January 15, 2014

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “Suburgatory”


SUBURGATORY:  Wednesday 8:30PM on ABC

For a comedy that seemed to have a strong sense of itself on its debut, SUBURGATORY suffered from a surprisingly rocky case of the Terrible Twos.  Creatively, the second season of Emily Kapnek’s series wobbled from its original tart satire of suburban mores to weakly serialized romances, dumbed-up silliness and some weirdly ugly storylines–it fell well behind MTV’s stylistically similar Awkward.–and the ratings suffered as well, down below a 2 by the end of Season 2.  As a result, ABC brought it back with a short order, a midseason premiere and the timeslot on the wrong end of Modern Family.

That made tonight’s Season 3 premiere something of a reboot, heralded by spiffy (if slightly creepy) new animated credits and a few cast changes (we won’t be seeing so much of Rex Lee’s principal or Alan Tudyk’s dentist anymore).  The premiere, written by Kapnek and directed by Ken Whittingham, had a fair amount of new narrative pipe to lay, which it did unevenly.  Part of the problem with Season 2 was that it bungled the relationship between teen heroine Tessa (Jane Levy) and her father George (Jeremy Sisto), which had been the emotional center of the show.  George essentially dumped his daughter in favor of his romance with neighbor Dallas (Cheryl Hines), the queen of suburban superficiality, even though Tessa and Dallas’s daughter Dahlia (Carly Chaikin) had become a toxic mix that became physical violent (another big mistake for Suburgatory); meanwhile, Dahlia’s regard for George approached the unhealthy.  Kapnek had no interest in dealing with the real-world implications of behavior like this, which left the show feeling out of control, and it abruptly ended with both Dallas and Tessa leaving George, in Tessa’s case to live with her previously estranged mother Alex (recurring guest star Malin Akerman).

Suburgatory tried to dig its way out of all that in the premiere, a task made more difficult by the fact that Akerman, now star of Trophy Wife, wasn’t (presumably) available to appear.  So the story had to begin with Alex having already deserted Tessa, and George showing up to take her back in, notwithstanding everything that had happened last season.  And since the series concept requires Tessa to live in Chatswin, the story had to contrive a reason for Tessa and George not to immediately move back to NY, which unconvincingly forced Tessa to decide that unlike Alex, she wasn’t going to run away from her problems.  Add to that the show’s usual tendency to make any storyline involving neighbor Sheila Shay (Ana Gasteyer) so broad that it exists in a different reality from the rest of the series (here she was stalking Chatswin with camouflage gear and a dart-gun, shooting people as she pursued the stray dog George had taken in at the end of last season), and Suburgatory certainly hadn’t found its feet yet.

The most promising take from all this was that the series had at least brought Tessa and George back together, which is where Suburgatory needs them to be; the rapport between Levy and Sisto is what makes everything else work.  It will also help to keep some distance between George and Dallas, and although Rex Lee and Alan Tudyk are very talented comic performers, a little of them can go a long way, and last season had far more than a little of them.

It will take a few more episodes to tell if Suburgatory can really regain its mojo, and unless the bottom drops out of its ratings, it should at least have that time, since the rest of ABC’s new sitcoms are treading water at best, and the shelves are running bare.  Levy and Sisto remain very appealing (even though it’s getting increasingly hard to buy Levy, and especially Allie Grant as her best friend Lisa, as still being in high school), and at its best, the show is a likably sarcastic cartoon about its chosen terrain.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."