There are lots of DVD review screeners floating around my house, and a few days ago, I found my daughter holding one of them, a perplexed and unhappy look on her face.
“Daddy, you shouldn’t say this, should you?” she asked, pointing at the title on the disc: “I Hate My Teenage Daughter.”
“No, honey, you shouldn’t,” I told her.
“So why does it say that?” she asked, still confused. “No one should say they hate their daughter, right?”
“Someone thought it was funny,” I told her.
“But it isn’t funny,” she said, clearly worried about the idea that we might one day say it about her as a joke.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “It is not funny. At all.”
What I didn’t tell my daughter, because she’s too young to understand the concept of dark humor, is that there probably is a funny show to be made with that title, and that concept. But the one debuting tomorrow night at 9:30 on FOX is not it.
Jaime Pressly and Katie Finneran play Annie and Nikki, lifelong best friends and former high school ugly ducklings grown up into beautiful but still nerdy swans. Both are divorced, and each has raised a daughter who acts exactly like the mean girls who tormented them back in the day.
“We have awful, terrible daughters!” Nikki laments after watching the duo – Kristi Lauren as Annie’s daughter Sophie and Aisha Dee as Nikki’s daughter Mackenzie – in action.
“Pretty, though,” Annie acknowledges.
As Annie’s ex-brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Rahm) explains, the women are so desperate to keep their daughters from being freaks like they were that they’ve spoiled them rotten to the core. They don’t really hate the daughters; they’re just desperate to live vicariously through them.
And I think there’s a potentially good comedy there: a scathing, vicious comedy about a pair of bumbling pushovers who don’t understand why their horrid offspring despise them.
But “I Hate My Teenage Daughter” never wants to go remotely that far. It wants you to sympathize with Annie and Nikki, even as they’re so willfully pathetic. For that matter, it doesn’t want you to especially hate the interchangeable Sophie and Mackenzie, as each episode builds to a phony tug for the heartstrings where we find out that, snotty as the girls act, they really do love their moms deep down, gosh darn it.
So you have a comedy without the nerve to be about what it says it’s about, one that tiptoes close to the edge and then repeatedly backs off, and actually winds up more unpleasant as a result. I dislike all the central characters more this way than I suspect I would if they were supposed to be genuinely hateable(*).
(*) Then again, FOX’s “Allen Gregory” treads similar territory, and is far more willing to let its horrible kid be horrible, etc., and that’s unbearable in its own right. Purity of approach doesn’t automatically guarantee laughs.
And with the show so half-hearted about its subject matter, “Teenage Daughter” has to lean on the hackiest of punchlines. Sample joke: Nikki scolds ex-husband Gary(**), asking, “Why don’t you get a job instead of playing golf with your stupid buddies? – to which Gary replies, “I’m a golf pro!” Cue rim-shot and request for the audience to try the veal and tip their waitress. Pressly and Finneran, talented comediennes both, flail around, hoping that a lot of manic energy will make up for what’s lacking on the page, but to no avail. (This is one where the laugh track machine is going to have to work overtime.)
(**) Played by Chad L. Coleman, best known as Cutty from “The Wire.” I don’t begrudge the guy work, but going from “The Wire” to “I Hate My Teenage Daughter” is almost as sad as Al Pacino going from “The Godfather” to “Jack & Jill.” (And at least with Pacino, we had a couple of decades of hammy performances in bad movies to get us ready for it.)
By premiering the Wednesday after Thanksgiving, “I Hate My Teenage Daughter” is by far the last of the new network shows to debut this fall. It’s also one of the least.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org