Pilots of Remote Interest: Suburbatory

Fall is my favorite season for many reasons, but probably the biggest contributor to that is it marks the beginning of the new TV season. Each fall the many TV networks premiere a bunch of new series, in addition to new episodes of returning shows. And now that we’re midway through September we can finally say the 2011-2012 TV season has officially started. In honor of this occasion I will be writing various short pieces on the new shows that particularly interest me. I won’t watch every pilot (hello The Playboy Club), but I’ll try my best to sample a bunch and put my early reactions down here so you can find out which new shows should be of remote interest.

Back in the spring when networks announced their upcoming programs I saw a clip of ABC’s new comedy Suburgatory, and right after I wrote the show off finding the quick snippet I saw to be mostly bubble gum. Characters seemed stereotypical and unlikable, while the stylistic design of the show seemed on the verge of fantasy. In other words Suburgatory is not a show I thought I would like, or even watch. Turns out I was wrong, and I’m very happy to admit that (though said scene, when they first go to the mall to buy clothes, still remained one of my least favorite parts of the pilot despite now understanding the context). Most of this comedy season hasn’t been pretty, with the majority of them not even being worth writing about (Whitney, 2 Broke Girls, or just anything Whitney Cummings). While I enjoyed Up All Night and New Girl, neither of them have have that great of a pilot. In both shows the majority of my enjoyment came from the potential they have, but with Suburgatory my enjoyment came directly from the episode at hand.

Suburgatory is admittedly silly and fairly goofy, but there’s a sense that the series is self-aware of it. Shots like the move from the city to the suburbs are particularly showy and over the top, but rather than standing out due its flashiness, it merely adds to the aesthetic of this fairy tale teenage anthropology study. The show is in no way going for realism or subtlety, being quite open in its cartoony approach to suburbia. Personally I enjoy cartoony live action shows (Scrubs along with Parks And Reactions first come into mind), but the key to making them work is to have the unrealistic nature balanced out by  realistic displays of human emotion. Suburgatory’s pilot focuses more on the cartoony parts, but it does have some moments of emotion that ground the series and bring it back to reality (or at least what constitutes as reality on television). And of course it doesn’t hurt that the main character is a snarky “normal” teenager that is able to point out the absurdity of this suburb. So while every neighbor watering their front lawns in unison and wearing similar clothing in various shades of pink may look outright bizarre and creepy to viewers, at least they can take solace in the fact that the young protagonist Tessa (Jane Levy) is thinking the same thing.

One of the biggest pluses Suburgatory has for itself is that the majority of the characters have obvious chemistry almost immediately. After 22 minutes you get a clear sense of the relationship Tessa has with her father (Jeremy Sisto). I believed these two characters had a real history together before the show began. Perhaps its just a case of this show featuring the least recognizable faces in its lead characters (though Cheryl Hines and Alan Tudyk round out the supporting cast), making it easier for me to see them as characters than actors. Either way Suburgatory feels more like a series with an actual story to tell rather than a vehicle for specific actors to just do their “thing” like most of the new comedies are (the previously mentioned New Girl and Up All Night fit this bill, along with How To Be A Gentleman and the upcoming Last Man Standing).

While the subject matter of Suburgatory may not be a topic right up my alley, I found myself charmed by its whimsy style and frequently clever lines. The pilot mostly won me over and I’ll be tuning in to the next few episodes to see if the show can grow into its own thing rather than just “Mean Girls: The TV Show”. Though I’m willing to give creator/showrunner Emily Kapnek a chance to build this crazy cartoon suburb into a place I’ll want to visit each week, after all she was a writer/consulting producer last season on Parks And Recreations, which is home to one of the best made-up locations on television. Between her fictional town skills and her teenage melodrama skills (she created As Told By Ginger, the closest a Nickelodeon cartoon has come to being considered “dramatic”) here’s hoping she can turn Suburgatory into something great.

Points of Remote Interest

  • The passive aggressive book off between Tessa and her dad got probably my biggest laugh. Got a kick out of the idea behind the joke and it tells so much about their personalities and relationship. I’m happy to see that while she may be mad at him for moving them out of the city that the two remain close and open with one another. Good to see a good parent/teenager relationship, which is rare on TV this days and works as a nice contrast to FOX’s upcoming November show I Hate My Teenager Daughter.
  • Jane Levy was pretty fantastic at the sarcastic yet nice outside observer. It’s a role that can sometimes be hard and come off as too scripted, but I thought she did a great job. Jeremy Sisto is equally worthy as the cool, dorky dad. The two work well together and are really want grounds the series.
  • Cheryl Hines and Alan Tudyk were a bit too over the top and silly in their performances, yet they both so clearly having fun that I didn’t mind it. And it’s just nice to have both of them back on television as I found myself missing Hines throughout Curb Your Enthusiasm’s latest season and well more Wash is always great (Firefly reference, woo!).
  • “What color would you call that? Circus peanut?” (If only because someone took the time to think up a joke with circus peanut being the punch line)
  • Some people don’t like the use of a voice over, but if used well it can be a fantastic device. I found the voice over here was closer to the enjoyable side as it merely enhances the anthropology aspect, which I find generally amusing. (Also after how bad Older Ted has gotten on How I Met Your Mother, I’m happy to hear a voice over that doesn’t make me hate the show.)
  • Wonder if it was still Red Bull in the script that the suburbanites are obsessed with or if it was some other drink and was changed for the sake of product placement. Either way I found it worked fine and wasn’t that distracting as they sold the joke with the addition of the completely unnecessary straw.
  • To clarify and summarize: I like Up All Night and New Girl more in theory, but I think Suburgatory is the better pilot out of these upper-tier new comedy shows.

One thought on “Pilots of Remote Interest: Suburbatory

  1. Totally agree! I usually hate comedy, but this one can see the character development and the relationships being built. I saved it on the dvr and will continue to watch. I do have to admit, if it wasn’t for the costume department ordering jewelry for the show from my company, I would’ve missed out totally on this show! I am glad they ordered for both the order and the introduction to a fun tv series!

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