Call it a cynic's guide to surviving the 'burbs, but it's really an old-fashioned sitcom with Bob Saget at the helm playing a grumpy dad.
HEY, DAD, LOOK: Courtney (G. Hannelius) shows her work to her father (Bob Saget) in Surviving Suburbia. (ABC)
In his new show -- a never-aired orphan of the CW's unsuccessful arrangement with subcontractors Media Rights Capital -- Saget is again Not That Guy, though he is back playing a father in the most venerable of sitcom formats, the family comedy. Network promos promise a twist on the form, with lines such as "He's not getting older, he's getting bitter," "Father knows less" and "If this is the American dream, please wake him when it's over." But while its cynicism about suburbia is superficially novel, the show itself is quite old-fashioned if not old hat: lame dad, smart mom, cute child, knowing child, strange neighbor. Door here, door there, couch in the middle.
Tonight's opening episode does not seem to have been the pilot -- it sets us down without explanation in a family whose only distinguishing characteristic is a petulant, cranky father who occasionally demonstrates an affection for his lovely wife (Cynthia Stevenson, excellent as always) and likable children (Jared Kusnitz as the older boy and G. Hannelius as the younger girl). It is not clear why, beyond some congenital misanthropy, he should be at such odds with his surroundings or his neighbors or why he is there in the first place. But he does not like it.
"The whole neighborhood thinks you're a grumpy old man," says his wife, "and the only defense I can give is that you're not that old."
"I'm a screw-up. Everybody knows that," he admits. "It only bothered you when we moved into this damned neighborhood." Just when they arrived there is not clear, either, or what better life it was that they left, or what any of them do to afford their big old Arts & Craftsy house. They are not spending their money on Dad's wardrobe, in any case.
Like most stand-up comics who front sitcoms, Saget is not a great actor; he gets his points across and he can time a joke, but the deeper and more subtle shadings of a character are beyond him. This is not fatal, certainly. The usual remedy is an able partner who can pick up your slack. Just as Roseanne Barr leaned on John Goodman, and Ray Romano on Patricia Heaton, Saget has the wonderfully musical Stevenson (of "Men in Trees" and much else) to rely on. It's not quite enough, however. It doesn't help that Saget is required to sell as funny lines like "Fish are terrible pets. They don't do anything. They don't come when you call them. They don't look happy when you come in the room. They smell like fish. God, I hate fish." But he doesn't give you enough to like about the character -- or to dislike, in an invigorating way.
Jere Burns plays Saget's less mature and apparently only friend; the impression one gets is that they are friends because no one else will have them. In tonight's episode, they almost burn down neighbor Dan Cortese's house, then claim to have saved it, for which Saget is falsely celebrated as a hero by the community.
"Finally, they get to see the man I always said you were," says his wife. But from here, as from there, there's really nothing much to see.