TV

'Suburgatory' provides missing comedy piece in ABC's Wednesday lineup

Jeremy Sisto and Jane Levy play George Altman and his daughter, Tessa, in the ABC comedy Suburgatory. The show, which debuted this season, is part of ABC's two-hour block of comedies on Wednesday nights.
Jeremy Sisto and Jane Levy play George Altman and his daughter, Tessa, in the ABC comedy Suburgatory. The show, which debuted this season, is part of ABC's two-hour block of comedies on Wednesday nights. ABC

LOS ANGELES — ABC has tried since 2009 to find the fourth piece of its comedy-block puzzle on Wednesday nights. The Middle and Modern Family give the network two strong anchors, and Happy Endings has been a solid draw with young viewers.

Finding the fourth show has been the test, as Hank, Better With You and Mr. Sunshine came and went. ABC reached a point that it aired repeats of Modern Family while it sought that fourth solid comedy.

The solution came this season with Suburgatory. The comical and catty look at life in the suburbs has become the perfect hammock between the family comedies of The Middle and Modern Family. ABC Entertainment boss Paul Lee says Wednesday nights have become a destination for viewers and advertisers because of the strength of the four comedies.

What Suburgatory has that was missing is the smart — and offbeat — writing about family life, featuring a strong ensemble cast, the same formula that made The Middle and Modern Family hits.

Casting Jeremy Sisto as the star was a surprise, considering he came to the comedy after a run on Law & Order. His résumé is dominated by dramas, including playing Jesus in a TV movie of the same name.

Sisto had wanted for years to switch to comedy, but he kept getting the same cautious reaction: Casting directors and producers didn't know whether he could be funny. He also became his own worst enemy, getting so nervous when trying out that his auditions didn't go well.

He jokes, during an interview on the Warner Bros. lot, that he probably wouldn't have landed the role as George, the caring and confused father on Suburgatory, if he had auditioned.

Executive producer and creator Emily Kapnek gave Sisto a chance because she was a huge fan of his work. Plus, she was looking for an actor not firmly planted in the half-hour comedy format. She says the comedy that comes out of the relationship between father and daughter is influenced by the dramatic weight Sisto brings to the role and the fresh approach of Jane Levy as teenage daughter Tessa.

"I think that part of the relationship she shares with George is fresh in that they really seem to enjoy each other and, in some ways, feel like obviously he was a young dad when he had her, so it feels, in some ways, like they're growing up together," Kapnek says.

Building a strong comedy team was important.

Levy and Sisto get a first-rate and veteran comedy partner to work with in Cheryl Hines, who plays Sisto's flirtatious neighbor, Dallas. She has become the show's standout character.

The series is a big change for Hines, who spent more than a decade in the improv comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm.

"I really love doing improv, but I love working on a scripted show," Hines says. "Working with Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm was really fun, but it's really fun to know there are very talented writers in a room coming up with very clever things for me to say."

The role challenges Hines. Her character's actions and the outlandish things she says go far beyond what she would have improvised for the character. She likes that all the dialogue and humor is thought out and creates a solid comedy rhythm for her.

It's been a solid enough rhythm to give ABC the missing piece of the puzzle. As NBC learned years ago with its "must see" Thursday night, one strong night of comedy can be a solid foundation for the entire week.

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