Pilot rapid-fire review: Suburgatory

The next couple weeks are going to be insane. There are so many new series debuting and unfortunately, there is only so much time in the day for me to write about television while balancing my “real” life. You know, the one I spend on Twitter. ANYWAY, I’m going to try to touch on each new series once it airs a pilot, but these posts probably won’t be too long or too in-depth unless they really need to be. And if certain things debut together, I’ll probably talk about them together.

We all know the rub with comedy pilots: They’re often bad. Watching them is like pretending to be a professional sports scout right before a draft. You’re looking for upside. But every once in a while, there comes a comedy pilot that is actually kind of decent (it’s even rarer for a great one to make it through). Suburgatory is one of those decent comedy pilots. It’s not fantastic or tremendously funny throughout these opening 22 minutes, but Suburgatory does a solid job of introducing the world, its characters and its tone. This episode never feels like it is trying too hard; the jokes and the character moments play naturally and easily. Suburgatory isn’t an automatically awesome series from the jump, but it is certainly the best comedy pilot I’ve seen thus far.

My favorite thing about Suburgatory is that it finds the perfect mix of sharp wit and legitimate emotion. Modern comedies too often have the characters spend so much time bringing one another down that it is impossible to see why they hang out or like each other to begin with (sup, Big Bang Theory?) while other comedies try too hard to lather on the emotional button that it becomes annoyingly schmaltzy (hey, Modern Family, I see you). Honing in on the balance between comedy and heart is admittedly difficult and even the best comedies sometimes still have trouble with it once they’re established (Community for one), but it’s generally not present in pilots. But with Suburgatory, the two elements work together beautifully.

Jane Levy’s Tessa deals out her fair share of sarcastic one-liners at the various plastic bimbos, their mothers and her father George. However, the relationship between Jane and her father (played by a clearly-having-fun Jeremy Sisto), is never really compromised or fake in any way. He’s chosen to bring her to the suburbs against her will and she hates it, but even when she’s complaining, there’s a sense that she knows there’s a real, quality reason behind his decision. They’re arguing and struggling with all of the new things around them, but ultimately, Tessa and George both recognize that the only way they’re going to survive this new hell is together. It’s a simple little story to kick things off and yet, I think it worked wonders here. Tessa’s voiceover walks right up to the problematic Modern Family “here’s the lesson!” line and thankfully doesn’t cross it.

The quality of the emotional beats stems from the fact that the two leads are nicely sketched out (for a pilot, obviously). Both Tessa and George are relatively stock characters (smart outsidery girl, cool/clueless dad), however I like that they are portrayed with a certain level of competency. I’m not familiar with Levy from anything else she’s done, but she’s really great here and Sisto seems like a perfect out-of-nowhere selection to play a disheveled dad in a family sitcom after getting stuck in a lot of super-serious procedural roles. The two have solid chemistry and are immediately likable. Those two things go a long way in a comedy pilot.

And although it clearly has a certain viewpoint in regards to the stereotypes of the suburbs with its many jokes about breast implants, fancy cars and stupidity, Suburgatory never gets too malicious and actually allows the cul-de-sac’s inhabitants to show a more complex side. Alan Tudyk’s Noah is a lovely goofball friend and Cheryl Hines’ Dallas is surprisingly deep despite her clichéd appearance and personality. The moment between Tessa and Dallas near the end of the episode somehow felt right and earned, again without going too far into overt heart string-tugging. The series is clearly going to get a lot of mileage out of making fun of the suburbs and that’s fine. Nevertheless, it is nice to see that even in the pilot stage, the writing team wasn’t interested in only doing those kinds of things. That bodes well for future episodes when the world and the characters have an opportunity to develop more.

I really like Suburgatory. It’s sharp and satisfying and it seems to know exactly what kind of story it wants to tell. It’s not reinventing the family sitcom wheel, but it’s a nice little adjacent riff on the formula that should be appealing to a lot of different people.

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