As he stepped in front of reporters at this month's TV Critics Association press tour, ABC entertainment president Paul Lee knew a surefire way to get a rise out of the assembled reporters: "So, what do you think of Work It?"
The critics, who had christened the sitcom this season's worst new TV series, laughed. And when Lee put the cross-dressing comedy out of its misery a few days later, few tears were shed. Even ABC execs quietly admit that Work It wasn't good — and left many viewers asking the age-old question, "How does a critically reviled show like that make it to the air in the first place?"
When ABC picked up a whopping 13 new scripted series this season, many (including, some claim, even Warner Bros. TV, the studio behind the show) were surprised to see Work It on the list. But Lee was charmed by Work It and thought there might be room on the schedule for a silly half-hour. "Sometimes you pick up a pilot just because it absolutely makes you cackle with laughter, and that was the case with Work It," he told reporters at the TV Critics Association press tour last July. "I make absolutely no excuses for that show."
Lee also joked with the press that, as a British native (the land of Benny Hill), he couldn't help but be drawn to a cross-dressing farce: "I'm a Brit, it is in my contract that I have to do one cross-dressing show a year. What can I do?" There was some truth to that, insiders say. And even though the pilot to Work It wasn't great ("It wasn't the funniest of our pilots," understates one exec), it had strong auspices: Friends alums Andrew Reich and Ted Cohen were executive producers.
According to Metacritic, which thumbs through TV reviews and assigns a grade to each show, Work It was the worst-reviewed new show of the season so far, posting a low 19 out of 100. That's probably why ABC never even held a press tour session for the show. One exec nevertheless defends the pickup: "It wasn't the worst show in the history of the world. And it wouldn't be the first show that critics didn't like."
Indeed, sometimes a critically reviled show will still make it to air because execs see a glimmer of potential. "It's not always apparent to us when we first view it as it might be to critics that a show is [terrible]," says one ABC rival. "Maybe something looks better after watching three or four bad pilots in a row. Or something you see is stupid-funny and you get a good reaction while screening it. Or maybe a weird test gives you false hope, or someone on the staff believes in it."
The rival exec notes that Lee appears to be willing to take chances — witness the surprise success of shows like Once Upon a Time, Revenge and Suburgatory, none of which were considered sure things this fall. "If Paul Lee was charmed by it, then it's going to get on the air. And he seems to be a 'Let's give it a go' guy."
And that's apparently what happened. But then the dismal reviews came in. According to insiders, Lee's interest in the show dropped once the press slammed the show. "It became a dog pile," one exec says. Adds another: "It becomes a contest to see who could have the schmuckiest Tweet about a new show."
Making matters worse, special interest groups like GLAAD began to trash the show, accusing it of being insensitive to transgender people. Another joke, about Puerto Ricans, didn't sit well with critics either.
Ultimately, Work It committed two cardinal sins: It wasn't funny, and it performed miserably in the ratings. But it wasn't a tremendous loss for ABC, which probably didn't spend much to launch the show anyway. When the second episode of Work It posted just a 1.5 rating among adults 18-49 on January 10, ABC quickly decided to replace it with repeats of Last Man Standing (improving the time slot to a 2.0 rating the following week).
And even in the eyes of critics, all is now forgiven. ABC went from zero to hero by agreeing to put Cougar Town in Work It's place effective February 14. Still, one rival exec doesn't criticize ABC for giving Work It a go. "There are a hundred ways to get on the air. We all know all the new comedies we put on aren't great," he says. "But we all put them on and cross our fingers that they break out. You always look like a genius when you put on [a hit] that no one saw coming."