Every day between now and Friday, we'll lay out our predictions and opinions on a broadcast network's fall slate, starting today with ABC.
ABC finished third in the demo last year (it will always have trouble edging out competitors with sports programming), and its slate is getting a major revamp. Thursday nights will be Shonda Rhimes time, with Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and big-swing law school drama How to Get Away With Murder running back-to-back-to-back. (By the way, do you know what the fifth-highest rated show on TV is? Yup, the 11-year-old Grey's Anatomy.)
Tuesdays are completely new except for ball-and-chain Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which the network can't cancel until next year's Avengers 2. I mean, it could pick up this year, but it would take some serious marketing muscle. If it does, I suspect that will happen around the midseason change-over to Agent Carter.
I've watched all of ABC's pilots, and I have some opinions about them. I also have some opinions about how well they're going to do, which of course won't always line up with the ones I think are actually good. Disclaimer: These are opinions based solely on the available episodes of each show, which usually just means the pilot. But while TV series change, first impressions don't—for me or the TV-watching public.
No. 1: Black-ish
What is it? Black-ish is a single-cam comedy about an upper-middle-class black family living in suburban Los Angeles, executive produced by and starring Anthony Anderson and Laurence Fishburne. Anderson plays dad and marketing exec Andre Johnson, and Laurence Fishburne has a smaller role as Anderson's father. The show was created by Kenya Barris, who's written for Are We There Yet? and helped develop America's Next Top Model. It had Larry Wilmore on board as showrunner, but Wilmore got tapped to run The Minority Report with Larry Wilmore, Comedy Central's successor to The Colbert Report, and Wilmore is likely to leave Black-ish in October. ABC says Jonathan Groff will take his place.
When is it on? Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. starting Sept. 24.
Is it in a good timeslot? Black-ish airs opposite the second halves of elderly crime dramas Criminal Minds (CBS), Law & Order: SVU (NBC) and Season 2 of post-apocalyptic teen drama The 100 on The CW, and its lead-in is Modern Family. Its only real competitor is Fox's aggressively heartwarming teen dramedy The Red Band Society. Short of large-scale sabotage, it's hard to imagine ABC finding a slot where the competition for a family comedy is weaker.
Is it any good? Hell, yes. This is one of the funniest, most promising comedy pilots we've ever seen, and Barris' writing is note perfect. Fishburne is clearly having a ball, and Anderson makes for a very sympathetic and compelling lead as Andre. Also, the show announces loudly that it's going to be addressing—deftly—the uncomfortable topic of cultural assimilation, with crotchety Pops (Fishburne) and Andre's biracial wife Rainbow (an excellent Tracee Ellis Ross) on different sides of the divide. It's unlike anything we've seen on broadcast in years—if not decades—and a great addition to ABC's increasingly interesting offerings for people of color.
Will it survive? UPDATED: ABC tells us that former Conan head writer Jonathan Groff will take over for Wilmore, which sounds like very good news. It's a family-friendly sitcom with high production value campaigning enthusiastically for a black audience—that's not exactly a crowded field. Barring some kind of implosion when Groff comes aboard, we're saying yes.
Do you want your brand associated with it? You really, really do. Positive, diverse, intelligently written, family-friendly.
No. 2: Manhattan Love Story
What is it? A single-cam romantic comedy created by Jeff Lowell, who was most recently a consulting producer on CBS' Two and a Half Men and a writer for USA's abortive Common Law. Lowell is known in moviemaking circles for critically reviled (but unequivocally financially successful) comedies like John Tucker Must Die, Over Her Dead Body and Hotel for Dogs. The new show stars Analeigh Tipton and Jake McDorman as Dana and Peter, a junior editor and a trophy salesman who meet cute in New York, whose thoughts we get to hear in voiceover throughout their various misunderstandings.
When is it on? Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. starting Sept. 30.
Is it in a good timeslot? Yeah, not bad. Competitors include another CBS crime show (NCIS this time) and the second half-hour of The Flash, which should probably be its only real concern, as both will likely skew young. It also goes up against reality shows Utopia on Fox (which is already doing badly) and The Voice on NBC. Young women are most likely to watch this, although it has a kind of bro-ishness that's probably going to appeal to more men than either ABC or those men anticipate. Its biggest problem is that its lead-in is the much less appealing Selfie.
Is it any good? Yes. It is really cute. The jokes are good, the actors are terrific, everybody is way too pretty, and its vision of New York is pleasantly nostalgic without being saccharine, even for someone who lives here. The New-York-veteran-meets-doe-eyed-newcomer thing may be a trope, but both characters are interesting with fully realized lives and personalities. And there's just enough bite to it, which is not true of the other, almost identical show about a relationship on the fall slate, NBC's A to Z. You get the sense that Peter and Dana's friends, their workplaces and their mutual relationship could all be interesting areas of focus for the show, and the location shots of New York are beautiful. Also, shooting on location in New York guarantees some interesting guest stars.
Will it survive? It might. ABC has had terrible luck with shows like this—smart, quirky comedies with compelling leads and interesting writing that don't take place in the future or feature wizards shooting flames out of their eyes. But it's got a good timeslot, the sweet-and-sour combination is well-balanced enough to appeal to adults without being a drudge to watch, and there's lots of chemistry between the leads. Its lead-in is another new comedy, though, and it's a weaker new comedy than Manhattan Love Story, which is a shame.
Do you want your brand associated with it? So far as I can see, sure. It's funny and clever and the sex jokes are fairly mild (see trailer). Probably a safe bet for most categories, notably cosmetics, auto and sit-down restaurants. Also, it's likely to skew city-dwelling and young, so tech will be right at home.
No. 3: How to Get Away With Murder
What is it? An hour-long drama set in a law school, exec produced by ABC's resident hitmaker Shonda Rhimes and created by Pete Nowalk, one of her proteges. It's the third in a three-hour block of cliffhangers, infidelity and plot twists on Thursday nights. Tony winner and Oscar nominee Viola Davis stars as Annalise de Wit, a Machiavellian law professor and defense attorney at a fictional Ivy-ish school where every year she accepts four students to help her in her high-pressure practice. Billy Brown plays protagonist Nate Leahy, a hard-luck case who gets into the class after being wait-listed and falls into a web of deceit, lies and the title crime.
When is it on? Thursdays at 10 p.m. starting Sept. 25.
Is it in a good timeslot? Man, if you are in this show's way, God help you. True, it's going to have a month of CBS football to contend with, but after that fifth week expect this show to own the airwaves at 10. There's nothing but local programming on Fox and The CW, and NBC has the last season of Parenthood. CBS will put Elementary in the 10 p.m. slot after Oct. 30, which frankly does not bode well for Elementary.
Is it any good? It is a good pilot. Unlike the comedies, for which you have a pretty good sense of the writers' sense of humor and ability to tie together a story, the pilot for a serialized drama is basically the part of the juggling act where the performer throws a bunch of balls in the air. Whether or not Rhimes/Nowalk can catch them remains to be seen, although she has a great track record. Davis is magnetic—she's one of the best actors out there and she gets to chew the scenery in a magnificent way. Also, her attractive protégés are all good at what they're being asked to do. This is a show that is going to be incredibly influential, I suspect. If we don't have at least two more law school shows by next season, I will be surprised (why did no one think of this before? We haven't had a law school drama since Paper Chase went off the air in 1986). It promises to get really soapy really quickly, which may be a great thing, who knows? But in Episode 1, there's already a mysterious hot girl across the hall from Nate; a murder victim whose shocking identity you discover in the last shot; love scenes between men and men, men and women; the suggestion of further intimacy between women and women; rampant cheating; and teacher-on-student hotness. I mean, it's kind of sleazy and great, but it also has the capacity to be too much.
Will it survive? Uh, yes.
Do you want your brand associated with it? If your brand is aimed squarely at adults, you do, but this is in no way a family-friendly show. And when junior gets up to "get a glass of water," your viewers are going to be frantically scrambling for the remote as he stands open-mouthed at the threshold to the living room with questions like, "What was that man doing to that lady?" ABC ad staff are pros and will probably watch your adjacencies carefully, but beware. On the other hand, if your brand is cool with fun, lurid entertainment, the sky's the limit. A bazillion people are going to watch this thing.
No. 4: Forever
What is it? An hourlong cop drama about Dr. Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffudd), an immortal, Sherlockian medical examiner and his hot not-girlfriend-yet, a recently bereaved detective named Jo Martinez (Alana de la Garza). He's a widower, she's a widow. Together they fight crime. Parallel to their crime-solving shenanigans, Morgan is being stalked by someone who knows he's not what he seems to be. Every time Morgan dies, his undamaged, beefcakey body pops out of the nearest body of water. The only person of his acquaintance who knows his secret is Abe, an old man with whom he has a long history.
When is it on? Tuesdays at 10 p.m. starting Sept. 24.
Is it in a good timeslot? No, because it's not exactly counterprogramming to CBS' tried-and-true Person of Interest, another unconventional cop drama with a presumed-dead protagonist and a web of lies the main characters slowly untangle. Does ABC hope that viewers will think they're watching POI long enough to get hooked? Or that viewers will want something fresher? Person of Interest did a 2.5 overall last year, which is hardly a death knell. Also, the lead-in is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which fell steadily over its first season and was last seen hovering around a 2 rating in a primo timeslot during its season finale.
Is it any good? It's not bad. It has a kind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer silliness about it, and the mythos isn't intrusive—yet. Also, both the leads are good. It seems more like a combination of tropes than anything else: vague supernatural element + NYPD + will-they-or-won't-they + wise old handler + shadowy conspiracy. It could be called Television Show. The mystery-of-the-week stories are only as good as the writers make them (there's not a lot of suspense involved in the one that kicks off the pilot), but you can tune in with the understanding that the bad guy will get his comeuppance, the good gal will get her reward and the mysterious hero will take off his shirt. The supporting cast does everyone a lot of good. It may not exactly break the mold, but as my wife said of de la Garza's character, "I'm already interested. She's an adult brunette with a job."
Will it survive? Not as long as Person of Interest is of interest.
Do you want your brand associated with it? Is your brand white bread?
No. 5: Selfie
What is it? A new single-cam sitcom from Emily Kapnek (the creator of Suburgatory) that's based loosely on the musical My Fair Lady (as distinct from the play Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady is based). Karen Gillan, cult fave from Doctor Who and Guardians of the Galaxy, is in the lead as Liza Dooley, the crass, self-absorbed ad saleswoman, and John Cho (Harold, of Harold and Kumar fame, and Captain Sulu in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek flicks) plays Henry, the ultra-polite marketing exec for whom appearances are everything.
When is it on? Tuesdays at 8 p.m. starting Sept. 30.
Is it in a good timeslot? ABC tried. Tuesdays at 8 is a competitive slot, no question, and while there are no other sitcoms on at the time, it's going up against The Voice, which has lost some steam but is definitely not down for the count yet. There's also The Flash, which is the strongest series The CW has fielded in years. Selfie is the weaker of ABC's two new comedies in the hour, and while Cho and Gillan are definitely better known than the leads of Manhattan Love Story, if viewers don't dig the earlier show, they're never going to see the later one. Of course, it's unclear if Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams will draw as many viewers to The Voice. So, this has a fighting chance.
Is it any good? I'm going to be straight with you. In the terrifying antimatter universe where I am a TV exec, I would have piloted this. I probably would have ordered it to series. It is a good try. Gillan and Cho are both known quantities, Kapnek has a proven track record with Suborgatory, and the concept—update George Bernard Shaw! Have Cho deliver his etiquette advice in rhyme!—is hilarious on paper. It just doesn't work. The show is trying to do too many things simultaneously, and the notion that Cho's character can use his marketing acumen to improve Eliza's personal brand and make her a better person is kind of distasteful. And Gillan is badly miscast. This is a role Krysten Ritter could have knocked out of the park, but the Disney synergy machine appears to have moved Gillan over from movies and she only looks convincing when her character is embarrassed. She might grow into it—get shameless, Karen!—and Cho is excellent, but it doesn't jell thematically and it's too cringey to be funny. It also reverses the conceit of the Shaw play and yes, the beloved Lerner and Loewe musical, which (like everything English) is about class. Henry has wonderful diction, but he's a platinum-level horse's ass. Eliza drops her H's, but she's a good person. Here, Eliza is bad and dumb, and Henry has wonderful manners and is ... slightly uptight? And the moral of the story is "being friended is not the same thing as having friends," y'all! Hashtag profound.
Will it survive? Doubtful. Gillan is an unsympathetic protagonist—I mean, that's the point, she needs to be a better person, but she can't sell the trashy antiheroine thing—and Cho doesn't get enough laugh lines in the first episode. The Flash is more fun, and it's airing at the same time.
Do you want your brand associated with it? It's not offensive or stupid, so sure. No problem. There's a surprising amount of (intentionally) grating double entendre from Gillan's character for an 8 p.m. show, but nothing too bad.
No. 6: Cristela
What is it? A multicam laugh-tracked sitcom based on the stand-up comedy of Cristela Alonzo, who stars as the title character. This half-workplace comedy, half-family comedy is about a woman who lives at home while interning at a law firm and attempting to better her station in life. Oh, and she has the unreliable support of her immigrant mom, sister, brother-in-law and sister's kids.
When is it on? Fridays at 8:30 p.m. starting Oct. 10.
Is it in a good timeslot? Nope. Fridays at 8:30, with the slowly deflating Last Man Standing as its lead-in, is a wasteland of reality programming other networks dumped there because no one wants to spend money on programming Friday night. The only worse slot is the one Last Man Standing is in.
Is it any good? It is terrible. Inexcusably bad, honestly. This is a sitcom that features in the pilot a joke stolen from Winston Churchill. Conceptually, it's a good idea. By all means, program more stuff for Hispanic women. There's literally nothing on mainstream U.S. television that caters to that demographic. But this just feels cynical and uninspired, and the family dynamic is a soup of awful cliches. (Did you guess the mom was a guilt-tripping Catholic? If so, you're right!) The workplace stuff is marginally less hackneyed, but by a slim margin.
Will it survive? No, and ABC appears to know that already. Sometimes you eat the bar, etc. Do better next time, ABC! Don't give up!
Overall, this is still a pretty strong slate: two out of four really good comedies, a drama that virtually comes with a money-back guarantee (well, not really, but people are into it), and a couple of noble failures. ABC is embracing the diversifying U.S., and while that strategy doesn't make for a home run every time, it beats the hell out of franchise crime shows and gay jokes.