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ABC’s 2017 fall schedule, like ABC itself, is stuck somewhere between success and disaster

But the new lineup might just be crazy enough to work.

Sure, Inhumans. Sure.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every May, the TV networks announce their fall schedules to advertisers at an event called the upfronts. They aim to sell their new shows to ad buyers at the highest possible price, while the ad buyers try to stay skeptical. It's an antiquated ritual that, nonetheless, is enormously important to the business of TV, and we'll be there all week.

ABC’s press release announcing its fall schedule for the 2017-’18 season leads with the stat that the network ranks No. 1 in “Nielsen’s non-sports Adult 18-49 averages (tie).”

Sure, I thought. Maybe! The network has long-running but highly rated shows like Grey’s Anatomy, The Bachelor, and Modern Family, as well as a few younger hits that aren’t nearly as highly rated but perform well enough, shows like Black-ish and Designated Survivor. Neither is a huge hit in live ratings, but once you add in DVR and streaming viewing, both do pretty well.

But do you notice all of the qualifiers here? “Non-sports.” “Add in DVR.” “Not a huge hit.” For as long as I’ve been covering television (which stretches back to the days of Lost and Desperate Housewives), ABC has been in this ultra-strange phantom zone, where its shows seem like hits if you squint right, or if you look at magazine covers, or if you really like Priyanka Chopra; but they’re also not really hits.

And yet ABC has by far the most shows I keep up with out of any broadcast network, thanks largely to its fleet of solid family comedies. And it doesn’t have a lot of genuinely terrible shows, either. I’m always rooting for ABC, even if I’m slightly skeptical of it. Here are five things I take away from its new schedule.

1) ABC’s not touching Thursdays — yet

Grey’s Anatomy
They’ll never stop Grey’s Anatomy.

Grey’s Anatomy remains the network’s biggest show in its 13th season, and it’s also still one of TV’s biggest shows. That’s remarkable, and it’s a sign of just how durable Shonda Rhimes’s medical drama is. (ER’s 15 seasons are well within the show’s sights.)

Beyond that, well, things are dicey. Scandal has softened considerably, and its upcoming seventh season will be its last. (Rhimes has always maintained that series had a finite timeline, as opposed to Grey’s Anatomy.) And How to Get Away with Murder has crumbled considerably, though its numbers are better once you factor in DVR and streaming numbers. (This is pretty true of 10 pm dramas across the board.) Other shows that have been tried out on the evening — The Catch or American Crime or Notorious — haven’t really worked.

In early 2018, ABC will have both a Grey’s Anatomy spinoff (about firefighters!) and another new Shonda show up its sleeve in its upcoming lawyer drama For the People. But unless either rockets into the stratosphere, ABC’s big project in the 2018-’19 season will be remaking its Thursday night entirely, without somehow hurting Grey’s. That will take some tricky maneuvering.

2) ABC’s not backing down on comedy — but it’s also not pushing forward

True, ABC’s comedy output shrank by an hour with the loss of its Friday night Last Man Standing and Dr. Ken bloc. (The network has opted to turn Friday into its sci-fi night, with Once Upon a Time and its Marvel superhero shows, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the upcoming Inhumans.)

But even though its Tuesday comedies seemed a little soft in the ratings in the spring, ABC has kept its full two-hour blocs on both Tuesday and Wednesday, and has broken Black-ish out from behind Modern Family to lead off the troubled 9 pm Tuesday hour. And in a reflection of the network’s strength, only one of those comedies is new: The Mayor, about a rapper who becomes mayor of his hometown as a publicity stunt. (More on this in a second.)

That’s to say nothing of the return of Roseanne at midseason, with the original cast intact. The show is one of the biggest hits in ABC’s history, so it makes sense that it would take a chance on a rebooted series; but as with Will & Grace on NBC, it’s not hard to wonder if the series’ time has come and gone. (The cast’s arrival on stage at the network’s upfront presentation was mostly greeted with stony silence from the gathered advertisers.)

ABC also doesn’t have a natural partner for Roseanne — though a Carol Burnett pilot it hasn’t officially picked up or passed on just yet seems like a possibility — but maybe it doesn’t need one. Maybe the stunt of returning to ABC’s comedy past to seed its comedy future will be enough.

ABC clearly thinks comedy is its future (unlike NBC and Fox, which are retrenching in the comedy department), and there was probably room for the network to expand if it really wanted to. (Though not without breaking up the flagging but still solid Thursday night Shonda Rhimes lineup.) That the network picked up only one comedy for the fall and two more for midseason, then, suggests its development wasn’t as good as it could have been, which is too bad.

3) But the network is clearly looking toward its drama future

Even as ABC’s recent strength has been in comedies, it’s picking up a ton of dramas for the 2017-’18 season, and the most high-profile one is a medical drama — something the network has mostly shied away from in a big way since Grey’s became a mega-hit in 2005.

That medical drama, The Good Doctor (not a great title), hails from David Shore, creator of House, and it’s based on a successful South Korean show. Its premise — a doctor on the autistic spectrum who also has savant syndrome, meaning he is incredibly smart about certain topics — sounds like it could be incredibly horrible if handled poorly. But Shore is a good writer, and Freddie Highmore is the series’ star, following up on his genuinely moving Bates Motel performance. The networks clearly think medical dramas are due to break out again, and this one looks like it has potential.

That said, the rest of ABC’s dramas are either poorly scheduled or pretty bizarre. Inhumans, its new Marvel show, looks cheap. The Book of Kevin, a new dramedy about a man who receives an angelic visitor from God, looks better but is stuck in a Tuesday 10 pm timeslot where ABC has been canceling shows since the days of NYPD Blue in the ‘90s. Similarly, its new Sunday drama Ten Days in the Valley airs after a bunch of reality shows and game shows. Drama might be the new thing at ABC, but it seems to have real faith in only one of its fall shows.

4) The Friday and Sunday night swap is so crazy it just might work

ABC’s cancellation of Last Man Standing, its Tim Allen-fronted sitcom, prompted some controversy, when conservatives alleged the show ended because of the star’s political leanings. But it turns out, as ABC president Channing Dungey said in a conference call, the network was just planning to load up on sci-fi shows on Fridays, and thus didn’t have room for Last Man anymore. Again, sure!

Looking beyond Last Man, though, ABC’s decisions make a certain amount of sense. Sci-fi shows have often thrived on Fridays (see also: The X-Files), so why not try a heavily rebooted Once Upon a Time and some Marvel shows there? Meanwhile, the network struggles on Sundays against every other network’s prestige shows (and/or football games), so moving its Friday night reality hit Shark Tank to Sunday isn’t the worst idea ever. And at the very least, it’s a cheap night to pull off the air in the spring to find room for American Idol.

This is kind of a goofy way for the network to patch up its rough spots on Sunday. Its Friday, after all, has been a low-key success story for several seasons now, and the time to move Shark Tank was probably 2013. But these sorts of crazy moves often pay off, and there’s no real risk involved with this one — at worst, the network cancels Once Upon a Time and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. at the end of the season, something it’s probably going to do already. The reality and game shows are probably so cheap they’ll be fine anywhere.

5) Shhhh, don’t tell anyone, but some of these shows look kinda good

ABC’s presentation focused a lot on big, live events — which is curious if you think about how few major sporting packages it has, but makes more sense when you remember it’s adding American Idol to its lineup in the spring. (One of those live events is a live version of The Little Mermaid, which will be the animated film interrupted by occasional live performances of its songs or something. This description of this debacle waiting to happen doesn’t really follow logically from anything else in this paragraph, but I felt like pointing it out anyway.)

But some of ABC’s new shows look pretty good! On the comedy side, I was tickled by the trailer for The Mayor — even if my tolerance for “inexperienced celebrity wins political office by telling it like it is” shows is necessarily low at the moment. It has a good cast (featuring Yvette Nicole Brown and Lea Michele), a winning premise, and some good jokes in its trailer. And it features raps from Hamilton star Daveed Diggs. High-concept comedies are often terrible, but at least this one has some built-in conflict to keep it from getting too crazy.

The other series I found vaguely intriguing is midseason drama The Crossing, about a bunch of immigrants who wash up on the shores of a small town in the Pacific Northwest — only they’re immigrants from the future, racing from the wartorn America of 150 years from now. This looks like an attempt to do the old USA show The 4400 in the style of the promotional art for the second season of The Leftovers, but, hey, doesn’t that also sound kinda cool? Preposterous bullshit, maybe, but very much the kind of preposterous bullshit I’m into.

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