Speechless. Fresh Off the Boat. The Goldbergs. black-ish. The Middle.
Over the last nine years, ABC has built a cadre of the best comedies on network television. This week, it added The Mayor, this season’s best new broadcast series. Yes, CBS has The Big Bang Theory. Fox has Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Last Man on Earth. And NBC delights with The Good Place and Superstore. But ABC has a smart family comedy embarrassment of riches. There’s no canned laugh track. No clichéd nagging housewives. No cloying children mugging for the cameras. The parents—gasp!—actually seem to be happy to be married to each other. The shows are free of cynicism. The casts are diverse. The families they represent come from a variety of social and economic backgrounds. The extraordinary season premiere of black-ish, which finds Dre (Anthony Anderson) advocating for the celebration of Juneteeth and features original music by Aloe Blaccis, is emblematic of the creative risks these comedies take. Getting a new show to last more than one season is not easy—especially now. What is ABC doing so right?
Channing Dungey, the network’s president, says the its success is rooted in believing in your showrunners. “We’ve been able to hire showrunners with a very clear point of view about the family that they’re describing,” she says. “With families like the Hecks [The Middle], the Huangs [Fresh Off the Boat], the DiMeos [Speechless], you are, as an audience member, recognizing yourself, your family, your parents, your siblings in their stories. Even though their stories are very specific, there’s a universal quality to the kind of stories that we tell.”
Scott Silveri, the creator and executive producer of Speechless, thought for sure his comedy about a family with a special needs child would go to Fox, since he had an overall deal with Twentieth Century Fox. “But after writing a couple of iterations of the pilot, it became clear that it wasn’t something that made a hell of a lot of sense for the Fox network and they were gracious about letting us shop it other places,” he says. “It didn’t occur to me until after ABC expressed interest that there’s really nowhere else the show could have gone. They do so many family comedies with a little bit of a twist with some element of specificity largely dealing with people who are underrepresented.”
ABC, Silveri says, has given him the opportunity to talk about things viewers don’t normally see talked about on TV, including not only the economic struggles that come with raising a child with cerebral palsy, but also the emotional toll and responsibility siblings may feel. After “R-u-n-Runaway,” in which JJ (Micah Fowler) overhears his family talking about who will care for him, aired last April, “there was this outpouring of relief and gratitude” from viewers, Silveri says. He knows he’s just representing one particular family’s story, but he’s acutely aware that their story must be rooted in real-life experiences. “I made it clear from the beginning that this is a show that has to rely on authenticity,” Silveri says. “I feel I have a responsibility to families who live a life like this to get it right.”
When Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, creators and executive producers of The Middle, pitched their comedy about the Heck family in Indiana, the network wasn’t focused on family comedies. But Heisler and Heline had both worked on Roseanne and felt ABC was the right home for their show. “We pitched it like, ‘Here’s a show for you. This is the kind of the show you can do,’” Heisler says. She also recognizes how lucky her show was to premiere the same year as Modern Family. “Modern Family was the big star out of the gate, and because that was a family show, that night became a family night.”
The Middle began its ninth and final season this week, and Heisler says she’ll miss the freedom the network has afforded her. “We’ve basically had a playground,” she says. “Once you get past the first season and they know you know what you’re doing, it’s been, ‘Here’s what we like to do.’ And they say ‘great’ and support us. We’ve been so lucky.”
Jeremy Bronson, creator and executive producer of The Mayor, says he pitched the show all around town and there was a lot of interest in it. “I felt ABC really lit up when they heard the idea,” he says. “It just felt like what a great home for this project with a team of executives who are so excited about the concept and the potential for it.”
Dungey, who has been president of the network since February 2016, says The Mayor, about a young man who runs for mayor as a publicity stunt and wins, takes ABC in a slightly new direction. “There’s a family component of a mother and son at the center,” she says. “But there’s also a workplace family that exists as well. We are looking to take steps to expand the brand but we always want to remain true to the optimism and the hope that I think is in all our comedies.”
The Middle, The Mayor, black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat air Tuesdays on ABC. The Goldbergs and Speechless air Wednesdays on ABC.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .