Upfronts 2014: Diversity is key to ABC's new lineup

ABC gets more diverse with shows like 'Black-ish,' 'Fresh Off the Boat,' 'American Crime' and 'Cristela.'
ABC's new shows will 'reflect the already changed face of America,' says president Paul Lee.
'If you like Michael Jordan ... you might be a little blackish.' - Laurence Fishburne of ABC's 'Black-ish'

At its upfront presentation Tuesday in New York City, ABC showcased a 2014-15 programming lineup notable for its diversity. 

"You're going to see shows reflecting the already changed face of America," ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee told an audience of advertisers and journalists Tuesday afternoon at Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan. 

Already a big draw for female viewers, the fourth-place network seems intent on expanding its coalition to include African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans. Perhaps taking a cue from the success of its two signature shows, "Scandal" and "Modern Family," ABC is investing in several multiethnic series that bring, as Lee put it, "brilliant and diverse voices to network television."

"Black-ish," which has been given the plum slot after "Modern Family" on Wednesday nights at 9:30, was the first new series previewed by ABC Tuesday. Featuring Anthony Anderson, Laurence Fishburne and Tracee Ellis Ross, "Black-ish" concerns a happy black family trying to figure out how to fit in in suburbia without losing their distinct cultural identity. In the show's sizzle reel, which played well with the audience at the presentation, the family's adolescent son asks for a bar mitzvah; a compromise is reached by throwing him a "bro mitzvah." 

Although the show will deal with issues particular to the African American community, star and executive producer Fishburne also struck an inclusive note in his introductory remarks. "If you like Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali or any of those people, you might be a little blackish," he said.

In "Cristela," which will follow "Last Man Standing" on Fridays at 8:30, comedian Cristela Alonzo plays a young woman in her sixth year of law school who lands an unpaid internship at a major law firm, but faces disapproval from her traditional, working-class Mexican American family. The trailer for the series included a scene in which Alonzo's character is assumed to be either a cleaning lady or a parking-lot attendant. 

A third comedy, "Fresh Off the Boat," which Lee described as "a quintessential American story," also deals with a minority experience. Premiering at midseason and based on the memoir by chef Eddie Huang, the '90s-set coming-of-age tale centers on a hip-hop-loving first-generation Taiwanese American whose family experiences acute culture shock after relocating from Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown to suburban Orlando, Fla. With its recent period setting and adolescent male protagonist, "Fresh Off the Boat" is reminiscent of the network's only returning rookie sitcom, "The Goldbergs." 

In a score for behind-the-scenes diversity, the network's entire Thursday-night lineup will be overseen by show runner extraordinaire Shonda Rhimes, whom Lee praised (somewhat awkwardly) as "Charles Dickens for the 21st century, if Charles Dickens had been black and a woman." Her new legal thriller "How to Get Away With Murder" will air at 10 p.m., following her other hits "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal." Like the latter show, it features a strong, charismatic African American female lead, in this case a seductive law professor played by Oscar nominee Viola Davis.

But the network's "biggest swing of the year," according to Lee, is "American Crime," an ambitious drama from Oscar-winning "12 Years a Slave" screenwriter John Ridley. It looks at a violent crime and its aftermath from the perspectives of the many lives touched by the tragedy, including the parents of one of the victims and a young Hispanic man who becomes a suspect. The series, Ridley said, "examines and challenges our perceptions of race in America" and will be "very bold."  

As if to signal its commitment to inclusion, ABC concluded its upfront presentation with an appearance by "Modern Family" stars Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who were wheeled onstage inside a giant wedding cake. Their characters will wed in a two-part season finale which begins Wednesday night.

Though it's out way ahead, ABC isn't the only network diversifying its lineup in the season ahead. Fox has the Lee Daniels-produced hip-hop saga "Empire," and NBC's heavily promoted new drama "State of Affairs" stars Alfre Woodard as a black, female U.S. president.


Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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