In the land of one-joke sitcoms, Parks and Recreation is king.
Midseason replacements were late to arrive on network television this year, and now spring has brought new sitcoms like so many genetically engineered daffodils. This circumstance has put them at a disadvantage so far as Nielsen ratings go. The snowbound elderly, the seasonal-affective-disorder afflicted, the black-ice phobic—these and other demographics might have gathered around these lukewarm comedies in the cold. But now the weather's starting to get nice, and these shows offer little incentive to stay inside.
In recent years, in the matter of programming ineptitude, it has been extremely difficult to surpass NBC. Nonetheless, when it comes to sitcoms, ABC has sunk to the occasion so consistently as to suggest a gross personality defect, the latest manifestations of which are Surviving Suburbia (Mondays at 9:30 p.m. ET) and In the Motherhood (Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET), either of which could conceivably get canceled by the time I finish this paragraph.
Surviving Suburbia, a conventional family sitcom with a wacky neighbor and a weekly moral, combines boring analysis of middle-class boredom with a promotional opportunity for ABC and the whole Walt Disney Co. family. The most recent opened with Bob Saget's character, paterfamilias Steve Patterson—no relation—cuddling with his wife as an episode of ABC's Dancing With the Stars twirled off the air. "You should dance with Mommy," said the Patterson daughter. "And you should be in bed," quipped the doofy dad.
The jokes never got any better than that, not even when the girl-moppet later waxed ecstatic about Zac Efron in High School Musical. Saget plays Steve like a Larry David with all the edges sanded off. There was an intriguing moment this week where Steve and a neighbor, a strip-club owner, discussed "trading keys," and it seemed for a weird second that the show might take an abrupt detour and emerge as a comic deconstruction of Swingtown, CBS's short-lived wife-swapping drama. No such luck: Steve fed some fish, set a curtain on fire, and learned a lesson about honesty, and no one so much as played footsie.
In the Motherhood is somewhat more tolerable—though it's impossible at the moment to imagine what wouldn't be. In keeping with its title, the show, adapted from a Web serial, approaches its central figures, a pack of mommies, as if, in their parenthood, they were enduring a sorority initiation. Jane (Cheryl Hines), a divorcee, has one daughter who sasses her like Roseanne's Darlene and another, an infant, who would be dead if not for the competence of a male nanny played by Horatio Sanz. Her pal Rosemary (Megan Mullally), a semiretired rock chick, says of raising her kids, "TV did pick up a lot of the slack." The least incompetent—and hence the least interesting—of the trio is Jane's sister Emily (Jessica St. Clair), whose well-adjusted nature promises a fine crack-up down the road.
The show rises to mediocrity on the strength of the occasional snappiness of the dialogue: This week, Jane's older daughter embarked for a spot of weekend custody with her father with an empty suitcase in hand, explaining, "He's gonna try and buy my love, and I'm gonna need something to carry it in." The costumes pop with color, and the mood is slightly dark. Jane knocks back copious volumes of white wine; Rosemary prefers Jell-o shots; their fondest dreams are on the rocks.
Compared with these duds, NBC's Parks and Recreation (Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET), starring Amy Poehler as a slapstick bureaucrat, looks like The Office. It looks even more like the office when compared with The Office. Each employs a mockumentary structure and concomitant shaky camerawork (though P&R's quicker cuts induce stronger nausea). Each features a tooting jingle of a theme song (with P&R's sounding like The Office's as covered by Vampire Weekend). Each makes a space for the delicate hotness of actress Rashida Jones. Each centers on a deluded manager frequently backed into corners by clichés and motivational-speak. Heading into a town-hall meeting, Poehler's Leslie tells the camera, "This is where the rubber of government meets the road of actual human beings."
Another character, referencing Leslie's tenacity in trying to turn an abandoned construction site into a park, likens her to "a little dog with a chew toy." The breed would be Labradoodle, such is the bright smile on this dim bulb and her neurotic yapping. This is a civil servant who has yet to be jaded, and the show is just good enough to keep you turning back in to see her unwarranted optimism curdle.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still from Parks and Recreation by Mitch Haddad. © 2008 NBC Universal. All rights reserved.