‘Mystery Girls’ and ‘Young & Hungry’: Why Can’t ABC Family Get Comedy Right?

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ABC Family, or at least the most recent incarnation of ABC Family, has had surprising luck with dramas. Pretty Little Liars, Switched At Birth, and The Fosters have all found a sweet spot where they are loved by the teen demographic and praised by TV critics. When it comes to comedy, however, the network has been lacking. 10 Things I Hate About You couldn’t step out of the movie’s shadow, The Middleman was never given the chance it deserved, and the only funny thing about Roommates was when ABC Family mistakenly posted a clip without a laugh track. Its two newest comedies (summer replacements for the often dull Melissa & Joey and Baby Daddy) are Mystery Girls and Young & Hungry. Neither do much to elevate the network’s comedy offerings.

All these sitcoms provide, albeit unintentionally, is proof of how out of touch ABC Family is when it comes to comedy. Both comedies feature bubbly, talkative blondes and gay assistants. Both are vaguely nostalgic — Mystery Girls more explicitly; Young & Hungry is a strange throwback to colorful multi-cam sitcoms — and both would be better fits for other networks (Disney, TV Land). Both feel out of place on a network that is visibly trying to become something better.

Young & Hungry feels like a leftover Disney sitcom, and not just because it stars Emily Osment and is produced by Ashley Tisdale. In it, Gabi Diamond (Osment) is a broke 20-something food blogger who ends up working for a rich tech entrepreneur, Josh (Jonathan Sadowski, previously seen hamming it up on S#*! My Dad Says). The bright sets, laugh track, and high school theatrical performances are Disney 101. It’s a little racier than the average Disney show, but only in a watered-down ABC Family way. “Last time I saw this much stainless steel, I was getting a pap smear,” Gabi cracks, hugging a fridge, as the “audience” erupts in laughter. Rounding out the cast is Rex Lee (Entourage) as Elliot, who obviously has a crush on Josh, and Kym Whitley as Yolanda, the sassy housekeeper who stops just short of punctuating all her lines with a Z-snap. They are both one-note characters, the sort of total caricatures it’s become increasingly rare to see on TV.

Young & Hungry is clearly supposed to be relatable to struggling young women — Gabi constantly mentions her money problems, and the awful tagline reads “Believe in your selfie” — but Gabi also gets the job within the first five minutes of the pilot. The show isn’t about Gabi’s struggles but about her easily getting a job, then sleeping with her boss, then continuing to have this cushy job while crushing on her boss. It’s the younger version of The Nanny in the way that Melissa & Joey is the younger version of Who’s The Boss? She’s the feisty help and he’s the boss who she’s in love with. After they have sex, he gets back together with his girlfriend so the show can continue to have a will-they/won’t-they storyline with Gabi.

Mystery Girls at least seems somewhat aware of its ridiculous premise and the fact that it probably shouldn’t even exist. The show reunites Jennie Garth and Tori Spelling in the lead roles, as former TV starlets who co-starred in a popular show called Mystery Girls where they, yep, solved mysteries. Mystery Girls belongs on TV Land, where the comedies feature once-famous actors who previously starred on much better shows, and where each show is built on nostalgic cravings and simplistic plots.

The pilot episode — ABC Family is showing the third episode first, which is never a good sign — sets up their current lives: Charlie (Garth) has settled down in the suburbs with a husband and children but is growing bored, whereas Holly (Spelling) has struggled to stay in the limelight with poor results (I will admit that I laughed at the idea of a Celebrity Beekeeper show). The show’s biggest fan, Nick (Miguel Pinzon), witnesses a murder but tells the cops he’ll only talk to Charlie and Holly. Then Charlie and Holly decide to start an actual detective business. It’s utterly stupid, but that’s the point.

Everyone on the show seems in on the joke — that Spelling and Garth were both once big stars who have failed to relaunch their careers, and that there’s no way these two untrained women can actually be detectives — and that’s the only saving grace. In “Death Becomes Her,” the episode that will air tonight, Charlie and Holly solve a “mystery” before the cold open, and the rest of the episode is just them lying about Holly’s death in order to sell her possessions, then stumbling into a sex tape scandal. Why? Why not! That’s the general sense of Mystery Girls: Why not? Why not give Tori Spelling a scripted show (she is the co-creator)? Why not let every actor scream their lines and beg for laughs? Why not include one of the most stereotypical gay characters ever on television — a fabulous assistant who screeches over Lady Gaga tickets?

Both Mystery Girls and Young & Hungry, despite being opposites in terms of their intended audiences, look very much like the same show. Neither is able to rise above trite sitcom conventions. Instead, they continue the trend of lame and unwatchable sitcoms that will travel on the same backward track, never doing anything to help the network’s reputation.