In recent years, ABC has based its upfronts pitches on statistics demonstrating that it’s the preferred network of the affluent. This year, surely responding to the financial crisis, its executives refrained from using the word affluent, which they usually throw around to the point of bombarding the audience. On Tuesday at Lincoln Center, ABC unveiled a couple of recession-appropriate new locutions—“quality viewers,” “desirable audiences”—and sought to draw a distinction between mere “viewers” and big-pimpin’ “consumers.” Here is a sampling of what programming executives think that these “bloated TV addicts” want to watch while their servants cram them with bonbons.
- Flash Forward. Rather than running a reel of clips from this classy-looking science-fiction show—the standard upfronts MO—ABC offered the full first act of its pilot. This was sensible; the show seems so dense and sprawling that a clip reel would only have been perplexing. The plot concerns the citizens of L.A. simultaneously experiencing a catastrophic disruption in the space-time continuum. Each Angeleno blacks out for a couple of minutes and comes to having witnessed a couple of minutes of his or her future. Watching it, I, too, was seized by a vision of things to come. It involved this potentially gripping show emerging as a public nuisance. If you have two Tylenol with codeine at hand, you might try imagining Lostas directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
- The Forgotten. The forgettable. A procedural, it involves an emotionally damaged detective—this time it’s the daddy of a kidnapped toddler—bringing “closure” to John Doe cases. What, did CBS pass on it?
- Eastwick. As in Witches of. The John Updike novel serves as fodder for a mashup of Charmed, Desperate Housewives, and Lipstick Jungle. I, meanwhile, wait in vain to see the Rabbit saga as an eight-hour, four-night HBO miniseries, not to mention a hard-core-porn version of Couples.
- Happy Town. “From the network that brought you Twin Peaks.” Also, from the network that can’t manage expectations. Bob—Bob Iger, that is, CEO of ABC’s parent company—will wrap it in plastic within four weeks of its debut.
- The Deep End. This one’s about associates at a big-deal law firm. If committed to realism, it will feature hourly degradation at the hands of partners, enchanting expense-account fraud, neglected children, incipient alcoholism, and the occasional cocaine binge.
- V. A remake of the extremely awesome ‘80s hit about alien visitors. (It was kind of like Alf as a parable about fascism.) If you were not a fan of Firefly or Stargate SG-1, then you’ll want to be introduced to star Morena Baccarin, who might well be in contention for the coveted title of “hottest woman on TV,” even after exposing her space-lizard face. Can’t wait for the blog posts likening her character to Sarah Palin.
At this point in the presentation, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel hit the stage to do a stand-up act attacking Upfronts Week in all its ritualized hornswoggling. “Every year we lie to you, and every year you come back for more,” he said, joking but not kidding. “It’s an abusive relationship.” In the wake of that bit, writers here and there are contending that Kimmel left his audience of ad buyers “squirming in their seats, laughing nervously, exchanging ‘WTF?!’ glances.” But every year Kimmel performs this omnidirectional insult comedy, and every year he kills. The members of the audience are delighted to be addressed as showbiz players and to see their own cynicism reflected back at them. Here’s the real scandal: ABC is notoriously awful at making sitcoms, and the clips of these awful sitcoms only look worse for having to follow Kimmel’s scabrous routines.
- The Middle. Following Kimmel, this looked like all the more craven a knockoff of Malcolm in the Middle. Starring Patricia Heaton as a run-down Indiana mom.
- Cougar Town. Following Kimmel, this looked all the more dated. Starring Courteney Cox as a quadragenarian creakily getting her freak on with a guy young enough to be her pool boy.
- Hank. What would you guess this patently awful show is about?
a) Starring Blair Underwood, it features the madcap adventures of a home-run hitter in Milwaukee, Wis., where he meets Laverne and Shirley. A threesome ensues.
b) Starring Tim Robbins, it features the wacky antics of a treasury secretary who says he has no plans to take over Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. Takeover ensues. (Co-starring Lehman Bros. as a ticking time bomb.)
c) Starring Kelsey Grammer, it features the zany escapades of an out-of-work former zillionaire who moves his family from New York to Virginia. Cancellation ensues.
- Modern Family. Employing a documentary conceit that’s slightly more Husbands and Wives than The Office, it features a trophy wife, a gay adoption, and a hapless dad trying to be down with what the kids are up to these days. ABC wrapped up the afternoon by showing all 22 minutes of the pilot, and why not? Comedies always play better with a crowd, and this crowd greeted it with many titters and a few guffaws. Or so it seemed from a few blocks away. I watched the ABC upfront by simulcast while sitting in a screening room at ABC’s headquarters, and this year I discovered a major advantage to that arrangement. The people down in the hall may get to bond as Kimmel demeans them, but up there, the network provides snacks. I’m trying to say that they gave me a cookie.