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ABC's new fall TV identity: Home of empowered women and weak little sad men

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Networks like to build identities for themselves — it helps signal to viewers what kind of programming they’re going to get. Thus, Lifetime was created to serve as a place for women’s programming (well, for weepy TV-movies about female humans under duress, at least) and FX has a pretty manly image (Justified, Sons of Anarchy). Broadcast networks, because they want to reach a broad mass of people, don’t brand themselves as firmly. But new-ish ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee has set out a passel of new shows that are consciously going for a theme that’s a bit daring. Boiled down, it amounts to: Women smart and strong, men dumb and weak.

ABC’s new fall shows, as presented at press conferences to the nation’s TV critics gathered this week in L.A., include a remake of Charlie’s Angels in which the women are said to be “empowered” (that sounds more politic than the original version, which used to be called “jiggle TV”). One of the women cast as a new Angel, Rachael Taylor, described the series as, “if Jack Bauer and Carrie Bradshaw had a love child.” ABC has a nighttime soap opera ready to go called Revenge starring that nice Emily Van Camp as a young woman hell-bent on, that’s right, revenge; and Pan Am, about 1960s stewardesses who are, you got it, “empowered.”

Add last season’s coming-on-strong Body of Proof (Dana Delaney as a downright surly doctor), plus ABC’s women-in-charge hits Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, and you’ve got a pretty female-dominant line-up. The network’s Castle may star Nathan Fillion in the title role, but the series has steadily become a women’s-fantasy romance. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Revenge co-star Madeliene Stowe even seemed to be advocating a little aggressive class warfare in talking about the appeal of her show: “We’ve reached a particular time in American history [in which] I think the average citizen is going to want to see the take-down of the rich.” She was talking about one of the pleasures of watching her show, but, hey, epater le riche! And who’s got the most wealth? Men, dammit!

Now look at some of ABC’s other new shows. Where its hour-long shows feature women prominently, its new sitcoms center around men. There’s Man Up!, about a bunch of — well, I’d say “hen-pecked” husbands, but “hen” is too sexist, isn’t it? Still, they’re aggrieved guys pushed around by their opposite-sex mates. Said one of the show’s stars, Dan Fogler, “I don’t think the show is about men being emasculated; it’s about [men] finding themselves.” There’s Last Man Standing, Tim Allen’s return to TV, in which he plays a guy surrounded by women who try to push him around and no amount of Allen-trademaked “Argh-argh-argh!”ing growls will stop them.

Paul Lee said he likes “strong female” shows, and included reality fare like Dancing With the Stars as one of the network’s powerful-women showcases. And when asked about his network’s involvement with a new business partner, Marvel Comics, Lee cited one possible show in development: AKA Jessica Jones, based on the comic book character created by writer Brian Michel Bendis in Alias about a superhero who becomes a private detective. You bet she’s hard-boiled.

It’s an interesting strategy: Attract what Lee and the TV ad industry call “aspirational” women as your core audience, by telling stories about women in control and men under emotional subjugation. Starting in September, we’ll see if this approach pays off in the ratings. I was dubious about the chances of Charlie’s Angels becoming a hit until I was briefly hypnotized by ABC’s hype. After all, I began to think, what’s Charlie’s Angels‘ competition? Just those two male nerds on The Big Bang Theory and Simon Cowell in a nipple-tugging black t-shirt on The X Factor. Could ABC’s X chromosome factor prove powerful?

Twitter: @kentucker