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Upfronts 2011: What We Learned

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Will SMASH be one? / NBC

The major broadcast schedule presentations, or “upfronts,” ended yesterday. I’ve given some impressions of the 2011–12 shows we saw previewed this week, but it’s worth repeating that those are nothing more than impressions, based on trailers, which can give nothing more than a thumbnail idea of a show and often a misleading one. Over the next few weeks and into the summer I’ll be watching the pilots. Those will give us a better idea of the strength of the new series, but they too are incomplete pictures; they may be reshot before they air, and the subsequent episodes may be much better or much worse.

Still, the upfronts give us a sense of how the upcoming season is shaping up, so here are the trends we saw emerge this week, and the shows I’m (for now) most eager to see more of:

Fantasy. The fantastic—broadly defined—accounted for a lot of the higher-profile shows at the upfront, including long-awaited sci-fi project Terra Nova, J. J. Abrams’ mysterious Alcatraz and the fairytale dramas Grimm and Once Upon a Time. (Supernatural dramas have long been a CW staple of course, and The Secret Circle adds to that tradition; there’s also A Gifted Man, which shows that CBS can not go long without a show involving ghosts.)

Dramas that are not about doctors or lawyers. I don’t know which shows will be good or bad, but I will give the networks credit for, at least, trying some premises beyond the most familiar TV genres: the 1960s dramas The Playboy Club and Pan Am; the supernatural and sci-fi premises mentioned above; the musical Smash; Fox’s drama Touch, about an autistic child and his father; ABC’s spooky The River (as well as various soap-ish dramas like Good Christian Belles and Revenge). Of course, possible the most intriguing-looking pilot is NBC’s midseason Awake, which is nominally a cop drama—but about a cop who inhabits two parallel realities, not knowing which is real.

Shows by, for and/or starring women. There’s a bumper crop this year in particular of comedies with female leads—not all are produced by women, but some are based on the work of women comedians (Whitney, Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea), which may be auspicious in the year of Bridesmaids. Which is not to say, of course, that they’ll necessarily be a step forward in representing women. It’s interesting, for instance, that sitcoms about men tend to get “Man” in the title (see below) and sitcoms about women tend to get “Girl” (New Girl, 2 Broke Girls). There’s also Charlie’s Angels—which seems to embrace the kicking-ass aesthetic of the movies but whose trailer kept the “three little girls” reference of the ’70s original. And the two ’60s dramas, The Playboy Club and Pan Am, are explicitly about the situation of women back in the day (as, its title not withstanding, is Mad Men); we’ll have to see if they’re as thoughtful and nuanced about it as the AMC drama is.

Manxiety. The corollary to the trend above is, for some reason, a spate of series (especially comedies) overtly about the idea that men today are wussified, marginalized, powerless or rudderless. I heard the word “emasculated” from upfront podiums so many times this week I began crossing my legs involuntarily. ABC especially caught the bug: Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing is explicitly about old-time manhood under siege (not unlike Home Improvement), as in their own ways are Man Up and cross-dressing comedy Work It. Even Suburgatory, nominally about a city family out of place in the burbs, appears to be just as much about a single dad out of place in a female-dominated milieu. CBS’s How to Be a Gentleman, about a metrosexual’s macho makeover, could just as well be called How Not to Be a Candyass. I haven’t seen full versions, but they may do as well as most overtly trend-chasing new series, which seem to get picked up easier and fail faster.

Midseason is the season. This is not new this year, but much of the most interesting-looking stuff will wait for midseason, including Awake, Apartment 23 and Alcatraz.

Social media is TV’s best friend. Pretty much every upfront involved the networks trying to sell their programs on the basis of how hot they are on Facebook and Twitter. I attribute this to the fact that anyone selling anything today bases it on how hot they are on Facebook and Twitter.

So what am I most eager to see? Again, this is based on little more than gut feeling, but based on the trailers the pilots I’ll probably put in the DVD player soonest include Alcatraz, Awake, Pan Am, Person of Interest, Ringer, Once Upon a Time, New Girl, Terra Nova, Playboy Club and The River. (Some because I feel they’ll be good, others because I think they’ll be interesting even if bad.) I’ll watching everything else, of course, but some with less anticipation than others. (Prove me wrong, Tim Allen!)

Are you ready for fall, or already looking forward to winter (or to cable)? Let me know in the comments.

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