On The Bubble: The Sophomore Search for Self

Being an avid watcher several dozen television shows, I find that I’m never quite settled on my DVR’s playlist.  While many shows feel like must haves, there are always a few that I’m considering getting rid of to make more time for reading, writing, or watching the other shows that people are always talking about that I don’t currently watch (here’s looking at you, Homeland).  Like the emcee at a karaoke bar, I’ve found that some of these only come by once or twice, but the majority of them are regulars.  As we reach the winter break of this current season, I find myself reflecting on two shows with promising starts last season: Up All Night and Suburgatory.

Suburban Wastelands

Suburgatory was never a must-see show, but benefited from airing just before Modern Family, a show I was already committed to watching.  (Why this would matter with a DVR is sort of a mystery to me, but it still for some reason makes a huge difference to me.)  For me, there have always been parts of the show that work and parts that don’t.  With the changes going into this season, like the additions of Ana Gasteyer and Chris Parnell as regulars and what seemed like an expanded role for Lisa’s boyfriend Malik, I thought the show was doubling down on the things that work best, much of which involves the Shay family.  Instead, Suburgatory has found new ways to highlight its less interesting and funny elements.  I was excited for the relationship between George and Dallas to finally start to progress, for example, but the show wasted several episodes having over-the-top Dallas be over the top even by Dallas standards, while grounded George became even more resistant to these shenanigans than usual.  The fun of watching opposites attract with these two was zapped by overplaying to the extremes.  Fortunately, with the relationship having reached stable ground, the two are back to their dissimilar but complementary dynamic that works really well in limited quantities.

This leads to a larger point overall about something where the show excelled during the first season, playing the tensions between George and Tessa’s city ways and the bizarre and conservative pace of life in Chatswin.  It’s natural to have both characters adapt to some degree to their new surroundings, but the show seems to have lost its voice where this juxtaposition is concerned.  Where George once rejected the suburban way of life as much out of disdain for it as his inability to conform to it, he’s now become the town’s voice of reason in many ways, neither bothered nor befuddled by the neighbors around him, even if many of them still view him as a lesser man.

The biggest detraction from my enjoyment of the show, though, has been Tessa’s direction during this first part of the season.  The story with her wanting to get to know her mother is a logical step emotionally, and were Suburgatory a drama, I think it would work much better.  As comedy, though, there’s not much to be reaped in terms of humor from a daughter’s struggle to make a relationship with the mother who has been within reach but simply out of touch for 15 years.  Even Tessa’s eagerness to spend time with her mother feels like something of a betrayal to me, not because I don’t want them to spend time together, but because Tessa seems to have difficulty making room in her heart for her mother without pushing her father out of it to some degree.  Tessa is portrayed as a mature teenager, and sure, she is, but the character really works best when she is part of teenage storylines, whether involving Lisa, Dahlia, Malik, Ryan, etc. or just interacting with the adults in her life in a way that makes her seem like a teen rather than someone who thinks she’s an equal.  The urge to make Tessa come across as more mature is making her irritating.

The outlook for Suburgatory is still fairly bright, even if it is at the bottom of my DVR list this month.  More recent episodes have returned to some of the things I’ve enjoyed most about the show — the weird family dynamic of the Shays, Lisa’s relationship with Malik, Tessa’s relationship with the other teens on the show, families having outlandish fights over lawns and housekeepers — and are hopefully transitioning out of some of the rough waters of the fall.

Up All Night’s Identity Crisis

The problems of Up All Night are much less straightforward than those of Suburgatory.  Up All Night is a show that I usually enjoy when I watch it, but rarely do I feel compelled to watch.  Up All Night’s cozy timeslot within NBC’s Thursday night comedy block is the primary reason the show is still on my list (though, again, I know that doesn’t make sense for a person who watches everything on DVR).  Up has had a hard time getting into a good rhythm of what the show is about, mostly because it can’t decide what the show is about.

I read numerous complaints during Up’s first season that the show felt like two separate shows, the one people seemed to enjoy about the difficulties of a hip, ambitious couple with a newborn, and the one people seemed less enthusiastic about following the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of a talk show diva.  This dichotomy never bothered me much, and actually I was relieved that neither element seemed terribly slapped together, considering that Ava wasn’t even written as a famous talk show host in the original pilot.  While the show did seem on sturdier ground where the home life was concerned — and frankly there are probably many more viewers interested in seeing a professional couple struggle with an adorable baby than an overblown diva walking all over her mousy assistant — the stories surrounding Ava and the talk show did start to pick up focus and depth in the second half of the season.

All of that is a moot point, though, since the Ava Show was completely dropped at the start of this season.  While getting rid of the show within the show may have helped solve the problem of the split identity, it created the larger problem of what do with Maya Rudolph’s Ava, whose plots are seeming like more and more of a stretch each week.  The repeat use of Sean Hayes’s recurring character Walter, not particularly funny in his first appearance, is a clear sign of the writers grasping for ideas for Ava.  Things at home have begun to flourish somewhat, with the addition of Reagan’s brother and the swapping of Chris for Reagan as the at-home parent.  Unlike Ava’s stories, these feel like they are real and have heart.  Background characters like Gene and Terry (or is it Jean and Terry???) have begun to come to life, and the show feels like it knows exactly who it is.  Until it has to cut back to the scenes with Ava.

Once Up All Night wraps for the winter, it will take an extended hiatus before coming back in a new format, as a multi-camera show filmed before a live studio audience.  It is very hard to imagine the show working in this format, and I fear it will only be another instance of taking something and making it work less well than it did before.  The format seemed to be working fine, though perhaps the people in charge think that making the show look like a CBS sitcom will help achieve CBS ratings.  As Guys With Kids can attest, that is not always the case.  No, the real outlier that the show needs to address, if it’s looking to make changes, is Ava.  I really enjoy this character, and love Maya Rudolph, but Up All Night has bucked the ways in which she naturally connected to the rest of the show.  She is no longer working with Reagan, and the show rightly has opted not to have Ava simply hang around the Brinkley home in a way that doesn’t make sense.  The easiest connection to foster without perpetuating the problems with The Ava Show would have been to nurture Ava’s relationship with Jason Lee’s Kevin.  Perhaps Lee was unavailable, though I would think that an offer to be a regular on a network comedy would have been a decent offer for him.  With Kevin as a good friend and neighbor of the Brinkleys, involving him and Ava in Chris and Reagan’s lives would have been easy and natural, and the courting of the talk show queen by a contractor and single dad would have provided tons of potential plots.

Whatever the reasons behind it, the Brinkley’s now seem as far from Ava as ever and all are now heading into a format that seems completely incongruous with the show.  I hope the showrunners can get things together and pull the show into a cohesive, successful unit.  But I fear that this latest retool will be the show’s last before NBC puts it out to pasture at the end of the season.

Top Ten Shows

  • 30 Rock
  • American Horror Story: Asylum
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • The Mindy Project
  • Nashville
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Pretty Little Liars
  • Revenge
  • Survivor

Current (or Nearly Current)

Revenge, Gossip Girl, How I Met Your Mother, 2 Broke Girls, Revolution, Go On, The New Normal, Happy Endings, Don’t Trust the B- in Apt. 23, New Girl, The Mindy Project, Hart of Dixie, Nashville, American Horror Story, Survivor, Suburgatory, Modern Family, 30 Rock, Up All Night, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Glee, Saturday Night Live, The Soup

On The Backburner

666 Park Avenue, Ben and Kate, Guys With Kids, Last Resort, Fringe