"Suburgatory" Unfortunately Lives Up to Its Name

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Considering the directors involved with the episodes of Suburgatory thus far, I had high hopes for the pilot when ABC sent it over along with a bag of upscale men's hygiene products (sorry, ABC - totally the wrong guy for that). Taking its name from a portmanteau of 'Suburbs' and 'Purgatory', Suburgatory has a superb pedigree on paper. It's created by Emily Kapnek a writer and producer for shows like Parks and Recreation and Hung, and she does the same for Suburgatory. Directing the first few episodes of the season are Michael Fresco (My Name is Earl, Better Off Ted, Northern Exposure) and Ken Whittingham, who has directed episodes on just about half of every network sitcom currently running (30 Rock, the Office, Community, Cougar Town). Then add in Alan Tudyk, I'm sorry, the incredible Alan Tudyk, Ana Gasteyer, Entourage's Rex Lee, and Cheryl Hines as a supporting cast and you have the making of a great foundation for the show. And with Jeremy Sisto and Jane Levy as the man father and daughter duo, the show should manage to pretty damned funny. Only, it's not.

Fans of Better Off Ted, Raising Hope, and My Name is Earl know that Michael Fresco can deliver incredibly funny episodic television. He was one of the primary directors on Ted, and that was one of the funniest, albeit under-appreciated shows of the last five years. So when I saw his name attached to the pilot, I was pretty psyched about the potential. He knows his way around sarcastic comedy and he can endear characters to audiences so quickly its scary (watch the pilot of Better Off Ted and tell me you don't love every character in it by the end). He just can't do that with Suburgatory. Something went awry. Considering his track record up to this point was pretty flawless, that means this was either a hiccup, or the problem stems from somewhere else, which it does.

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It's not the cast's fault either. Jeremy Sisto is an actor who usually creates very tepid characters. Sometimes that's perfect and it's why he gets the part. In this case, it was only a partial fit.. He plays a father doing his best to endear the new world of suburbia to a very outspoken teenage daughter (similar to Emma Stone in Easy A) raised in the big city. He's not perfect, but he pulls it off and manages to come across as likable even as his character has all the charisma of a piece of cardboard. And that's the biggest problem, he seems entirely out of his league and he presents a less than formidable sparring partner for his daughter, making the dynamic between the two of them less entertaining than it should be. Jane Levy on the other hand does very well. She's got the right mix of tart sarcasm and reluctant acceptance, which is exactly what's needed for a teenage girl adapting to a situation that has as many pros as it does cons.

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Where the lead cast is half and half, the adult supporting cast is head on. Tudyk doesn't have much room to blossom, but considering he's listed as being in the first episodes of the season, it seems a safe bet that he'll be a normal character and not just a ratings grabbing pilot episode fluke. That's good, because if Suburgatory is going to stick around, it's going to need his comic timing. The biggest surprise however comes from Cheryl Hines, so often a throwaway diva character actor, whose character shifts effortlessly between the romantic interest for the father, the mother who spoils her daughter rotten, and the maternal figure capable of communicating with a teenage girl because she used to be one. It's an odd combination to see that in one character in a network sitcom, but it works and it makes Hines easily the most surprising performance in the bunch.

The pilot has Rex Lee and Ana Gasteyer in very small roles, so it's entirely possible they'll become bigger players in future episodes, but for now the pilot just boasts the promise of more of each instead of giving the audience much time to get used to either of them as fixtures in the cast.

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The cast is a mixed but mostly promising bag of actors, and even while they all don't get to shine too brightly in the first episode, it's clear that there's room to grow and for them to become comfortable with one another - but the same can't be said for the writing. It turns out Emily Kapnek is the weak link in the equation. Her script for the pilot fails to generate the belly laughs that Michael Fresco usually delivers, and its clear that he setup the jokes properly, but they just aren't that funny. Yes, the high-end designer labels spoiled, rich white girls wear border on hideous and slutty, but the material Kapnek proffers to lampoon it falls flat. The comedy never materializes even as the situations are served up ripe for a punchline. They just never land. At best the episode elicits a few chuckles, but after awhile they feel as much spawned of pity as they are genuine amusement.

Right now, the show's title seems all too fitting. It's not horrible, because it's cast elevates it above the inert material, and it's not great because even as the cast excels they're left with a stale script that wastes their potential, forcing them to languish in a show destined for TV's metaphorical pits of Tartarus. It's not the best of television, and it's not the worst. So unless it manages to improve, it deserves a fate worse than any other for indulging in one of the worst sins of entertainment: mediocrity.

Seriously, Michael Fresco, get a few of the Better Off Ted writers and fix the troubles plaguing Suburgatory.

Sep
28
2011
Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.

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