ABC Can't Stop Looking in the Mirror

While ABC's upfront presentation on Thursday evening didn't seem like NBC's bloodbath, well, copying a successful formula isn't going to produce the best results. And all of ABC's new shows — yes, even Rebel Wilson's — feel derivative of something else.

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ABC held its big upfronts presentation at Lincoln Center this afternoon, giving advertisers (and everyone else, once the trailers went online) a glimpse at the new fall schedule. And it is new, with nine premiere series in the fall and more to come in midseason. There are big splashy series like Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Once Upon a Time spinoff (which takes place in Wonderland), and there are a bunch of similar-looking comedies to fill in various spots along the way. ABC is a network that's secretly in trouble, placing fourth in the ratings race this year, so this is their big strategy to turn the Titanic back around and avoid becoming NBC. (Which actually performed better, but only because of The Voice and football.) Will it work? Yes and no, I think.

From the looks of these new shows, it seems the network is trying to replicate the success of three of their hot series while creating a fourth space for a new audience. Obviously Modern Family is a big hit for the network, so in come three new wacky family comedies. (Two of which feature grumpy old men, just like Ed O'Neill. Old men are hot these days!) There's Malin Ackerman doing some pratfalling as an older man's wife on Trophy Wife, which seems to have basically the same snappy, blended family, daffy/darling vibe as Modern Family. The Goldbergs, with Jeff Garlin and Wendi McLendon-Covey, is maybe more tapping into The Middle's energy, going for a shambling, messy family that loves each other despite all the middle class bickering. And then there's the dreadful-looking Back in the Game, which features a curmudgeonly James Caan, his pretty daughter, and a gang of misfit kids on a little league team. Basically ABC wants heartwarming family hijinks, as warmly antic as Modern Family but maybe with a little more edge.

That edge isn't accidental, I don't think. Judging from the network's other new comedies, ABC would like not only to lock down the family demographic, but also to get some cool hip singleton youngsters into the fold. Y'know, like Fox has with New Girl and Mindy Project and cable has with everything else. To that end they've picked up Super Fun Night with comedienne of the moment Rebel Wilson and the astoundingly bad-looking Mixology, a show whose entire season will take place over one night in a bar. It's touted as "from the writers of The Hangover," so rowdy and raunchy would seem to be the desired tone. The available clip is downright embarrassing, dated and unfunny:

That ABC canceled the likable if a bit effortful Happy Endings and picked this up instead is frustrating, but I guess they thought that Endings didn't quite have the sex appeal of Mixology. Or the network wanted something that was a little less weird — Happy Endings could definitely get lost in its own business pretty easily. Whatever the reason, it was undoubtedly a mistake, as Endings was gaining cult momentum and I can't imagine anyone cottoning to anything as unpleasant as what we've seen of Mixology so far. Talk about effortful, sheesh. ABC seems pretty into sassy dirty talk this year! Too bad they're about five years too late for that whole revolution.

Over on the drama side, it's obvious that the network would like more Scandals and more Once Upon a Times. Thus we have the limited series (yes! more of these please!) Betrayal, about a dangerous affair, and the renewal of Nashville, perhaps in the hopes that it will stage a Scandal-style surge in its second season. And then there's the Once spinoff, which looks as silly as its older sister, and of course Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ABC is the place for synergy, all of Disney's children profitably mingling under its large umbrella. It all works very neatly, doesn't it? In midseason they're trying the craziest thing yet, combining fantasy with reality on something called The Quest. It sounds absurd, but they're still filming and no clip is available yet. So who knows! As the failure of 666 Park Avenue proved this season, audiences won't accept every bit of grand make believe, so I wouldn't call any of these new shows sure-things, but it's probably a pretty safe assumption that S.H.I.E.L.D. will perform well, at least in the beginning. ABC is being way smarter here than they are with comedy.

There are a couple other random dramas. There's a likely doomed procedural with Christian Slater, Mind Games. There's a magical kid thing in the vein of Touch or Believe, it has a one word title too: Resurrection. And there's a show called Lucky 7 that ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee praised as being about the 99 percent, before being careful to make clear to the advertisers in the audience that it was "aspirational" too. Phew. (He later praised Shark Tank as a show "about capitalism.")

While ABC's presentation doesn't initially seem like the bloodbath that was NBC's, there's a cynicism involved in a lot of this programming that is definitely off-putting. As the glut of fake Friendses proved in the mid to late '90s, simply copying a successful formula isn't going to produce the best results. All of ABC's shows — yes, even Rebel Wilson's — feel derivative of something else. (I guess someone could have made the argument back in '94 that Friends was dumbed-down Seinfeld.) That's not a new network strategy by any means, but in this time of flux between broadcast and cable, with the big four networks ceding more and more ground every year, it'd be nice to see a little more innovation. Oh well. At least Dancing with the Stars is only on one night a week next season. That's probably good enough news to make up for the rest.

(Stay tuned to The Atlantic Wire's upfront central for complete coverage. Up Wednesday: CBS.)

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