Judging a series based on an upfront sizzle reel is probably just as ill-advised as judging that same show by its pilot, but like upfronts and pilot season, such knee-jerk reactions are a TV tradition that our rapidly accelerating TV culture has yet to evolve beyond. As part of The A.V. Club’s continuing upfronts coverage, Erik Adams, Sonia Saraiya, and Todd VanDerWerff will be weighing in on these trailers all week long, fully aware that a new favorite may be hiding behind bizarre editing choices or poorly emphasized jokes. Today: ABC. (Previously: Fox, NBC.)
How To Get Away With Murder
Sonia: All that matters about How To Get Away With Murder is that Shonda Rhimes is employing Viola Davis to do something cool. Like, the trailer has some other information, but I’m going to watch the first few episodes regardless, because that’s how strong the Shondaland brand is. The trailer is confusing—for some reason a bunch of students are obstructing justice because Viola Davis tells them to, and though that doesn’t make a lot of sense, wouldn’t you, America? Wouldn’t we all?
Todd: I will watch Viola Davis in literally anything, and I liked the trailer for this quite a bit. I found it very stylish. (Standard caveat: ABC has the best trailer cutters in the business. They can make even a piece of shit look kind of okay.) But is this show going to be about Viola Davis training her own personal murrrrrrrrrrder squad or not? Shit or get off the pot, ABC!
Todd: Every few years, the networks get it in their heads to try and do something really more like a cable drama, and every few years, they mostly fail. So while I’m intrigued by this trailer and even half expect it to be good, I am not really expecting anything other than a quick burnoff. Hell, this would be a tough sell on cable, where there’s little to alleviate the growing sense of injustice and misery. This kind of material tends to do better at the movies (not that it does gangbusters business there), because we don’t have to come back week after week after week. But ABC deserves credit for trying something a little bit darker that might push the envelope a bit. I just don’t expect it to pay off for them.
Sonia: Girl, this trailer is super-depressing. Which is what you might expect from John Ridley, the showrunner behind American Crime and screenwriter of 12 Years A Slave. It could be very good—Felicity Huffman is doing some great work even just in the trailer, and I look forward to what it might say about race issues.
Todd: Phew. For a second there, I thought this intriguing premise about an alien invasion carried out via our children wasn’t going to have any cops in it, but there was Lily Rabe, ready to make sure that this could be easily crammed into a cop-show format, just in case the audience at home is forced to process anything that has nothing to do with solving a case of the week! Truth be told, I love Rabe, and I love the Ray Bradbury story this is based on. It could make for an excellent premise for an alien invasion show (even if Torchwood: Children Of Earth played around in the same territory). But the fact that the main character is a cop who doesn’t play by the rules is pinging all of my sensors for every other sci-fi show that was crudely refashioned into a police procedural, then wondered why a big audience tuned in for the pilot right before tuning out.
Sonia: Oh man, this is creepy. It looks surprisingly well-made, though. Making kids do creepy things is just not fair, because it’s immediately super-haunting. But I’m interested in the idea that this show is attempting something big and possibly messy, but doing it in a way that doesn’t gloss over the horror and creeping suspense of the premise.
Erik: It’s fitting that ABC’s presentation began with a mini-commercial for Disney World, because it’s slowly but surely become a network whose drama slate (and a few of its comedies) are defined by fantastical conceits. Here, former big-screen Mr. Fantastic Ioan Gruffudd plays a man cursed with immortality—but don’t worry, he also works with dead bodies, so there’s a hook for procedural storytelling. There’s also an easy entry point for a tagline that plays up Forever’s vocational-irony narrative: “He can solve any mystery except for his own.” (Sonia can vouch for this: When the first half of the tagline came up, I successfully completed it before the other half flashed on the screen. I expect that this show of wit has spared me from being decimated by the heat ray Paul Lee was installing on the Lincoln Center roof during Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue.) However the pilot turns out, Forever feels like an idea that’ll work better as a leadout from the Marvel shows than an idea that’ll work as a TV show.
Sonia: The time-traveler’s wife’s husband became a forensic anthropologist. So fascinating. Check, please!
Marvel’s Agent Carter
Todd: I sort of feel like I dreamed this show into existence, as it checks off so many of my personal pop culture nerd boxes. The only caution I have here is that I don’t think they’ve shot anything for this yet. What we saw was a pretty minimal cutdown of the Marvel short about Agent Carter that we’ve already seen, one that now seems to have been a proof of concept for a TV show based on the character. But I’m gung ho enough about so many aspects of this project, including the reduced episode order, the period setting, and the lead actress, that I’m eagerly anticipating it based almost entirely on the fact that it exists. But, hey, sometimes that’s all you need to get excited for a TV show.
Sonia: Well, if they had to introduce a new Marvel show, choosing Agent Carter in the post-freezing Captain America world is a good bet. Hayley Atwell was great in that first film, and she’s meanwhile made a name for herself on little projects like Restless and Black Mirror. And seeing an ass-kicking ’50s-era female agent really does warm the cockles of my heart, Todd.
Erik: Here’s another comedy to which I’m giving the benefit of the doubt because of the talent involved: I always admired Emily Kapnek’s previous show, Suburgatory, more than I enjoyed it, but I’ll watch John Cho in anything and Karen Gillan is incredibly winsome (if a bit dependent on notes that worked so well for Carly Chaikin on Suburgatory) in the footage from the pilot. But if we’re going to do a modern-day My Fair Lady/Pygmalion story, why isn’t our Eliza Doolittle speaking in her native accent? Judging by what came over ABC’s livestream, the audience didn’t know what to make of Selfie—which is understandable, seeing as most of the advertisers assembled presumably heard the word “selfie” for the first time during this year’s Oscars telecast. Like Manhattan Love Story, this seems like a movie idea stretched to the breaking point to serve as a sitcom, but there are enough talented people involved to prop it up for six episodes.
Sonia: Both Cho and Gillan are charming and adorable here, but this whole premise is a little off-putting—just trying waaayy too hard with the #hashtags and the LOL! and the EMOJI :DDDD. And it suffers from the exact same problem as Manhattan Love Story and a few of NBC’s ideas—it just feels too lightweight for a long-running sitcom. But the stars might draw me in—they’re super cute, I can’t help it.
Sonia: This is a head-scratching title, but okay, sure, why not—it’s a sitcom produced by two of its stars, Anthony Anderson and Laurence Fishburne. I can get behind both of these black men making a sitcom (created by The Game’s Kenya Barris) about the complicated process of being black in America—I admit, I did laugh when Anderson’s son André comes home from his posh Los Angeles high school asking if he can have a bar mitzvah. Black-ish has all the bones of a solid comedy—a hybrid of The Cosby Show and Modern Family, perhaps. But the tone isn’t quite there yet, from what I can tell. Laurence Fishburne isn’t a natural choice for comedy, and it’s hard to figure out quite why he’s there.
Todd: I’m concerned about this one with the departure of executive producer Larry Wilmore, but Anthony Anderson is one of those actors Hollywood hasn’t quite figured out what to do with, and I think there’s a show here. The trailer wasn’t so much funny as charming, but it also seemed to prompt the most response from the gathered advertisers, so… go figure.
Todd: I spent most of this trailer staring at it in dumbfounded wonderment. Every year, Paul Lee greenlights a show where I simply can’t believe it exists, and this appears to be this year’s version of that particular trend. I love The Neighbors (the previous project from creator Dan Fogelman), and I think the writer’s collaboration with Alan Menken (the composer for this one) made for one of that show’s best episodes. But c’mon: A musical about a singing knight wandering around a vaguely European landscape is going to be something people actually want to watch? This has all the hallmarks of a classic crash and burn. But it gets points for effort. At least it’s not having everybody wandering around, vaguely mumble-singing over tracks of popular songs like Viva Laughlin did.
Erik: I never caught up with The Neighbors after its critical reappraisal, but this trailer shows me something that the early episodes of that show never did: A desire to go full throttle with its insane premise. God help me, this is the ABC trailer that made me laugh the hardest, and Timothy Omundson makes a great sniveling, Prince John/Prince Valium/King Of Swamp Castle type.
Manhattan Love Story
Sonia: This isn’t a pitch for a show. This is a pitch for a rom-com that someone rapidly tried to repackage into a show. It would make more sense to characterize a man as solely into boobs and a woman as solely into purses in a film, where the show could make them appreciably more complex before hooking them up. But how is any sitcom going to draw out a romantic comedy with two shallow characters over 22 weeks—even if they do get internal monologues and a bucket list? I just don’t even know why I would start watching this show, and also, why would anyone put a pedicab on the list, pedicabs are gross?
Todd: Oh Christ.
Todd: Guess what, readership of The A.V. Club!? I guarantee you at least one article on how Cristela might not be great, but it’s doing some really interesting things at some point in the next nine months or so. The footage we’re seeing here is almost entirely going to be reshot, because this was shot only as a pilot presentation reel (a proof of concept for the network). So whatever weaknesses it had (like an over-broad tone) could be toned down when everybody reconvenes. But I liked the way Cristela Alonzo was playing her beats, and my wife, an expert in the genre, said that her performance reminded her of the earliest episodes of Roseanne, where Roseanne Barr hadn’t quite figured out how to stop being a stand-up and start being an actress but you could tell she was going to sooner or later. Following in the footsteps of Roseanne is the way to win my heart, Cristela.
Erik: Alonzo hasn’t nailed the difference between telling jokes into a microphone and working jokes into dialogue, but she has a hell of a lot more presence than anyone else who’s fronted a multi-camera sitcom in the past three or four years. The difficulty there is shaping the show around that persona, which seems a little generic in the proof-of-concept stage.
Fresh Off The Boat
Sonia: This hits me in all the right ways—the immigrant experience, a really hilarious mom, and the love-hate relationship all of us who grew up there feel for Florida. Of all the trailers I saw today, this is my favorite—both in terms of the number of times I laughed, and my genuine interest in following up to watch the pilot. The story follows a Taiwanese family relocated from Washington D.C., where there are many other immigrants like them, to Orlando, Florida, which is the worst. There, they’re opening up a restaurant called Cattleman’s Ranch. The show is based on a memoir by Eddie Huang, now a celebrity chef. I’m into it—it could really work. I wonder if anyone will watch it, though—or if ABC is really the right home for it, considering they seem to be conducting this pilot season by throwing a bone at every minority group possible.
Erik: This one hails from Don’t Trust The B---- In Apartment 23’s Nahnatchka Khan, which surprised me, given the relative softness of the lunchroom humor. (Constance Wu, as Jessica, could certainly hang with Apartment 23’s Chloe, however.) Is it too late to recast BERT! as one of the kids in this?
Secrets And Lies
Erik: The lag in the TV production cycle is finally catching up to the American Horror Story model, just in time to coast off of some True Detective fumes. Secrets And Lies will follow a case-of-the-season format (assuming it survives 2014-15), the first of which finds Ryan Phillippe accused of murder by police investigator Juliette Lewis. I could really only tell this because “CHILD KILLER” has been spraypainted on Phillippe’s front gate; otherwise, this trailer moved so quickly, so loudly, I couldn’t really get a grip on it. It appears that ABC’s True Detective is an ALL CAPS affair, which ABC president Paul Lee translates as an “actor’s show.” Lots of yelling, lots of Ryan Phillippe trying to run away from damning accusations, lots of asking “How long has it been since Lewis was in a dramatic role?”
Sonia: My main takeaway from this trailer is Ryan Phillippe running, running, ooh dramatic sneakers! It also resembles, in a splashy way, the Gracepoint trailer I saw for Fox’s upfronts on Monday—and that in turn was modeled after BBC’s Broadchurch. What I’m saying is, this all sounds awful familiar. Even that opening misty shot of the lake reminded me of Top Of The Lake. It’s so unlikely Secrets And LIes will be able to provide anything better than the above shows that I will probably be skipping it, though I do hope Ryan gets wherever he was trying to go.