Take 30 Rock and move it from an NBC writers’ room to a high-school faculty lounge, and you have, if not what ABC’s Miss Guided is, then at least what it’s trying to be. Played by Judy Greer (Arrested Development), guidance counselor Becky Freeley is, like Liz Lemon, a former (and sort of current) nerd, neurotic, likeable single professional trying to convince the world and herself of her coolness and confidence. But she has a greater challenge: pulling it off while surrounded by teenagers and carrying a cafeteria tray.
Becky, we learn through a series of flashbacks, was the grand dorkess of her high school in the late ’80s / early ’90s–to place her in time and social hierarchy, we see that she was one of two members of the school’s Milli Vanilli fan club. Now she’s working at the same school, and at least for her, many things haven’t changed: she has a crush on a hunky, dim Spanish teacher (Kristoffer Polaha), but competing for his affections is her fellow grad, former tormentor and ex-cheerleader, Lisa Germain (Brooke Burns).
Like 30 Rock, the show relies heavily on brief, Simpsons-like period flashbacks (combined with the occasional Office-like first-person interview), which make for some of the best moments, like Becky reliving one of the high points of her high-school career, a one-line role in the school production of The Sound of Music. (Adding to the 30 Rock vibe is a role for Chris Parnell–Dr. Spaceman–as the vice principal.)
The comedy has all the ingredients, and Greer is perfectly cast: she’s instantly appealing, and makes Becky earnest, awkwardly eager to please, and as klutzily gawky as you can reasonably expect an attractive actress playing a nerd on network TV to be. (Making her a guidance counselor rather than a teacher was a great move, by the way: there’s something especially sympathetic about a grown-up exposing herself to the inarticulate gripes of teenagers while trying to navigate the advanced high-school of adult life.) The problem so far is the writing. The jokes in the pilot were broader and more obviously than I’d have hoped, but the big isssue is that the writers need to find the right balance for Becky.
The reason Liz Lemon is such a great character is that she’s plausibly nebbishy and plausibly competent; she’s nervous and self-conscious and tends to embarrass herself with Star Wars references, but you also don’t doubt that she manages her difficult, herding-cats job well. Where Liz is neurotic, though, Miss Guided too often pushes Becky straight into, well, crazy: her desperation and loneliness are too blaring, and for a guidance counselor, she lacks that Lemonian self-awareness that would allow her, at least, to know along with us when she’s going off the deep end. (Liz Lemon might, say, go on a jihad against a love interest’s girlfriend, or become paranoidly suspicious of a man who’s interested in her, but even as she does it, she knows that she’s losing it as well.) I’m not saying Becky should be Liz Lemon—she’s not the sarcastic, urban-professional type. But without the kind of balance that 30 Rock strikes, it’s too easy to feel like you’re simply laughing at Becky, where Miss Guided clearly wants you to laugh with her and root for her.
That’s a fixable problem, though; it’s just a matter of getting a handle on the character as a person over a few episodes, dialing her back and trusting that the audience will see the funny anyway. For now, the show is funny and fresh enough to stick with, and Greer makes Becky appealing through the sheer force of her sunny optimism. Miss Guided is a grown-up take on the social agony of high school with one big advantage over teen shows: the protagonist never has to graduate. Let’s hope Becky’s development stays arrested for a good long while.