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Already Been Cancelled

Everyone has an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend-from-hell they've gone back and dated again. Some would call it the triumph of optimism over experience; these same people are usually the ones busy suffering through a repeat relationship gone wrong yet again.

These people are also ABC viewers. Every fall, ABC manages to produce two or three shows that have potential, shuffle them off into unfortunate time spots, then dump them in November. Leaving a fanatical core of viewers disgruntled and heartbroken, the network insists it can still stay friends, continues to hustle for ratings, then returns in the fall to pitch woo at its jilted viewers with new and intriguing shows.

Since I am not one of those folks whose willing to be led down ABC's primrose path, I viewed their fall schedule with only one question in mind. Which show is likely to be good enough for ABC to mismanage and cancel?

Candidate number one is Once and Again, the latest offering from Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. The show is a Brady Bunch with a millennial twist -- sensitive divorced parents dating again. Like other Herskovitz/Zwick offerings (thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, Relativity), this one will undoubtedly feature lots of vague and emotional conversations, and brooding beauties perpetually bathed in flattering golden light. And like other recent Herskovitz/Zwick offerings -- Relativity and My So-Called Life - the show will shuffle off to Saturday night after its debut, it will fail to meet network ratings expectations when a nation neglects to rearrange their lives around a television show's new time, and the network will pull it by January. Speaking of the triumph of hope over experience, I can only ask why, with five other networks out there, Zwick and Herskovitz keep choosing ABC. Perhaps they made a pact with the devil for the success of thirtysomething and the 1990s have been payback.

Candidate number two is Wasteland, a drama about six twentysomethings in New York -- just like Friends, only twice as long and one of the characters is a virgin. Kevin Williamson, who helms the climatically confused Dawson's Creek (I mean, really -- these kids live in New England and they're wearing tank tops in November? Riiiiight.), is producing this one, so the dialogue will provide hours of enjoyment for those who refuse to willingly suspend disbelief when watching television.

What makes the show a candidate for ABC's patented death-by-neglect? It could be an interesting show; Williamson is good at creating story arcs that capture the ambiguity and allure of leading with your heart. But unless the show captures a lot of media buzz or breaks a mold, it's going to be just another squishy relationship show in a season where the estrogen will flow freely. And really, there are only so many hours in any week that television viewers will spend blubbering in front of their sets.

In theory, there should only be so many hours that television viewers spend watching David Kelley shows too, but that hasn't stopped the fiendishly prolific producer from foisting another drama on us. Snoops will take on The X-Files, a show about Los Angeles gumshoes facing off against our favorite conspiracy gumshoes. In theory, this shoe could be interesting: the jarring contrast between L.A.'s sunny architecture and the darker desires that motivate so many of its citizens is the inspiration for the entire noir genre, and plumbing those depths could be a refreshing change from the usual straightforward East Coast cop show. However, this is a David Kelley show, so we'll have a quirky, sunny group. The network's description of the ensemble as "off-beat" guarantees that.

Because the network programming gods are capricious and unjust, the Kelley show will likely survive. It's a good bet that the three sitcoms ABC is touting will also survive -- any network that lets Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place live will tolerate any half-hour abomination. Right now, the only question is which sitcom ABC will hype endlessly: the one about the single father whose gay best friend becomes his roommate, the one about the 14-year-old boy living in a houseful of women, or the one about the 24-year-old boy who becomes the boy toy of a woman in the midst of an existential suburban crisis? I'm hoping for the first sitcom, if only because I secretly hope ABC papers the town with yellow posters reading, "Yeah, it's like Will and Grace, except Grace is a guy with a daughter."

I'm actually rooting for the sitcom with the 14-year-old kid, Odd Man Out, because the creators are the same people who wrote There's Something About Mary, and I'm curious to see if they can pump up the level of non-PC humor on television. If this is the case, however, ABC will undoubtedly find an excuse to cancel the sitcom. After all, it's all about ratings and buzz, as opposed to giving shows a season to find their legs and begin building a long-term audience.

Like other networks, ABC seems perfectly willing to sacrifice viewer loyalty in the name of winning a ratings game. Unlike other networks, however, ABC tends to jump out of the gate each fall with more interesting shows, and still spike them before they have a chance to cultivate a loyal following. This year will be no different. ABC's fall schedule is not so much the triumph of hope over experience, but the triumph of spin over viewer regard.


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