The writers strike wreaked havoc all over the scripted-television landscape last season, but it may have been felt more acutely on ABC’s Wednesday lineup than anyplace else.
The network took a risk in stacking the night with three new dramas, but the experiment seemed to be paying off as the trio of Pushing Daisies, Private Practice and Dirty Sexy Money all enjoyed at least moderate success. But by the time Wednesday night rolls around and all three shows have their season premieres, it will have been nearly 10 months since we last saw an original episode of any of them.
ABC has sent out all three premieres to critics to preview, so as we did with the FOX returnees earlier in the season, we thought we’d assess where things pick up.
The good news: The things that made each show watchable last season are still there. The bad: In a couple of cases, off-season rethinking of what the shows want to be lead to moments where it feels like the writers are searching for the right tone. That happens sometimes with new shows, and ABC would undoubtedly be happy if viewers stuck around for a few weeks while those things get ironed out, as is often the case with new shows.
Here’s a look at each of the ABC shows, with mildly spoiler-y commentary on developments in the premieres (nothing big, though, I promise). Somewhat bigger revelations from last season, because, after all, it’s been 10 months.
: In last season’s penultimate episode, dead-resurrecting piemaker Ned (Lee Pace) finally fessed up to Chuck (Anna Friel) that he had caused her father’s death. That led to a brief estrangement between the two soulmates, but they had reconciled by the last episode. We also learned that Emerson (Chi McBride) has a daughter, and, after ingesting too much homeopathic happy juice-enhanced pie delivered by Olive (Kristin Chenoweth), Aunt Lily (Swoosie Kurtz) reveals that she’s Chuck’s mother.
Where things pick up: Pushing Daisies found its tone and its voice quicker than its Wednesday-night mates this season, and creator Bryan Fuller and his cast and crew haven’t messed too much with what’s working. The show is still one of the most visually arresting series on TV, Ned and Chuck remain one of its sweetest couples, and the show’s strong (and often surprisingly salty, particularly in McBride’s case) writing remains a big asset. (It’s also still a little over-narrated for my taste, but Jim Dale’s presence is a handy tool for resetting the scene in the first episode.) In the premiere, the burden of keeping Lily’s secret from Chuck and the secret that Chuck is still alive from the aunts really starts to wear on Olive, which poses potential problems for all concerned. Chuck and Ned also address the practical difficulties raised by their inability to touch one another, lest she die again.
It’s comforting to see the show restart so confidently. It was a wonder to a lot of critics, myself included, that such a whimsical show would attract and hold a decent-sized audience last season, and it looks like ABC has decided to leave well enough alone.
: Dr. Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) departed Seattle and Grey’s Anatomy to seek a new life in Los Angeles, joining a medical group that included her best friend Naomi (Audra McDonald) and her dysfunctional work family (Tim Daly, Amy Brenneman, Taye Diggs, Paul Adelstein and Chris Lowell). For much of the season, though, it seemed that Addison forgot to pack the strength, confidence and flinty streak that made her worthy of a spinoff in the first place, and her colleagues seemed to act like teenagers more than doctors a lot of the time.
Where things pick up: Creator Shonda Rhimes has pledged to give Addison her backbone back this season and to bring a new focus to the group’s medical cases. And for at least one episode, those things do indeed happen. There’s still a good amount of personal/romantic intrigue at Oceanside Wellness Group, but everyone’s problems feel a little more grown-up — particularly those of Naomi, who’s really feeling the strain of administering the practice as well as tending to patients. The stress causes her to make a questionable decision that leads to the episode’s central medical story.
Cooper (Adelstein), meanwhile, is still hiding his hookups with Charlotte (Kadee Strickland) from Violet (Amy Brenneman), who knows something is up but can’t quite get her friend to spill. Officer Kevin Nelson (David Sutcliffe) is back and still hoping to give things a shot with Addison, which is probably not good news for Pete (Daly).
The shift away from the distractingly flighty tone of the season one will probably serve the show well in the long run, but it feels like Rhimes and Co. have almost gone a little too far — there’s very little levity in the premiere. It’d be nice to see a better balance.
: When we last saw the fabulously wealthy Darling family and their perpetually harried lawyer, Nick George (Peter Krause), patriarch Tripp (Donald Sutherland) and daddy’s girl Karen (Natalie Zea) were conspiring to dig up dirt on family rival Simon Elder (Blair Underwood). Brian (Glenn Fitzgerald) left the church for the family business, and Nick and wife Lisa (Zoe McLellan) survived a rough patch after Lisa got high with youngest Darling Jeremy (Seth Gabel) and he kissed her. Oh, and Nick is still looking for his father’s killer.
Where things pick up: Six months have passed, but not a ton has changed. Jeremy is still pining after Lisa and making a habit of showing up at the Georges’ brownstone after Nick leaves for the office. Karen is still compiling information on Simon, but their growng feelings for one another make the mission a little more complicated. Patrick (William Baldwin) is still at odds with Tripp in mourning over the disappearance of Carmelita, which causes his wife (returning guest star Bellamy Young) no end of chagrin — none of which has helped Patrick’s campaign for the Senate.
The show’s creator, Craig Wright, told critics this summer that the new season would be "dirtier, sexier and monier" than the first, and the dirty and sexy parts are definitely there in the premiere (there’s a pretty big revelation at episode’s end). The show, which has gone through a few behind-the-scenes changes, also seems to be trending toward becoming a more straight-ahead soap; there’s not as much dark comedy in the premiere as there was in much of last season. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but removing that self-aware wink will require the show’s producers to be that much more vigilant that things don’t go too far over the top.
Bottom line: If you enjoyed ABC’s Wednesday lineup last year, there’s reason enough to return for the new season. Let us know what you think …