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ABC: A Disaster Movie in the Making

I came home from doing the laundry Monday night to find the husband completely entranced by the Three's Company movie on NBC. Since the husband is usually the one to avoid total crap while I TiVo it and claim, "But it's hilarious in an ironic way!" I was intrigued by his viewing choice, and within moments, got sucked in at well.

Basically, the Three's Company movie centers on how much pleasure ABC took from delivering humiliation upon humiliation to the deluded and arrogant Suzanne Somers; for about forty minutes, I was wondering whether ABC executives spent the early 1980s deriving all their personal joy from thinking up new torments for one measly actress who had overestimated her value, and how much longer I'd have to wait before their moustache-twirling, cloven hooves, forked tails, etc. became completely obvious to us, the viewers at home.

Anyway, as the victimized Suzanne Somers is initiated into each fresh Hell, the camera makes sure the ABC logo is featured prominently, as if to tell us, the viewers at home, "ABC is the network of heartless corporate blackguards!" Because, as we all know, NBC is the network with a heart, so long as your definition of "heart" is "providing lifelong employment for Dick Wolf and John Wells."

Anyway, I think in another ten years, when UPN is airing the made-for-TV movie about how ABC imploded in the early Aughties, we're going to be seeing a lot of shots where ABC executives like Susan Lyne and Lloyd Braun are standing in front of giant ABC logo and cackling evilly as they say, "We'll give America what it deserves ... Faith Ford and Kelly Ripa, sharing a screen! Mwa-ha-ha-ha!"

Yes, ABC is giving us Faith Ford and Kelly Ripa, in what they claim will be a comedy. Hope and Faith is about two sisters: one is a housewife, the other a recently-deposed soap opera queen, and through contrived circumstances, the two are thrown together to laugh and love and... and I'm sorry. I don't have the will to go on anymore, because this seems eerily similar to other failed sitcoms about antagonistic G-list celebrities and the people they demand love them, like Over the Top and Encore! Encore!. The only difference is that the megalomaniacal celebrity this time out is female. How forward-thinking of ABC.

Come to think of it, ABC seems to be staking its comedy strategy on the premise that we, the viewers at home, find people in the public eye fascinating and endearing. Two of the returning comedies -- Less Than Perfect and Life With Bonnie prominently feature a television show office so we can gawk at the antics of the people other folks presumably tune in to watch. We've already discussed the fame factor in Hope and Faith, but we have not yet examined the premise behind I'm With Her. In a nutshell, it's writer Chris Henchy working out his issues about being Mr. Brooke Shields; Teri Polo is the titular celebrity of the series and the weekly adventures of her significant other (tellingly, his identity isn't mentioned in most of the press materials; the hapless schmuck is played by David Sutcliffe) as he mediates his wife's fame are supposed to be funny and not, say, weird and uncomfortable as ABC's Alias viewers are reminded of Jennifer Garner's recent marital woes vis-a-vis her celebrity ascendance and her soon-to-be-ex-husband's career plateau.

The point is, ABC expects that we will tune in because we are interested in celebrities. They may have a point: we are a country that has not scorned the self-impressed idiocy of either US magazine or your typical reality show contestant in hot pursuit of notoriety, so there's clearly some interest on our part. However, the guidelines driving celebrity-obsessed media like InStyle and reality shows are the complimentary fictions that fame is easy to come by and celebrities are just like us, only more attractive and luckier. A sitcom which points out that neither myth is rooted in reality might actually force people to contemplate -- if only for an instant, before People runs another cover on a Friends cast member or the collective organism known as Bennifer Affpez -- that maybe there's more to celebrity than happenstance and a magic Hollywood fairy making your dreams come true, and maybe celebrities can be awful people who don't deserve half the good things they get. Since neither of those ideas is funny, it's going to be hard to see how shows that send up celebrities and celebrity culture will be.

Fortunately, ABC has its family sitcoms to fall back on. Although 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter is surprisingly not awful, thanks to the able comic stylings of former Suzanne Somers colleague John Ritter and Katey Sagal, the same cannot be said of the execrable and unfortunately returning According to Jim, and there's nothing to say at all about My Wife and Kids or George Lopez except that three years from now, I'm going to be taking a sick day and watching the USA network at 9:30 a.m. and wondering how in the hell either show made enough episodes to warrant cable syndication, the same way I do now whenever Boston Common shows up on my television.

The two most recent additions to ABC's family sitcom family are Back to Kansas, wherein Breckin Meyer is evidently perpetually shocked that his wife was not grown in a Monsanto lab, but in fact was born of human man and woman in Kansas, and It's All Relative, which had to have been pitched as "It's a sitcom about red-necked bigots and gays who are now related by marriage. Whoo-boy!" How fortunate that the humor in a show which associates specific character traits with the characters' annual income levels is in no way lessened by the implication that money is the critical factor in character. ABC's tapping right into the national zeitgeist by setting up a comic clash of economic classes with that one, aren't they?

That's not the only area in which ABC is attempting to ride current events. They've got a new show called Threat Matrix which focuses on an elite team of people working in the Department of Homeland Security. It should be riveting, what with the episodes centering around the indefinite detaining of non-citizens for reasons unknown to the detainee, and the special agents poring over the personal records of people they suspect as terrorists without having to go to the trouble of getting a warrant. ABC promises "stories ripped from today's headlines," so I look forward to the episode where the Threat Matrix defuses a terrorist threat by going over the library check-out records of people who have written smart-assed things about the government on penny-ante Web sites.

For those who tune into ABC solely to watch babes kick a little evil ass, there is second tough-girl series on this fall, Karen Sisco, which hopes that the teeming throngs who fondly remember the 1998 movie which opened doors for that nice, lucky Jennifer Lopez will flock to this "Out of Sight" spinoff. There is no Jennifer Lopez in the series; there is, instead, Carla Gugino. With luck, she will not be digitally erased from this series as if she never existed, but knowing ABC's track record, she should make backup recordings of whatever episodes air on Wednesday nights, just to be sure.

Finally -- since there is apparently an FCC regulation stipulating that no network be allowed to broadcast without at least one cop show -- there's a cop show 10-8. In a startling break from tradition, the show isn't about New York cops -- but it is about a New York cop who moves to Los Angeles, since the one thing that viewers are thirsting for are more New York cops, location be damned.

There are mid-season replacement shows, but the rate at which ABC is releasing its howlers into the wild, there's as strong a possibility of the network's folding in on itself when the collective suck of its shows creates a black hole as there is of any of these shows airing. The scheduling for these shows is a mix-and-match grab bag that all but acknowledges that ABC will be getting its ass kicked on Saturday, Sunday and Thursday.

The big problem, however, isn't that ABC's running shows in the wrong time slots; that's a programming tweak which can easily be corrected once counter-programming strategies for a new season are set. The problem is that ABC has absolutely no identity as a channel. Nearly every other network on the dial implements a strategy that is both simple and consistent: WB -- teenaged girls and the people who raise them; NBC -- electing (probably foolishly) to be the "quality" network with critically-acclaimed shows; FOX -- mold-bursting experiments with a testosterone bent; CBS -- a focus on telling entertaining stories over raking in Emmy noms. ABC, however, has nothing. It lacks a deep bench of entertaining dramas, it lacks any prestige shows (Alias is a guilty pleasure and NYPD Blue should have been euthanized two years ago), it lacks any breakout comedies, and its one reality hit, The Bachelor, gets progressively creepier with each incarnation.

This fall's new programs do nothing to shore up any of ABC's strategic weaknesses; if anything, they only emphasize how confused the network is about what it wants to be when it grows up. It wants to have family comedies! It wants to have current dramas! It wants ... frankly, at this point, the one thing ABC should be aspiring toward is a television season in which it's not yanking the previous year's offerings off the air in shame.

If that made-for-TV movie gets made in 2023, the 2003 fall season at ABC may well go down in history as a dramatic turning point for the network. Unfortunately, it's still not clear whether the network executives are the villains of the movie for unleashing Breckin Meyer upon us yet again, or if they'll be playing the hapless Suzanne Somers role, wondering what in the hell happened just when it seemed like everything was beginning to turn around.


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