Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's fun to hang out in ABC's Suburgatory

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Lacy pink bras. Short-short boyfriend shorts. Purse-sized dogs. Sugar-free energy drinks. Leopard-print any/everything.

These are the things that 16-year-old Tessa Altman is SO not about. They are also the most important things in the lives of the people whose world she has just been forced to start calling home.

Tessa, as portrayed by Jane Levy, is an urban-cool New Yorker (her last name is, like, alt, man ... get it?) whose single-parent dad, George (Jeremy Sisto), recently became concerned about the kids in his daughter's circle of Manhattan-dwelling friends.

Concern turned to flat-out panic when he discovered condoms in her nightstand; that panic led to phone calls to a real-estate agent and a moving company, and before she could finish explaining that the prophylactics in question actually belonged to a girlfriend, Tessa found herself uprooted from downtown and resettled in the anything-but-wilds of suburbia.

Or, as Jane views it, Suburgatory, which is also the rather-awkward title of a sharply funny new single-camera sitcom that premieres tonight at on ABC and Citytv.

The thing that makes the most emphatic first impression on Tessa, when she and her father -- who has raised her alone since her mom took off shortly after childbirth -- arrive in the 'burbs is the abundance of over-active, trend-chasing, age-defying, daughter-coddling stay-at-home mothers.

"It's like the Million Mom March," Tessa offers in the voiced-over narration that is one of Suburgatory's signatures. "The place is crawling with them -- they're in the malls, they're at the rock concerts, they're shuffling out of the tanning salons in their mani/pedi flip-flops, with their ever-present daughters and their enormous frozen-coffee drinks."

Ginger-haired Tessa, who's inclined toward jeans, army-surplus jackets and sensible footwear, could not possibly be more out of place. When she arrives at school, the first question she gets from a pink-haltered, micro-skirted, platinum-dyed schoolmate is, "Are you a lesbian?"

Fortunately, Tessa has a response at the ready: "You mean, because I'm not dressed like I have a pole in my locker?"

Things aren't going much more smoothly for dad George, who has become the target of much neighbourhood interest since the gossip hotline started spreading the news that the hunky new architect in the yellow two-storey is single.

The across-the-street housewife won't stop staring; at an uneasy country-club lunch with an old college pal whose sprayed on tan is (in George's words) the colour of a Nerf ball, the waitress is eager to serve something more than lunch; on his first business call in the new neighbourhood, the lady of the house seems inclined toward something more than a professional relationship.

It turns out that the woman seeking an architectural consultation is Dallas (Cheryl Hines), who's also mom to Dalia (Carly Chaikin), a.k.a. "Are you a lesbian?" girl. And in her effort to cosy up to George, Dallas offers to help school Tessa on the finer points of suburban living.

Which, of course, doesn't sit well with Tessa.

"It's pretty ironic," she observes, "that a boxful of rubbers landed me in a town full of plastic."

Suburgatory is smart stuff, thanks in large part to the unpolished charm Levy brings to its central character; her totally real, indie-scene attitude contrasts sharply against the intensely-coloured suburban hyper-reality the show's producers have created.

The setting's surreal touches harken back to another beloved (but short-lived) ABC comedy, Pushing Daisies, but the difference here is that the core characters in Suburgatory are rather normal types thrust into a beyond-real environment. For all its dizzy brilliance, Daisies never really offered any characters to whom viewers could directly connect; this newcomer, on the other hand, feels much more grounded, and that means half-hours spent in Suburgatory will be -- for viewers, at least -- time well spent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2011 D3

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