Where were you when the Modern Family talent deal finally went down? If you were a member of the Television Critics Association, or one of the creators of ABC's most popular and acclaimed comedy, you were at the network's Friday night post-press tour party. You could actually feel the tension go out of the room — a tension that had clouded much of ABC's TCA day, a major distraction for entertainment president Paul Lee, who tersely deflected questions about cast negotiations during his press session.
None of the Emmy-nominated cast was on hand, and at least two had good excuses. Jesse Tyler Ferguson was opening in the musical The Producers at the Hollywood Bowl, and his co-star/TV partner Eric Stonestreet was merrily posting Tweets of support through the night. But no one expected these unusually public negotiations to halt production — and executive producer Steve Levitan was more than happy to look forward and discuss how well Thursday's two-days-delayed table read went, and how excited he was to be directing (starting Monday) the season opener, which will deal with Gloria (Sofia Vergara) breaking the news of her surprise pregnancy to the rest of the family.
Fun times. And lucrative times for the Dunphy-Pritchetts and their significant others.
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Elsewhere, ABC had a new season to promote through a long day of wall-to-wall presentations, and the bottom line: It was the best of shows and it was the worst of shows. Pretty much business as usual. The good news: After last season produced new tent poles including Once Upon a Time, Revenge, Suburgatory and the new guilty pleasure Scandal, ABC is launching two of the most buzzed-about new dramas of an otherwise largely blah fall for all the networks.
If there's a consensus most-likely-to-succeed show this fall — or show-we'd-most-like-to-succeed — it's Nashville, which takes over Revenge's Wednesday time period, a juicy backstage drama (think All About Reba) set in the cutthroat country-western world. The beloved Connie Britton (coming off Emmy-nominated performances in Friday Night Lights and American Horror Story) stars as a "mature" superstar in danger of being dethroned by a ruthlessly ambitious Auto-Tuned kewpie-doll siren (Heroes' Hayden Panettiere). Both are doing their own singing, and everyone from cast to producers (including Thelma and Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri as series creator and documentarian R.J. Cutler as executive producer) were in harmony stressing that its appeal won't be limited to fans of twangy tunes. With subplots about power and family conflicts in politics as well as show business, Nashville hopes to cross over into the land of the classic soap, just with more of a soundtrack. As Paul Lee put it: "I watched Dallas when I was a kid. Was I a fan of oil?"
However, Britton insists her "whole mantra from the beginning is that this is not a catfight. I'm not doing a catfight, and I don't think anybody's interested in that." I beg to differ. The scene where she and Panettiere's character first meet, with eyes flashing in mutual contempt and suspicion as they trade barbed insults, is pure gold. And yes, it sings.
Sadly, ABC other show with a country backdrop isn't nearly as promising: Malibu Country, a shrill family sitcom designed for ABC's reborn "TGIF" lineup, premiering in November (alongside Last Man Standing). This very familiar hick-out-of-water premise features Reba (who has dropped McIntyre from her professional name — perhaps to protect the innocent?) as another past-her-prime country-western star who (as in the original Reba sitcom) has left her cheating husband, but this time pulls up stakes to relocate her family and start over in Malibu. (The show is loosely based on Reba's own experiences when she uprooted her family to make the long-running, and much funnier, CW sitcom.) There is some fine talent here — the great Lily Tomlin (adopting her own mother's name to play "Lillie Mae") as a pot-addled curmudgeonly granny and the delightful Sara Rue as a flighty neighbor — but they're all wasted.
Much more hotly anticipated, though a seemingly uneasy fit with the ABC brand, is Last Resort, a gripping epic military thriller from Shawn Ryan (The Shield, The Unit) that fuses elements of a Tom Clancy adventure — it's initially set on a nuclear submarine, captained by Andre Braugher and Scott Speedman — with the conspiracy chills of Cold War thrillers like Fail Safe and Seven Days in May. The drama begins when the sub's leaders defy a mysterious order from D.C. to fire upon Pakistan, and when they refuse, they are declared traitors and are forced to go rogue, occupying a Pacific island with its own conflicts. The show's creator, Karl Gajdusek, warned against pigeonholing it as a "political thriller," saying it's operating on a "broader canvas... What happens when a patriot is now called a traitor? What happens when a husband is torn from his wife?" Ryan evoked movie classics from Casablanca and Gone With the Wind to Reds and Doctor Zhivago in describing Last Resort as "not a show about war, but a show about people in a time of crisis."
Paul Lee said the show's "emotional punch" tested well with women as well as men (who would normally be drawn to the hardware and machismo), and while the Thursday at 8/7c time period hasn't been friendly to ABC dramas in recent years, Ryan reminded us that Lost started at 8/7c, and this is aiming for that same sweet spot of adult, smart, provocative drama. It's not like anything else on network TV, and whether that turns out to be a positive or negative remains to be seen. It's one of my favorites.
Enjoying a potentially much cushier time period — though it can also be the sort of "Faustian bargain" double-edged sword the show itself dramatizes — is the supernatural 666 Park Avenue, capping (at 10/9c) a new Sunday night lineup comprised of last season's breakouts Once Upon a Time and Revenge. Lee sees the night as a progression of "good versus evil," and described 666 as "totally in the ABC brand" as it introduces a naïve young couple into the clutches of a haunted Upper East Side high-rise owned and operated by the demonic Terry O'Quinn and his glamorous mate Vanessa Williams. As we meet residents who come to regret their deals with the would-be devil, it plays out like Rosemary's Sublet, a bit too predictable to be as scary as it wants to be. But it's slick and sinister and could be a good fit on a high-concept night.
The high-concept show sparking the most controversy — more about where it's scheduled than what it represents — is a silly sitcom innocuously titled The Neighbors, about a raucous Jersey family that moves on up into a gated community, only to learn that they've settled into a Stepford cul-de-sac inhabited entirely by bizarre outer-space aliens masquerading as humans. It's 3rd Rock From the Sun minus the brilliance of John Lithgow, ALF with less sophistication — in other words, a goofy and shamelessly broad guilty pleasure at best. The problem: ABC insists on airing it on Wednesdays, its showcase for high-caliber high-quality comedy. Originally scheduled for 9:30/8:30c, in the immediate wake of Modern Family (which felt like a poke in the eye), Neighbors has since been downgraded slightly to the catbird seat between The Middle and Modern Family at 8:30/7:30c. (Although it will still premiere following Modern Family's season opener to maximize its sampling.)
By unseating Suburgatory (which will now air after Modern Family) from where it was working as a perfect bridge between ABC's two best comedies, Neighbors sticks out like a sore Zabrovnian (that's what the aliens are called). If ABC is serious about establishing a family-friendly "TGIF" presence on Fridays, why not move it there? There's still time.
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