BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — ABC is the new NBC. And it’s the new CBS, too. That’s not a good thing for ABC.
For the 2013-14 TV season, ABC landed in third place among total viewers and fourth place among the key age 18-49 demo. Kiss the “CBS viewers are the oldest” jokes good-bye; sub in ABC.
For 2014-15, ABC is pinning its hopes on a lineup of diverse comedies — there’s one about an African-American family, one about a Hispanic family, and another about an Asian-American family — and on showrunner Shonda Rhimes, who is the writer and creative force behind every series airing on ABC’s Thursday night this fall, including the returning Grey’s Anatomy (8 p.m. Sept. 25), Scandal (9 p.m. Sept. 25), and newcomer How to Get Away With Murder (10 p.m. Sept. 25).
Rhimes’ latest is another enjoyable gonzo show about a powerful woman — Philadelphia criminal law professor Annalise Keating (Oscar nominee Viola Davis) — surrounded by an ensemble of striving young law students.
Layered on top of that, there’s a murder mystery and the series flashes back and forth between the present and the future as it fills in the pieces revealing who died, who did the killing and why.
“We’re all doing our jobs and not thinking of it in terms of the night,” Rhimes said. “We have shows to make. I don’t think about the programming and ratings. I don’t worry about those things.”
How to Get Away With Murder was created by Scandal and Grey’s veteran writer Pete Nowalk, who said the theme of the series is “no one is who they seem to be.” That appealed to Davis, who plays Keating as an authoritarian, unsmiling, tough woman.
“I love the fact she’s messy and mysterious,” Davis said. “She’s not necessarily the nurturing, ‘Come sit on my lap so I can take care of you, baby.’ She’s messy, she’s a woman, she’s sexual, she’s vulnerable.”
Davis said despite ample film roles, she was drawn to TV, which is no longer seen as somehow diminishing an actor.
“People migrate toward the material, especially after you reach a certain age or are a certain hue or a certain sex,” she said. “I have gotten so many wonderful film roles, but I’ve also gotten even more film roles where I haven’t been the show, where it’s like you’re invited to a really fabulous party only to hold up the wall. I wanted to be the show.”
As for the diversity in its schedule, ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee said it was a matter of authenticity.
“Specificity is so key to great storytelling,” Lee said. “You can smell if something is specific. … It’s as much about culture as it is about race. We all can relate to the story of how much do we keep our culture and how much do we become a part of the main.”
Lee said the wealth of diversity in one season is due in part to more diversity among TV executives behind the scenes.
What went unsaid: Scandal, with an African-American female lead, became a hit. TV tends to copy whatever succeeded in the immediate past.
NBC’s Friday night comic book adaptation Constantine (10 p.m. Oct. 24) is among the fall series doing recasting before it airs. But in this case, the change seems particularly odd because the pilot totally builds up the female lead as a significant character. Now she’s just “a procedural drive-by” as one critic noted.
In the original pilot, demon hunter John Constantine (Matt Ryan) gets paired with his best friend’s daughter to travel the country and battle supernatural terrors. And he vows to protect her.
The pilot will air but with one reshot scene that helps explain why he’s no longer protecting the friend’s daughter, Liv (Lucy Griffiths, True Blood), why she’s not along on the journey.
A new character from the comic book Hellblazer, Zed (Angelica Celaya), will join the cast in episode two.
NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke said network executives and producers didn’t love the father-daughter relationship dynamic with Constantine having to watch over his friend’s daughter. They also felt getting her out of the way would allow more flexibility in story, including allowing Constantine to have romantic relationships with women (producers plan to draw from the early comics before Constantine became bisexual).
The show’s producers offered their own explanation for the casting switch. “Pilots are a bit of a litmus test,” executive producer David Cerone said. “When we sat down and were looking at the episodes ahead, Liv is a great character but she’s very wide-eyed and reactive. She doesn’t have powers.” But Zed does have psychic abilities and a dark past.