The verdict is still out regarding ABC's middling batch of new shows for the fall — as often happens, many of the network's more tantalizing projects are being held until midseason — but as ABC stepped into the TCA press-tour spotlight on Tuesday, the vibe was unusually positive because of one overarching hot-button issue: diversity. (For more ABC news, go here.)
Exhibit one: The entire Thursday lineup is produced by African-American powerhouse Shonda Rhimes: anchored by Emmy-nominated Kerry Washington as the star of Scandal, and the dynamic Viola Davis as a law professor who practices what she preaches in the garish legal thriller How to Get Away With Murder (think a sexy pulp version of The Secret History). Exhibit two: Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) just signed a production deal while his promising American Crime midseason drama waits in the wings. Few would argue with entertainment chief Paul Lee when he noted: "If you look at shows now that seem to lack diversity, they actually look dated, because America doesn't look like that anymore."
With Lee having tasked producers to "bring us your passion projects," one especially intriguing result is Black-ish, a provocative family sitcom with a refreshingly distinct point of view, about an upscale African-American family that may have lost touch with its cultural identity. From Anthony Anderson (who also stars), Larry Wilmore (The Daily Show and Bernie Mac Show) and Kenya Barris, Black-ish takes over the high-profile but often perilous post-Modern Family time period on Wednesday. "This show kind of celebrates 'black' more as a cultural thing than a race thing," Wilmore clarified, stressing the universality of its family situations. "Class is as much an issue, probably even more so now in some ways for families that have arrived, [and] can be a more profound discussion than race and culture."
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Unconventional color-blind casting distinguishes the otherwise innocuous romantic comedy Selfie (Tuesdays at 8/7c), a modernization of the Pygmalion/My Fair Lady story set in the self-absorbed world of social-media addiction, with the uptight Henry Higgins of this version played by John Cho (to Karen Gillan's Eliza, the former Doctor Who star unfortunately masking her Scottish brogue with an American accent).
A very traditional sitcom format can't dim the star power of Cristela Alonzo, a stand-up talent who helped craft the genial work-in-progress multi-camera Cristela (paired with Last Man Standing in the "TGIF" hour), about the spunky daughter of a Hispanic family who's working her way through law school. Alonzo disarmed the TCA audience with her giddy optimism and triumph-over-adversity backstory. "We were squatters in an abandoned diner," she said of being raised in poverty in Texas by a mom who worked double shifts cooking at a Mexican restaurant and who died before seeing Cristela pursue her dream of comedy and, eventually, TV stardom. "No one ever told me as a kid that I couldn't do anything when it came to limitations, in regards to being creative." She's more inspiring than the hastily produced pilot (shot on the Last Man Standing set), and is definitely worth rooting for.
Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd (using his authentic accent, hooray) brings an exotic flavor to his most enjoyable TV role since his Horatio Hornblower breakthrough, playing the immortal medical-examiner crime-solving hero of the New York-set Forever. It sounds a lot like Fox's short-lived 2008 New Amsterdam (which introduced many of us to Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) — except this is a much lighter procedural, and the jolting device of Gruffudd's character repeatedly dying (and magically being reborn naked in the East River) adds a fantastic flourish to TV's latest Sherlock (with a fetching Alana De La Garza as his detective partner). Airing in the tough time slot (Tuesdays at 10/9c) that a year ago claimed an early victim in Lucky 7, this unassuming mystery could be a Castle-like sleeper.
And because there's almost always one "what were they thinking" debacle (remember Work It?), an invasion of crickets greeted the presentation for the gimmicky Manhattan Love Story (Tuesdays), an ill-conceived and charmless rom-com in which the inner thoughts of its central couple are revealed in incessant and annoying voice-over. You can't even wish for the characters to shut up because they'd just keep thinking aloud. When one of the executive producers quipped, "In real life, the entertainment industry would grind to a halt if we could hear each other's thoughts," more than a few in the room gave thanks the panel couldn't read what was on their own minds. Some things are just better off left unsaid — and unheard.