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Tried and true? Or same old song and dance? Networks unveil familiar shows and faces at 2017 upfronts

Tried and true? Or same old song and dance? Networks unveil familiar shows and faces at 2017 upfronts
Among the shows that ABC touted for its 2017-18 lineup is the return of "Roseanne." The cast -- from left, Michael Fishman, Lecy Goranson, Roseanne Barr, Laurie Metcalf and John Goodman -- appeared with the show's lived-in couch. (Lorenzo Bevilaqua / ABC)

It was déjà vu all over again at this week's upfronts, the spring ritual in which the broadcast networks — and various cable outlets — showcase their wares for media buyers, advertising executives and jaded reporters in an effort to woo ad dollars.

The ostensible point is to show off new programming, but there was precious little that qualified as unique from the five major broadcasters, who opted instead for reboots, revivals, prequels and spinoffs. Even some technically new series had a derivative whiff about them.

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Call it comfort food or call it week-old leftovers; either way, it was all a bit too familiar.

"This is like your own personal 'Groundhog Day,' " joked James Corden, host of CBS' "The Late Late Show" Wednesday at Carnegie Hall. "There must be an easier way to do this! Can't we just play the tape from 2002?"

The week kicked off with a Monday morning performance by the cast of "Will & Grace," which NBC is bringing back in yet another bid to resurrect its Must See Thursday nights, and wrapped up Thursday when the youth-skewing CW network teased a remake of a 30-year-old soap, "Dynasty," from the creators of "Gossip Girl." The nostalgia was rampant and not concentrated on any particular era.

ABC plugged revivals of "Roseanne," which went off the air in 1997, and "American Idol," which went off the air last year.

The much-publicized and arguably premature revival of the once-dominant reality series prompted some snark from CBS Chairman Les Moonves, who joked onstage at Carnegie Hall that "the old idea of just one coveted demographic is so dated, you know, like 'American Idol.' "

Not that his network — home of "Hawaii Five-O" and the recently canceled "The Odd Couple" — is exactly afraid of going retro. Among its new dramas this fall is "S.W.A.T.", an update on the '70s action series.

Nor does CBS fear going back to tapped wells in other ways: The highlight of its fall lineup is "Young Sheldon," a prequel to the top-rated sitcom "The Big Bang Theory."

Even the lack of originality wasn't new. Instead, it played like sequel to last year, when a slew of familiar titles — including "Lethal Weapon," "The Exorcist," "Training Day" and "24: Legacy" — were on the docket.

Another trend that shows no signs of stopping is music. In addition to the reboot of "Idol," stagings of the musicals "Rent," "A Christmas Story," "The Little Mermaid" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" are in the works. NBC also has "Rise," a scripted drama about a small town high school production of "Spring Awakening" — think of it as "Glee" meets "Friday Night Lights."

While there was an increased number of shows about disgruntled white males, including "AP Bio" on NBC, diversity also continued to be a key theme at several of the presentations.

In a tribute to "Scandal," which will conclude next season, ABC entertainment President Channing Dungey reminded the audience that the show's star Kerry Washington was the first African American woman to lead a broadcast drama in 37 years. (Dungey also happens to be the first black person of any gender to run programming of a major broadcast television network.)

The CW was also keen to spotlight "shows that reflect what America truly looks like," as "Jane the Virgin" star Gina Rodriguez told the audience of ad buyers Thursday at New York City Center. The network has a black superhero show, "Black Lightning," slated for midseason, and its dishy "Dynasty" remake features gay, African American and Latino characters.

Even CBS appeared to be listening to perennial criticism of its overwhelmingly white, male lineup. In a stand-up set, "Superior Donuts" star Jermaine Fowler, the first black lead of a CBS sitcom in over a decade, made light of the network's diversity problem. "On a network that has shows with names like 'Code Black' and 'Big Brother,' you'd think there would be more black people," he joked. But he praised the network for taking "baby steps," including casting Shemar Moore in the lead role on "S.W.A.T."

Perhaps not surprisingly, politics also came up — a lot. There were inevitable jokes likening the constant ratings spin to "fake news" and "alternative facts," while NBC and CBS respectively showcased Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert, late-night comedians known for being highly critical of President Trump. ( " 'Law & Order: SVU' had a really big year," said Meyers. "It got elected president.") In contrast to last year, the apolitical Jimmy Fallon was nowhere to be found.

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ABC also repeatedly touted Jimmy Kimmel's heartfelt monologue about his newborn son's heart condition, which went viral earlier this month amid Republican efforts at healthcare overhaul. (The host, whose stand-up set is usually one of the highlights of the upfronts slog, was unable to attend this year.)

Conservative pundits were outraged by ABC's cancellation of the Tim Allen sitcom, "Last Man Standing," and there were aspects of the presentation that felt like coded digs at the current administration — particularly a highlight reel that included a scene from "Fresh Off the Boat" in which Constance Wu's character takes the Naturalization Oath.

But there were also signs that the networks were looking to appeal to red-state America. ABC previewed "The Gospel of Kevin," a spiritual drama starring Jason Ritter.

The fall lineups include a number of military-themed shows, including "The Brave" on NBC, "Valor" on the CW and "SEAL Team," a David Boreanaz special forces drama, got an especially big push from CBS.

Even the revival of TV's last great Rust Belt sitcom, "Roseanne" — whose cast appeared onstage at Lincoln Center atop the show's afghan-draped couch — felt like an effort to reach beyond the coasts.

Follow me @MeredithBlake

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