There’s a rich tradition on the big and small screen of the high school girl as amateur anthropologist: Molly Ringwald in “Sixteen Candles,” Winona Ryder in “Heathers,” Alicia Silverstone in “Clueless,” Lindsay Lohan in “Mean Girls,” Claire Danes in “My So-Called Life,” and on and on and on. (Long before she was dissecting the Manhattan singles scene, Sarah Jessica Parker was trying to bring a peaceful accord between the jocks, the popular girls, the nerds and the New Wave kids on “Square Pegs,” after all.) If high school is life in miniature, then it needs some kind of wry, clever observer to figure it all out, whether she’s an insider (Silverstone), an outsider (Ringwald) or an outsider pretending to be an insider (Lohan).
To that reliably funny tradition we can add Jane Levy as Tessa Altman, the smart, sarcastic heroine of ABC’s winning new comedy “Suburgatory,” which debuts tomorrow night at 8:30.
Tessa’s a city girl, Manhattan born and bred. But after her mother skips out on the family, and a box of condoms is discovered in Tessa’s bedroom, her father George (Jeremy Sisto, who was one of the “Clueless” teenagers many moons ago) decides that she needs a calmer, more nurturing environment and packs their lives up to move to the suburbs.
Tessa takes one look at the overly-tanned, waxed and enhanced moms (and in many cases daughters) roaming the well-paved streets in their identical SUVs and notes, “Pretty ironic that a box full of rubbers landed me in a town full of plastic.”
The pilot episode, written by former “Parks and Recreation” writer Emily Kapnek, takes a very broad view of suburbia-as-horror-film. All the women look alike, they all consume nothing but sugar-free Red Bull, and when George visits his friend Noah (Alan Tudyk) at a posh country club, they witness a woman so focused on texting that she falls into the pool – and keeps right on texting. (“Good news is,” Noah explains, “because of the implants, nobody drowns.”)
Some of this is very funny, some of it seems a bit too specific to the suburbs around Los Angeles, and some doesn’t do the intended job of differentiating the city from the suburbs. (I’ve seen plenty of idiots walk into people, things and parked cars while texting in the city.) But Kapnek’s script, and the direction by Michael Fresco (which makes the unnamed town look not too different from the town in “Edward Scissorhands”) establish a very clear, smart voice for both the show and for Tessa, who narrates her own adventures.
In the pilot, in fact, the sharpest exchanges aren’t between Tessa and her new “buddy” (and clearly not friend) Dalia (Carly Chaikin), or between Tessa and Dalia’s prom queen mom Dallas (Cheryl Hines from “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), but simply Tessa and her dad interacting. Tessa points to the cat clock on the wall of her new bedroom as proof that she doesn’t belong in this place, and George optimistically suggests, “What if you are a cat clock kind of girl and you just don’t know it yet?” Later, when he gives her an old-fashioned bicycle to help navigate the sprawling neighborhood, she feigns enthusiasm and says, “Yeah, I can keep my adult undergarments in the wicker basket!”
The trick with this kind of story – whether it’s a self-contained movie or an ongoing series – is to find layers beneath the obvious. The Plastics in “Mean Girls” turn out to be more complicated than Lohan assumes at first, while “My So-Called Life” was often about how the people from different cliques kept challenging Danes’ assumptions about them. “Suburgatory” can’t stay in the same satirical key week after week, with Tessa sarcastically pointing out the phoniness of everything and everyone around her. But I don’t expect it to. There’s enough sincerity lurking convincingly beneath the snark, and Levy is so good in both aggressive and vulnerable modes, that I have faith the show will find a way to humanize Tessa’s new environment while still bringing the laughs.
And on that front, the highest compliment I can pay “Suburgatory” is to say this: it is one of the few comedy pilots I can remember where I laughed more the second time I watched it than the first. The comedy of surprise is (relatively) easy; comedy where you already know what the joke is but find it funny anyway because of the confidence and shape of the delivery is much harder, and much more likely to yield good results in the long term. Tessa can’t wait to get out of this place, but I’m eager to settle into “Suburgatory” for a while.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org