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Maureen Ryan

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'Suburgatory' On ABC: A Must-See Comedy Gem

Posted: 04/24/2012 2:57 pm

TV ratings are down across the board this season -- in some cases, by a lot, even for big shows -- so I'm not sure what constitutes an acceptable Nielsen number any more. Whatever criteria ABC executives are using these days, I pray they renew "Suburgatory" (8:30 p.m. ET Wednesdays, ABC), which has emerged as one of the season's most delightful hidden gems.

The word "hidden" isn't quite accurate: It's been right there on ABC's schedule since September. But the media decided that "New Girl" (which is also quite entertaining) was the season's breakout hit, so Fox's Zooey Deschanel vehicle got the lion's share of the new-comedy coverage.

And that's fine, given that the lack of a spotlight has allowed "Suburgatory" to develop its characters and its consistently amusing comedic voice under the radar. But as the networks begin contemplating what to bring back next year (cancellations and renewals are typically announced in May), it's time to shine a light on the doings in the suburb of Chatswin.

If ABC executives are looking for a list of reasons to bring the show back (other than the fact that it fits in nicely with the show's Wednesday comedy slate), here are five:

  1. The cast is one of the best comedic ensembles on TV. Creator Emily Kapnek, a veteran of "Parks and Recreation," has taken a page from that show's book and developed a wonderfully goofy community around George (Jeremy Sisto) and his daughter Tessa (Jane Levy), who moved to the 'burbs to get away from the craziness in New York City, only to find that their seemingly perfect new town is chock-full of neurosis, competition and insecurity. The reason "Suburgatory" works is that it gently skewers the residents of Chatswin without raking them over the coals. At the start of the season, the show's broad situations and unsubtle characters put me off, but "Suburgatory" has done a fine job of finding redeeming qualities in every resident, from the dumb-but-sweet jock Ryan Shay (Parker Young) to the hyper-manic uber-suburbanite Sheila Shay (Ana Gasteyer) and her long-suffering but wonderfully deadpan husband, Fred (Chris Parnell). There are still a few hitches here and there (for instance, Alan Tudyk is great, but his character, George's pal Noah, is like the Ann Perkins of "Suburgatory" -- the show doesn't always know what to do with him or how douchey to make him). But these issues barely rise to the level of quibbles, given how satisfying the show's skewed world is, and how consistently "Suburgatory" shows amused affection for its comfortable yet needy characters.
  2. Carly Chaikin and Cheryl Hines are comedy MVPs. From the pilot onward, Hines has brought great warmth and sweetness to the role of Dallas, a blinged-out "Real Housewife" of Chatswin with a heart of gold (or possibly fine crystal). Hines' deftness and her comic timing are impeccable, but then, we knew how great she was from her work on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." For me, the revelation of "Suburgatory" has been Chaikin as Dallas' daughter Dalia, who could have been a one-dimensional dumb blonde or high school beyotch but, thanks to smart writing and Chaikin's impressive skills, is one of the best things about the show. Chaikin has managed to do the near-impossible: She's taken a character who is intentionally very close to a superficial cartoon and given her a real inner life and even a kind of dignity. Dalia knows what she wants and who she is, and her utter certainty about everything somehow makes her self-absorbed worldview and her deadpan line readings that much more enjoyable. She's like an affronted queen who can't quite believe she has to share her town with so many pale, non-Versace-wearing commoners. Yet, despite her controlled demeanor and her perfectly applied lip gloss, young Dalia remains a sheltered, immature queen who still calls her mother "mommy." I marvel each week at both actresses' ability to wring comedy from their characters' overblown confidence and occasional -- but real -- vulnerability.
  3. I was wrong about Jeremy Sisto. TV critics are sometimes wrong, and I couldn't have been wronger about Sisto's ability to anchor a comedy. When "Suburgatory" debuted, I couldn't get past the actor's previous roles on a string of serious TV dramas -- where Sisto in serious mode fit right in -- and I frankly, thought he'd been miscast as the frazzled dad of a teenage daughter. By last November, however, I had changed my tune about the show and Sisto. The actor frequently functions as the straight man for other characters, but his comedic set pieces (such as a fairly disastrous hookup with a waitress from the country club) have proven that he's more than up to the various challenges -- funny and serious -- that the show throws at George. More importantly, his character's earnest concern and kindness, especially for Dallas during her recent divorce, have grounded "Suburgatory's" sillier aspects in relatable and even admirable emotions. As the centers around which various hijinks revolve, Sisto and the quietly versatile Levy have been very good.
  4. It has a funny dog. Dallas' purse-sized pup, Yakult, has been a great addition to the show, and the recent scene in which Tessa and Dalia went joyriding on a scooter with the dog (who wore sunglasses) was one of my favorite things "Suburgatory" has ever done. "Suburgatory" isn't straight-up goofy as often as another fine Wednesday comedy, "Cougar Town," but when the Chatwin residents do get silly, it's usually comedy gold. (Check out the episodes of the show that are online if you need proof.)
  5. It's so solid and well-developed that it doesn't particularly need high-profile guest stars. Here I am nearing the end of my list, and I haven't even talked about how much pleasure I get from the subtle Allie Grant as Tessa's friend Lisa; from Maestro Harrell as Lisa's boyfriend, Malik; and from Rex Lee as a high school counselor. I haven't mentioned how much I enjoy the realistic relationship between George and Tessa (and no, I'm not one of those people who's bothered by a freaky alternative reading of their relationship). Even Dalia's posse -- the perfectly named Kenzie, Kaitlyn and Kimantha -- and George's pre-teen love advisor, A.J., are welcome additions to the heightened Chatswin universe. Amid all that goodness, there's no real need for stunt-casting (The Situation from "Jersey Shore" appeared for a nanosecond this season; it was handled well, but it was weird). So what I'm saying is, the recent addition of guest star Alicia Silverstone as a love interest for George hasn't particularly added anything to "Suburgatory." Don't get me wrong -- I don't have anything against Silverstone, but she reminds me of Jennifer Morrison on "How I Met Your Mother": The role is probably never going to be something that showcases the things the actress does well.

    Still, "Suburgatory" is so consistently fun and so sure of what it's good at that nothing short of cancellation could seriously mess with its momentum now.

    So don't do that, ABC executives. Or I will sic Yakult on you.


 

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