Katie Finneran, left, Aisha Dee, Kristi Lauren and Jaime Pressly star in… (Beth Dubber / Fox )
Although it follows one of the roads most taken by family sitcoms — beleaguered single parents, horrible kids — Fox's "I Hate My Teenage Daughter" asks a surprisingly significant question: What happens when people raise their children in a manner that is essentially an attempt to re-parent themselves?
It's a smart and relevant premise, given that so many parents of teenagers today came of age during a time of social revelation, in which previously taboo issues, including addiction, abuse and sexual diversity, were discussed in a way that one hopes makes life easier for each subsequent generation. How those raised in dysfunctional homes create a healthier model for parenting is a topic rife with both comedy and pathos.
But the social pendulum being what it is, attention has too often swung from truth-telling and self-knowledge to whining and self-centeredness: Throw in a dose of sexism and you get the new age of personal enlightenment as defined by women who eat too much or spend too much and then sob to their BFFs about their lack of self-esteem.
Which is where, alas, much of "I Hate My Teenage Daughter" seems to feel the most comfortable.
With a brilliance that is, given the context, heartbreaking to behold, Jaime Pressly and Katie Finneran play Annie and Nikki, two single moms attempting to save their daughters from the horrors of their own high school years. Annie was raised in a household so religiously conservative that she was not allowed to listen to music or watch television, and Nikki was the overweight and unattractive product of too much criticism.
Their daughters, by contrast, are pretty and popular, and because we live in a Tina Fey post-Mean Girls world, exquisitely awful. Sophie (Kristi Lauren) belongs to Annie, MacKenzie (Aisha Dee) to Nikki and two episodes in, that's really all I can tell you — they are stylish, mean and seem to have no other interest save back-talk and texting.
There are fathers, of course — Annie's ex Matt (Eric Sheffer Stevens) is a scruffy musician, Nikki's Gary (Chad Coleman) a grumpy golf pro — but as men on a sitcom in 2011, they are, by definition, incapable of any meaningful action beyond nailing a one-liner. (Seriously guys, isn't it time for organized protest?)
So it's all the mothers' fault that the girls are so awful, which isn't just a depressingly limited view of parenting — either your kids are outcast and miserable or self-confident and horrible — but a depressingly limited view of comedy as well. Having come up with an intriguing premise, co-creators Sherry Bilsing-Graham ("The New Adventures of Old Christine," "Friends") and Ellen Kreamer ("The New Adventures of Old Christine,") are either too timid or too hamstrung by network expectations to execute it. Instead they work the depleted field of female insecurity and self-doubt, making Annie and Nikki stunted adolescents blatantly trying to relive their teen years through their more socially assured daughters.
There are laughs to be had in "I Hate My Teenage Daughter," mainly because Pressly and Finneran are so darn good at what they do. Pressly has a bit more to work with, cracking wise about her religious-nut upbringing yet still sending little prayers heavenward. Finneran is saddled with more criminally predictable issues — at one point, she eats an entire pie with her hands.
The fact that she makes her character more than occasionally very funny may be worth an Emmy nod, or the television academy's equivalent of a Purple Heart.