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upfronts 2011

Reviewing the ABC Upfront: Gender Issues

ABC has ordered thirteen new shows this season, even more than beleaguered NBC, and at its just completed upfront presentation it flew through all of them. Paul Lee, the network's new chief, pitched them all in a little over an hour, no fuss, no muss. Advertisers see the shows, hopefully advertisers buy the shows, it's as simple as that. Too bad that the shows not marketed directly to women seemed to pretty much hate women, creating some notable moments of dissonance in what would have otherwise been a very professional upfront.

This one got started fast: Chairman Anne Sweeney came out in a white dress to talk about how wonderful ABC is (on all sized screens), but she kept it short and sweet. She promptly introduced president of sales Geri Wang, also in a white dress, who talked about how viewers are more "emotionally attached" to ABC than other networks, and therefore much more susceptible to ABC's ads. Music to media buyers ears — really creepy news for everyone else. Most notably, Wang pronounced the word "Literally" exactly like Chris Traeger, and then introduced newbie Paul Lee, who forgot his tie at home.

Lee praised the network, but got right down to it, immediately explaining the schedule. "In challenging times, audiences have always turned to shows about superheroes, monsters, fairy tales..." Not coincidentally ABC has all of these (and not to mess with Lee's logic, but in challenging times if audiences turn to monsters and fairy tales, that just means audiences turn to everything, right?). Lee kicked things off with the trailer for Charlie's Angels, which he described as "pure candy." This is a fairly accurate assessment: there are beaches, things blowing up, the angels in bikinis, a newly handsome Bosley, and lots of campy angels lines ("I'm no angel," "You know why Charlie calls them angels? Because they show up when you need them the most.") It seemed like it's exactly what it was intended to be — three hot chicks solving frothy crimes — but hard to say if audiences are really craving that. Guess it worked out okay for Hawaii Five-0.

Lee rushed through the rest of the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday schedule (priorities!), to get to Sunday, which will be "a powerful new night of television." He said "Sunday has always been about appointment television," and got down to explaining Once Upon a Time, a drama about people trapped in a small town in Maine who are having flashbacks to their real lives, in which they were fairy tale characters. House's Jennifer Morrison is the protagonist, a visitor to the town of Storybrook, who is informed by her son that all the people in the town have been trapped there by a witch. That lady offering her cider? Really the evil step-mother who put the curse on everyone. There are flashbacks to the fairy tale (Ginnifer Goodwin, who has a cute short haircut, is the town's silly Snow White, etc), and the reveal that Morrison is a fairy tale character, too. (Her name is Emma Swan so... The Ugly Duckling? The Swan Queen? Too much to hope this show will actually just become Black Swan: The TV Show?) The trailer looks a smidge better than the key art , which is saying not much at all.

Next up is Pan Am, set in 1963 on the friendly skies. The trailer is fun, but insubstantial. Unlike NBC's Playboy Club there's no ridiculous plot twist tacked on, but it's hard to tell what an episode will be like. Christina Ricci, who co-stars, is not the protagonist — that would be the new stewardess who doesn't care about, gasp, landing a husband. There's a fair amount of attention paid to the interplay between the sexes, but no sense of what the show's take on that interplay will be. One of the handsome pilots voice-overs, "That is natural selection at work. They don’t know they're a new breed of woman." That new breed of women that shamelessly flirts with handsome pilots?

So, just to recap, ABC has now presented three drama series aimed squarely at women, that star women, and, if done thoughtfully, will speak to the complexity of the female condition. (Okay fine, maybe Charlie's Angels won't be complex, but it can still spread a little girl power.) So, basically, a perfect time to start saying really stupid shit about women. Here to kick things off, "Sir Tim Allen"! Allen takes to the stage in a black shirt and jacket and lightly tinted glasses and starts to riff about his new show, Last Man Standing. It's "about a guy in a woman's world. A flip flop of what I usually do. All my life, I don’t understand women. The biggest thing about women...Women look at other women and see clothes," he says. "Menopausal, post-menopausal," or any number of other things, women see each other and see their shoes and their outfit and their hair. Tim Allen, he doesn't "notice anything about any of the men in my office. 'Tony, How long you been in a wheelchair?'" So, based on Allen's lifetime of observing, the difference between men and women is that women notice stupid shit, and men are oblivious to even that stupid shit. He closes out with a knock on ABC: "This [show] is all about a man in a woman's world. It was called The Paul Lee Story, because if you know ABC you know what Paul's dealing with." To be clear, Paul is dealing with a network run by a number of high powered female executives. Poor Paul.

So now, the clip from Last Man Standing, in which Allen plays the married father of two girls. The show asks, "What Happened to Men?" while "American Woman" plays on the soundtrack. There are some jokes about guys who go to tanning salons and the silliness of Glee, but mostly this seems to be a show about what happens when a guy is emasculated by his wife, but thinks that's all her fault. The show being paired with this treasure on ABC's new comedic Tuesday nights is Man Up. According to Lee it's the story of "three emasculated guys, trying to get back their manhood": Or, in the parlance of the show, Will, Craig, and Kenny are "three best friends who have completely forgotten what it's like to be a man." It is, apparently, a really easy thing to forget. All you have to do is be a fairly affable husband.

After that unexpectedly disturbing dive into the "male psyche" we get back to the rest of the Tuesday, mid-season line up, Cougar Town and then the new sitcom Apt 23. 23 co-stars Krysten Ritter as a bitchy girl with a new roommate, and James Van Der Beek as her best friend. The script for this show is pretty sharp, as was the clip, but the trailer doesn't really pack a punch. Ritter's character sleeps with her roomie's boyfriend on a cake, and says, "I got a lot of frosting in my crack," which plays as unpleasantly raunchy as it sounds. After the trailer ends, there's a pause for the applause. We'll remain hopeful.

Lee, speeding along, gets to Wednesday's new sitcom Suburgatory. Jane Levy, who Lee identifies as a potential breakout star, plays the lead, a high school girl packed up by her dad (Jeremy Sisto) to go live among the plastics in suburbia. (Plotwise, it's very similar to ABC's Good Christian Belles.) No real laugh lines here either, but this single camera comedy looks medium promising: the scene of the housewife sitting in her car, despondently listening to "just cause I'm a gangsta" is a nice sight gag. And just to keep tooting this horn: the wacked out housewives in this sitcom live in the 'burbs, just like the ultra-competent, accidental ball buster that is Tim Allen's wife on Last Man Standing. See power: it's all about perspective!

Next, Modern Family, still ABC's crown jewel, gets its own clip reel. People laugh harder at this than any of the new shows. There's a bit of a spoiler at the end: Mitch telling Cam he wants to have another baby.

Following that palate cleanser, something nasty: Work It, the Bosom Buddies redux in which men dress up as women to get jobs, because, to quote a character, "Women are taking over the work force. They're going to start getting rid of all the men. And they'll just keep us around as sex slaves." Not you, buddy! Lee calls it "gloriously silly," and people in the audience laugh a bit, but we remain convinced this show is just a gimme to those of us who cover the entertainment industry. Can you imagine the pilots that had to be rejected for this to make it to air? The mind boggles, and breaks down in hysterical laughter. And a quibble: in this day and age, there is no one who would not recognize a tranny rocking drag this badly. Fellas, get yourselves to Drag Race or be busted on your first day on the job.

Now Jimmy Kimmel comes out to be funny: "No voice to introduce me or anything? This is bullshit," he says. "But you know that already." Kimmel is solidly amusing, continuing the long tradition of making fun of media buyers to their faces: "Remember those shows you were so excited about last fall? We canceled all of them! And yet here you are again. I think you might have a gambling problem." Kimmel rags on NBC ("God has nothing to do with what's going on at NBC. God stopped watching NBC after Friends"), Fox (X Factor "is the best idea of 2002. It's like American Idol meets a mirror"), and CBS ("More people die watching CBS than any other network"), before mentioning the Sheen. But it's a fake out — he really wants to make fun of Ashton Kutcher. ("He did a very good job replacing Bruce Willis.") Kimmel also makes a joke about how Paul Lee is gay, oh, excuse him, he just means British. Then polishes that off with a dash of xenophobia: who "Better to run ABC than a British guy with a Korean last name?"

Lee comes back out, effeminate accent and Korean name and all, to plow through the rest of the shows. There's Revenge set in "one of the most expensive zip codes in the world," the Hamptons. (Sorry Hamptons, your dedicated reality show is not far off!) Emily VanCamp plays a girl trying to avenge her father by ruining some rich people's lives. "Some forgive. Others forget. But all she wants is revenge." It would be far more compelling if we knew exactly how horrible said rich people had been. As it is, VanCamp is going around mercilessly poisoning people, which doesn't make her that sympathetic.

Then Ashley Judd gets on the monitor to talk about her show Missing, which is currently filming in Croatia. An ex-CIA agent who gave it all up to be a mother, Judd's character has her past come back to haunt her when her son goes missing. Did you hear that, women who have ever had careers? You will never be able to live it down! That career you gave up!It will hurt your child. (Fine, we are seeing gender issues where they are not meant to exist, but it's all Tim Allen's fault.)

Then Lee introduces Scandal the new show from Shonda Rhimes, which stars Kerry Washington as a political fixer. She is such a tough lady that she says things like, "You tell the president of the United States to make time." She's the best at her job, so she can do things like this. Lost's Desmond is here, with an American accent, and there are other cool people in the cast: Josh Malina, Tony Goldwyn. There are also tears, and the tag line "When you deal in damage control, you can damage your own life." This will fit in just fine before or after Grey's.

Two more: First, The River from the guy who made Paranormal Activity, about paranormal activity on the Amazon. Looks creepy, and cool if you're into that kind of thing, but no clue how you stretch this out to a series.

And last, but certainly not least, the mid-season jewel Good Christian Belles about a mean girl who moves back to Dallas, co-starring Leslie Bibb and the completely lovable Kristen Chenowith. There's plastic surgery and crucifixes and lots of camp: "Cut the commie crap, my grandchildren are going to heaven." "Amanda, welcome home. We all hope you're here for good... And not for evil." "Oh, you were a bitch with teeth." "God often speaks to me through Christian Dior." Looks fun, gets a big round of applause. Maybe it can take Once Upon A Time's slot? Or, hope against hope, Tim Allen's? (Our fingers are crossed Work It lasts forever.) And, that's it. Paul Lee survives his first upfront, with an interesting slate of shows, most of which are not even offensive to half of the population!