Notes From the Underbelly reviewed.

What you're watching.
April 11 2007 6:17 PM


The new ABC sitcom Notes From the Underbelly.

Notes From The Underbelly. Click image to expand.
Peter Cambor and Jennifer Westfeldt of Notes From the Underbelly

Do you have a child? Are you a child? Have you been struck by any recent developments on the child-rearing front? Have you ever tried writing, say, an article about a television show in a coffee shop in Brooklyn? Mommies engage in competitive dandling. Poppa wears his Snugli like Run-DMC wore gold rope chains. Young Otto and little Ursula make frequent, occasionally successful, breaks for the door. A is for Alternadad. B is for C is for Cookie magazine.

Into this moment of maternity cults, daddy memoirs, and the narcissism of what Time's James Poniewozik, for one, terms "parenting-as-performance," now toddles Notes From the Underbelly (ABC, debuts Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET). It is a sitcom, occasionally sharp as an epidural needle, often dumb as a pea pod, sometimes half decent. (Variety, exercising sound judgment and questionable taste, has already quipped that the series is unlikely to make it beyond its first trimester.) Notes pits housewives against career gals and constrained fathers against liberated bachelors. It's about the loss of identity, the accrual of responsibilities, the social rivalries among friends, and—what's that in the Maclaren?—ah, yes, the baby. Coochie-coochie-coo.

The leads are Jennifer Westfeldt, best known as the star of Kissing Jessica Stein, and Peter Cambor, a newcomer soon to be known as the guy you call when you can't get Paul Rudd. Westfeldt plays Lauren, a blonde who, despite being in her early 30s, remains girlish in that fuzzy chick-lit way, with the shoe collection and the foregrounded indecisiveness. Cambor is Andrew, her husband, a cutie also in his early 30s, a planner but a bumbler, neurotic yet dudelike enough to plausibly anchor a beer commercial. They're pregnant!

Lauren's a guidance counselor at a Los Angeles private school serving the special needs of entitled twerps, and Andrew's a landscape architect, but let's cut to what really matters here: what they buy. The Mini Cooper, the yoga classes, the weekend getaway to a boutique hotel, the (dated) talk of pashmina and peasant skirts … It would be easier to sympathize with Andrew's second-episode fretting about the cost of raising a kid if he weren't airing his concerns in a kitchen bigger than Clair Huxtable's, or, indeed, Babbo's.

"Oh. My. Gosh. What if Marc Jacobs started making baby clothes?!" That's Lauren's friend Julie (Melanie Paxson), another mommy-to-be, a figure of derision on account of her unhealthy excitement and obnoxious good cheer. An alien being has taken hold of her from inside, and now she's a pod person. Julie's opposite number is Cooper (Rachael Harris), an unmarried divorce attorney. The character is very familiar—disposing of lovers with the gusto of Sex and the City's Samantha, downing drinks and spitting insults with the speed of Will & Grace's Karen Walker, and putting in the long hours of a standard workaholic—but Harris plays Cooper with a frosty slickness that makes her the most memorable part of this affair.

Here's a question to ask when, next week, Julie's baby arrives: Is it supposed to be satirical or cute that she names it after the Sephora-like perfume emporium where her water broke? A laugh about babies-as-lifestyle-accessories, or what? Notes From the Underbelly wants it both ways, to have an extravagant shower and mock it too. ABC—"No. 1 among upscale viewers"—continues to have the weirdest relationship with class, consumption, and status anxiety of any of the networks. New dramas like Brothers & Sisters and Men in Trees constitute what this column has called, and intends to keep calling, soap operas where the soap's a mandarin-lavender body wash. They look like shelter magazines and play like genteel psychodramas. Meanwhile, Ugly Betty valorizes a sweet, upwardly mobile girl from King of Queens territory, teases elites, and gets a W cover for the effort. And then a sitcom like this comes around—Big Day, about weddings, was another—trying to twit upscale pretensions even as it fondles them, which really doesn't leave a free hand with which to make a joke.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.



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