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ABC's Upfront: We Want You to Love Us

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Chiklis and brood in No Ordinary Family. / ABC

At the network upfronts, you get a little glimpse of each network’s self-perception, its narrative about its identity. ABC sees itself as the Love Network. There are a lot of things that make up ABC, of course, but the the roll of clips the network played to introduce its upfront were heavy on the love: doctors in love on Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, families in love on Brothers and Sisters and Modern Family, reality-TV love on The Bachelor, Ty Pennington spreading the love on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Even the clips from Lost largely made it seem as if the show were mainly a romantic drama about Sun and Jin.

So it’s not surprising that, in rolling out its new fall shows, ABC programming head Stephen McPherson and company spotlighted most of the series’ emphasis on relationships.

Its new comedies, for instance, continued the trend among the networks this season to try to make the next Friends, or even the next How I Met Your Mother, with a couple of stabs at the relationship sitcom, Better Together (which sounds like a slogan for a cereal that combined the great tastes of cornflakes and honey-nut O’s) and Happy Endings (which is no, not about that, but a group of friends, one of whom is left at the altar). Even Matthew Perry’s midseason comedy, Mr. Sunshine (a promising trailer, in which Allison Janney was much funnier than as a dysfunctional Roman-era mother on Lost!) focused partly on relationship storylines.

The emphasis continued in the four dramas the network previewed. McPherson cited No Ordinary Family and My Generation as the network’s two most ambitious pilots. In the first, a family (with Michael Chiklis as the dad) discovers they each have superpowers after their plane crashes into phosporescent water in the Amazon rainforest. (As Lost taught us, it’s all about the glowing water.) My Generation, meanwhile, uses documentary-style storytelling to follow the lives and loves of group of high school classmates ten years after graduation. It does seem ambitious, but it’s hard to get a sense of the narrative from the trailer, which oddly used a classic rock soundtrack (Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”) to introduce a generational story about the ’00s.

And Shonda Rhimes’ Off the Map, about young doctors–also in the Amazon–seems to have a voice and emphasis much like Grey’s and Practice, with shirtless men aplenty. As Jimmy Kimmel, who did a bit of standup during the presentation put it: “We wanted to think outside the box–so we asked Shonda Rhimes to do a medical drama for us!” (Kimmel was acerbic as usual, at one point riffing on how Charlie Sheen came back from a domestic-violence charge to score a richer deal on Two and a Half Men–”Tiger Woods must feel like a real dumbass right now.”)

One drama, the Detroit cop show Detroit 187, looks to have a markedly darker tone from ABC’s other new efforts (much like Fox’s Ride-Along for Chicago). Again it was hard to judge the pilot’s quality from the trailer, but I have to wonder if it may risk being the right show for the wrong network, a la Southland at NBC. A serious show that took a hard look at Detroit could be intriguing, however–though that may be my Michigan bias talking–so maybe there’s room for it amidst all the love at the former home of NYPD Blue.

Finally, the network previewed The Whole Truth, a rather gimmicky-sounding concept for a legal drama that follows both the defense and prosecution in each week’s case, and Body of Proof, with Dana Delany as a medical examiner who uses unorthodox methods but gets results—and the trailer looked about as original as that description sounds.

Still, these are all gut impressions, and it’s quite possible that when I see the full episodes, one of these shows will surprise me and sweep me off my feet. I have to hope. Isn’t that what love is all about?

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