TV Review: Torturous ‘Suburgatory’ Ineptly Imitates Diablo Cody

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CHICAGOABC reaches a new low with “Suburgatory,” one of the least funny comedies of the fall TV season. It’s only appropriate that the pilot premieres after ABC’s other torturous suburban sitcom, “The Middle,” since neither show seems to have been conceived by a writer willing to step foot outside of the L.A. city limits. Yet while “The Middle” was admittedly likable during its first season, “Suburgatory” tanks in its opening moments.

The instant heroine Tessa (Jane Levy) starts spouting streams of hyper-articulate snark, it becomes quickly apparent that writer/creator Emily Kapnek (“Parks and Recreation”) is straining to imitate the stylized dialogue of “Juno” screenwriter Diablo Cody. Though many viewers have criticized “Juno”’s overwritten banter for sounding self-consciously artificial, it had the immense benefits of Cody’s vibrant wit and a first-rate cast willing to do it justice. Television Rating: 1.5/5.0
Television Rating: 1.5/5.0

Yet Cody also had a distinctive Midwestern voice and genuine empathy for her small town characters. The smugly condescending caricatures populating “Suburgatory” could’ve only been dreamed up by a writer who’s seen too many episodes of “Desperate Housewives.” In fact, Kapnek has cited “Housewives” as her chief inspiration, and it’s glaringly obvious. Her pastel-colored suburb appears to be comprised entirely of sex hungry housewives whose heads audibly whip in the direction of the new guy on the block. In this case, it’s George (Jeremy Sisto), a single father who’s moved his daughter Tessa from New York to the suburbs. Why, you may ask? Because George found a box of condoms in his daughter’s drawer and freaked out. This inspires Tessa to utter her first of many unspeakably wince-inducing lines, as she muses on the irony that “a box full of rubbers landed me in a town full of plastic.” Yes, George’s reasoning is ridiculous, but Tessa is a scowl-faced grouch who has a contrived zinger for every occasion. George is required to smile through the endless stream of criticisms like the castrated male trope that Cody is often blasted for glorifying (a prime example would be John Corbett in the early episodes of “The United States of Tara”).

Alan Tudyk, Allie Grant, Jeremy Sisto, Jane Levy, Carly Chaikin and Cheryl Hines star in ABC’s Suburgatory.
Alan Tudyk, Allie Grant, Jeremy Sisto, Jane Levy, Carly Chaikin and Cheryl Hines star in ABC’s Suburgatory.
Photo credit: ABC

Levy looks quite a bit like Emma Stone, and her sardonic timing could prove to be engaging with a decent script. It’s mind-boggling to fathom what attracted Levy, Sisto or anyone else to this material. The appearance of Cheryl Hines as a twangy fashion-obsessed mother initially brightens the dreariness until one starts considering the criminal waste of her talent. With her presence sorely missed on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Hines has exchanged her inspired ad-libs for embarrassing lines such as, “I acted like a real bizznitch.” Oddly enough, Larry David’s new “Curb” girlfriend, Ana Gasteyer, is also featured here as yet another insufferable Stepford Wife. Now all the show needs is a role for Susie Essman so she can tell everyone in the neighborhood to go to hell. Yet even Essman’s comic genius wouldn’t be able to keep me pinned down for another half-hour of this dreck. 

Carly Chaikin and Jane Levy star in ABC’s Suburgatory.
Carly Chaikin and Jane Levy star in ABC’s Suburgatory.
Photo credit: ABC

While everyone in the “Suburgatory” pilot fails to elicit a single laugh, the characters in “The Middle” were genuinely funny during season one. Unfortunately, they quickly became one note in subsequent episodes, proving that the creators had no idea how to develop the characters beyond their initial sketch. Now the annoyance level has reached such a shrill level that it’s clear the only logical happy ending would be for the parents to divorce and put their brats up for adoption. Yet each episode ends with an abrupt moral that puts a sickly glow on the preceding misery, while attempting to convince viewers that life is really swell in “the middle,” despite its infinite amount of drawbacks. Viewers most likely to buy this message have undoubtedly experienced the Midwest solely through a plane window during a flight from L.A. to New York. 

“We feel your pain” is the primary sentiment feigned by “The Middle,” which is nearly as bad as the all-out hostility expressed in “Suburgatory.” After twenty minutes of rampant condescension, the show tacks on a couple gooey moments that are every bit as convincing as the phony feel-good messages at the end of “Family Guy.” Tessa comes to the realization that although the suburbs are the worst place on planet Earth to live, she might still get some sweet underwear out of the deal. It won’t be long before viewers start feeling an intense desire to purge-atory this mess from their collective minds as soon as humanly possible.

‘Suburgatory,’ which airs on ABC, stars Jane Levy, Jeremy Sisto, Cheryl Hines, Alan Tudyk, Carly Chaikin, Allie Grant and Ana Gasteyer. The show was created by Emily Kapnek. The first season premieres on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011 at 7:30PM CST. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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