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Upfronts Watch: ABC: Once More, With Feelings

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An amazing thing about the TV upfronts is seeing how each of the major networks tries to distinguish itself, while all essentially offering the same thing. In the grand scheme of media, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are not all that different. Yes, they each have a certain style and aim for certain audiences, but they each have their relationship sitcoms, family sitcoms, genre dramas, reality shows and the occasional “edgy” experiment or supernatural drama. But none of them is as different from the rest as, say, HBO or FX or A&E or Adult Swim is from all of them together.

Still, you gotta have a brand! So CBS is the traditional network, making cop shows for people who like their television to look like TV (but also airs the raunchiest sitcoms on broadcast). Fox skews a little louder, weirder and more crass—but increasingly like CBS as it’s become bigger—plus it has cartoons. NBC goes for a more urbane audience (which increasingly spends its time not watching NBC), but will also air a sitcom co-starring a monkey, in the grand tradition of early Friends and J. Fred Muggs.

And ABC? It’s had its success lately with a mix of serials, with a female-skewing audience, sitcoms about families and dancing and dating reality shows. In its latest turn of branding, ABC is about feelings. Or as President Paul Lee put it in his address to advertisers at the network’s upfront, “Why just watch, when you can feel?” Right now, every president of a porn network is kicking himself for not having that slogan first.

The network’s new schedule sought to bolster its soap-and-magic niche—proven with new hits Once Upon a Time and Revenge—with a set of new dramas. Nashville pits Mrs. Coach, Connie Britton, against Heroes’ Hayden Panettierre in a rivalry between two generations of country singers. (It is not, sadly, based on the Robert Altman film, so don’t expect anyone to get shot. Yet. As far as I can tell.) The clips at least looked intriguing: at best, this could be an improved Tennessee Smash. Smashville! For the magic (and more soap), there’s 666 Park Avenue, with Terry O’Quinn channeling Bad Locke as the satanic manager of a ritzy apartment building. (For midseason, there’s the sudsy Mistresses, the conspiracy drama Zero Hour and the intriguing-but-I-couldn’t-tell-you-what-exactly-it-is thriller Red Widow.)

But like most big networks this season, ABC is stocking up on comedy, which for it means feelings, which in turn means families. The network that had a hit, Modern Family, about a varied group of family units, has got kids returning to the nest (The Family Tools and How to Live with Your Parents [for the Rest of Your Life]), a divorced family (Reba MacEntire’s Malibu Country) and alien families (The Neighbors).

One interesting new show that doesn’t quite fit any above mold is Last Resort, a speculative drama from Shawn Ryan (The Shield, Terriers) about a nuclear submarine commander (Andre Braugher) who takes his vessel rogue after refusing orders to launch nukes against Pakistan. Still, the trailer also placed a lot of emphasis on the crew members’ families as well. Their, uh, nuclear families?

The biggest saving grace of ABC’s upfronts is the monologue from Jimmy Kimmel, the one guy you can count on this week to puncture all the branding and pitching. He’s celebrating ten years on ABC, and thus, he said, ten years of roasting his own network. “I’m getting sick of it,” he told the assembled ad crowd. “How many times do I have to tell you this is bullshit?” He continued: “We have no idea what people want to see. If we did, we wouldn’t have an upfront. We’d just run the shows, and you’d send us a check.” Last year, he noted, the network said it was excited about a show called Good Christian Bitches, but it had to change the title because it sounded offensive to Christians. So they changed it to GCB, “which sounds like a date-rape drug.”

But Kimmel had some shots for the other networks too, including some standard old-people jokes about CBS (leader in the “18-to-49-trips-to-the-bathroom” demographic), Fox, home of The Choice (dating show ripoff of The Voice’s spinning-chair format) and NBC (now home of veterinarian comedy Animal Practice). “Spinning chairs and a monkey,” he said. “This is truly the golden age of television.” Can you feel it?