At the center of Fox’s unfortunately flat Wednesday night sitcom called “I Hate My Teenage Daughter” rests something very raw, potentially unflattering and yet sharply observant about today’s women and their relationships with their adolescent daughters.
Anyone paying attention at a shopping mall has probably seen it in action — Princess has Mom wrapped around her pinkie. Oh, they may argue and issue ultimatums and passive-aggressively text each other from opposite ends of Forever 21, but the daughter wins on a technicality every time, which is this: The overprotective, youth-obsessed matriarch of today wants desperately to be her daughter’s BFF.
And, at least superficially, the daughter claims to want that, too. There has arguably been a social shift in this regard from a day when young, independence-minded women kept their mothers at a remove to the current era of mani-pedi symbiosis and constant contact. I remember sitting through all the biographical interviews while covering a Miss America pageant years ago, where, to a woman, each contestant claimed that her mother was her very best friend. I didn’t believe it for a second, but I did recognize that boomer-era helicopter parents were busily inventing a new twist on mother-daughter codependence.
Because “I Hate My Teenage Daughter” is merely a sitcom filling a notch on a programming grid, it has redacted these fraught relationships — and any potential for smart commentary — to the barest shape of a subtext, in which “hate” is a term of affection. Instead of going deep, it goes for the usual weak sequence of insulting jokes and easy retorts, as I suppose it must.
The show, which is set in suburban Austin, stars Jaime Pressly (“My Name Is Earl”) as Annie, single mom to a teenage daughter. Her next-door neighbor and comrade in insecurity is Nikki (Katie Finneran), also newly divorced and also raising a teenage daughter. To both Annie and Nikki’s horror, their daughters, Sophie and Mackenzie, are popular girls with mean streaks — the exact opposite of what Annie and Nikki were like as teens.
Sophie and Mackenzie’s constant texting and whispered giggles have made their mothers paranoid. In a later episode, Nikki creates a Facebook profile of a boy named Tommy Skateboard just so her daughter will “friend” Tommy and thereby unlock the secrets on her Facebook wall.
Thus the (allegedly) grown women’s high school past is continuously, annoyingly present — one long “We’re not old!/We’re so old!” shtick. No fewer than half the jokes in the half-hour pilot provide occasions for Annie and Nikki to painfully recall encounters with the cruel crowd — one of whom has become their daughter’s school principal. Annie obsesses on her strict, religious upbringing (“I went to school dressed as a sister wife”), while Nikki still overeats, as if in fond homage to her childhood obesity. She devours cherry pies, cookies, pizza; but because this is TV, Finneran is slender. Such material — a pair of Gen X women combing through their mortified yesteryears — is best administered in small “Dirty Dancing” doses.
Pressly plays Annie with a tried-and-true, strip-mall Southernness, working a little too hard to hold the show together. Finneran’s character is weirder and less predictable, thus more fun to watch. The teenage daughters (Kristi Lauren as Sophie, Aisha Dee as Mackenzie) are exactly what you’d expect: scantily clad, thumbs-a-textin’, lips-a-poutin’, eyeballs rolling in disgust.
“Can’t we just go back to being best friends?” Nikki pleads with her daughter after an attempt at discipline.
“We were never best friends,” Mackenzie icily replies, stomping up the stairs as her mother recoils in pain.
“It’s okay,” Nikki moans in her wake. “I know you didn’t mean that.” And then she drowns her remorse in pie and later revokes the grounding punishment she’d issued earlier.
“I Hate My Teenage Daughter” wouldn’t be the first sitcom to evolve into something other than the trendy sociological phenomenon it originally set out to exploit (see: “Cougar Town”), which is perhaps why the writers have hedged their bets by adding other characters and whiffs of nuance: Nikki’s ex-husband (Chad Coleman) is a black golf pro; their daughter is biracial. Annie’s ex (Eric Sheffer Stevens) is a bumbling rock musician; his lawyer brother (Kevin Rahm) is Annie’s secret crush. This is yet another sitcom that partakes in the fantasy of ex-spouses who trade frisky insults and pop into one another’s kitchens and living rooms unannounced, constantly.
This is also a season in which sitcoms have inspired much more analysis than they’re ultimately worth. How many words of post-feminist angst have now been spent breaking down “Whitney” and her ilk? “I Hate My Teenage Daughter” doesn’t exactly inspire further study. And that’s how you fail now in TV comedy — when no one is moved to figure you out.
(30 minutes) premieres Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.