TV Review: ABC's 'Suburgatory'
Jane Levy and Jeremy Sisto lead the cast of the fall's best new comedy
If you've been reading my reviews of new fall shows, you're aware that pilots often change between when critics (and advertisers) first see them in May and June and when they air in September or October.
Sometimes you start off with a pilot about empowered women in bunny suits and you end up with a boring political drama starring Eddie Cibrian.
Sometimes you start off with a main character working as a top-tier publicist and you end up with the main character working as a producer for an Oprah-esque talk show.
Sometimes even after three different attempts to make a compelling family adventure, you end up with an expensive series that's really just about dinosaurs.
That's just part of the process and it's why I end up watching the first episode of every single new show at least two times and sometimes more. What you see in premiere week can often feel like a whole different show from what you saw immediately after upfronts.
Something that's less common, though, is watching an episode two different times, a couple months apart, and coming away with an entirely different read on the theme and impact of the pilot despite the absence of any meaningful changes.
There were a couple cosmetic changes to ABC's "Suburgatory" between my two viewings, but nothing that would explain how what I first saw as a familiar-yet-clever satire on the suburbs became a funny, but also sweetly sad, story about a teenage girl without a female role model moving into a world of synthetic women with very different values. Viewed through either prism, I really enjoyed "Suburgatory" and the idea of a new network comedy with actual layers made me even happier. "Suburgatory" is the best new comedy of the fall, a fine pairing with the show Emmy voters believe to be the best comedy on TV.
Full review after the break...
Superficially, "Suburgatory" is about the superficiality of the suburbs.
There's nothing wrong with that as a backdrop, but you have to acknowledge that creator Emily Kapnek isn't the first person to recognize the cookie-cutter strangeness of suburbia, unless you happen to have somehow missed "American Beauty," "Edward Scissorhands," "The 'burbs," "The Stepford Wives," "Weeds," "Little Children," "Ordinary People," "Ghost World," "Welcome to the Dollhouse," "The Virgin Suicides," "Donnie Darko," "Pump Up the Volume," "Thumbsucker," "Chumscrubber," "Crime and Punishment in Suburbia," "SubUrbia" or any of the literally hundreds (or possibly thousands) of books, TV shows and movies that have mined similar territory, but aren't instantly coming to my mind.
Even if these matching houses and manicured lawns and plastic men and women aren't exactly what you've experienced before, there's sufficient sameness that "Suburgatory" will be instantly accessible to all viewers, whether they've grown up exclusively on a farm in Iowa or entirely in an urban corner of East Los Angeles. This is not truly a specific suburb to a specific city in a specific year. This is Every Suburb.
And some of the details to Kapnek's Every Suburb don't even feel restrictively suburban. It's my suspicion that no matter where you go, people probably drink Sugar-Free Red Bull and TV has taught me that every single parent of every single teenage girl has looked at her over breakfast and said, "You're not leaving the house dressed like that, young lady." High schools are scary and clique-ish places no matter where you live and it's difficult to find a country club that isn't full of WASPy, assimilated yuppies to mock. And while, yes, I can acknowledge that the suburbs are unnervingly quiet when compared to the city, they aren't appreciably quieter than any somewhat more rural area of the country.
The freshness comes the introduction of Jane Levy's Tessa, who gets uprooted from her home in New York City after her architect father George (Jeremy Sisto) discovers condoms in her drawer (unopened condoms that she denies are hers). With her vicious dead-pan, withering glance and assertive combat boots, Tessa doesn't exactly welcome the change and she immediately becomes the latest in a long line of uber-sardonic young female observers of society in decline. Thanks to Kapnek and to the remarkable Levy, Tessa's voice is her own, but it's a safe bet that she'd get along well with the wry likes of Caroline Dhavernas' Jaye from "Wonderfalls," Ashley Rickards' Jenna from "Awkward," the title character from "Daria" and every Lizzy Caplan character ever. It's an archetypal character, but it's an archetypal character I happen to love.
When I first watched the "Suburgatory" pilot, I was amused by Cheryl Hines, as the most plastic of the plastic suburban moms to the most plastic of the suburban daughters (Carly Chaikin). And I laughed at Alan Tudyk, though I'd be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what Tudyk is playing other than "broad" and "funny." But I felt, at least somewhat, like some of the supporting characters were being pitched at a level of cartoonishness that was somewhat excessive and throwing the rest of the show out of synch.
I didn't feel that way watching "Suburgatory" for a second time and that was largely because the suburban satire no longer felt quite so central. They didn't do anything to change the balance in the pilot, but perhaps because I knew when the expected punchlines were coming, I looked elsewhere.
The second time, I watched "Suburgatory" for the relationship between Tessa and George.
The entire series is set off by an over-reaction which, in context, makes perfect sense. George and Tessa alternate between relating to each other as father-daughter and as peers, with a dynamic that's "Gilmore Girls"-esque. George became a father much too young and, more than that, he became a single father to a daughter without any real preparation and, apparently, without any real understanding of women. His decision to pull Tessa out of New York City at the first sign of sexuality is extreme, but the pilot never attempts to portray it as anything rational. Sisto is admirably subtle in a portrayal of a father who's doing the best he can (and has done a fairly great job), but now has to recognize that perhaps he has limitations.
In my alternate viewing, I somehow stopped seeing Hines' character as the butt of jokes about suburbia and began looking at her more as a mother. In this case, she's a mother with no sense of control, who has raised a bit of a monster, but her over-coddling and over-sexualizing of her own daughter strangely creates an overflow that compensates for what George is struggling to provide. George and Tessa are equally horrified by Hines' Dallas, but they also are able to recognize what she contributes that might be lacking. The same is true with the myriad other wives and mothers and desperate housewives in the neighborhood, who seem more than happy to contribute maternal or uxorial services to Tessa and George. Watching the first time, I got hung up on Levy's comedic skills, but the second time, I got hung up on her vulnerability and chemistry with Sisto and also, late in the pilot, with Hines. I laughed more the first time, but I liked "Suburgatory" and its characters the second time.
[Addendum: I meant to include this originally, but forgot. One weird biproduct of my second viewing of "Suburgatory" was that I found myself struggling to think of what I wanted to compare the core father-daughter relationship to and the weird linkage I kept making was to the spring's artsy action film "Hanna." I like the idea that they're both stories of in-over-their-heads fathers forced to raise daughters on their own and eventually realizing, in the middle of puberty, that although they may have raised those daughters to kick butt (literally or intellectually), they didn't necessarily prepare them for the real world. In the process, both daughters, who think they're perfectly well-adjusted, have their eyes opened to the idea that while they have adaptable skills, the real world is full of vapid people who aren't as cool as their fathers, but have to be adjusted to. In think that in this scenario, Cheryl Hines may or may not be playing the Cate Blanchett role, which would make any amount of overacting completely justified.]
That I was so amiably distracted by the surface pleasures in "Suburgatory" for one viewing, but was able to appreciate great depths a second time speaks highly to the work done by Kapnek, but also pilot director Michael Fresco, who could have so heavily relied on the candy-colored visuals and absurd passing jokes that he missed the interactions between all of the stars.
If "Suburgatory" continues to work along these parallel tracks, this could develop into something truly special. And even if Kapnek and company decide they really want to push harder in one direction or the other, the fine cast and sharp writing should be enough to keep me coming back.
"Suburgatory" premieres on Wednesday, September 28 at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.