ABC's 2010-11 schedule: Just how good of an idea is the status quo?
Conventional wisdom during Upfront Week is that the more successful a network is, the fewer changes it has to make. Yet on Monday, Fox (which is the number one network on TV) announced a schedule with more moves and risks than the one that ABC (which is not the number one network on TV) announced this morning.
Specifically, ABC's fall schedule shifts only one returning series from the timeslot in which it aired this season. ("The Middle" moves from Wednesdays at 8:30 to Wednesdays at 8.) "Modern Family" still leads into "Cougar Town" (which, for now, is still called "Cougar Town," though one can only hope that will change between now and September) instead of being used to launch a new show that might potentially retain more of its audience. The "Grey's Anatomy"/"Private Practice" double feature is unchanged, "Castle" still follows "Dancing with the Stars" on Monday, and the entire Sunday lineup returns intact.
Now, there's nothing wrong with stability, particularly when something is working like the "Dancing"/"Castle" combo. But ABC is a network with a lot of aging hits ("Grey's" and "Desperate Housewives" will be entering their seventh seasons) and a network that's struggled to cultivate new ones (neither "FlashForward" nor "V" turned into the "Lost" successor ABC hoped for, though "V" will be back at mid-season), and it feels like the time is now or never to use the established hits to help launch the newbies, before ABC falls back into a quagmire like the immediate post-"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" period.
Unlike the other networks, ABC isn't doing any kind of press conference or call so reporters can ask executives for explanations about the schedule (or to provide clues about mid-season), so I'll have to break this one down on my own. The schedule, and my thoughts on it, night-by-night:
MONDAY: Status quo: Two hours of "Dancing," followed by "Castle." "Castle" is still young enough that this makes sense. But ABC has to hope that a year from now, the show will have grown enough that it can stand on its own without "Dancing," and perhaps lead into something else.
TUESDAY: The "Dancing" results show is at 9 again, flanked by a pair of high-profile rookies. At 8 is "No Ordinary Family," with Michael Chiklis as the father of a family that gets super powers (and will beat NBC's superhero-themed "The Cape" to the air by months). At 10, Michael Imperioli is a Homicide cop being followed by a documentary crew in "Detroit 1-8-7." Sadly, he ditched the facial hair he cultivated as a cop on "Life on Mars."
"No Ordinary Family" is going to need all of Chiklis' muscle to survive against "NCIS," "Biggest Loser" and "Glee" (and, if it's still around by January, "American Idol") while "Detroit 1-8-7" seems to be in a more wide-open timeslot, albeit one where ABC bombed with a crime show last fall in "The Forgotten," and where "V" failed to gain traction in the spring.
WEDNESDAY: Again, "The Middle" moves to 8, leading into "Better Together," with Jennifer Finnigan and Josh Cooke as a couple who's been together forever without marrying, and who are freaked out when her sister (JoAnna Garcia) gets engaged to her boyfriend of seven weeks. I'm sure this will be exciting news for the five fans of Finnigan and Cooke's last sitcom, NBC's short-lived "Committed" from 2005, but it remains to be seen how a multi-camera show filmed on a stage (even one directed by the great James Burrows) will fit in with ABC's three returning single-camera comedies. Then again, "Hank" didn't fail last season because it was multi-cam; it failed because it was heinous.
I'm happy for the continued existence of "Cougar Town," and that it remains in a protected timeslot, but if ABC isn't going to change the name, this seems pointless. Too many people who watch and love "Modern Family" have made it clear they're not watching "Cougar Town," and it seems clear that the name (which doesn't reflect what the show has become) is now a huge barrier to entry.
At 10 is "The Whole Truth," a legal drama where the gimmick is that we spend an equal amount of time with the defense attorney (Rob Morrow) and the prosecutor (a part that needs to be recast since Joely Richardson quit to spend more time with her family). NBC will be trying to establish "Law & Order: LA" in this timeslot, but if fans of the franchise blame the new show for the demise of the mothership, they might be inclined to seek a legal alternative on a different network.
THURSDAY: The "Grey's"/"Practice" combo continues at 9 & 10 (and if "Private Practice" can't survive without its parent show as a lead-in, ABC needs to think seriously about its long-term future). At 8 is "My Generation," the second of ABC's new series shot in a documentary style(*), as we follow a group of high schoolers preparing to graduate from the Class of 2000, and then again 10 years later as they return home and confront who and what they've become as adults.
(*) Who would have thought that the documentary approach of "Modern Family" (even if the producers say there's not actually a documentary being made about the family) would be that show's most-copied element?
"My Generation" was created by Noah Hawley, whose "The Unusuals" was among the more interesting in the long recent line of failed ABC cop shows, so it might work. But the only show to work pre-"Grey's" on a tough night in recent years was "Ugly Betty," and even that trailed off after a while. Fox's decision to put "Bones" in this timeslot a while back has made it even tougher for a newbie to get traction.
FRIDAY: "20/20" is back at 10, preceded by one new show and one kinda-new show. At 8, ABC has resurrected "Secret Millionaire," a reality show Fox aired briefly in 2008, perhaps hoping to ride the "Undercover Boss" wave. At 9, Dana Delany leaves "Housewives" to headline her own show, "Body of Proof," where she plays a neurosurgeon who becomes a medical examiner after a car accident wrecks her surgical career. Delany's coming off a well-received guest stint on "Castle," and this seems a better use of her talents than being the fifth wheel on Wisteria Lane.
Fridays have been brutal to the networks for a while now, and ABC is now the second network this week to respond by putting one of their highest-profile stars on the night. NBC thinks Jimmy Smits is enough of a brand-name to self-start "Outlaw," and ABC clearly believes the same about Delany.
SATURDAY: College football in the fall, and presumably a mix of reruns and movies in the spring.
SUNDAY: Status quo: "America's Funniest Home Videos," "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," "Desperate Housewives," "Brothers & Sisters."
I have to believe that the post-"Housewives" and post-"Grey's" timeslots will go to other rookies at mid-season, with the Shonda Rhimes-produced "Off the Map" seeming like an obvious choice to fill in for "Private Practice" Thursdays. The only other mid-season shows ordered as of now the Matthew Perry comedy "Mr. Sunshine," "V" and the sitcom "Happy Endings," with Elisha Cuthbert and Zachary Knighton as a couple who split up and have to figure out how to keep all the friends they made together.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com