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TV Tonight: Suburgatory

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There are a lot of things that critics look when reviewing pilots: premise, plot, dialogue, chemistry between actors, directing and so on. To me the most important is an intangible that’s hard to put a finger on, but without which you don’t have a show worth watching: voice.

Voice is bound up in a lot of things—visuals, writing, performance—but it boils down to one thing: a show looks and sounds like itself and nothing else. The pilot of Lost had a voice; the pilot of Glee did. I’ve spent a lot of verbiage dissecting my problems with Terra Nova, but they boil down to: whatever the opposite of voice is, that’s what Terra Nova has. Sometimes I’ve been more hopeful about a show whose pilot was not great on paper—Parks and Recreation’s, for instance—because I thought I could hear a voice in it. Voice isn’t everything, but it’s a sign that a show knows what it is, that it has a sense of its themes and characters, and whatever it is going to do next will follow from that.

So I could spend a lot of time detailing what I like about ABC’s new sitcom Suburgatory, but it all comes down to: the show has a voice.

That voice in particular belongs to Jane Levy, as Tessa Altman, a teenage girl whose single dad George (Jeremy Sisto) moves them from New York City to the burbs to find a more innocent life, only to discover that it’s anything but. George decides on the move after finding a box of condoms in Tessa’s room (they turn out not to have been hers), but the leafy haven they move to turns out to be, well, America: a highly sexualized game preserve of teen girls in teeny outfits chugging Red Bulls, and their quasi-teenager moms dressed in pink and lip-synching rap in their cars. “A box of rubbers landed me in a town full of plastic,” Tessa deadpans.

One easy way to get voice into a sitcom is to make it literal, which is why first-person voiceover–which Suburgatory uses heavily–is so popular. But its voice wouldn’t be distinctive if it were just about another sulky, precociously witty homeslice ragging on the suburbs. What really makes the show, created by Emily Kapnek, is that it it has a distinct take, which encompasses everything from adults clinging to childhood, to the casual sexualization of pop culture, to the way that systems designed to keep kids “safe” only drive them to different risks.

Tessa may have had a box of rubbers in her bedroom, she may be worldlier and call her dad “George” over his objections. But oddly, in this world of Red Bull-chugging mean girls and aggressive power MILFs (like new neighbor Dallas, played with verve by Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines)–the two groups meeting together in a bare-midriffed borderworld of age-inappropriateness–she’s the old-fashioned prude. “This was voted the fifth best place in the country to raise kids,” George’s suburban pal Noah tells her. “I don’t have kids,” Tessa answers.

All of which could get annoying and mean-spirited if the show ends up stacking the deck constantly toward Tessa and against her neighbors. (Not that the deck-stacking isn’t funny as when we tour Dallas’ daughter’s bedroom, a lipstick-colored palace the size of a city apartment with its own cosmetics “creation station,” because, Dallas explains, “Girls can be so insecure at this age. I just want my Dalia to feel beautiful.”) But by the end of the pilot–after a hilariously uncomfortable shopping trip with Dallas to the mall–Tessa finds that she can actually learn some things from the exotic creatures in her new habitat, and that they’re not necessarily the vacuous mannequins she assumes. Not entirely. “Sometimes under a pair of giant synthetic breasts,” Tessa says, “you can find a giant non-synthetic heart.”

This is probably a good practical approach for a new sitcom, seeing as how there are a lot of TV sets in the suburbs, but it also has the advantage of being more honest. Yes, satirizing the suburbs is an age-old theme in entertainment, but Suburgatory feels like it’s thought through what specifically there is to say about the burbs of 2011. And so far, I like the way it says it.