As muddled as its too-cute-by-half title suggests, “Suburgatory” is another one of those series with a precociously witty teenage protagonist whose narration and attitude kind of make you want to impose curfew on her. Grasping for moments of humanity, this tired single-camera conceit hinges on the girl being dragged by her father to a Stepford-like suburban community, where the big-haired women descend on a handsome single dad like flies on summer barbecue. Spoofing the ‘burbs offers lots of high-value comedy targets, but in this case, it’s difficult to see how “Suburgatory” escapes its own narrative limbo.
Caught with condoms, Tessa (Jane Levy) is whisked out of Manhattan by her blue-collar pop (Jeremy Sisto, in what feels like a considerable but not unwelcome departure from most of his previous work). Apparently, teen sex only happens in urban areas without well-manicured lawns, which will come as news in most parts of the country. “Pretty ironic that a box full of rubbers landed me in a town full of plastic,” Tessa pouts in voiceover.
Tessa is, naturally, distraught at being sentenced to what she sees as a tier just above Hell (hence the title), surrounded by boring kids and their status-conscience parents. The latter are best exemplified by Dallas Royce (“Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” Cheryl Hines), who in addition to saying rude things to Tessa about her wardrobe ogles her dad as if he’s a giant T-bone steak, like in those old cartoons.
Among this fall’s new arrivals, the CW’s “Hart of Dixie” employs a similar fish-out-of-water device (throwing its surly New Yorker into the deep South), but “Suburgatory” strives for more of a “Juno”-like sensibility, which only makes the show feel like it belongs on ABC Entertainment chief Paul Lee’s last stop at ABC Family, if not MTV.
As is, the pilot created by Emily Kapnek (“Hung”) and directed by Michael Fresco finds some warmth in the father-daughter bond and labors rather feebly to expose Hines’ character in a less-than-harsh light, but the too-familiar start doesn’t bode well for consistently tapping into such elements.
Levy is a promising young talent, but the show could potentially become more interesting if torqued a bit to emphasize Sisto’s situation; alas, the marketing imperative here was obviously to reach a younger female demo, especially for a series sandwiched between “The Middle” and “Modern Family.”
Although those shows are thematically compatible, at least, a warning to those who consider their weekly dose of “Modern Family” a little slice of comedy heaven: That step down to “Suburgatory” can be a real doozy.