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As cliched as high school

Times Staff Writer

Pity the poor high school guidance counselor. Long the victim of a murky power base -- not a teacher, nor an administrator -- guidance counselors too often must fight daily battles for respect. And now they have to cope with “Miss Guided,” ABC’s new comedy that debuts tonight before moving to its regularly scheduled time slot on Thursdays.

Created by Caroline Williams and, more important, executive-produced by Ashton Kutcher, “Miss Guided,” though sweet and occasionally effervescent, chooses the road most traveled -- the tyranny of high school. This time chronicled by one Becky Freeley (Judy Greer), former Glen Ellen High School loser (she had braces! a bad haircut!) recently returned as guidance counselor. “She was much more attractive than I remembered,” explains Principal Huffy (Earl Billings), setting the tone for things to come.

Now I don’t want to draw any unkind conclusions about writers, since I is one, but it must be noted that the triumph of the high school misfit is a very popular leitmotif -- in a pre-strike episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” even McDreamy copped to former geekhood. Indeed, high school, with all its cliques, heartaches, social bumblings and occasional epiphanies, is pretty much the Rosetta Stone of television comedy.

So, not surprisingly, “Miss Guided” is less about the life of a guidance counselor and more about a perky, charmingly eccentric woman allowed to relive her school days, with, one hopes, more successful results. And look, here’s the former homecoming queen, Lisa Germain (Brooke Burns), who recently joined the staff purportedly as an English teacher, but really to make Becky’s life, once again, a living heck. Of course, Lisa instantly has eyes for the hunky auto-shop-turned-Spanish teacher, Tim (Kristoffer Polaha), whom Becky has been stalking with enchiladas and a dogged persistence one would hope she might bring to her job, but no.

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The students in “Miss Guided” are merely expositional devices, allowing Becky to deliver weirdly wise little lectures or, more often, serving as props -- in the second episode, Jamie Lynn Spears shows up as a young woman Becky has persuaded to attend college. The girl is on screen less than two minutes, to deliver that very message. Twice. In case any parents in the audience were thinking, “You know, this Becky chick is probably the worst guidance counselor I have ever seen.”

But then film and television are rarely kind to high school faculty. Maverick teachers occasionally rehabilitate the teeming masses, but for the most part they are portrayed as power abusers, pedophiles or simply dim-witted foils, even more petty and immature than their students. And so it is in “Miss Guided.” Principal Huffy is, as his name would suggest, an autocrat who naps in his car during school hours and half-heartedly puts the moves on Becky; vice principal Bruce Terry (Chris Parnell) is vain and insecure (“thank God for the dumb kids,” he says of auto shop) and Lisa is the hot predatory English teacher found in pretty much every dramatic depiction of high school since Aeschylus.

Yet silly and unsurprising as it seems, “Miss Guided” has something going for it that many predictable sitcoms do not: a uniformly talented cast. Greer pretty much defines delightful, so much so that you find yourself rooting for the show even during the pilot’s many low moments (like when Becky almost causes an accident charging through the parking lot so she can “accidentally” park next to Tim.) Polaha’s Tim is the ultimate dishy nice guy (though why he has to be a Spanish teacher who doesn’t speak Spanish, a one-joke twist at best, is beyond me). And though it would be nice if the sexual harassment angle of Becky and Principal Huffy’s relationship was dropped, Billings has a deadpan delivery that Bill Murray would envy.

So when the second episode (co-starring Kutcher hilariously as a roguish substitute Spanish teacher) provides a vast improvement on the pilot, it would require a reviewer with a harder heart than mine not to hope that “Miss Guided,” the show and the character, will move away from pat stereotypes and gain enough maturity to, in guidance-counselor speak, live up to its own potential.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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‘Miss Guided’

Where: ABC

When: 10:30 tonight; regular time 8 and 8:30 p.m. Thursdays

Rating: TV-PG-LV (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for coarse language and violence)


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