Jane Levy shines as a teenager trapped in the suburbs in one of the biggest surprises of the fall. It’s not often that a comedy pilot that aims for various forms of tone — nuance, snark, sweetness — hits everything just about right. Mostly, that takes some tinkering, into the third or fourth episode. But ABC’s Suburgatory comes out of the gate as one of the biggest surprises of the fall, if mostly because ABC’s development slate was all over the map and creating very little buzz among critics.
But Suburgatory is an interesting little sitcom in that all on its own the show deserves your attention for the merits mentioned above. But it also quite cleverly evokes bits of the shows that come before and after it — The Middle and Modern Family.
That certainly gives it more than a fighting chance this fall. And maybe it was planned that way from the beginning. But so few series created precisely to be companion pieces to existing hits ever get the vibe just right. Not only does Suburgatory click on a number of different levels, it even has a Juno-esque element to it, plus a breakout-worthy star in Jane Levy (Shameless).
The series is essentially a fish-out-of-Manhattan story that quickly transpires when 16-year-old Tessa (Levy) can’t convince her single-parent father George (Jeremy Sisto) that the condoms in her drawer were not actually hers. (They weren’t). George, an architect, seems to have done a pretty remarkable job raising a level-headed if snarky daughter without his wife (who left after the baby was born), but he freaks over the condoms and the notion that Tessa is growing up all too fast in the big city.
So he moves her to the suburbs, a kind of hyper-stylized, hellish, Desperate Moms cul-de-sac of plastic, pink and poshness. Needless to say, Tessa doesn’t fit in and immediately hates all she sees, especially Dalia (Carly Chaikin), one of the innumerable Red Bull-drinking Barbie dolls who think Tessa is a lesbian because she wears boots. Dalia’s mom is Dallas (Cheryl Hines, moving deftly and dead-on from Curb Your Enthusiasm). Dallas has white teeth, super tan skin, dresses like Dalia and has her eye on George.
What works in Suburgatory is that Levy is pitch-perfect, even during her many voiceovers. She’s not only got the snark but the facial expressions that illuminate her disdain for the Disneyland she finds herself in. The show manages to be smart via Levy’s portrayal of a savvy New Yorker while sending up the manicured lawns and McMansions of the burbs, stocked with boob-and-nose-job replicants (with spray tans and gaudy jewelry).
Sisto is kind of an inspired, counter-intuitive choice for George, because he shares Tessa’s smart sarcasm without being overly cynical. He really believes the blind spot in raising her is his own lack of a woman’s touch, so he’s slow to catch on that he’s got the worst possible role models for his daughter. But part of him thinks maybe all the princess stuff isn’t such a bad thing, given the condom situation back in Manhattan. What the combination offers — especially when Tessa has sympathy for neighbor Lisa (Allie Grant, Weeds), another girl who doesn’t fit in — is room for a little sweetness to leaven the suburban send-up. Emily Kapnek (Hung) writes and executive produces Suburgatory and should get the credit for managing, at least in the pilot, to deftly handle clashing tones.