Saturday, March 17, 2012

“New Girl” and “Suburgatory” – Strong First Year Comedies, One Piece Shy of Greatness

Note: This piece contains a few minor and very general spoilers (the kind that can probably be found in the episode synopses). Most people should be fine, but if you're the kind of person who tries to avoid even the most minor plot details you probably want to wait until you've caught up with these shows to read this.

More after the jump:

In a television landscape filled with great comedy shows, it’s virtually impossible not to look at New Girl and Suburgatory and see the potential greatness in both of them. Over the course of their respective freshman seasons (and after a few early bumps along the road) they’ve emerged as two very good programs that I very much enjoy watching. That’s obviously better than the alternative of hating them, but to me “good” and “enjoyable” aren’t standards that shows should necessarily be content with, especially when other comedies like Parks and Rec and Archer are hitting it out of the park week in and week out.

For the record, I don’t feel that’s the problem these two programs are having. I think most of the creative minds behind the various series that grace our TV and computer screens don’t want their shows to be merely “good”. Some might. Certainly most networks are fine with it, particularly since such goodness often results in ratings success that the truly memorable comedies (e.g. Community) usually struggle to find. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Rather, I think what we’re seeing is the age old phenomenon of the good show that is just one or two elements shy of being a great one. What’s especially interesting in this case is that the elements each show lacks are the exact qualities the other show seems to have in abundance. This doesn’t really mean anything, of course, but it makes for an interesting comparison as well as gives me a chance to talk briefly about a pair of sitcoms I haven’t written anything about in months.
So let’s start with New Girl, which started out as a show that was often very funny but didn’t really have much clue what it was doing as far as characters or world-building. It hit a bit of a rough patch after four or five episodes, in which its quality fluctuated wildly between individual episodes. Since then that quality has stabilized. Part of the improvement has to do with the overall tone of the show. The early episodes were characterized by overly (although admittedly often funny) broad humor and treated the characters a bit too much like caricatures. Since then the show has elected to combine that initial broadness (and the big laughs it’s capable of eliciting) with a slightly more low-key, Cougar Town style vibe: a style which suits it much better and has allowed the characters to become more human.
The trouble New Girl is still having, however, is that while Jess and company have indeed become more human, they don’t quite manage to be interesting humans every week: or at least not as interesting as they need to be. Sometimes they are, but other times it seems as if the show is content to put their personality quirks front and center while forgetting that there are actual people behind said quirks. I understand the temptation: quirks are funny. Every character-based comedy (and really, aren’t most good comedies character-based?) features them to some degree, but this show seems to be forgetting that character depth – and the building of genuine relationships between the characters – is far more vital. (Note: the last episode of the show I watched before posting this, “Injured”, did a better job in this regard than most. We’ll have to see if that trend continues.)
It also doesn’t help that the world-building has been quite poor. We’ve seen glimpses of the characters’ lives outside of the apartment (such as Jess dealing with a bully in her job as a teacher), but by and large such glimpses have been far too sporadic. Then when such glimpses do come, they feel incredibly forced: such as all of those people showing up for Schmidt’s birthday party. Who were they? New Girl doesn’t seem to care, as so far they haven’t been mentioned again. As I’ve said, this is a show I like a lot and really want to love. And a little more work in these important areas of character and story – plus better continuity - could definitely make that happen.

Suburgatory, meanwhile, has been the slightly stronger series in my estimation. It too hit a few bumpy patches early when it attempted (and mostly failed) to poke fun at the picturesque community of Chatswin rather than focusing on its characters, but starting with the brilliant Thanksgiving episode it’s been doing an excellent job of fleshing out just about every character and establishing them as realistic people, while also building the suburb into a equally compelling world rather than just constantly mocking it. Occasionally the Suburgatory of the early episodes (which I still mostly liked) will show up for a few moments, but for the most part it seems to have figured out that the rather lazy caricatures it was trying to make us laugh at just weren’t all that funny.
The problem I’m still having with the show is that it just doesn’t make me laugh as consistently as it seems to be trying to. Obviously comedy is subjective, so your mileage may vary. I personally think that Suburgatory has assembled a terrific ensemble of actors capable of great things. And almost every episode since the Thanksgiving installment has been funny, so the writers clearly know what they’re doing as well. But it needs to do more if it’s ever going to become a top-tier comedy. When I watch the best episodes of Parks and Rec (in other words, most of them) the laughs come virtually non-stop. With a few exceptions, this series hasn’t reached that point yet. Rather, it’s at a sort of “moderate chuckles with a few big laughs mixed in” stage: good, but not as great as it could be.
Right now, both of these shows are in the same boat. They debuted at around the same time, and are currently at that point where they’re fairly close to climbing to the top level of the TV comedy world. The jokes are there for New Girl, but they’re not yet grounded in enough character depth or a compelling world. Suburgatory has those in abundance, but it sometimes struggles to deliver enough laughs in the space of twenty or so minutes. If I had to guess, I’d say the latter is a bit closer to becoming a great sitcom than the former, simply because I view characterization and world-building as being a bit more important than big laughs. But both remain one element shy from true brilliance, and they might be well-served to take a long look at each other for help in reaching it.


  1. I must say, while both shows have improved, I really don't see them becoming into anything resembling greatness, or perfection.

    Note that I haven't seen the newest episodes of both shows (the last New Girl episode I saw was the one where Jess tries to change Schmidt, and I think I haven't see Suburgatory in a month,it was the episode where Tessa is desperately trying to impress her poetry teacher and Chris Parnell thinks that George is the subject of his wife's sex dreams.)

    Anyway, I liked that episode of New Girl because of how Jess was in the episode. She came across as normal instead of quirky. I'm not saying quirkiness is bad, but toning it down is a good thing.

    But that's a legitamite complaint about New Girl, I would like to see them outside of their apartment and hang out with different people (not to have new cast members, but by doing that, we can see new people.)

    As for Suburgatory, while its not perfect, something I think it does better than most other shows is the father-daughter relationship with Goerge and Tessa. Its perfect and is probably the best I've seen on tv and the main reason I watch the show.

    Oh, and I love how they're no longer making stereotypes to satirize suburbia, but instead the show somehow manages to create some 3 dimensional characters that they use in their satirization, do you get what I mean?

    Oh, and sorry if this was too long a reply.

    As for your Twitter remarks on your favorite comedy, (I'm replying it here since I don't have an account, don't plan on getting one and I can see your posts on the side), for me its easy to pick my favorite comedy on tv: Happy endings.

    No this isn't another attempt to get you to watch it, I really do think its the best, followed by Cougar Town, Archer, Parks & Rec and Community.

  2. No worries about the length of replies. I always look forward to your comments.

    Could you elaborate on just why you feel neither of these shows is ever going to make the leap into TV comedy's top level? I think they're really quite close.

    And feel free to remind me about "Happy Endings" as often as you like. I'm going to try to watch season one this summer, and then season two whenever it comes out. I can't wait much longer after constantly hearing all the great things you and others have been saying about it.

  3. I don't know, its just a feeling, i get proven wrong a lot anyway though.

    Suburbia does have more of a chance of becoming a classic, but I don't see New Girl, it seems too cookie cutter to be anything special in the long wrong other than enjoable fluff.