Family, Sharks & Flashes: The 2009 ABC TCA Summer Press Tour – Feature – Part I

With a slate that is very rich is the balance of drama versus comedy, ABC is making their way through the aspect of the Leno landscape with a determination of ease and poise. Looking at their upcoming slate, the essential building blocks for many successful seasons begin to take shape simply for the essence of testing the waters.

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Modern Family This comedy, unlike series co-star Ed O’Neill’s previous family outing, takes its cue from the mockumentary format but more Christopher Guest than “The Office”. It follows three interconecting groups of the same family, all with their little quirks and idiosyncracies. Exec Producer Steve Levitan says that the essence of the show is within the paradox. There are actually fathers now to young daughters that are in their 70s which makes it probably pretty hard to keep up. Ed O’Neill, Al Bundy forever, (who plays the said father of sorts) says that this show is an entirely different thing from “Children”. He also speaks of his recent dramatic work like “Dragnet” which he says was fun but alot of work.

This series by its design is much more ensemble plus it’s a comedy. He sardonically says with a smile that his wife in this show is pretty much the same as the last one (in this one he is married to a hot young Latina woman). He says jokingly that he is older than his new co-star but also fairly deadpan that he was older than Katey [Segal] (who played Peggy Bundy). He admits that here he is completely in over his head and just trying to keep up.

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Shark Tank  After we had met Mark Burnett on ABC’s set visit the day before he jetted off for “Survivor”, he spoke of the interesting dynamic of the sharks in “Shark Tank” in the fact that these people are participating in the show with their own money (not ABC’s or his). As a result, they have something perssonally on the line. Seeing them in front of you and their very obvious and strong personalities, you see what some of the contestants are up against.

Kevin Harrington, the first of the sharks, says that the first step that was essential in the process was that Burnett’s people looked at thousands and thousands of products to get it to these final few so they are the cream of the crop. Due dilligence was taken which was very important to them. 

Robert Herjavec, the seeming conscience of the group, says the excitement for an young entrepreneur is infectious in this new digital era. The bar though, in his mind now, is higher since these people can’t get money from the bank because of the current economic crisis. Success is all forward momentum. Herjavec says that the reason we are in the crisis we are in now is because the rich people were risking money that was not their own. This country was built by small business but he believes that it is the blind pursuit of pure greed that got us to where we are today. 

Kevin O’Leary, the admitted cruelest shark in the group, says that the only reason you give people money is to make yourself more money. All the rest is crap, in his words. He says that liquidity is very hard to come by and you want that idea to get to cash sooner. Greed for him is freedom and provides financial flexibility. Greed is powerful and important pure and simple. Herjavec comes back at him and says that “the big guy in the sky is going to get a big spatula and whack you with it”. He says that greed is not the point to it all. O’Leary tells Herjavec that he is “absolutely wrong”.

Daymond John, a shark who made his fortune in fashion, says that after the lights come up after this show, there will be alot of work for them afterwards. He says that he will probably lose money on half the deals he made on this show but, in that shark room, you get a lipnus test of what reality is. To Kevin O’Leary’s perception of greed, he retorts that the people in jail still want more money too.

Hank Kelsey Grammer returns to television after his bout with health problems and the cancellation of “Back To You” with a significantly optimistic comedy of life. The story behind this sitcom is a man who took a fall financially who moves back to his hometown with his family after a life of luxury is taken away from him due to the current financial crisis.

Kelsey compares his character in “Hank” to that of “Back To You” in saying that the latter was a lothario whereas his character here (Hank) is blissfully ignorant about the task of being real. In his mind, Hank sacrificed his parachute of luxury (since it was his company that got sunk) in order to make other people have something instead of nothing. He helped make them whole and took responsibility for the downfall of his company. He says that the boon of this show is that one of the greatest human characteristics is the ability to laugh at certain situations.

Kelsey also detailed the timeline of what happened from here to there in terms of his trajectory from his last show to this one. He says that he started “Back To You” where he enjoyed working with Patricia Heaton tremendously. Fox hired Jim Reilly who had originally turned down the pitch from Kelsey at NBC. Then the writer’s strike began. This, he says sarcastically, pre-empted the recession on themselves in advance. From this point onward there was very little ability for Fox to have a sense of commitment to the show. There was also, he says, building tension between him and Reilly. Then off he went. And then the heart attack happened.

After he recovered, Kelsey thought about the fact that there wasnt really a traditional family show on television. He was pitched one other concept about a successful man who was after teenage women which he didnt think was quite right at the time. Kelsey, in encompassing his thought, wants to lend himself to this character like he did to Frasier. Frasier liked clutter like Hanks loves sports. Hank is not pompous. He loves the American Dream and the aspect of working back up from the bottom. He is just out of touch with some things. Grammer uses an example from his own life that mirrors Hank. He says that he was trying to make a cup of coffee with three friends one morning and they couldn’t figure it out. Hank probably has the same problem because in his world, coffee was always brought to him. He wouldnt have done that task in years.

In terms of his heart attack, Kelsey says that there is obviously a connection to one’s life and the stresses that are involved. The doctors had told him, in his own words, that the heart attack was stress related. He jokes that it was time for him to get retooled. He now chuckles that he is somewhat bionic.

In the show he jokes that he wants to take his character in a baking direction as well. He says with a laugh that people seem to think he can play rich obviously because he is so “damn sophisticated”.

In terms of the business of TV itself, with introspection on departures like the one of Ben Silverman at NBC, Grammer’s thought is that executives always change. One of things that many people don’t know is that Kelsey is a producer on “Medium”. With that show, he and his partners had sold it to NBC. Grammer then speaks of another executive (Les Moonves at CBS), “being the selfless egoless man he is” (according to Kelsey), who, because the show was made by CBS but picked up at NBC, used it as a rallying point on the quality of shows at NBC. Grammer said that Moonves (whom he had pitched the show to unsuccessfully) spent the next five years trying to make something similar to “Medium” that was good. The press release for “Medium” next season on CBS points to the fact that, according to Kelsey, “Medium” is a spin-off of “Ghost Whisperer” (which he says Les made to be like their show). He jokes that this was “a bit disingenious” of Moonves. 

Tucker Cawley, the exec producer of the show, provides more basic structure comments in terms of “Hank” saying that the scripts will touch on this “riches to rags” situation. Hank. as played by Kelsey, doesn’t see his new home as being less. He instead reserves a bit of American optimism. Hank still had a nest egg of sorts so he doesn’t have to worry about making ends meet. The character started with nothing and now sees himself as simply down but coming back up. The stories will also address the downsizing of a lifestyle and how Hank comes to see his family and himself in a different way.

Hank believes that he is destined to return to greatness and he will. It just won’t be the “greatest” like he imagined. Cawley just wants to make sure there is a hopefulness to the show. They have only shot one episode post pilot so now it is simply a question of what Hank is going to do. Melinda McGraw, who plays Hank’s wife, follows up in wonderful spouse fashion saying “Redemption is a rocky road. We [Hank and his family] are creatures of habit…and those habits are nice.”

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Flash Forward This new series which was gotten a significant amount of buzz off its supposed tie-in with “Lost” is a creature of a different sort as discussed in this review. However after viewing it before the panel, the mythology and cinematic story structure do create a comparison in addition to the inclusion of two “Lost” veterans in the cast in the form of Dominic Monaghan (“Charlie”) and Sonya Walger (“Penny”).

David Goyer, most recently lauded because of his work on “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight”, is the creator and exec producer of the show along with his wife Jessika. To the inevitable mythology base and story structure, he says that they have the story progression to go three seasons for sure. He came across the novel “Sawyer” [another coincidental “Lost” reference] through Jessika who was working in development for him at the time. The novel addresses the concept of what would you do if you know where your choices led you.

Goyer speaks of the “Lost” connection as he is “pretty good friends” with Damon Lindelof [who runs “Lost” with Carlton Cuse]. He is a big fan and the way that show connected with fans proved to Goyer that there was a place for shows like that. Lindelof told Goyer that ABC was very supportive of their vision and to the fact that you could maintain a show with such a large ensemble. “Lost”, in Goyer’s mind, traffics a lot in shades of grey which is one of its strengths. Lindelof told him in making this new show to “stick to your game…and your guns”.

But Goyer doesn’t think that the lessons of “Lost” are applicable to “Flash Forward”. He is first and foremost a fan of story (which seems at least similar on the surface to the other show). He explains that the base concept of the “Sawyer” book involves particle physicists at CERN in Switzerland which gives a hint to the aspect of where the genesis of “Flash Forward” is based. They took that premise and truncated it. He does allude that the author of the book will write an episode in the show’s first season.

For those with a love of details (and easter eggs for that matter). there is a kangaroo (idealogy anyone?) in the first episode which will return more than once over the series. Goyer jokes that “the kangaroo is the thing…people like the kangaroo”. He reserves the point though that kangaroos are not very easy to train as they have learned to his dismay. He does promise that the bouncy critter will return in Episode 6.

The psychological basis for the event portrayed in the show comes from Goyer’s observation of other countries in the world following 9/11. He says he experienced an enormous outpouring of sympathy in Paris (as he was there right after the attacks) from the French. He says he is trying to capture a little bit of that feeling in this show since the event portrayed here is something that everyone on the planet experiences. He also teases that there is a reason why some of the characters are looking at the calendar in their flash forwards (which are quickly explained in the pilot).

Goyer says that “the razor’s edge” is what the show traffics in. He says that he believes people flock to drama because of conflict whether it be responsibility or infidelity. It is about the progression of A to B to C. He said that they made the decision very early on to not tell the actors where they are going in terms of story. He says that they have to “titrate” certain information out in order to give the semblance of continuity in the characters. He says that Hitchcock would do that with some of the actors he worked with as well.

To that point, Goyer says that this point is written into all the actors’ contracts in the aspect that they don’t have to reveal story details. In terms of scripts, he says they have alot of them in the bank. They have written up to script 11 and had 7 done before they even started shooting the pilot.

Changing the future which is a crucial part of the story in the series is, according to Goyer, half the mystery. The characters in the series break down into three specific categories: fearful, hopeful and agnostic. In terms of the treatment of the “flash forwards”, whatever the characters were feeling emotionally at the time it happened was real to them, which he says specifically relates to the lead character, played by Joseph Fiennes. Goyer hopes people will tune in for how these people wrestle with these issues.

Jessika Goyer, speaking of the gestation of the series from her point of view, says that when he was talking to David initially about it, she could tell the idea was spinning in his brain. David went to Brannon Braga (a veteran of “Star Trek”) and found a way to make the story work. In the book, according to Jessika, the flash forward is 21 years into the future which is different from the actual series. The show address thematically, in her mind, what people can do to change their lives. Her hope is that alot of these questions will help alter and shape the audience’s perception.

Marc Guggenheim, another exec on the show, reveals that by the end of the first season they will get to a fateful day in April 2010 which is alluded to in the pilot. He makes the joke that if the show doesn’t work, they will be back next year with a show about wacky particle physicists (making reference to the book’s original concept). He says the date referenced in the pilot is one of significance in the show and is actually a date they are airing on: a Thursday to be exact. For him the show is about the resillience of humanity but the challenge is how you capture that moment.

Dominic Monaghan, a wild card in the buzz over this series, does not reveal who his character is but speaks to the zeitgeist noting that there are similarities to “Flash Forward” in “Lost” in terms of its large ensemble cast and ambitious storyline. He also speaks to the fact that with a cast that is similar in many ways (to “Lost”) in addition to a globally connected storyline, it is easier to sell the series internationally (which is very important overall in terms of resell value). “Flash Forward” he says is as deeply rooted in a mythology that needs to be solved as “Lost” but adds that it is more simplistic. He says that he was in Hawaii (where they shoot “Lost”) when he read the pilot for “Flash Forward”.

He jokes half seriously that he didnt want to take parts away from Americans (then he realizes what he said looking across the room at Englishman Joseph Fiennes). David and Jessika asked him to meet. It was a bar on Sunset called Delanceys where Dom had a pint of Boddingtons. He said it was one of those special meetings but that the most important thing for him was to do something completely different from Charlie on “Lost”. Goyer said he had just the part for him. After that, Dom again half jokes that it was just about agreeing on money.

Joseph Fiennes, who takes the brunt of the series on his shoulders much like Matthew Fox’s Jack on “Lost”, says that it is “David’s fault” that he is on the series. He says that TV is the medium for writers which is what interested him about the project. There is a large conflict here with the characters and great room for them to grow. He says that within this structure you are not as much a slave to the three act structure. Things are not set in stone. And what you are not told (as is a specific exercise of this show in terms of the agreement he had to take on as an actor) you “can embrace the future as you saw” it. Or he warns “you can also embrace a strategy where [your actions] become a self fulfilling prophecy. He also admits that it was a way to get out of a flouncy shirt and put “a gun on my belt”

“Flash Forward” has the most buzz of any show heading into this season but it is just a matter if it can maintain the drama with the sense of wonder without becoming too vague. This is its challenge but, after seeing the pilot, the potential is strong.

The essence of Part II of the ABC Summer 2009 TCA Summer Press Tour continues next.

Flash Forward – ABC – TCA Advance TV Review

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The realization of “Flash Forward”, as it was screened at the ABC TCA Press Tour, was the fact that the essence of what has been discussed: a successor to “Lost” in intention of the mythology is there on a basic level. Unlike that earlier incarnation which had the ability of coming out from nowhere, this series has to deal with the criticism of being compared, notwithstanding the fact that two of its actors, most specifically Dominic Monaghan, were or are characters on the aforementioned show (Sonya Walger plays Penny).

This show begins with a bang in actuality and very nicely sets up the premise much like the plane crash but in a much broader sense. Most people don’t remember that when “Lost” started, there was a lot of exposition that took some people time to integrate. There was a bit of impatience and catch up involved in that for some of the audience.

This series has the ability and maybe the weakness to become much more dense because of the breathe of the event portrayed in the pilot. The question is the balance between intimate and epic. From the beginning moments when Joseph Fiennes’ character Mark is running through traffic in the aftermath of said event, you get that feeling of confusion and the immediate influx of questions.

The key to the pilot and the cause of discussions is the “flash forwards” which have the date of April 29, 2010. Everybody sees this specific time part of the future and the key is how do they get to that point, and more importantly can it be changed or do they want it to change. Like “Lost” the beauty here works in the inherent flaws of the characters where they don’t want to give away or even say the real truth and, in addition, neither do the writers. It is great because (again like “Lost”) it places the audience in the know slightly more than the characters. This gives the ability to keep the material really fresh but a balance needs to maintained.

There is definitely a cinematic element as the moment of this “blackout” happens. The mythology does play as the epilogue alludes to with a reveal that is much more mystery than answer. There are multiple characters throughout (including a cameo by uber-animator Seth McFarlane) although the focus revolves around Mark, an FBI agent (Fiennes), and his wife Olivia, a ssurgeon, played by Walger. In all, the pilot teases enough and keys into that sense of wonder and darkness that makes the show it will be undeniably compared to a valid companion.

While it is always hard to take away the aspect of one episode, much less one told in one hour as compared to the two hour running time of the premiere of “Lost”, “Flash Forward” does possess many of the great qualities needed for a show like this to succeed. The only drawback in some of the episode was the lead back nature of some of the matter-of-fact dialogue. However when the aspects of witholding information begin to take place (again like most of the characters eventually on “Lost”), the feeling of the show takes on a subversive but ultimately emotional (but not saccarine undertone).

“Flash Forward” is a cinematic possibility that shows ABC recognizes the ability of this range of show as evidenced in many parts of this pilot. When the moment of the blackout jump cuts you into oblivion, you are there for the ride. It is just a matter of being kept strapped in.