Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Pilot Review - "Suburgatory"

Spoilers for the "Suburgatory" pilot after the jump:

Say you're a single father, and you find a box of condoms in your daughter's dresser? What would you do? I guess that would depend on your parenting philosophy, but I highly doubt you'd pack up and move away from the "bad influences" of the city and set up shop in a suburban paradise. "Suburgatory" requires that you suspend disbelief a bit, since the dad on the series does just that. So you have to make that initial leap. But I for one found it relatively easy to do because of the simple fact that ABC's new comedy is one of more enjoyable shows to debut this season.

It's a classic setup: new kid in town, trying to adjust. But thanks to Jane Levy's solid (with one exception that I'll detail below) and funny portrayal of Tessa, it works. She's got strong comedic timing and good screen presence, and even makes the annoying voiceover narration that plagues so many pilots genuinely enjoyable to listen to. Jeremy Sisto is also very good as her father George, who's at once a loose parent and smothering one. They both do an outstanding job delivering the show's snappy dialogue, and are even more effective when they're interacting with each other than when they're dealing with stuff on their own.

The initial reactions I've read about this show seem to suggest that the depictions of suburbia are its major weak spot. It's true that they border on caricature (I'd say they are caricature), but I think a certain amount of that is to be expected when you're laying the groundwork for a series. When we first met Michael Scott on "The Office", for instance, he was a very broad and frankly unlikable creation without much depth to him. He developed with time, and I'd expect the same from both the world and the supporting characters of "Suburgatory". Indeed, I think the final scene with Dallas started that process rather well. No, there's a bigger flaw, though it's still not a mortal one.

And that is Tessa's attitude towards her current situation. It's typical in these types of stories for the main character to be ready with a sharp one-liner in response to anything that life throws at him or her. If not, the show can quickly stop being a traditional comedy and turn into something darker like "Louie". And yet "Awkward." (which recently wrapped up a very strong debut season) successfully balances Jenna's liberal use of quips with a real emotional vulnerability. I'm not getting that from Tessa. As a result lines about how much she hates it here ring a bit false. Moving away from home to a new and strange place should be slightly traumatic, but all I see on Jane Levy's face and in her line deliveries is a feeling of minor annoyance.

What I do like is her relationship with her father, which is both strange (she calls him by his first name a lot) and endearing. Right now things are obviously a bit tense, but there's a sense of love and respect that comes out in certain scenes, which grounds the somewhat stylized nature of "Suburgatory" in something real and believable. The show might indeed be about the suburbs, but it's also about the people that inhabit them: people that are worth rooting for. This and "New Girl" could prove valuable additions to the current roster of comedies, assuming they both work out their initial kinks.

Will I Keep Watching?: Yes, for sure. It may be difficult for me to do weekly reviews of it, but I'm definitely going to try. If subsequent installments deal with the issues I've noted, this could easily be a top-tier comedy by mid-season. If not, it may still prove a good one. With this strong of a foundation, I really can't see it becoming truly bad. Anything's possible, though.

Grade: B+

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