My TV

14 November 2014

ABC, We Need to Talk

By // TV

1200.2x1 2You used to be my favourite.

In fact, you’re the first network I remember watching (that includes YTV, and Canadian 90s kids lived for YTV). Full House, then Sister Sister and, perhaps most importantly, Boy Meets World– these were the shows that shaped my worldview more indelibly than any others. My dad worked a lot when I was a kid so Friday nights were important around my house. My mom would cook a big dinner, dad would come home early, we were allowed to have chips and pop and dessert, all as part of something my endlessly well-meaning mother called “Celebrate the Weekend!”. But I, ever the empathetic child, barely noticed the care and skill that had gone into the roast beef I was wolfing down. I had places to be, namely the quiet computer room upstairs with its big TV, and I had to be there by 8 o’clock. TGIF was starting and I absolutely could not miss it. Family Matters, The Hughleys, Two of a Kind, Odd Man Out, Clueless, You Wish, Teen Angel, Sabrina(!)- I lived and breathed TGIF. The same thing happened on Sundays when The Wonderful World of Disney was on. Remember that amazing ’97 version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella? That thing rivalled Ocean’s 11 in its star power- Whoopi Goldberg, Victor Garber, Jason Alexander, Bernadette Peters, Whitney freaking Houston as the fairy godmother!- with colour blind casting to end all colour blind casting (black mom + white dad= handsome Asian son; ABC for the win). Wonderful World of Disney brought us the Tyra Banks/Lindsay Lohan classic Life-Size and, my favourite, Model Behavior, the beautiful tale of two girls who both look like Maggie Lawson switching places to learn that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Co-starring Kathie Lee Gifford, Model Behavior was the official acting debut of a young man known as Justin Timberlake. I recorded it on my old VCR and played it over and over and over again until my stupid big brother taped over it.

But TV changed, I know that. The thrill of sitting down by 7:58 (just in case) and sprinting to the bathroom during commercials is a thing of the past. Gone, too, is that thing they do in When Harry Met Sally where they call each other to talk while they both watch Casablanca on channel eleven. It’s sad but it’s over and, in return, we have the convenience of catching up on Mad Men via Netflix and watching SNL on Sunday afternoon on the DVR instead of staying in or staying up to watch TV at midnight on a Saturday. But sometimes it feels like you didn’t catch on to the change. Sometimes it feels like you’re making your cancellation decisions based on the same criteria that took down Sports Night back in 2000 for the crime of only having 10 million viewers (big-ticket reality shows like Dancing with the Stars and The Voice barely scrape by that number these days).

I loved you again, years after Mr. Feeney declared “class dismissed”,  in the mid-to-late oughts. That was about the time that I started My TV, mostly as an avenue to talk about the shows I was really loving. Back in 2007/2008, the shows I was really loving were yours, so much so that in the first year of the My TV Awards, I included a “Best Network Lineup” category entirely to celebrate you (in fact, of the 23 categories and 2 honourable mentions, you won 11- more than double any other network). You had game-changer Lost (those production values!) and the colossal success of Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives (say what you want about Housewives but it brought some real acting powerhouses back to TV). You had my favourite show on TV at the time, Brothers & Sisters (the perfect marriage of A-list writing and acting), and one of the most consistently engaging law series ever made (Boston Legal). You had amusing, pretty things with underrated emotional consequence (Ugly Betty, Samantha Who?, Dirty Sexy Money) and, perhaps best of all, you had fun, weird stuff like Pushing Daisies and Eli Stone, shows that pushed stylistic and storytelling boundaries. For even letting so many great hours of material make it to my TV, I loved you. I’m even going to give you credit for the way you handled those aforementioned series that you’re often criticized for mishandling. People were really upset that you canceled Pushing Daisies (they were less upset that you canceled Eli Stone, which they should have cared more about) but when the 07-08 new shows were cut down by the writer’s strike, you gave them another shot, resulting in second seasons for shows that no one thought would survive. Pushing Daisies was adorable and beloved (it still is) but it wasn’t creatively living up to its promise after a nearly perfect pilot. Nowadays, two seasons for a weird, forward-thinking show is practically unheard of on network TV, great pilot or no.

And so we arrive at today. I still believe in network television, despite the pretty universally accepted reality that cable creates, simply, better TV. I like that network TV is (at least theoretically) free of charge. I like the 22-episode seasons (it encourages world building and discourages the upsetting practice of turning a TV show into a sequence of mini-series) and I like the September to May schedule (it gives the year shape, makes the “everything is new; anything is possible” vibe of September applicable to grownups, and creates seasonal scheduling that allows for ridiculous guilty pleasures like a summer filled exclusively with Big Brother and The Bachelorette). I still believe that creative creators can dance with the FCC instead of just being stifled by it and, sometimes, I even believe that the FCC spares us some unnecessary nonsense (there is no real storytelling reason why Game of Thrones needs that many boobs; it’s just fanboy service with awkward misogynist undertones). Though it gets harder every year to keep the faith, I still believe in network television.

But I no longer believe in ABC.

It’s really just in the last year or so that the love truly left. I still like Grey’s Anatomy (though not this season; this season is infuriating) and both Modern Family and The Middle are good for a middling weekly chuckle (the former is Wildly overrated, but that doesn’t make it necessarily bad). Oh, and I caught up over the summer so that I can watch Scandal but, apart from my unconditional love for both Scott Foley and Josh Malina, I’m really not a fan. Nashville and The Goldbergs are the only shows on ABC I get excited about anymore (Cristela is charming but I’m holding out no hope for that brand new show). That’s approximately 65 minutes (or a little less) of commercial-free content a week; that’s all. It took me between one episode and one season to completely abandon Revenge (which was once great), Once Upon a Time (which was always stupid), Castle (which is too derivative to function, even with Fillion), How to Get Away with Murder (I’m so over Shonda), black-ish (how do people not find this show offensive?), Forever (which is not long for this world) and SHIELD (which I actually have been meaning to re-start post-Winter Soldier). I don’t make a practice of giving up on TV shows once I start them (for christ’s sake, I’m still watching Glee!) but it seems that ABC exclusively renews shows I dislike so much that I actually cut them from my schedule.

Which, of course, means they’re cutting everything I like, especially in the comedy department. I was really into strange family comedy The Neighbors and its mix of genre deconstruction with earnest storytelling simplicity. Trophy Wife sported one of the strongest comedy ensembles of any network sitcom in recent years (including underrated leading lady Malin Akerman) and grew incredibly quickly into a clever and incisive character piece. Suburgatory, similarly, started off with a gimmick and developed such a strong point of view that I looked forward to it every week. The sadly maligned Super Fun Night was my favourite show of last season and was important and innovative for all sorts of reasons I’ve already written about at length. The most glaring case study is Happy Endings, a show with a hyper-conventional premise that completely redefined the limits of said tired premise to become a cult hit and consistently one of the most surprising, inventive and hilarious shows on TV… until it was canceled by ABC.

Last Man Standing, meanwhile, just keeps on truckin’.

It’s telling, perhaps, that it was no time at all after ABC canceled Happy Endings that its two most popular castmembers were snatched up (or reclaimed) by FOX sitcoms. Adam Pally joined The Mindy Project and completely revived its supporting cast and Damon Wayans Jr. re-joined New Girl (he’d filmed the original pilot before doing season two of Happy Endings), the return of Coach helping to bridge the awkward gap between that show’s rom-com days and its return to ensemble absurdity (other Endings standout Casey Wilson is now happily engaged to Ken Marino on NBC’s best new show Marry Me while the great Eliza Coupe’s finally found a home as the lead of USA’s new legal comedy Benched).

I bring up FOX because, when it comes to network sitcoms, they’re working with an entirely different model than the other networks and it’s really paid off (Dads aside, of course). Focusing on personality-driven, fresh, young-skewing shows, FOX has stayed at the front of the comedy pack, guiding trends rather than reacting to them and scrambling for standard Nielsen ratings (as opposed to DVR playback and streaming stats that more accurately reflect how young people watch TV). With the exception of How I Met Your Mother (and the inexplicable 2 Broke Girls), CBS is the antithesis of the FOX approach, favouring classic formats and the sort of reliably popular archetypes that keep the channel at number one in the ratings, with a demo of mostly your mom.

It seems like there’s an easy winner between these two approaches but the FOX model is risky, requiring the patience to let a show grow. New Girl was badly marketed and the first few episodes did nothing to capture the ultra contemporary ensemble tone the show would come to exemplify. FOX let it live for whatever reason (probably the Zooey factor); chances are ABC would have cancelled it. Things are especially tricky if you’ve got a show like Super Fun Night or Selfie that had a really really rough pilot masking a really really great show, it takes a lot of insight and foresight to not pull the trigger of cancellation.

Selfie‘s biggest mistake was the handling of that terrible pilot. In what almost seemed like an attempt to replicate the social media-courting Mindy Project release strategy, ABC put the Selfie pilot online early to let it generate buzz before the series premiered on TV. Trouble is, the series behaved exactly the opposite of Mindy (which had a great pilot that benefitted from the early-built buzz followed by a slew of rough episodes that everyone managed to ignore long enough after the great pilot to let the show find its footing). Selfie‘s pilot was Terrible. Trivial, reductive and simply not funny, it did nothing to show off John Cho and Karen Gillan’s outstanding chemistry and individual charms. From episode two on, the show has been improving at amazing rates, culminating in last week’s episode that was nearly perfect yet also infuriating because it aired after the show’s cancellation had already been announced. ABC’s attempt to generate buzz with an early pilot release generated nothing but hate (because, again, the pilot was terrible) and the show could never come back from that.

But it might have. This is my point; the mishandling of the Selfie pilot hindered its ratings early on, but the show was good and was steadily getting better. So it didn’t hit right away, most truly great things don’t. Network executives are in the business of making smart business decisions, I get that, but great business people look at what next, not what’s right now. Selfie wasn’t loved yet, but it was about to be (“cancelled too soon” articles started popping up soon after the cancellation and the fans wouldn’t have been too far behind the critics), TV executives need to be able to see that. In a depressingly literal way, executives are the curators of the television landscape and yet we give power to people unable to tell a Picasso from a finger painting just because people aren’t lined up to buy the Picasso yet. Shows like Selfie need time and chances to turn into what they can be. ABC, once network’s greatest bastion for strong character pieces and innovative storytelling, has thrown away immeasurable potential time and time again. Executives need to learn to spot the real thing when it comes along, otherwise the networks will always be in development hell, searching for the next thing that cable’s already made.

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