State Of Georgia debuts tonight on ABC Family at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
Is it at all weird that the most successful Cosby Show cast member post-Cosby Show was probably Raven-Symone? I mean, sure, she was young and positioned well within the industry to capitalize on whatever buzz she had after being the latest cute kid on that cute kid factory. And sure, both Lisa Bonet and Bill Cosby have had plenty of successes since the show’s end. (So has Phylicia Rashad, but hers have mostly come on stage, and Broadway actors just aren’t as famous as they used to be.) Yet Symone has headed up a surprisingly popular kids sitcom, bounced around lots and lots of roles, and worked consistently for almost every year of her life. And she’s managed all of this with acting talent that hasn’t appreciably developed since her days as Olivia on The Cosby Show.
Symone belongs to a very specific kind of multi-camera sitcom acting, wherein she’s playing to the cheap seats of the live studio audience, all while forgetting there aren’t cheap seats in a small television studio. It’s the kind of acting that the Disney Channel has made its name on, the kind of acting that led to Miley Cyrus’ deeply weird performance in Hannah Montana and the kind of acting that makes Miranda Cosgrove’s work on iCarly somehow look positively Shakespearean. It’s all bugged-out eyes and shouted lines and everything pitched way, way over-the-top, until the entire performance is sailing along off in space somewhere and the rest of the cast is left to sweep up the pieces. The kids seem to like this sort of acting and have for ages and ages. But for adults, it can grow tedious and grating.
This is why ABC Family’s latest multi-camera sitcom, State Of Georgia, is so odd. Created by novelist Jennifer Weiner and Jeff Greenstein, a sitcom vet whose resume includes everything from Friends to the latest series of Parenthood, the show seems like it’s taken one of the basic premises of Weiner’s novels, married it to Greenstein’s old-school professionalism, then sent it for a walk through the Disney Channel theatrics museum to learn a few acting tips. Everything about the show seems pitched at little kids, but for the fact that the major plotline of the show involves the two female leads trying to have as much sex as possible. It’s an odd, awkward fit, particularly when one considers that Weiner’s novels might make for much better hour-long dramedies than anything else, and it’s not helped by having Symone at the center.
To her credit, Symone does everything to make this work. As Georgia, an aspiring actress who’s recently moved to New York City to get her big break on stage, Symone’s giving a performance that seems drawn entirely from reading reviews of Ethel Merman’s old shows and then trying to replicate what the reviewers said about the Merm. She sings at random intervals. She hops around, overly energetically. She makes out lasciviously with just about every guy she sees. At one point in tonight’s pilot, she attempts to seduce a producer using food, to prove she can play the part of Lola in Damn Yankees, and she spends most of the seduction making weird faces and whinnying like a horse. There is never an instant when Symone is going to let you forget that she is performing the shit out of this role.
Symone is bigger than your average sitcom heroine (though she’s by no means obese or anything), and it seems in the pilot that the show is going to make something out of this. Men in show business try to push Georgia away because she’s too big for the parts they need to fill. But they also really want to grope her breasts, and when she turns up with a basket full of fried chicken, well, who are they to say no? It’s here that the Weiner influence becomes clear. Weiner’s written plenty of books about larger women who achieve their dreams and realize that they’re gonna make it after all. It’s what she does, and she’s really fucking good at it (better than anybody else writing in that very specific subgenre). And on the surface of it, this seems like what State Of Georgia is going to be about. She’ll get the part of Lola, and we’ll follow her as she makes her way through the production process, winning over one man after another (the producer, the director, the leading man, critics, etc.) with her good looks, unconventional goofiness, and horse noises. And, again, if this were an hour-long dramedy, that’d work pretty well and be some fun summertime fluff.
Instead, it’s a sitcom, and that means that absolutely everything resets at the end of the episode. That producer? He doesn’t pop up in next week’s episode, which is no longer about Georgia’s acting career but is now about her relationship with some dude who works at a frozen yogurt shop and her proclivity for dumping men for stupid reasons. And it’s here that the difference between the show’s central premise—which, again, is all about Georgia just fuckin’ dudes—and the fact that it’s ostensibly aimed at kids (it’s on after Melissa And Joey, after all) come into conflict. The premise is adult, yes, but the conflicts are based around how Georgia goes nuts because her new boyfriend likes to fist bump too much or how her friend Jo uses her sexual wiles to get a bunch of stereotypical nerds to synthesize the formula for the yogurt for her. It’s a weird, unsettling mixture, and combined with the lack of serialization, it makes the show feel like a relic from the dying day of ABC’s TGIF lineup.
So why is this getting a C, you ask? Well, next week’s episode is marginally better than tonight’s pilot, and honestly, as Jo, Majandra Delfino is giving an absolutely terrific, star-making type of performance, the sort of thing that used to be nominated for Emmys in the ‘80s and would almost certainly land her a lead role in another sitcom when this show flopped. Of the show’s actors, Delfino seems the best tuned into the creators’ vibe, and she takes the quirky dialogue they hand Jo and knocks it out of the park. I never laughed at Georgia’s antics, but I was frequently very amused by whatever Jo was up to. It’s a sign that Delfino, who’s been bumping around Hollywood for a while now, has the stuff of a TV lead in her, if someone will just take a chance on her, and it’s easily the best thing about the show.
As the only other regular character—yes, this sitcom has but three regulars—Aunt Honey, Loretta Devine seems to be starring in another, much better show entirely separate from this one, but I enjoyed how she would enter the few scenes she’s in like some sort of bygone silent movie star who just happened to live upstairs from two crazy kids. Devine’s commitment to the character made me laugh every time she entered, even as what she was asked to do wasn’t explicitly funny.
As a network, ABC Family still seems stymied by what to do within the sitcom genre, which has driven its closest competitors, Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, in recent years. It wants to make the same broad kind of sitcoms that Nickelodeon and Disney thrive on, but it also wants to give adults something to laugh at too, reflecting the fact that it’s a network that’s not just watched by little kids. And that means that shows like State Of Georgia—shows that probably have a good version of themselves buried way back in an early draft of the pilot—end up crumbling under the weight of the network’s attempts to serve two masters. Somewhere, there’s a gritty, real, funny multi-camera sitcom about two girls trying to make it in New York City and fighting the power of image-obsessed men and skinny models. It might even star these actors (though Symone would have to tone it down). But what’s on screen right now is torn between completely different aims, and that uncomfortable conflict destroys the show.