ABC Family isn’t messing with success. This evening’s upfront took place in the form of a table read (followed by a screening) of the season finale for Pretty Little Liars, one of the most popular shows on television in the teen/young adult demo (women 12-34).
The network is deepening its bench. Executives have commissioned three new pilots, in addition to three new series (Chasing Life, Young & Hungry and Mystery Girls)—all announced in the run-up to the upfront, rather than as a part of the presentation itself.
The first and most interesting of the pilots, Alice in Arabia, has caused controversy despite having only been in the news for a few hours. The drama follows a teenage American girl kidnapped by her extended Saudi Arabian family who “is held a virtual prisoner in her grandfather’s royal compound.”
Written by a former U.S. Army cryptolinguist who supported NSA missions in the Middle East, the plot summary for the pilot generated controversy with a line about the protagonist trying to get home “while surviving life behind the veil.” (Anti-Islamic sentiments frequently single out veils and head scarves.) So there were plenty of tweets like this online:
My mom just asked me if I wanted anything from Steak & Sheikh. I must be #AliceInArabia— Samia Shameem (@SamIAm_NoHam) March 18, 2014
ABC Family said the producers “hope people will wait to judge this show on its actual merits once it is filmed.”
Other pilots in the pipeline include Recovery Road, a book based on a young adult novel and written by playwright and Easy A screenwriter Bert V. Royal and Karen DiConcetto. The other pilot, Unstrung, will follow a competitive pair of tennis-playing siblings. The network has also renewed Melissa & Joey and Baby Daddy for fourth seasons.
UPDATE: That was quick: after protests by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee over Alice in Arabia, ABC Family has pulled the show from its slate as of Saturday, March 22.
It can't have helped matters that the script surfaced and press reports breathlessly pulled its most offensive lines out of context (somebody insults somebody else with a pretty nasty ethnic slur; that's all we know).
But with the damage done, ABC Family decided to cut bait just four days after the green light: "The current conversation surrounding our pilot was not what we had envisioned and is certainly not conducive to the creative process, so we’ve decided not to move forward with this project," the network said.
CAIR was happy to call the cancelation a big win. "We welcome ABC Family channel's decision to respond to community concerns by canceling plans for a program that had the potential to promote ethnic and religious stereotyping," said CAIR-LA executive director Hussam Ayloush.