When you create a new sitcom, and it is not very good, and the title begins, “I Hate…,” you can pretty much expect every TV critic in America to come up with their own play on the title to express how much They Hate This Show.
It’s the hack-y thing to do. It is not a thing to be proud of. And yet I hardly feel I should devote more creativity to panning I Hate My Teenage Daughter than went into producing it. So let me at least use my hack-y little joke to sum up the major problem with this pleasureless Fox comedy, debuting tonight: it should be called We Hate Every Character on Our Own Sitcom.
Now, creating characters that the audience dislikes, or loves to hate, is not inherently bad. You can have a good sitcom–nay, a great one–filled with awful people: besides a vast body of British comedies, think Married With Children on Fox two decades ago. But there’s a difference between that kind of show–in which Married reveled in the Bundys’ sleaziness–and a show simply having active contempt for everyone involved.
The series follows divorced single moms Annie (Jaime Pressly) and Nikki (Katie Finneran), whose teen daughters—Sophie (Kristi Lauren) and Mackenzie (Aisha Dee), respectively–are terrible kids, the show suggests, because Annie and Nikki are terrible mothers. Former outcasts in high school (Annie had fundamentalist parents, Nikki, extreme weight problems and alopecia), they’re now insecure, needy and prone to give their manipulative daughters everything they want in order to live vicariously through them. In return, Mackenzie and Mackenzie treat them pretty much like the mean girls in high school did.
There’s actually the idea for a very good domestic satire here: the ideas of indulgent helicopter parents, adults being unable to grow up and the danger of being your teen kid’s best friend are ripe for spoofing. But Teen Daughter just uses the premise as a setup for predictable zinger comedy.
Teenage Daughter particularly despises Nikki, who spends most of the first two episodes not just made fun of, but humiliated. There’s a running joke in the pilot about her eating a pie, with her face and bare hands. (“You’re not a bear!” one character scolds her. Because she’s a disgusting animal, ha ha!) She’s an insecure divorced stay-at-home mom who eats too much, drinks in the morning and spoils her daughter–basically, a walking embodiment of stereotypes about unhappy single mothers and older single women. Annie is a bit better drawn, but barely, and the show mostly tries to build audience’s connection with her mainly by showing that she’s at least not as pathetic as Nikki.
But nobody comes off well in Teenage Daughter, and worse, no one is particularly believable as a character. The show seems to make the point, for instance, that Annie and Nikki’s ex-husbands (Eric Sheffer Stevens and Chad L. Coleman, poignantly of the great The Wire) are culpable in the whole parenting mess, because they’re irresponsible and/or uninvolved. Except–at least in the two episodes sent to critics–they somehow manage to constantly be around. (Their divorce settlements must involve an ongoing zinger-joke-support agreement.) The single character given credit for some intelligence–other than the mean girls’ savviness–is Annie’s ex-brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Rahm), who she has a crush on, because being in love with your daughter’s uncle is the kind of romantic touch that makes a show relatable.
It’s a shame, because a better-executed Teenage Daughter could have been the kind of funny, outrageously rude family sitcom Fox built its brand on, rather than a tired and slightly depressing mess. There’s a good show in this idea. Maybe Sophie and Mackenzie can make it someday, when they’re screwing up their own kids.