ABC president Paul Lee has had one of the longer free rides of any network executive in recent press tour memory. A year ago, he appeared before critics on literally his first day on the job and therefore couldn’t answer any specific questions about programs he hadn’t ordered, scheduling decisions that weren’t his, etc. At the January press tour, he was still talking about shows that predecessor Steve McPherson had picked up, so we could talk a bit about scheduling, and about development for the following season, but that was it.
So the shows ABC brought to press tour this summer are the first that Lee gets sole credit and/or blame for, which led to a session (which Fienberg live-blogged) that was far busier and more contentious than either of his first two.
Much of the tension came from a trio of comedies greenlit by Lee, all of them revolving around the theme that Time critic James Poniewozik has dubbed “manxiety,” in which men freak out over being trapped in a world run by powerful women: “Last Man Standing,” with Tim Allen as an old-fashioned executive at a sporting goods company who has to do more hands-on parenting when his wife gets a promotion; “Man Up,” about three dudes who feel emasculated and ineffectual thanks to modern life; and mid-season comedy “Work It,” about a pair of unemployed men who cross-dress to get jobs as pharmaceutical reps.
Just from polling the room the last two weeks, it’s clear that none of the three are very popular with the critics, but “Work It” has been greeted mostly with disbelief that such a comedy could be written, produced and ordered in this day and age. (It isn’t the cross-dressing theme itself so much as the show’s contempt for both its characters and the audience it expects to watch it.) Several critics and executives from rival networks have even been placing informal wagers about whether the show would actually air, or fall into history’s dustbin alongside NBC’s “Thick and Thin” and “The Singles Table,” FOX’s “Rewind” and “Manchester Prep,” etc.
Lee noted that ABC’s audience skews towards affluent women, and that therefore shows about how men respond to those women would fit the brand well.
Specifically to “Work It,” he joked that because he’s British, “It’s in my contract. I have to do a cross-dressing show every year. I grew up on Monty Python.”
Later, while answering a question about shows driven by nostalgia, he said, that wasn’t how the development process works. “We don’t think, ‘Work It,’ that goes back to Shakespeare!”
On the larger Manxiety issue – and whether the “mancession” is old news, given employment figures the last two years – Lee said, “You guys are seeing patterns that I wish I had seen.”
He later added, “It’s the job of television, has been since we started, to look at the plight of men, look at the plight of women.” He argued that Allen’s character “is deeply empowered,” that the “Man Up” characters are just frustrated that they didn’t grow up in a period where they could storm the beaches at Normandy. “It’s our job to question how people look at the world. We found three shows that made us cackle with laughter.”
The issue of cackling came up again near the end of the main Q&A period (before “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry came out to discuss the decision to make this season the show’s last). One frustrated critic, who had clearly had higher hopes for Lee’s first development season – given Lee’s track record at ABC Family and his comments at the last two press tours – asked of “Work It,” “Seriously? Come on, Paul.”
“When you pick up pilots,” Lee argued, “there are many reasons why you decide you’re going to pick this up: who is the showrunner, what’s the slot going to be, does it fit your brand? Sometimes, you just pick up a show because it makes you cackle with laughter. I make absolutely no excuses for that show, it makes me cackle with laughter, and we think it’s going to get noticed.”
Then he said one of the most candid sentences I’ve ever heard at press tour: “We didn’t expect this room would like it, and it gives me some pleasure.”
The discussion was more easy-going on the subject of the network’s new dramas, which have received more mixed reactions. Of the fall stuff, I’m intrigued by “Pan Am” but wonder whether a network-sized audience will watch a show set in the “Mad Men” era, while mid-season thriller “The River” has a very promising pilot but doesn’t seem designed to run for years and years.
On the inevitable “Mad Men”/”Pan Am” comparisons, Lee said, “‘Pan Am,’ when you watch it, is a much brighter and broader canvas.” He praised the script for the second “River” episode and said he thought the show really did have an extended life in it.
At one point, when several reporters were attempting to ask questions at once, Lee joked, “I had less questions when I had no shows, actually.”
That’s the way it goes when the shows aren’t yours. Now they are, and we’ll see how those shows work. This was a bumpy start, but maybe “Work It” and the other Manxiety comedies will sweep the nation and change the face of comedy as we know it. This late in press tour, it’s kind of hard to make sense of anything.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com