ABC: With Enemies Like These....

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The network executives have been acting strangely at this year's upfronts. Generous. Gracious. Almost human. The presentations are usually a delicate ballet in which one pats one's own back with one hand, whilst sinking a knife into one's opponents' with the other. But this year, the competition has been nothing but congratulatory to ABC, complimenting it on the runaway success of "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost"!

An exciting time to be in the business! A great year for network TV! Give your money to the fine people at the American Broadcasting Company!, the rivals seem to be saying to the advertisers. And then —just if you have a little something left in your purse —perhaps you might spare a dollar or two for us?

It probably says something about the state of the networks that they're delighted to see any of them have success, just as long as it's not HBO or TLC. But it makes for a damn boring upfront. At this rate, ABC might as well pack up and take the week off.

They didn't, of course. However, they were surprisingly humble for the network with arguably the most to crow about this season. OK, there were something like twenty tributes to "Desperate Housewives" here at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall —including, delightfully, creator Marc Cherry, in top hat, tails and cane, belting out "Beautiful Girls" Broadway-style. There was the clip of Laura Bush name-checking the show at the White House Correspondents' dinner. And there was a clip reel of moments in ABC history, in which "Bosom Buddies" was given equal prominence alongside "The Day After."

But programming chief Stephen McPherson also said the network's comeback was only a "comeback-in-progress." Executives promised advertisers that they would not stop working to shore up weak spots and find more ways to put product placements in shows like "Alias." And the network announced a whopping twelve new shows, which you usually only do if your lineup is as leaky as the Exxon Valdez.

In reality programming, ABC, having found Trista a husband and rebuilt homes with Ty Pennington, is continuing its quest to make our lives better, one rating point at a time. "The Miracle Workers," for midseason, will not teach the dumb to speak, Helen Keller-style, but close; a team of elite doctors will help financially strapped patients on this "wish fulfillment" show. (The "wish" being for an American to be able to get decent treatment from the medical system without winning the lottery.) This summer, "Brat Camp" puts rebellious kids through tough-love counseling, while "Welcome to the Neighborhood" forces people from wildly different walks of life to live next door to one another. All looked totally manipulative and totally fascinating.

The two comedies for the fall are "Freddie," a bland-looking vehicle for Freddie Prinze Jr. distinguished mainly by being the second Latino sitcom on the network, and "Hot Properties," a "Designing Women"-like take on women in a real-estate office. It must be evidence that development executives at ABC were flush enough to buy houses last year. (It's always a sign of confidence when your staff doesn't feel obligated to rent.)

The network adds three dramas for fall. "Commander-in-Chief" stars Geena Davis as a woman vice president who, after the president has a stroke, rises to the office amid great controversy; the sentiment is noble but the concept seems a bit dated in a season when Condi Rice has led some early polls as a potential Republican nominee for 2008. Meanwhile, the network goes spooky for "Invasion" (about signs that aliens are walking surreptitiously on the Earth) and "The Night Stalker" (a remake of the 1970s horror serial). It's odd, by the way, that both at ABC and elsewhere, the networks seem more interested in ripping off "Lost" than "Housewives."

That's fall, leaving a slew of new midseason-replacement shows (not to mention shows like "Jake in Progress" and "Less Than Perfect," that were left off the fall schedule but returning, though God knows when). Among the highlights: "What About Brian," a relationship drama from J. J. Abrams ("Lost"), who gave us "Felicity" before he started blowing up airplanes; "Emily's Reasons Why Not," with an atomically radiant Heather Graham (who, we are asked to believe, has a hard time landing men); and "Sons & Daughters," a dysfunctional family sitcom —something you'd expect more to see on Fox —that seemed surprisingly funny considering that it comes from Lorne Michaels, whose "SNL" has been coasting for the better part of two decades. The not-so-highlights: "The Evidence," a cop procedural with the gimmicky premise of showing the audience all the evidence of a crime at the beginning of the episode, and "In Justice," in which lawyers save wrongly convicted prisoners by making really sanctimonious speeches.

But hey, this was happy talk day, so I shouldn't be a buzzkill. Fortunately, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel was willing to do that. He reminded us of the midseason failure "Blind Justice" —"ironically, we put on a show about a blind cop that nobody saw" —and noted the critics who worry that Ted Koppel's leaving "Nightline" spells the death of network news? "Without network news," he asked, "who will be there to blow the lid off of Paula Abdul?"

Good job, Jimmy. Somebody had to find the gray lining in ABC's silver cloud.