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Television

2021 Upfronts Reveal Broadcast Slowly Returning To ‘Normal’

For years I’ve written about what the main broadcast networks pick up for each new TV season during their Upfront presentations held each May with a focus on casting and plot. Last year I wrote two pieces about the Upfront cancellations and what we eventually got in late May.

This year with many shows still airing, the scripted average (big 4) is .574! Of course, this is no surprise since live and same-day viewing (and thus C3 and C7 data) has decreased 10% or more year over year since TV started and the only shows with viewers whose median age is less than 49 are the FOX animated series and The CW’s All American.

Even so, networks kept on chugging along, ordering 22 series (not including The CW), with more coming, likely putting the actual total smack dab between last year’s 19, and the previous year’s 36.

For my last ever major upfront round-up I run through notable cancellations/renewals, new orders (in bold), and interesting tidbits from the Upfront presentations from the Big 4 networks. Check back next week for The CW whose press conference is on Tuesday!

(Next year on it’s all trailer reactions and very quick recaps of where the industry is moving and how.)


ABC

With leadership changes (again), ABC was slower to pick up new shows with their orders 1 drama and 3 comedies, and cancellations all occurring the Friday before Upfront week started!.

Drama Queens, in which four women reunite in attempts to recapture their fame and regain the swagger they had in the 90s in the hip-hop world returns Brandy to broadcast.

The Wonder Years adaptation follows Dean in his memories of growing up in a Black middle-class family in the 1960s. Then there’s Quinta Bronson written and led Abbott Elementary determined to help their students succeed in life.

Surprisingly a comedy, Maggie follows Rebecca Rittenhouse coping with life as a psychic who sees her future for the first time and chaos ensues.

For some perspective, the cancellation of American Housewife leaves just three dramas standing from the 16-17 season, with This is Us ending next spring too. The network does have dramas in consideration for mid-season including Promised Land, the only series centering multiple Latinx characters, and Dark Horse, the only series with an Indigenous lead on her unconventional journey to politics. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for both!

CBS

What is there to say about the CBS that I haven’t said before? They ordered three more franchise dramas: NCIS Hawaii with Vanessa Lachey, the first with a woman lead (golf clap), FBI International, and CSI: Las Vegas. Much crime, much mystery. I totally understand since these series do well live, in delayed, and on streaming. The other drama Good Sam is CBS’ next attempt at a successful medical show while comedy Smallwood is based on the life of pro-bowler Tom Smallwood. CBS’ entire drama line-up is now procedurals + one med series and almost entirely IP.

Finally, Ghosts rolled over from last year stars Rose McIver and Utkarsh Ambudkar as a struggling young couple whose dreams come true when they inherit a beautiful country house, only to find it’s both falling apart and inhabited by many of the deceased previous residents. Eh.

In a sign of what’s to come as viewership keeps shifting and companies try to make their streamers successful, Evil and Seal Team are moving to Paramount+ with a deal for Clarice imminent!

FOX

Every year, a new scheduling struggle or opportunity for FOX with Thursday Night Football moving to Amazon in 2022 (originally 23) but the deal was so late, this year they’ve only ordered 4 dramas, and 3 comedies so far.

Straight-to-series Our Kind of People follows Angela Vaugh, a single mom who plans to reclaim her family’s name with her revolutionary haircare line for Black women, but then discovers a dark secret. The intrigue, the drama! Other shows include The Big Leap, a ballet dramedy and Monarch which follows a country music dynasty with secrets (so Filthy Rich 2.0?).

The Cleaning Lady stars Elodie Yung as a Cambodian doctor who moves to the States seeking healthcare for her son and ends up as the cleaner for the mob while keeping secrets from her undocumented Filipina sister-in-law Fiona (Millan).

Fox doing immigration and medicine is…concerning but this definitely has promise especially if they focus on the theme of what someone would do for their family, noted by FOX boss Charlie Collier in a pre-Upfront interview at AdWeek.

Finally, comedies Welcome to Flatch follows a documentary crew studying young adults and their current concerns and Pivoting is about three women coming together when their childhood best friend dies. Animated ancient Greece set Krapopolis is the first-ever NFT curated series (bad)!

NBC

Dick Wolf gets his wish of three nights with Law and Order: For the Defense (joining 2 more dramas) starting off Thursday nights, Chicago Wednesday still in full force, and FBI Tuesdays on CBS. (Is he fighting Greg Berlanti for most shows on air simultaneously?! Oh no…now we’re gonna get a Berlanti x Wolf production!)

A drama rollover from last year, La Brea deals with the aftermath of a massive sinkhole mysteriously opening in Los Angeles sending half of LA to 10,000 BC and stars Zyra Gorecki! Hopefully, there are other series with disabled leads but it is unclear at least for now how many that might include.

Ordinary Joe follows three parallel lives of the main character Joe. American Auto is a comedy about executives trying to rediscover the company identity amidst a rapidly changing industry, and Grand Crew is a group of Black friends unpacking the ups and downs of life and love at a wine bar. The latter sounds like another try at a Cheers-style series.


Upfront Reactions

Discussing the new pickups requires the context that this past year saw procedurals, other dramas, and even comedies attempting to grapple with the reality of copganda, police brutality, and antiBlackness (to be clear police brutality is an issue for many communities but TV series are not very nuanced). I didn’t do the math but probably over 90% of the broadcast series tackled the issue in some capacity…To truly grapple with this issue would mean canceling many shows, but as expected CBS ordered more, with NBC adding yet another L&O.

No one at the networks seemed to remember that by the time any of the episodes would air, they’d stay topical but not for the right reason which only further traumatized many Black viewers. (One example is an episode of already intense Black Lightning). If after last year white folks and other non-Black people of color still don’t understand reality…I’m very doubtful of the long-term and immense impact of one of these episodes.

Shows also responded to COVID in numerous ways, with some in the same universe (lol L&O and NCISes) doing so completely inconsistently. Grey’s Anatomy not only included the protests in Seattle, but spent the entire season set during COVID to show the truth of it which is exhausting. People who understand the reality of COVID don’t need the reminder, and those that don’t aren’t changing their minds after watching a fictional show.

Somehow, the majority of new series are not the usual cop/law/med series (only 5). There are some actually interesting concepts like La Brea (though this level of sci-fi never does well on NBC) and Queens (though it’s pretty much the drama and hip-hop approach to Girls5Eva, oops). I’ll probably try The Cleaning Lady (one of multiple international shows adapted) but everything else that even vaguely piqued my interest has no trailer so we’ll see how they all do this fall.

Many series are inclusively cast or focus on a specific community (most of ABCs center Black characters!), but unless the spaces behind the scenes both above and under the line are diverse, the content can still harm. Since so many shows haven’t fully cast I’m not doing the math on the full breakdown. Plus no one really touched on it in their Upfront presentation so we’ll see how important casting is to network brass moving forward.

Regardless of casting, an inclusive writer’s room also cannot succeed if the showrunner, studio(s), and network are still racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. A quote from a recent article about yet another fired CBS showrunner puts it into perspective.

Greg makes a show that is very palatable for CBS and its audience, because it’s representation without authenticity. So they can look at Black and brown folks, but they don’t have to hear about our real experiences.

Shernold Edwards

Even writers’ rooms that are inclusive and have marginalized creators can and do make harmful series.

As Angelica Jade stated in her review of Them:

It is a stunning refutation to Hollywood’s belief that representation behind and in front of the camera will fix its inherent racism. (I’m not sure Hollywood can be saved, no matter how many people of color it ropes into its machinations.)

Frankly, I feel the same way. I’ve always said that representation is not revolutionary, rather that it is a requirement. Plus in this capitalist society, representation is really just marketing so where does this put us? Definitely shouldn’t be expecting liberation from media.

However, it is 2021 and the absolute least Hollywood could do is move beyond the bare minimum. I am interested to see how the various Inclusion Standards which increased percentages of underrepresented groups meant to act or work behind the scenes, though not mentioned during any upfront presentation. For once the majority of the inclusively cast series are not an attempt at “look our cops are diverse too!” and seem like genuinely interesting stories. Hypervisibility isn’t positive either so the key these series doing well (storywise at least) definitely depends on the answers to the following questions.

What is the overall impact of the way characters are written? What propaganda is the show peddling (after all, every show has a message)? Are these stories genuinely crafted or written as such so that networks can tout themselves as increasingly ~progressive~? Who actually has the last say on a script? Are there actually a group of diverse (and/or other) hairstylists (especially for Black actors), makeup artists, stunt people, and others on crew?

Additionally, changes in scheduling, filming, and the way TV is even written continue impacting broadcast (cable and streaming) content and I don’t expect a return to “the before times”. As the landscape endlessly changes with more vaccinations and variants (oof), anything is possible.

Still, this set of orders and upfront presentations highlight that the networks are trying to be 5% more imaginative, are truly developing year-round (goodbye pilot season, hello pilot forever?), but are still trying to hold onto what they know best. I’d just love them to really push outside of the box when there’s no real reason not to anymore!

Images courtesy of their respective owners

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Author

  • Seher is the Associate Editor-in-Chief at The Fandomentals focusing on the ins and outs of TV, media representation, games, and other topics as they pique her interest. Otherwise, she's reading away for graduate school. pc: @poika_

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