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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2011-2012 season, now in its sixth year! Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]
GRACE (BUSTED ABC PILOT)
(written by Krista Vernoff; directed by Lesli Linka Glatter; TRT: 40:56)
The network's description: "In dance, balance is essential. One wrong move and everything comes crashing down. Unfortunately, that goes for life too. Sarah Grace (Abigail Spencer) thought she left all that behind to become a high-profile lawyer. Now a twist of fate is about to bring her back home again. Dancers devote their lives to pursuing perfection and putting it all on the line. For years Sarah put that discipline and dedication into her career and marriage. But when everything starts falling apart, there's only one place left for Sarah to turn - to her wildly dysfunctional family and the world of dancing that she turned away from. At the center of that world is Sarah's eccentric father Michael (Eric Roberts), a brash and visionary dancer, whose passion becomes ours as we see his dance sequences come to life.
But while he might be a creative genius, Michael's a lousy father. Fortunately, Sarah and her beautiful and talented multi-racial sisters - all from different mothers - are always there to help each other rise above. But when Michael's past comes back to haunt him just as Sarah's perfect world crumbles, it will take all of her legal brilliance and love for dancing to keep the family's dance studio afloat. It's no easy task, but Sarah is a fierce competitor and her new venture makes her feel more alive than she has in years. Dance takes center stage in this diverse family drama from executive producer and writer Krista Vernoff (Grey's Anatomy) and executive producer Carrie Ann Inaba (Dancing with the Stars). Go beyond the on stage glamour to discover the lives, dreams and passion of professional dancers."
What did they leave out? It's got quite the sprawling ensemble.
The plot in a nutshell: Michael Grace (Eric Roberts) is the most successful Choreographer of his generation. And while professionally he appears to be riding high amongst a sea of upstarts looking to supplant him, he's actually going broke as his services are no longer the draw they once were. Even worse, his personal life continues to get more and more complicated. Already the father of two girls to two different women, Michael yet again is being dragged to court - this time by Eden Grace Carrera (Anabelle Acosta), a teenager who's asking for the 18 years of child support - about a half million dollars - he never gave his mother Belle (Patricia De Leon), one of his former dancers. Tasked as always with defending him is youngest-now-middle child Sarah (Abigail Spencer in a breakout role which unfortunately won't be seen), who left her dancing career behind - much to Michael's chagrin - to pursue a career in law.
Now a successful practitioner with her husband/law partner David (Eion Bailey), Sarah proclaims she's tired of cleaning up her father's messes - financial and otherwise. After all, she's got quite a full plate as it is: eldest sister Shay (Sherri Saum) is perennially a handful, whether it's her troublemaking son Joseph (Chantz Simpson) or her recovering addict ex Dylan (Chris Carmack); while an associate (Bree Turner) at her firm is getting a little too close to David. That - along with the temptations that come from Justin (Will Kemp), a talented dancer who's not shy about his affections - drives her into an early midlife crisis as Sarah finds she's restless and uncertain about her future. Ultimately, she realizes her destiny lies with her father as she - against David's wishes - opts to pay off Michael's debt to Eden and assume control of the dance company.
What works: First and foremost, we need to have Abigail Spencer on TV each week. She's just plain lovely here, improbably managing to pull off all of the above (including - no joke - an entire dance sequence!), in a way that's effortlessly charming. Roberts likewise is a force as Michael is both a frustrating monster and an engaging genius at the same time. He literally won't acknowledge your existence unless you're performing in front of him - a trait that forces Sarah to do just that to get his attention. It's a startling sequence - one that in lesser hands could have come across as absurd or hokey but instead reveals everything you need to know about Sarah and the issues that surround her.
Helping add fuel to the fire is an intricate web of relationships: Belle was Sarah's surrogate mother growing up (he real mom checked out when she was a child) but took off due to the aforementioned pregnancy. Now with the shocking circumstances filled in, Sarah is all the more frustrated by Michael's antics. Sarah also seeks counsel from Shay's mother Helen (Debbie Allen), who reminds her that in pushing herself away from Michael all these years she may have left something behind. Perhaps in facing him she'll find that peace she's so desperately searching for.
What doesn't: I can't say I was a huge fan of some of the artistic choices at work here - scene transitions involve snippets of dancers performing in black and white (we get it, it's about dance!) while Michael has, I guess you could call them visions, during various dramatic moments which attempt to translate what's going on into dance. The latter feels just as weird as it sounds: imagine two characters arguing then cutting to a performance - and keep in mind these aren't the actors dancing - to show a fiery confrontation and then cutting back to our original characters mid-argument. At best it winds up coming off as self-indulgent, at worst it takes away from the actors' performances as you often don't see them deliver what's supposed to be a huge moment.
Likewise there's a double-edged nature to the sprawling relationships on the show as sometimes they feel too pat. Eden for instance is suing Michael to help pay her mother's medical bills as she's secretly dying of cancer. Belle is apparently too proud to ask for help, giving her a saintly aura that feels out of place within the gray world they've established up to that point. I like the idea that everyone's lives on the show are sloppy and messy and it's only through the pursuit of their passions - and the bonds that form as a result - do they find order. All in all while far from perfect...
The bottom line: ...it's an admirable effort.