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ABC’s new lineup features prestige series, a thoughtful dog, and time travel (of course)

The surprisingly delightful Downward Dog panel at TCA. L to R: Actors Barry Rothbart, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Lucas Neff, and Allison Tolman, and co-creator/executive producer Samm Hodges. (Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
The surprisingly delightful Downward Dog panel at TCA. L to R: Actors Barry Rothbart, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Lucas Neff, and Allison Tolman, and co-creator/executive producer Samm Hodges. (Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

After a flurry of announcements in the morning, kicked off by an 8 a.m. Scandal panel, ABC filled its day at the winter session of the Television Critics Association with a lineup of both new and returning shows. The network featured a few prestige projects, such as the return of American Crime for its third season, which will feature a complex plot focusing on migrant workers, human trafficking, drugs, and prostitution. Executive producer John Ridley said that ABC is making the show “a priority,” and that
“the first time we did this it’s an experiment. Now it’s an imperative.” Returning cast member Felicity Huffman said, “It’s been my favorite job, and I think it’s been my favorite role.” Gesturing to Ridley, she added, “and this is the only guy who would give me that shot.”

Another returning ABC star, also in a favorite role, is Rachel Griffiths (Six Feet Under, Brothers And Sisters), who took the stage with the cast and creator of ABC’s upcoming LGBT-centered series, When We Rise. The historic miniseries, based on the lives of real people, is helmed by Milk writer Dustin Lance Black, and is directed by Gus Van Sant. The series switches between timelines in 1971 and 2006, featuring older versions of the same characters, like Cleve Jones (Guy Pearce), Ken Jones (Michael Kenneth Williams), Roma Guy (Mary-Louse Parker), and Griffiths. The show’s intertwining characters offer an in-depth look at the evolution of the gay rights movement in San Francisco. On the series’ subject matter, Black said, ”I would give anything in the world for it to be less topical right now.” Williams added, “We need to be reminded that there are a lot of stories of triumph, of courage, that this country was built on.” Griffiths called the series “the most important project I’ve ever been involved in.”

On the lighter side is Downward Dog, a show based on a webseries that sounds incredibly silly on paper (it features a talking dog), yet is surprisingly poignant and heartfelt, led by Ned, who plays titular dog Martin. Ned was a stray that the show creators found at P.A.W.S. Chicago. Show co-creator and executive producer Michael Killen has worked as an animal trainer, and has helped Ned to become the greatest sitcom dog since Frasier’s Eddie. Cast member Barry Rothbart enthused about Ned’s “improv abilities”: “It feels like you’re acting with a human in a dog suit.” The cast, which includes Fargo’s Allison Tolman in her first series lead, as well as Raising Hope’s Lucas Neff, offered considerable chemistry, so much so that the panel received a smattering of applause at the end from the usually stoic TCA crowd. The bearded, long-haired Neff was especially candid, referring to his current look as “homeless magician,” and boasted about the series being the first-ever network comedy to get a premiere at Sundance.

Not quite as successful is Imaginary Mary, Jenna Elfman’s return to sitcom life as a women who rediscovers her imaginary childhood friend (voiced by Rachel Dratch) as she nears a commitment with her boyfriend (Stephen Schneider). Questions to the panel members primarily focused on whether they all had imaginary friends as children. Elfman replied that she hadn’t, but if she had, she would have wanted them to be Carol Burnett Show performers Tim Conway and Harvey Korman. Executive producer David Guarascio did not cop to any imaginary friends, but mentioned the frequent voices in his head instead.

The CW has three time-travel series (Frequency, The Flash, and Legends Of Tomorrow), NBC has one (Timeless), and now ABC joins the fray with the TV version of the 1979 book and movie Time After Time. ABC’s version at least involves the author of time travel, with UnREAL’s Freddie Stroma as H.G. Wells on the trail of Jack The Ripper (Revenge’s Josh Bowman, using his native English accent). The show was created by Scream scribe Kevin Williamson, which surely helps explain the Ripper’s graphic murders. Williamson talked about Wells’ original source material, which was made into a 1960 movie, as an early influence on his work. The panel also hinted that the show will reference Wells’ other novels, like The War Of The Worlds.

Finally, ABC rounded off the day with a panel by The Catch, filling the stage with eight cast members, most of whom didn’t get to answer any questions. Executive producer Allan Heinberg described how the show has been retooled for season two, with a narrow focus on all the things that were worked in season one, like the considerable chemistry between leads Peter Krause and Mireille Enos, and various schemes instead of plodding case-of-the-week material. For the fizzy caper drama, he pointed to influences like both versions of The Thomas Crowne Affair, “my favorite Ernst Lubitsch movie, Trouble In Paradise,” and Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, another con-artist-based romance. Visually, he says the show references the Ocean’s movies, as well as classic ’60s Bond films. “Am I missing anything?” he asked his cast, and Enos chimed in with “The Incredibles!” Krause added the irresistible description: “It’s like Scooby Doo for adults.”

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