spooky and treacherous Amazonian jungle.
Both GCB and The River seem to fall into the category of "pure entertainment" touted by ABC's new entertainment chief Paul Lee, who's swinging the bat with all kinds of high concepts, not all of which are likely to bear fruit.
One no-brainer — and I think I mean that literally — is the show Lee described as "pure candy." That would be the Charlie's Angels reboot, kicking off the Thursday lineup by providing eye candy in its rethinking of the sexy crime-fighting trio as reformed bad girls. Looks like there will be lots of explosions in the pilot. And the rest? White noise, from what I can tell.
Some other early thoughts:
Can't blame ABC, still riding high from its comedy resurgence of a season ago, for establishing a second sitcom block on Tuesday — or for turning to Tim Allen to try to recapture some of that Home Improvement mass appeal. But the network seems to have forgotten that variety is the spice of life. Allen's new family vehicle, Last Man Standing, and its companion piece, the abrasive buddy comedy Man Up, are rather single-mindedly obsessed with the notion that manhood is an endangered species.
These shows look merely negligible. The trend gets much worse at midseason, with a "what were they thinking" project called Work It, a shrill Bosom Buddies knockoff about two unemployed he-men who dress as women (none too convincingly) to get jobs as pharmaceutical reps. Somewhere, RuPaul is weeping. The rest of us can only cringe.
The other head-scratcher on ABC's lineup is the new season's second (and less promising) fairy-tale mash-up. At least NBC's Grimm has the good sense to frame fantasy creatures within a horror mystery. Once Upon a Time, which replaces Extreme Makeover: Home Edition on Sundays, at first glance looks like a tonally bizarre fable that re-imagines a Snow White-like story taking place in a small Maine town. The cut-down was confusing and, despite such appealing actors as Jennifer Morrison and Big Love's Ginnifer Goodwin in the mix, not very enticing. (If you want to start laying bets on the season's first possible cancellation, I won't stop you.)
And finally, let's look at Wednesday night, the jewel in ABC's crown, thanks to The Middle and Modern Family. Normally I'd include Cougar Town in that equation, but the network is once again abusing this wacky gem, degrading it to utility-player status, where it will fill in between seasons of Dancing With the Stars on Tuesdays (accompanied by the noxious-looking roommate-from-hell comedy Apartment 23). While the satirical new Suburgatory (8:30/7:30c) looks to be the most compatible bridge ABC has yet found between The Middle and Modern Family, I am not nearly as amused by ABC's coronation of Happy Endings as the inheritor of Cougar Town's time period. I know this show has its ardent fans, and some episodes have been funny (especially when focusing on the schlubby gay Max, the series' freshest character), but the real happy ending would be if the show were retooled to move Max in with Penny and Alex and get rid of the other three miserably unfunny characters.
The night's biggest mystery, though, is why ABC is squandering the momentum of its hit comedies with another looks-like-a-dud in Wednesday's 10/9c hour: Revenge, in which Emily Van Camp seeks payback against a bunch of rich Hamptons families. This might make an OK Lifetime movie, but a series? Seems awfully thin. Especially in a year where something as potentially explosive as Good Christian Belles is still waiting for its moment in the spotlight. When does midseason get here?
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