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upfronts 2010

Reviewing the ABC Upfront Presentation: A Little Too Much Confidence

Yesterday at the NBC upfront, Jeff Gaspin, that network’s entertainment chairman, got onstage wearing a blue-striped tie and suit. Today, at the ABC upfront, Steve McPherson, that network's entertainment president, took to the stage in a gray pinstriped suit and a dark blue shirt with its top button noticeably undone. Not to read too much into the stylistic variations of white dudes who are unofficially known as “suits,” but this speaks to a larger contrast between the two network’s upfronts. Whereas yesterday, NBC seemed anxious, uptight, buttoned-up, today ABC seemed a little overconfident, casual, and rushed. Certainly, ABC put on a more relaxed, enjoyable show than NBC, but not nearly as good a one as Fox, which hit the mark between seriousness (that PowerPoint) and confidence (Glee!). Upfronts are all about impressions: Until ABC's shows look as good as Fox’s did yesterday, McPherson might consider a tie.

The presentation at Avery Fisher Hall got started with some words from Disney/ABC TV Group president Anne Sweeney, who talked mostly about how ABC is on the iPad, like she was secretly in the deleted scenes from a Modern Family episode. Then she introduced a clip of the network’s new head of sales, Geri Wang, running the Wipeout obstacle course. Yes, you read that correctly: An executive at ABC was convinced, as part of a joke about “prepping herself for this really challenging upfront,” to put on undereye paint, a bathing suit, and a life preserver, and run through a challenge course, in which she ended up plummeting into a pool of mud. Somehow, despite the fact that everyone in the audience had just heard a joke about Wang getting smacked “right in the demos,” she seemed impressive, like she would have absolutely destroyed on debate team. Unfortunately, she also talked about the iPad.

Wang introduced McPherson and his unbuttoned shirt. He came out onstage looking like he could host The Bachelor and cracked a good joke about how, “If there was no Shonda Rhimes there would be no McDreamy, no McSteamy, there would just be McPherson. No one wants to see that show.” People laughed.

Then he launched into an overview of the schedule, which is when things started to get weird. ABC’s three main goals this year were (1) attack at 10, (2) add more comedy, and (3) create “Event TV.” Almost all of ABC’s new shows fall into one of these categories. Detroit 187, Off the Map (which will air at 10 after Desperate Housewives starting mid-season), The Whole Truth, and Body of Proof (which airs at 9 on Fridays) are in the first group. The three new comedies are in the second. No Ordinary Family and My Generation are in the third. In other words, ABC chose to present their schedule as containing two series you should make an appointment to see, that are "events," and seven shows you could just as easily not. No Ordinary Family and My Generation “swing for the fences,” while the other four dramas … attack at 10?

This was just the most notable of the strangely underminey things McPherson said during his presentation. When he introduced Matthew Perry’s Mr. Sunshine, he said Perry wrote, produced, and acted in it, but “the best thing he did is cast Allison Janney as his boss.” The clip later bore this out, but still, dis. McPherson also said the network really thought Body of Proof was going to help Dana Delaney, a well-known actress who has been working for over twenty years, “break out.” If you say so.

Still, the presentation was, at least, humming right along. McPherson introduced clips from the four dramas that don’t really matter. Unlike Fox and NBC, which went through the schedule night by night and paused between each trailer, ABC ran a consecutive clip reel. While this was probably meant as a kindness, to keep the program on schedule, it meant that the audience applause was cut off whenever the next trailer came on, contributing to the sense that the crowd's reaction wasn't all that important.

As for the trailers themselves, Detroit 187, about cops in Detroit, looked not as good as Fox’s similarly gritty Ride Along and used two Eminem songs. (Did you know he was from Detroit?) Legal drama The Whole Truth was more warmly received, with Rob Morrow and Joely Richardson duking it out as the defense and prosecution on one case. Richardson has asked out of her contract and will be recast, so maybe the voice-over guy shouldn't have hammered home that “Rob Morrow and Joely Richardson star.” Those two shows were followed by trailers for Off The Map, the Shonda Rhimes show in the Amazon and Body of Proof, Dana Delaney’s "break-out" vehicle.

After that, McPherson came back out to explain that he was saving the two dramas that actually matter to be introduced by Lost's Matthew Fox. Fox came onstage, shared a brotastic hug with McPherson, and then played a clip of the Lost cast members talking about the series: “We all went to a bar when the numbers came out, that was the first night I really believed I could throw away my boxes,” Josh Holloway said. “When I read the ending, I was pretty moved,” Jorge Garcia said. “I’ll miss John Locke like hell,” Terry O’Quinn said. It's going to be hard for ABC to replace this show.

Fox, looking a little misty, then introduced the two shows that matter: No Ordinary Family, about a family that gets superpowers, and My Generation, a faux-documentary series about a group of high-schoolers who graduated in 2000 and are being re-interviewed ten years later. (The music in this trailer, for a show set in 2000 and 2010, contained Buffalo Springfield’s sixties anthem “For What It’s Worth,” for what anachronistic musical choices are worth.) As ABC more or less predicted, these two shows did look better than the four dramas that matter less. Fancy that!

Then came the historical highlight of the show, Jimmy Kimmel, who opened, “We know you have money this year, so don’t act poor.” After that, he made an uncomfortably homophobic joke at Fox’s expense (the network, not the actor) — “What did you think of the Fox upfront. Is it me or did Fox come out of the closet yesterday?” Yikes. He did better later, joking about the decision to put Glee on after the Super Bowl, is Fox "trying to set a record for most number of drunken, 43-year old guys saying 'what the fuck is this?'”

He also laid into NBC: “Jeff Zucker is building a twenty-ton concrete dome that he is planning to lower down onto the containment zone that is the fall schedule.” Of the decision to cancel Law & Order and pick up Law and Order: L.A.: “The last time they moved a show that had been on NBC for twenty years from New York to LA, it ended up as the lead-in for George Lopez.” In fairness, Kimmel reserved some of his vitriol for the home team: “[McPherson] said we’re looking for shows that break the mold. And then he introduced another medical drama from Shonda Rhimes.” He ended by saying, “Network television has been in flux. In fact, we’re completely fluxed and we want to give you a good hard fluxing.” Big, big applause.

Following that palate cleanser, it was time for the Modern Family clip reel and all the adults from that show to come out onstage! Yay! Then it was time for them to introduce the three new ABC comedies that do not look as good as their show! Not so yay! Better Together had a laugh track; Allison Janney was the funniest part of the Mr Sunshine clip; and Perfect Endings contained jokes about the Indigo Girls and the ancient Budweiser “Wazzup” shtick. The audience was polite, but not overly enthusiastic.

And, then, after one more uncomfortable joke in which Steve McPherson undermined his own wife by pretending to be married to Sofia Vergara, it was done. McPherson, without his tie, exited stage right.