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At ABC, Old Shows are New Ones

by admin July 18, 2008 10:04 am
At ABC, Old Shows are New Ones

Hit the reboot button. That's what ABC is doing this fall, working harder to rejigger returning scripted shows than to introduce new ones. Thanks to the winter's coma-inducing writers strike, network suits with good reason fear that we barely remember last fall's truncated newbies, like Dirty Sexy Money, or even midseason arrivals like Eli Stone. Or that when we do, we're not so gung-ho to revisit whatever vague recollections linger in brain cells since lashed by the likes of Wipeout.

So during ABC's two days this week at the Television Critics Association's L.A. fall-preview press tour, the network presented only one new scripted series -- a New York-ization of the '70s cops in the witty British drama fave Life on Mars. Instead, ABC's promotional and creative efforts this strike-slapped season will shift away from launching fresh/untested titles and toward nurturing familiar/underachieving shows to reach their full potential.

Sophomore sudsfest Private Practice, for instance, is adding more actual medicine to the gloppy character angst that earned the Grey's Anatomy spinoff a critical drubbing its first season. "When it became a soap opera about those people's lives, there was just a lot of talking," ABC program chief Steve McPherson said during his Q&A session with reporters. "It works best when it's laid over a palette of really great medical stories." Series creator Shonda Rhimes said later on another panel that the strike gave her an opportunity to really look at the show, once she wasn't crazy-busy producing both that and Grey's every week. "What I found that I got excited about were those medical cases that involved a moral and ethical dilemma for the characters," she said. And that helped her in "delineating what the medicine of Private Practice is versus what the medicine of Grey's Anatomy is. Grey's Anatomy is all about the surgery, and on Private Practice this season we're homing in on making the stories tell the ethical dilemmas our doctors face."

She's also honing Kate Walsh's Addison character, who was tough stuff on Grey's, yet turned melodramatic mush on her own series. "The thing about writing is that the characters end up sort of doing what I'm doing at the moment," Rhimes said. "It was the first time I'd had two shows going at the same time. It was the first time Addison moved to Los Angeles. It was Addison was finding her footing. I was finding the show. So I feel like both of those things are stronger now."

Also finding a clearer voice when Wednesday night's lineup returns Oct. 1: Dirty Sexy Money. Producer Greg Berlanti said he watched his show's completed episodes on the air during the strike, and "you have the time to sort of learn from what you had done." He realized too many characters were "off in their own universe," and the show might do better to "centralize the stories around an A story, a B story and a C story" bringing them together in the action.

The producers also want to plunge Peter Krause's Darling family lawyer more deeply into the twisted clan's juicy world of wealth. Said series creator Craig Wright, "Nick is going to dig into being an active part of this family in a way that he wasn't last season." Krause is all for it now, after originally being "leery of the soap opera of Dirty Sexy Money. Now that time has gone on," said the ex-Six Feet Under star, he understands "it needs to be dirtier. It needs to be sexier. So while I enjoy the ambivalence of 'what world am I in' and 'how can I maintain my integrity,' I think that we need to see Nick give in to some temptation, rather than standing back from it and weighing it." Helping dish the dirt will be cast addition Lucy Liu, who promised at press tour her new attorney character will bring "a little bit of color, a little chaos, mix it up a little bit." Wright declared, "We're making this a glitzy, glossy, messy, dirty, sexy soap opera this year. We're taking the gloves off and going for it."

Even certified-smash Desperate Housewives is changing things up, having already reset its time frame when May's season-ender jumped the storyline five years forward. Creator Marc Cherry explained his impetus during an ABC showrunners panel that also included such producers as Rhimes and Lost's Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse.

"I was so impressed with the bold stroke that Damon and Carlton had done with the flash forward in Lost for the previous season finale," Cherry said, that he thought his fifth-season show would benefit if he could "change everyone's lives completely."

"The soap had really started to build up, and I kind of wanted to pare down to where everyone's problems were small but very relatable," Cherry said, as they were in the show's ratings-topping first season. That doesn't mean we won't see what happened in the interim. "We'll be revealing in dribs and drabs when you missed in that five-year period," said producer Bob Daily, as well as establishing fresh characters played by Neal McDonough (a guy with "revenge on his mind" as part of the season's new mystery) and Gale Harold (as the "artsy" new squeeze of Teri Hatcher's "stronger" Susan).

McPherson told reporters, "We're going to make Sunday night and Desperate Housewives a priority [re]launch" when its season starts Sept. 28 -- an emphasis made possible because ABC doesn't have to work overtime marketing a half-dozen brand new shows.

"The growth of series, not only just over the first few episodes, but over the life of the series, is equally as important" as a splashy pilot, McPherson said. "I look at where Lost has gone, and had ups and downs, and where Desperate has gone, and had ups and downs. We're really proud as a network of doing the work and spending the money. I mean, we reshot the whole pilot of Grey's Anatomy."

They're doing the same this year with Life on Mars, which gets the primo post-Grey's slot Thursday nights starting Oct. 9. Critics haven't seen an episode yet, thanks to producer turnover (David E. Kelley has handed off to October Road/Alias/Fastlane writers Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec), a location shift from L.A. to NYC, and wholesale recasting. Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos now plays '70s retro cop alongside the time-warped current-day detective of Jason O'Mara (The Agency), sole survivor from the junked original pilot.

"You have to see potential," McPherson said. "You have to recognize when there's an issue, rather than just for the sake of money throwing something on the air that you shot that you don't believe in." ABC is also junking two completed but unsatisfying episodes of Dirty Sexy Money (though producers say some footage may be reclaimed in a fresh context).

When it comes to making "real constructive changes that make for hit shows," McPherson said ABC's second-year series "Eli Stone is actually a really good example. I think you'll see, with the early episodes of that show [this fall], they absolutely reset the premise of the show," when Jonny Lee Miller's putative "prophet" finally gets his brain tumor operation. "It doesn't feel repetitive for the core viewer," McPherson said, "but somebody who has never seen the show would fit right in immediately and be able to access it."

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Katie Mrs.-Tom-Cruise Holmes is reunited with former Dawson's Creek producer Berlanti for an Eli Stone guest spot Oct. 21, playing an attorney who partakes in those singing-dancing mini-musicals inside Eli's loopy head. "We really wanted to bring eyeballs to the show, and get people talking about it," Berlanti said during his Eli Stone session. Between the show's musical numbers, emotional/spiritual relationships, legal issues (being amped up), and now stuntcasting, "we're working harder than anybody to entertain you for that 48 minutes," Berlanti said.

But lots of ABC's shows do that, and this effort is what has powered the network's charge back up the Nielsen ladder. Desperate Housewives, Lost, all the hours mentioned above, somehow manage to mix various ingredients of drama, comedy, glamour, grit, musical numbers, past/present/future time frames, and other techniques that may sometimes misfire but rarely bore us silly. Over the past several seasons, these shows have come out robust and bold, re-energizing an era when cookie-cutter procedurals threatened to suffocate fun for good. Just look how ABC's uber-earnest courtroomer The Practice got revamped into the gonzo Boston Legal. (That one returns Sept. 22 for a final 13 episodes. "We really felt like it didn't get its due on its way out this year," McPherson said.)

Now if only they could do something about those yucky plot conniptions over at Brothers & Sisters ...

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