ABC’s Paul Lee Talks ‘Muppets’ Problems, ‘Quantico’ Strength and Value of ‘Big Swings’

Paul Lee CAA
Courtesy of ABC

ABC Entertainment Group chief Paul Lee was candid about the shortcomings of the much-ballyhooed revival of “The Muppets” in assessing the network’s performance during his presentation Saturday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif.

The fall launch in general was solid for the Alphabet. Lee cited the Sunday night FBI drama “Quantico” as having emerged an important new player. Star Priyanka Chopra is “a quintessential ABC star,” Lee enthused, pointing to the growth in delayed viewing week after week. “We really think the show has legs.”

But on “Muppets,” Lee didn’t gild the lily. The show was a creative disappointment even if it turned in a decent Nielsen number. Lee said he’s encouraged by five scripts that he’s seen from new showrunner Kristin Newman, who was recruited last year to replace Bob Kushell.

The response to the “Muppets” underscored the depth of affection among viewers for Kermit and Co. And Lee singled out the “great” marketing campaign ABC produced to support the launch. But the show, which was fast-tracked to series on the basis of a short presentation reel, had problems.

“The show itself didn’t quite feel it had the joy and the laughter and the heart that it should have,” Lee said.

Lee was also questioned about the quick flame-out of drama “Wicked City,” which was hammered by critics for what many viewed as gratuitous violence and kinkiness in telling the story of a serial killer menacing Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Lee made no apologies, calling the show “a big swing.”

Taking a chance on a show that pushes boundaries beats “trying to eek some B-pluses,” Lee said. “It didn’t work but I was proud to have done it.”

Lee voiced his support for Shonda Rhimes’ decision to have “Scandal” surprise viewers in the fall when protagonist Olivia Pope decided to have an abortion. “I loved the way it was a big surprise,” he said. “I backed her to the hilt.”

Lee showed a lengthy clip from the Shondaland midseason drama “The Catch,” which has undergone major surgery since it was ordered to series last May. Peter Krause replaced the original male lead and “Scandal” alum Allan Heinberg replace creator Jennifer Schuur and Josh Reims as showrunner.

Lee said he expected to get the revamped first episode by the end of next week. The clip demonstrated the cat-and-mouse chemistry between Krause and star Mireille Enos in the show about a conman who dupes a fraud investigator. “If you like TGIT (dramas) you’re going to love ‘The Catch,’ ” Lee assured.

Lee also cued a long trailer for the upcoming miniseries “Madoff,” starring Richard Dreyfus and Blythe Danner.

Among other tidbits from the session:

  • Lee gave a strong vote of confidence to drama “Nashville,” after he was asked whether next season would be the last for the Music City-set sudser. “We have no plans for ‘Nashville’ other than to keep it going,” he said.
  • Midseason comedy “The Real O’Neals” has drawn some complaints for its portrayal of an Irish Catholic family dealing with a son who comes out as gay. Lee said he feels the show is a good fit with the Wednesday family comedy block and that it was “full of family and faith and joy and humor.” And he added that it scoring well with an important constituency: “My wife is an Irish Catholic and she’s loving the show.”
  • On the fate of “Castle,” Lee said he hoped there could be a spinoff crafted if stars Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic decide against doing another season.
  • Lee gave a shout-out to the second season of anthology drama “American Crime,” calling it “John Ridley playing at the height of his game.” He was asked about the issue of confusion with FX’s upcoming “The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” He admitted that FX came after ABC to have “a conversation” about the title touchiness. But ultimately he’s confident that the shows will stake out their own turf. “It’s really interesting to see the slow burn of people getting into this series,” he said.

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  1. cadavra says:

    “its portrayal of an Irish Catholic family dealing with a son who comes out as gay”

    So this is different from IT’S ALL RELATIVE and THE McCARTHYS how?

  2. Here’s the problem with the Muppets: In years past it would be working differently. I like the Muppets but something is missing with this version. I’ve watched a few episodes and it’s doesn’t have the same feel, I think because the format is slightly different. The other problem is that ABC has quite a few shows doing well in the ratings (the Wednesday comedies, Thursday Shondaland etc)that they don’t have to worry as much in hoping it catches on. Having said that, they own the name Muppets and it might get another season because of that. Same thing happened with the Agents of Shield. I think whether it goes another year will depend on how well the other shows do in the Spring. If the midseason shows do well, it’s a goner but if not it’ll likely see another year.

  3. Jacques Strappe says:

    The Muppets is great as it is, actually exceeding my expectations. It still feels very much like the lovable original characters.. The criticism and disappointment leveled at the show for being too adult or racy is absurd. The gentle and goofy family friendly heart is very much intact and is no different from the last Muppet theatrical releases. No one wants to see a reboot of Sesame Street in prime time unless the network values the toddler demographic.

  4. Stephen H Koontz says:

    I liked The Muppets new approach, but agree it could be better. It sounds like they haven’t given up on it, which is great news. I hope it comes back and has a warmer reception!

  5. Don Juan Prawn says:

    “The Muppets” ees consistently one of the funniest, most creative shows on the network TV. Don’t fix what ees not broken.

    • Kelly says:

      Completely agree. That prawn cracks me up. Kermit remains beloved Kermit, and Miss Piggy is funnier than ever. Uncle Deadly, Piggy’s dresser, is awesome. I also like Yolanda Rat, Kermit’s assistant – and thank goodness for the Swedish Chef.

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