TV Review: ABC Family's 'State of Georgia'
Raven-Symone grows up a little, but does hilarity ensue?
I'm trying to think of a good reason why you should care about my opinion on ABC Family's "State of Georgia."
The new multi-camera comedy is ABC Family's third new series premiere in a month and if you're like me and you mostly think of Raven-Symone as a mugging moppet from the later years of "The Cosby Show," there's very little chance that you're anywhere near the audience being targeted by this one.
I guess my best argument is this: I also wasn't the target demographic for "The Nine Lives of Chloe King" or "Switched at Birth," but I'm still enjoying the former and I have a qualified respect for the latter. Good TV is good TV. And good comedy is good comedy. I've watched mere minutes of ABC Family's way-too-broad "Melissa & Joey," but I often found amusement in "10 Things I Hate About You." So who knows?
While I don't have a demographic predisposition to heaping all of ABC Family's programming onto my TV plate, I'm not so snobby as to reject the full slate out of hand, especially if all that's required to make my own judgement is watching two quick half-hour episodes.
So when my review ends up coming to the not-even-slightly-surprising conclusion that "State of Georgia" isn't for me, you can either dismiss that with a causal, "Well, it was never going to be for you anyway" or you can accept that if it were a bit better, it could just as easily have been for me, but it isn't. Or, put a different way: If "State of Georgia" was intended for you, it may still be a show for you, but if it was never intended for you, it probably really isn't.
[That previous paragraph can probably go for any negative review I happen to write of any ABC Family show until I somehow become a female viewer between the ages of... I dunno... 12 and 34?]
Full review of "State of Georgia" after the break...
Created by Jennifer Weiner and Jeff Greenstein, "Georgia" stars the aforementioned Raven-Symone as Georgia, who arrives in New York City with big acting dreams. She's accompanied by her socially awkward best buddy Jo (Majandra Delfino), who has academic aspirations, specifically getting into the Physics department at a local university. Georgia and Jo are crashing with Georgia's Aunt Honey, who provides them with free rent in her up-scale Manhattan apartment, in exchange for listening to her advice and stories about her active sex life.
The show's main hook is for viewers who are aging up with the "That's So Raven" star. [In this case, the "aging-up" process means that Raven-Symone's cleavage ought to be a prominently billed co-star, though it's treated with the dignity and detachment required by the ABC Family setting. It's so sterile that when a character nearly gets smothered by her breasts in Ep.4 (Yes, that really happens) nobody even comments on it.] The Disney-packaged Raven-Symone is the show's biggest draw, but also its biggest drawback in the pilot. The press notes call her character "brash" and "confident," but in the pilot, that translates as "hammy" and "way-over-the-top," past the point where it's grating. I watched the pilot and wondered how much of Jo's insecurity was caused by being forced into meek subservience by her obnoxious, over-bearing friend, which I really don't think was the intent. By the fourth episode, the other episode made available for critics, Raven-Symone had either figured out the different demands of a non-Disney sitcom, or else she was getting better direction, but her performance was of a more appropriate scale and the episode benefitted from the down-shift. The grating studio audience (or laff-track) encouraged her equally in both episodes, so I don't know what sort of learning experience this will prove to be.
I vaguely remember liking Delfino back on "Roswell," but to my mind, she's the minor revelation of this pilot and the question of how or why she's been so off-the-radar since that WB drama ended is a mystery. She's beautiful and she has great comic timing, especially when she gets to move beyond the disingenuous "Woe is me, I'm such a wallflower" neurosis of the first episode. By the fourth episode, she's become a sexier, more assertive version of a "Big Bang Theory" character and, again, the episode benefited from the shift.
Nobody's going to tell Loretta Devine to tone down her performance, but she's playing the sort of TV figure who waltzes down a staircase once or twice per episode, says something outlandish, waits until the laughter or hooting die down and departs, having served her purpose. Devine has earned the right to take on a flamboyant paycheck role like this and I highly doubt it will be so taxing as to prevent her from doing whatever dramatic guest work she wants to do.
With the improved focus for Delfino's character and Raven-Symone's performance, "State of Georgia" is far better in the later episode I saw than in the pilot. There were a couple punchlines I laughed at that reflected both decent comedy writing and acting. What I still haven't gotten is a reason why this isn't just called "Untitled Raven-Symone Comedy Vehicle."
Were "State of Georgia" just rolling out off the production line with inexperienced creators at the helm, it would be easy to dismiss or maybe just accept how generic it is. Instead, there's a temptation to look at its pedigree and wonder why nothing that's happening here has any sort of distinctive voice or point of view. Greenstein's resume includes "Dream On," "Friends," "Will & Grace" and "Desperate Housewives," while Weiner is the best-selling, well-regarded author of "Good in Bed," "In Her Shoes" and other books that give chick-lit a good name. Greenstein knows sitcom cadences. Weiner knows how to write believable relationships between female characters. Perhaps that's why even though this is an ABC Family comedy, I wanted to see something different in it.
Instead, "State of Georgia" just comes across as a straight-down-the-middle girls-in-the-city comedy that wouldn't have been out of place on ABC or NBC's lineup back in 1987. The two women might be Laverne and Shirley for a new generation, except that they do very little that the Laverne and Shirley of two generations ago couldn't do. Their Southern background is less-than-relevant and the sense that Georgia comes from genuine wealth strips the premise of any salt-of-the-Earth reliability. And in the episodes I've seen, the plotlines -- Georgia has an audition! Georgia dates an annoying guy! -- weren't really character-specific or situation-specific in any way. There's no question that many viewers will find this story of being pretty, young and rent-free in The City to be aspirational, but I guess I didn't.
Maybe "State of Georgia" started with its leading lady, found its rhythms by the fourth episode and maybe the characters and the relationships will be something that emerge later on? It's not a possibility I can rule out, but with a show where I'm so obviously outside of the intended demo, a couple episodes is really all I could spare.
"State of Georgia" premieres at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 29 on ABC Family.