TV Preview: Tom Shales on the Return of Bob Saget in 'Surviving Suburbia'

Bob Saget returns to sitcoms with a new TV wife (Cynthia Stevenson) and cute daughter (G. Hannelius).
Bob Saget returns to sitcoms with a new TV wife (Cynthia Stevenson) and cute daughter (G. Hannelius). (By Randy Tepper -- Abc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009

Surviving "Surviving Suburbia" would be a simpler matter if that didn't require tolerating Bob Saget. That complicates things.

Saget makes his return to prime-time sitcomedy in this series -- premiering tonight on ABC -- after an impressive eight seasons on "Full House," a solid hit for the same network until its timely demise in 1995. Saget starred, but it couldn't have justifiably been called "The Bob Saget Show" because the real attractions for its youngish audience were the Olsen twins and actor-singer John Stamos. Still, Saget certainly deserves to put it on his list of credits.

The show was central to a two-hour Friday night comedy block that was never lip-deep in critical bouquets but innocuously and efficiently entertained the family audience for which it was designed (it was so good-natured and sweet that it seems almost rude to speak in terms of demographics). Once it ended, however, and Saget returned to a career in stand-up comedy, he declared himself liberated from a kind of prison, displaying one of the pottiest mouths in the business and even trying to wring laughs by trashing the series that had made him famous.

His material, showcased in a comedy concert taped by HBO, wasn't brilliantly raw like that of such comedy giants as Eddie Murphy or Sam Kinison; it was just a lot of self-serving smut. For Saget to have tiptoed off the stage and into retirement would have seemed like humane philanthropy by comparison.

What performers do in their private lives, or in other venues, theoretically shouldn't come into consideration when evaluating their TV work, but Saget behaved so badly that it was hard to ignore or forgive. Until, that is, an appearance on the HBO comedy "Entourage," with Saget playing a sort of parody of his new, dyspeptic, sleazy little self. This was, admittedly, funny -- even his hunched-over, shambling posture suggested he had become a character worth playing.

What you get in "Surviving Suburbia" is a moderated Saget somewhere between the chipper chirpiness of "Full House" and the nasty snideness of his stand-up. But the show itself is not so much fashionably retro as bumblingly old hat -- no jokes about crabgrass and burnt pot roast maybe, but cute kids, a perky wife (easy-to-take Cynthia Stevenson) and a buddy (Jere Burns as "Dr. Jim") who is not just a wacky oddball but also a malicious imbecile.

In the premiere, Dr. Jim tags along when Saget, as "Steve Patterson," enters the home of a vacationing neighbor (Dan Cortese, onetime MTV pretty boy) to feed the fish, as he grudgingly promised he'd do. Dr. Jim first invades the neighbor's privacy, snooping through an address book in search of strippers, then clumsily manages to set the curtains, and potentially the whole house, on fire.

Instead of confessing what really happened, Patterson claims he's a hero who saw the house burning from outside and fearlessly barged in to save the little fishies from boiling. And so on, with predictable moral messages and sunny denouement -- breaking the "no hugs, no lessons" rule that the creators of "Seinfeld" lived by. That's no crime, but much about the series is so simplistic and sappy, you'd think "Roseanne" had never happened, even though at least one of the show's producers worked on "Roseanne" during its run.

If not for token topical references -- to terrorism, ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" and Zac Efron -- and the requisite sprinkling of sexual innuendos, this could almost be a '50s sitcom, hatched back when suburbia was still a talked-about part of the postwar world. It's hard to imagine what the pitch meeting for this show was like -- were ABC executives promised a series that even founding father Walt Disney might have enjoyed?

He'll enjoy it more now that he's dead, if you'll pardon the expression.

Although Executive Producer Kevin Abbott created the show, the pilot was written by Donald Beck. Five "consulting" producers are listed in the opening credits; an abundance of producers is the norm in prime-time TV, but you have to wonder how such a basic and generic comedy required so much consulting. It has the air of something two teenage pals concocted while goofing around on the Internet, but the result of that would probably be fresher and bolder than "Surviving Suburbia" is.

Maybe there's a deftly hidden subtext somewhere inside. Maybe it's a spoof so subtle that it's hard to delineate the spoofery. Perhaps it's an attempt to make a 21st-century show that could be mistaken for a Nick at Nite rerun. The one thing "Surviving Suburbia" definitely isn't: a show worth tearing 30 minutes out of your life to see, or one worth breaking a vow -- in case you made one -- never to see any other show starring Bob Saget as long as you live.

Surviving Suburbia (30 minutes) debuts tonight at 9:30 on Channel 7.

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