The 2011-12 television season is moving forward largely as predicted, with CBS remaining its solid self, Fox having a better fall than usual because of building interest in “The X Factor” and NBC crumbling under the weight of so many dreadful new shows and so many dreadfully tired old ones.
And then there’s ABC, suddenly and surprisingly the network to watch, even if everything isn’t going as planned. “Pan Am,” the new series on which ABC pinned the most hope and the one that received the most support from the network (at Comic-Con, the Summer Television Critics Association tour and elsewhere) and the press, is headed for a crash landing. It may be that this sensational-looking show put too much emphasis on style at the expense of substance (and storytelling) -- or that its lead-in, “Desperate Housewives,” has in its final season become a chore to sit through, providing no true support for the show that follows it. Similarly “Charlie’s Angels,” an ill-advised remake of the ‘70s camp classic that ABC seemed to adore, rightly became one of the first casualties of the fall.
On the flip side, the network last summer seemed very uncertain about “Once Upon a Time,” a fanciful fable about fairytale characters trapped in a small town in Maine that has proven to be one of the new season’s true freshman success stories. The other new ABC entries that have caught on with viewers are the steadily improving Tim Allen comedy “Last Man Standing,” the pleasantly strange single camera comedy “Suburgatory” and the surprisingly seductive new serial “Revenge.”
But the current buzz about ABC doesn’t stop there. Who would have thought as recently as three months ago that once the 2011-12 television season got under way, ABC would deliver the fall’s one true night of Must-See TV? I’m talking about its Wednesday lineup, which consists of sitcoms “The Middle,” “Suburgatory,” “Modern Family” and “Happy Endings,” topped off by “Revenge.”
In this era of time-shifting and alternate viewing platforms, it is exciting to know that with the right combination of shows a broadcast network can still entice an audience for an entire evening. Further, the experience of viewing new episodes of at least two of these shows -- “Modern Family” and “Revenge” -- is enhanced by watching them when they are first on, because people tend to talk about them the next day in the way they talk about certain reality series.
Some might argue that CBS’ Monday night lineup is just as Must-See as ABC’s Wednesday. I won’t argue the point, but I don’t find “How I Met Your Mother,” “2 Broke Girls,” “Two and a Half Men” and “Mike & Molly” as laugh-out-loud funny as “The Middle” and “Modern Family,” even if they do make for two hours of generally genial viewing. At 10 p.m. “Hawaii Five-O” isn’t nearly as entertaining as “Revenge,” a series that many critics (myself included) dismissed last summer. Perhaps I’m so overwhelmed by crime dramas of all stripes (particularly on CBS) that I’m not properly appreciative of “Hawaii Five-O,” and so hungry for the escapist fun of past prime-time soap operas about the rich and the rotten that I’m overly enthusiastic about “Revenge.” Regardless, my ongoing appreciation for ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” outweighs my interest in sitting through CBS’ comedy block on Monday nights, but the extravaganza that is Fox’s highly touted “The X Factor” isn’t enough to keep me from savoring ABC’s Wednesday shows at the first possible opportunity.
The one hitch in ABC’s Wednesday lineup is the very generic comedy “Happy Endings,” which is yet another “Friends” clone that seems to have picked up support in the offices and cubicles of a few entertainment magazines but no place else. The fresh and funny “Cougar Town,” which used to occupy the time slot currently taken by “Happy Endings,” is a far superior attempt at making the standard situation comedy about six young adults feel like something new. The removal of “Happy Endings” in favor of “Cougar Town” would make ABC’s Wednesday a perfect pleasure from beginning to end.
Here’s another thought: Why not move “Last Man Standing” to Wednesday at 8, leading into “The Middle” at 8:30, followed by “Modern Family” and a relocated “Suburgatory” at 9:30? As unimpressed as I am with “Happy Endings,” I’m willing to concede that it might work if it shared an hour with “Cougar Town” on another night. (How about Tuesday from 8-9?) The move of “Last Man Standing” to 8 might give a boost to “The Middle,” another truly unique and inspired and consistently funny sitcom that would deserve the distinction of best in its class if it hadn’t come along at the same time as “Modern Family.” The comic performances on “Middle” are as singularly superb as those on “Modern.” Where is the love?