Sitcoms tempt the public down a weird road

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Review

Jeremy Sisto and Jane Levy play a father and daughter who move to the suburbs from New York City in “Suburgatory.” (Photo courtesy of ABC / Karen Neal)

The most prevalent trend to emerge from the new fall television season is that, by and large, network sitcoms have made a ratings comeback. Most of the new programs to have been picked up for full, 22-episode seasons are sitcoms with respectable audience draws, which include “New Girl” starring Zooey Deschanel and “Up All Night” with Christina Applegate and Will Arnett. Easily lost in the profusion of on-air comedies are two irreverent, offbeat little shows that bookend the unquestionably populist “Modern Family” on ABC.

Suburgatory” and “Happy Endings,” both on tonight, are more modestly rated than some of the comedies picked up with bigger stars but have, nonetheless, found decent enough followings that the network recently ordered additional episodes of each. While both shows are archetypal, they are leavened by a decidedly weird tone — it’s interesting that audiences are willing to embrace them regardless.

Of the two, “Suburgatory” is closest to a traditional sitcom. Set in suburban upstate New York, Jeremy Sisto and Jane Levy star as father-daughter duo George and Tessa, who move from New York City to an affluent suburban neighborhood after George finds a box of (unopened) condoms in Tessa’s bedroom.

Its send-up of suburbia in the five episodes aired so far is pretty rote — isn’t there anything more clever to say about the suburbs other than that it’s run by a mob of prescription drug-addled soccer moms armed with SUVs and PTA meetings?

The show is far better at plucking one of those housewives out of her McMansion and humanizing her: Cheryl Hines (“Curb Your Enthusiam”) plays the sweetly self-aware Dallas, who can laugh at her press-on nails and take them utterly seriously all in the same turn.

No, the oddest thing about the otherwise standardly operated “Suburgatory” is the impeccable chemistry between the show’s father-daughter protagonists. George and Tessa are cribbed from the post-“Juno” era of overly smart teens and sardonic dads, but Sisto and Levy play off each other remarkably well, and their relationship, full of sarcasm, playfulness and heart, is what makes the show enjoyable.

At times, though, the partnership is... too good. Weird incestuous overtones occasionally wash over the duo’s scenes, and those moments pull you out of the experience of watching the show. When George kisses Tessa on the forehead, it comes off as bizarrely Freudian. “Suburgatory” is funny enough that brief moments of discomfort are permissible. For now.

On “Happy Endings,” moments of pure oddity are encouraged. In its second season, this comedy centered around six Chicago late 20-somethings is like a wackier, goofier version of “Friends” that isn’t afraid to go to weird places for a joke. In a recent episode, for example, Jane (the brilliantly manic Eliza Coupe), tracks down the child mothered by her donated eggs and ill-advisedly attempts to lure a little girl into her car with candy.

That the show managed to pull off a child predator gag without a hint of creepiness is a testament to its unwavering principle to stick to the logic of its world — as long as everything makes perfect sense to its characters, it doesn’t necessarily have to make sense to us.

The show wouldn’t work without its cast of seasoned comedy actors. Placed in a room together, they bounce one pop culture-inspired riff off another long past the point most shows would take them; no other show would see a screeching rendition of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” set at a motorboat trade show all the way through.

Perhaps as a way to be more palatable to a wider audience, the show’s kookiness has actually been reigned in since its first season. This is most noticeable in Max (Adam Pally), who was formally the show’s caustic, jerky right hook but is now just comfortably zany.

It’s interesting to watch “Suburgatory” and “Happy Endings” in their intended order with “Modern Family” in between. They don’t seem to fit together in terms of tone or theme (in fact, they all couldn’t be more different from each other), but they hold their ratings across the time period pretty consistently. In the season of comedy revival, weirdness has found its place.

Printed on Wednesday, November 2, 2011 as: Fall sitcoms getting weird to grab laughs