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Single dad suffers in suburbs


SITCOMS such as Two and a Half Men, still stumbling pointlessly along despite the loss of key star Charlie Sheen, and the formulaic Mike & Molly, which plays on the patronising idea that two fat people falling in love is an automatic rib-tickler, are constant reminders that not all that glistens in the supposed new Golden Age of American television is gold.

Suburgatory, quietly slipped by RTE2 into an innocuous 7pm slot last week, is another. Despite being a hit in America, the cleverest thing about it is the title. The rest comes across like something that could have been written with the aid of a plot-generating software package.

Jeremy Sisto is Ray Altman, a cool-dude New York City architect and single father who's horrified to find a condom in the bedroom of his daughter Tessa (Jane Levy, aged 22 and failing to convince you otherwise), who he's raised alone since her mother did a runner after her birth.

Ray decides the best way to protect her from the evils of the Big Apple is to move to an upscale suburb. Precisely why anyone, let alone a native New Yorker, would think he's doing his kid a favour by yanking her from the cosmopolitan big city to the heartland of rich, white America is baffling. Has the man never seen Blue Velvet?

What they find there is straight out of The Stepford Wives, minus the robot replicants. The local housewives are all big hair, fake boobs and wall-to-wall teeth and, needless to say, take a shine to the exotic, leather-jacketed hunk in their midst.

In the real world, Ray would have his bags repacked and a 'For Sale' sign up within a week. Here, though, he decides to try to blend in with the cliches.

Tessa, however, who narrates the action with the kind of smart-ass voiceover familiar from countless other American sitcoms, is horrified at the phoniness of it all and aghast at having to go to a high school populated with dead-eyed, fashion-obsessed bimbos who think wearing Doc Marten boots makes her a lesbian.

Not that this prevents her getting the hots for the six-packed, brain-dead jock who lives across the street and thinks Avatar is a foreign film ("It's set on a foreign planet"). For the sake of balance, the jock's sister is a mildly psychotic oddball who befriends Tessa as a fellow outsider.

There are a few good lines in Suburgatory, such as Tessa's quip last week that "a single rubber landed me in a place full of plastic", while Sisto and Levy make a warm father-daughter pairing.

Otherwise, its main function is to make you glad we get the best of American television without having to suffer too much of the dross that fills the gaps either side of it.

"Dubious" is a word you have to keep close at hand when considering TV3's seemingly unbreakable conveyor belt of crime documentaries. But Buried Secrets: Ireland's Vanished Mothers transcended its slightly lurid title and emerged as a cut above the norm.

It pulled together two unsolved missing persons cases: Alice Clifford, who disappeared from St Loman's psychiatric hospital in 1979, and Sarah Collins, who was last seen at her local takeaway in Killala, Co Mayo in 2000. While it didn't turn up any new information, the programme succeeded in conveying, via interviews with the women's families, what must be the unbearable pain of not knowing the fate of a loved one, which, at this stage, is all most of them yearn to find out.

It also presented a disturbing picture of how the Clifford case was treated back in '79. Alice's daughters recalled that gardai seemed uninterested in finding her, and at one point threatened to arrest the girls for bothering them at the station.

A recent inquest revealed no files on the case had been preserved, if any had ever even existed. It made you wonder how many of Ireland's missing have remained so because of historical incompetence.

Suburgatory HHIII

Buried Secrets: Ireland's Vanished Mothers HHHII