This season’s crop of new TV shows seems to have an overabundance of sitcoms. Just a few years ago, critics were bemoaning the fact that the TV comedy seemed to be a dead genre, but from the ones that the networks decided to give air time it seems like it should be dead. Just like everything in Hollywood, if there’s one success, then everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon to cash in on that success; the problem is that these derivative duplicates tend to be pale compared to the program that spawned them. The show to blame for the flood of sitcoms is ABC’s Modern Family, which swept the Emmy’s this year. That show is often laugh-out-loud funny, featuring distinctive characters who are work as a part of a well-oiled machine. The writing is intelligent with the jokes fast paced and rooted in situations with which most people can identify. The accolades and high ratings are honestly earned and well deserved. If only the other shows wanting in on Modern Family‘s audience could copy this formula.
Take, for instance, the lead in to Modern Family, the new comedy Suburgatory. Like the other shows on Wednesday nights, it’s a single-camera comedy with no laugh track, which is great to see. The problem lies in the show’s attitude. It uses absurdist humor that worked well with Malcolm in the Middle and to some degree the show that precedes it, The Middle (which is not quite up to Modern Family‘s standards, but is funny in its own right). The conceit is that normal people move into an area filled with weirdos, which has been done successfully in the past. Here, the normal ones are a father and daughter played by Jeremy Sisto and Jane Levy who move from New York City to the suburbs. There seems to be a belief within the film and television industry that anything outside of LA or NYC either doesn’t exist or is so outlandish that no one in their right mind would want to live there. Suburgatory is the epitome of this. The show’s creators seem to think that if you live in an average, middle-class neighborhood that there must be something wrong with you. After all, that’s how the characters here are depicted. Dwelling in an apartment in the city is normal; living in a nice-sized house with a well-manicured lawn in a quiet subdivision is bizarre. As exclaimed in one episode, the characters are shallow, self-absorbed gossip hounds–and that’s just the kids.
I maintain that the writers for this series have never stepped foot in a middle-class neighborhood. I also suspect that they never attended a public high school, either, based on the episode that aired on October 12. A school counselor tracks down the Levy character in the handicapped stall of the girl’s bathroom to tell her that she needs to sign up for an elective. Her choice is to read in the stall. Is it typical for a male staff member to go into the girl’s bathroom at this school (later, a male student is found there, too)? He then proceeds to show Levy the “comical” choices she has–one class where students in ties and glasses exchange stocks; another teaches girls how to iron their hair; the third is Drama, though it’s not theater but rather three look-alike blonde girls vocalizing the melodramatic events in their lives. Nowhere is a teacher to be found. Levy finally chooses the newspaper class, which consists of one student (and again, no teacher) holed up in a small office in the basement. What kind of school is this? What universe does this exist in? For a show that seems to want to make fun of specific types of people, it doesn’t exist in any semblance of the real world. This plot continued with the two teens transforming the school’s newspaper, which no one reads, into a tabloid exposing all the secrets of the students. Again, are we expected to believe that the administration would allow this? The fact that real-life teens are doing this very same thing on social networking sites to bully others should be a concern. But do the kids in this show even know what a computer is? After all, they’re suddenly all reading the full color publication in the hallway. Wouldn’t it have been easier (and less costly) to put together a website?
The other storyline in this particular episode dealt with Sisto’s father character going up against his pushy neighbor, played by Ana Gasteyer, who is the president of the PTA. She does not allow Sisto to join because he’s a man, but he demands membership. The PTA is filled with stay-at-home mothers who apparently time warped from the ’50’s. In fact, Gasteyer keeps referring to everyone as “Moms” despite the fact that the P in PTA stands for “parent” (there is no sign of the T–teachers–yet again). They seem to meet every day, and one meeting culminates with the moms taking turns at a stripper pole. Does it need to be stated that the writers have absolutely no knowledge of how a PTA in the real world works? It gets worse. Sisto helps one unfortunate mom who claims to have been abstinent for a decade; he gives her a nugget of advice and suddenly he’s the male Ann Landers for this group. He gets suckered into their lifestyle and starts spouting off “O. M. G!” and wearing mom jeans that he bought at a yard sale (apparently New Yorkers don’t ever wear jeans because he can’t tell the difference between cuts for men and women).
This series is filled with stereotypes and outlandish assumptions about people who live in the suburbs (a teenage girl falls apart when her mother can no longer provide Botox for her). It’s offensive to anyone who lives in this type of environment simply because it’s so stupid. I can understand lampooning this type of behavior if it’s set in Beverly Hills, but most people who live in suburbs have both parents working, trying to juggle their debt with their kids’ homework and activities. The Middle does an excellent job (despite some one-dimensional stereotypes) portraying this. The family in that show is not “stuck” in a freak show version of Americana; the parents work hard on a constant basis to provide a good life for their kids and often make mistakes in raising their kids. Suburgatory tries to say that the middle class life is horrible. Well, it succeeds in giving us a horrible show.
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