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ABC Family fights a war for laughs on two fronts

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In recent years, ABC Family has been on the hunt for the sweet spot in its network identity. Recently, it’s had luck with dramas that appeal to both generations of today’s demographically desirable family (The Fosters, Greek, Switched At Birth), but has also used something of a spaghetti-on-the-wall approach to find youthful series that will stick. Sometimes it does, finding an audience and earning several seasons, such as Kyle XY or Pretty Little Liars. Just as often, it axes a promising series (10 Things I Hate About You, The Middleman) in favor of something that could track better as it tries to expand its cozy branding into every available genre.


However, it’s had negligible luck with that elusive beast, the multi-camera sitcom. A few serviceable offerings have come and gone, but the network had its only unexpected lightning strike with Melissa & Joey: Co-stars Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence had already starred in My Fake Fiancé, a movie that turned out to be essentially a chemistry test. That pairing has earned the show solid ratings for the network and the promise of a fourth season (after a remarkably long 37-episode third-season run). Swooping into Melissa & Joey’s time slot for the summer are two other multi-camera sitcoms ABC Family clearly hopes will land in one of its two sweet spots.

Skewing toward the young people of today, there’s Young & Hungry, a sitcom based on  the Gabi Moskowitz blog, which follows a young chef and the young San Francisco tech mogul for whom she ends up working. Stars Emily Osment (as Gabi Diamond) and Jonathan Sadowski (as app developer Josh) lack any standout presence but are largely unobjectionable, except when Osment’s dogged, manic energy threatens to grate. Even then, it’s hard to blame her for trying to add sparkle to a show that’s otherwise so flat. Young & Hungry manages just enough structure and movement to call to mind The Nanny without doing much to emulate it except grind its gears.


The show’s premise is both specific and flexible enough to offer something new for a bloggy generation (a thousand foodie jokes just waiting to happen), and Gabi is positioned firmly enough in the hip-twentysomething demographic that there’s potential. Plus, The Nanny formula is everything that could work here, from the found family of those domestically employed by the rich right down to the will-they/won’t-they romantic tension. But as brief as the character sketches were in The Nanny’s pilot, it was still clear how well they fit together—a key ingredient missing from Young & Hungry. Instead, it presents a supporting cast of cardboard cutouts—like Rex Lee as the hostile assistant in love with his boss and Kym Whitley as the un-ironically sassy housekeeper—whose overall impression is awkwardness. The larger story commits to a couple of high-speed, soapy twists that indicate some momentum. Unfortunately, that suggestion of recklessness doesn’t extend to the dialogue, which feels like a focus group’s idea of what young people do (propose, have jobs) and joke about (Google), and borrows liberally from long-familiar punchlines. For a show nicely positioned to draw from blog culture, the foodie boom, and class dynamics of the wildly rich and those they employ in the age of the one percent, Young & Hungry ends up feeling like doesn’t really get any of the sources it’s supposed to be drawing from.

For the more nostalgic viewer, the network offers Mystery Girls, which has one up on Young & Hungry just by virtue of knowing what it’s there to do. Producer-star Tori Spelling’s persona may land increasingly in an uncanny valley of attempted human mannerisms, but she’s a pretty savvy brand-builder, and reuniting with former co-star Jennie Garth for a sitcom about former co-stars who reunite is just the kind of meta people want to see. It’s too soon to tell whether Mystery Girls can sustain the procedural shenanigans of its premise, or whether that, too, is merely a framing gag. There’s so much groundwork in the pilot that the wispy plot—a young man who fell in love with ’90s TV show Mystery Girls witnesses a murder, and refuses to give a witness statement to anyone but his idols—evaporates as soon as homemaker Charlie Contour (Garth) and eternal C-lister Holly Hamilton (Spelling) get the band back together. In the third episode (the second episode wasn’t made available to reviewers), an outside case is solved in the cold open in favor of an A-plot that centers on Charlie and Holly’s interpersonal meta.

Most of the show’s meta so far is an expected but amusing sketch of celebrity has-been-ism, particularly with Spelling’s Holly caricature (carrying unmistakable overtones of Jenna Maroney). Holly’s won Celebrity Beekeeper, still owns her personal-brand exercise tape, and when mistaken for a hooker, corrects the cop—she starred in Lifetime’s I Am A Hooker. Alongside superfan and assistant Nick (Miguel Pinzon, doing his best with a Just Jack log line and unflagging energy), the women tackle their long-standing assumptions about one another, detecting in the Internet age, and how to deal with fans when you’re breaking into their houses. Though the chemistry between its stars is a little wobbly,  Mystery Girls hopes that if you won’t tune in for the show itself, you might tune in for their inevitable ’90s satin-bloused show-in-show flashbacks.

Despite a blend of heartfelt effort and market research, neither Young & Hungry nor Mystery Girls bring much that’s new to the sitcom landscape. For now, both shows are perhaps most interesting in what they represent: two of ABC Family’s ideal audiences facing off in a season where the network can afford to see if one or both of them sticks. If they can find their footing, it will be anyone’s game.


Young & Hungry
Produced by: David Holden
Starring:  Emily Osment, Jonathan Sadowski, Rex Lee, Kym Whitley
Debuts: Wednesday, June 25 at 8 p.m. 
Format: Half-hour multi-camera sitcom
One episode watched for review

Mystery Girls
Produced by: Shepard Boucher, Tori Spelling
Starring: Jennie Garth, Tori Spelling, Miguel Pinzon
Debuts: Wednesday, June 25 at 8:30 p.m. 
Format: Half-hour multi-camera sitcom
Two episodes watched for review