Ellen Gray: SITCOM MAKEOVERS

2 shows aim for cable's raciness

Posted: September 28, 2011

SUBURGATORY. 8:30 tonight, 6ABC.

HOW TO BE A GENTLEMAN. 8:30 p.m. tomorrow, CBS 3.

CHANGE IS HARD.

Sometimes it's funny - or can, with the aid of writers, be made to seem so - but it's always hard.

Change is what's happening in two new sitcoms tonight and tomorrow: one, ABC's "Suburgatory," a fish-out-of-water tale about a city teen transplanted to the 'burbs; the other, CBS' "How to Be a Gentleman," about an effete advice columnist forced to get in touch with his masculine side.

Change is also what's happening this season as broadcasters try to capitalize on the success of shows like ABC's "Modern Family" and CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" while importing some of cable's attitude (and actors) to lure younger viewers.

And so far, despite some complaints I've heard about Kat Dennings' potty-mouthed waitress on CBS' "2 Broke Girls" (a show that has a way to go to match the long-term raunchiness of TV's No. 1 sitcom, "Two and a Half Men"), it seems to be working.

Comedy, so often declared dead, is riding high in the Nielsens, soaring past Fox's "The X Factor" and "Terra Nova," designated hitters that so far have fallen short of expectations.

Sandwiched tonight between "The Middle" and "Modern Family," "Suburgatory" is one of those pilots I liked a lot better the second (or maybe it was the third) time I saw it, a clever send-up of life in the land of triple strollers from Emily Kapnek ("Parks and Recreation," "Hung") with just enough heart to keep viewers living there from wanting to slit their wrists.

It also continues the vagina monologues with some pointed, genitally related observations by teen Tessa Altman (Jane Levy) that not everyone will love but that would have seemed tame in Levy's last TV gig, Showtime's "Shameless."

Levy, who has a voice-over, isn't the only actor with edgier credits. Cheryl Hines ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") plays the bouncy alpha-mom in Tess' new neighborhood, Rex Lee ("Entourage") a guidance counselor, Alan Tudyk ("Dollhouse"), an old friend of Tess' dad and Allie Grant ("Weeds"), the girl across the street.

Jeremy Sisto ("Law & Order," "Six Feet Under") might be the last guy you'd expect to find in the time-honored role of single father in the suburbs, but he's exactly what Levy - and "Suburgatory" - needs: someone who projects enough decency and intelligence to have produced a daughter as interesting as Tess while seeming just clueless enough to have thought moving to the suburbs would protect her from sex.

What the show doesn't need - and doesn't have - is a laugh track, something that makes "How to Be a Gentleman" feel less cool than "Suburgatory" but probably won't hurt it on CBS, where studio audiences rule.

Another show with a voice-over, "How to Be a Gentleman" stars creator David Hornsby as Andrew Carlson, an etiquette columnist for a men's magazine that's no longer interested in correctness of any sort. He goes looking for his manhood in a gym run by a guy who bullied him in high school (Kevin Dillon, who can't seem to let go of his "Entourage" character, even while delivering lines like, "You know everything about being a gentleman but nothing about being a man.").

Hornsby, also a writer and recurring player on FX's "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," adapted the CBS show from a nonfiction etiquette-advice book by John Bridges. He's smartly surrounded himself with Dave Foley ("NewsRadio"), Mary Lynn Rajskub ("24") and Rhys Darby ("Flight of the Conchords"), and for better or worse, traded vagina references for penis jokes.

It might grow on me, but right now, "How to Be a Gentleman" feels as if it comes from someone who knows a fair amount about constructing a sitcom but not quite enough about being funny.


Email: graye@phillynews.com.

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