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Juggling the absurd and the adorable in ‘Suburgatory’

Go broad or go home?

The pressure to hook TV viewers with quick remote-control trigger fingers is huge, and clearly leads to the outsized characters — many times, annoyingly outsized — we see in many sitcoms.

With the potential for dozens if not hundreds of episodes, the smallscreen is a terrific medium for delivering nuanced stories, but you have to earn that opportunity first. And much of America, like it or not, wants to know what they’re getting right away — even as some of us recoil at the extremes while yearning for rooted, believable folks. 

ABC’s “Suburgatory” to me remains an interesting if sometimes vexing show in this regard, because the Emily Kapnek-created series has so clearly tried to straddle the fence, going back to episode one. Jane Levy and Jeremy Sisto play everyday people, while everyone else around them initially hits you like a cartoon. Something for everyone, right?

The problem with “Suburgatory” has been that the cartoons have threatened to overwhelm the credible. Yes, the whole premise of the show is how the normal people navigate this bizarro world. But the bizarro world is not another planet, but rather a place that many of us call home — only on this show, it’s unrecognizable. Not even “Green Acres” made the city folk so normal and the non-city folk so ridiculous.

HinesAnd so it began with Wednesday’s episode of “Suburgatory,” in which George (Sisto) and Tessa (Levy) joyfully decorate their house for Halloween, only to be warned that no one in the neighborhood is allowed to do so (pending approval from the neighborhood association, though we’re led to believe that approval will never come). And I start to groan again. I understand neighborhood associations, but this idea that the city folk “get” ghosts and goblins and the suburban folk don’t want any part of it — did the premise have to be so phony in order to generate comedy?

But the thing with “Suburgatory” is that just when I’m close to throwing myself overboard, it throws me a lifeline. And it did so by taking one of the cartoon characters, Dallas (Cheryl Hines) — and showing us, humorously and lovingly, the process of educating her in the joys of being scared, before ending with a poignant scene of discomfort between herself and her husband Steven (Jay Mohr). Hines really was wonderful throughout this episode.

In other words, underneath the broadest of strokes in “Suburgatory” is a bit of pointillistic delight.

I still wish I didn’t have to put up with the phoniness — I don’t like the fact that the next episode of “Suburgatory” will no doubt create a new absurdity just so they can knock it down. (The show could just as easily be titled “Straw Man.”) But I can acknowledge that in a cutthroat TV world, the phoniness probably helped sell the show and draw in viewers who find it enjoyable in its own right. And though it’s a fine line, I can even enjoy it myself if the end result is an episode as nifty as this one was.

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