How the live-action cartoon Suburgatory became one of TV’s best dramas

How the live-action cartoon Suburgatory became one of TV’s best dramas

The first time I met my siblings, I was 28. Born to two college kids who weren’t sure what else to do, I was put up for adoption and ended up in the middle of nowhere, raised by two people who were gloriously thankful to have a child after years of trying. A few years after I arrived, they adopted a daughter, my sister, and our relationship was like any other sibling relationship, full of fights and love and gradual acceptance that we were the only two people who could possibly understand what it was like to be raised by our parents. But I always had that mystery, that sense that there was some other piece of myself I hadn’t yet found. The day I met my other brother and sister, the day she stood up, and I finally saw someone who more or less looked like me, it all snapped into place. For those raised by their biological parents, among biological siblings, the idea of not having this knowledge constantly present is alien, yet on that day, at 28, I knew at once a million other things about myself. I was a part of a continuum, stretching back centuries, and so was he, and so was she.

I’d never encountered that feeling expressed in a work of art as well as I did in the most recent episode of Suburgatory, “The Wishbone.” In the series, the protagonist, 17-year-old Tessa Altman (the wonderful Jane Levy) has been raised her whole life by her father, George (Jeremy Sisto). Tessa’s mother, Alex, split when she was a baby, so Tessa has never known her. Add on to that the fact that George and Alex were young parents, and the show posits that the relationship between Tessa and George is almost more similar to one between siblings, not one between a father and his daughter. Yet as Tessa’s embarked on her quest to find her mother, the series has examined what it means to realize you don’t know certain pieces of yourself. Tessa first had to realize that she even wanted to know these pieces of herself, which took up most of the show’s first season. Now, she’s been tossed into the emotionally uncertain seas of meeting a woman she’s never known, who’s, nonetheless, one of the most important people in her life.

Suburgatory is ostensibly a comedy. It can be riotously funny, particularly when focusing on odd-couple siblings Lisa and Ryan (more on them in a bit) or the wonderfully deadpan Dalia (Carly Chaikin, who gets more out of a limited range of expression than anyone else on TV). The series has a gently satirical bent that occasionally hurts it more than helps it. And it’s quite good at relationship and romantic comedy, at playing up the sweetness of a new relationship, or the ways that the end of relationships can be funny as well. Yet in some ways, the show may be stronger when viewed as a drama that’s just really good at cracking jokes. The core of the show is a girl whose search for self leads her to unexpected, emotionally painful places, and the series dares to express emotions that are unusual on television. Not everything the show does works, but when Suburgatory is working, there’s no show with a stronger sense of its own emotional content. It’s surprisingly rich for a series that began as a wacky live-action cartoon.

Those cartoonish elements are still the series’ Achilles’ heel. Suburgatory balances so many different tones that it’s almost inevitable that there will be a handful of episodes that outright fail each season, no matter how hard the talented ensemble and writers, led by creator and showrunner Emily Kapnek, work to keep them afloat. The show’s take on life in the suburbs often lacks the sort of bite or originality that would give it the freshness of the best satire. (Fortunately, the show seemed to realize this about midway through season one and only attempts this sort of satire once in a great while at this point.) The adult characters can be too broad, particularly Cheryl Hines’ Dallas, an egotistical alpha mom whose first-season divorce rattled her but didn’t truly throw her off her game. Hines displays several eyeroll-worthy examples of over-the-top behavior this season, including a bedroom wallpapered with her picture and a seemingly endless montage of her doing an impromptu runway walk before a first date.

Yet when the show zeroes in on its emotional content, everything about it immediately clicks. Dallas, for instance, is never a better character than when the stakes are high, when she digs deep into her survivalist soul and finds just the advice needed for the situations other characters have wandered into that week, like if Wilson on Home Improvement occasionally seemed like a leftover one-off gag character from King Of The Hill. In “The Wishbone,” Dallas is the one who’s able to give George the space he needs to be upset about how Alex’s flakiness ruined his own life and hurt his daughter’s life, while still encouraging him to let his daughter get to know her mother. Similarly, Alan Tudyk’s Noah, the only character the show seemingly had no idea what to do with in season one, has popped in season two with a new baby to care for, his devil-may-care façade cracking more and more as time goes on.

Yet where Suburgatory most excels on an emotional level is in its depiction of the relationship between George and Tessa, as well as its various storylines about its numerous teenage characters. Shows that treat teenage problems with the sort of life-and-death gravitas teens themselves assign to their own problems are common, but Suburgatory is the best show I’ve ever seen at depicting how teenagers are constantly, brutally forced to realize that their parents and other adult confidantes are just fellow human beings, as prone to making mistakes and hurting each other as teens are. This is a necessary part of growing up and adolescence, and the show seems to offer up a new example of this with every episode, as well as a new example of its teen characters realizing that forgiving people for the ways they’ve unintentionally slighted you is a vital part of the process, too.

The best example of this comes from Lisa and Ryan, the teenagers who live across the street from the Altmans. Confident, oafish Ryan (agreeably doofy Parker Young) is the jock next door, a character who began the series as a generic idiot athlete/bully, then revealed hidden depths, particularly via an unexpected crush on Tessa. Brittle, sarcastic Lisa (Allie Grant, in a performance that really needs some Emmy recognition) is a girl trying to run from the fact that she’s a part of her family, that she has more in common with her mother, consummate homemaker Sheila (Ana Gasteyer), than she’d ever want to admit. In the middle of season one, Lisa discovers that one of the Shay siblings is adopted. Clinging to the belief that it’s her, Lisa begins the process of confirming this, only to learn that it’s Ryan who’s adopted, as if it could ever have been her.

The revelation both shatters her and pushes her to confront her parents, who ask her not to tell Ryan. The story’s played out with certain elements of sitcom cliché—the goofy blackmail fodder Lisa now holds over her parents’ head has been hit-or-miss—but at its core is the ever-shifting relationship between Lisa and Ryan, who’ve somehow become even closer now that she knows his secret. They’re two people, not united by blood or DNA, but they’re unquestionably siblings. By holding this idea up to the microscope, Suburgatory is once again playing with its understanding that unconventional family structures feel like, and are, unquestionably families. But they can also leave open spaces that are easy to fall into, places where not everyone is emotionally prepared to go, and you have to feel your way in the dark until the contours of the maze start to make sense. The series has also done some lovely work in Lisa’s relationship with her boyfriend, Malik (Maestro Harrell), whose unwillingness to simply sign on to her blanket condemnation of her mother has resulted in some moving material.

Yet it’s always Tessa and George who are the heart of the show. In “The Wishbone,” the feelings both of them have about their relationship—or lack thereof—with Alex are filled in with two shots, accomplished completely without dialogue. In the first, Tessa, who went into the city to meet her mother at her grandmother’s apartment, only to be disappointed yet again, arrives at her father’s Thanksgiving celebration to find that Alex has shown up there. She walks into the living room to see Alex sitting so that she’s surrounded by all of the other people Tessa has come to know since moving to the suburbs. It’s meant to be an intensely private moment. It’s supposed to be an intensely private moment. But all of these people keep crowding in and messing it up. (The director even highlights this by having a side character’s head enter the frame as a comedic beat to end the scene.) And yet the tether is still there, the emotions running like a bridge between the two women. Tessa was a girl with a mystery at her center, and now she’s opened the door—at a moment when she was unprepared to—and found herself faced with the answers. She can no longer blame an unknown someone for her failings or successes (as she’s tried before). She only has herself and her own inability to find her way through that dark maze.

The second shot comes after Alex and Tessa have retired to the latter’s room. (As Alex, Malin Akerman offers someone wounded by regret but similarly curious about her daughter’s life, wandering her room for whatever clues she can find.) George, sitting on the stairway where he can hear his daughter and former lover laughing, quietly basks in his melancholy. The autumnal, shadowed lighting and camera angle isolate George in such a way that he’s both trapped by the bars on the stairwell’s railing and in the far upper portion of the frame; he’s tiny and ineffectual, suggesting that he’s finally entered a place he can’t figure out. Alex has been a villain to his conception of his own life for so long that he’s not yet ready to understand how his daughter now needs her to be a part of her own. Intellectually, he understands that Tessa needs this. Emotionally, he’s hurt by how much focus and emphasis the daughter he’s raised all by himself is placing on the woman who abandoned her.

It’s impossible to know when tuning into Suburgatory which version of the show will turn up, and while the show’s more comedic half-hours are often excellent, they can lack the punch of episodes like “The Wishbone.” Yet when the show digs into its dramatic core, into the relationships and regrets its characters explore only reluctantly, it’s like nothing else on TV in how well it explores unfamiliar emotional terrain. Kapnek and her writing team are often ingenious at digging into these places and making them count, at jerking tears as easily as they garner laughs.

It’s rare for television to provoke an emotional reaction in me, so wrapped up am I in examining story structure and questions of performance or direction. But “The Wishbone” garnered the reaction it wanted from me in its gorgeous denouement: more tears than I’ve spilled for a silly TV show in quite a while. And, yes, I’m predisposed to like stories about this subject matter, but I would hope even those who have no notion of how to navigate these emotional waters would be moved by the series’ increasingly emotional depth as well. The genius of Suburgatory is the way its candy-coated surface—the very thing that makes it possible for the show to have outright awful episodes—makes the emotional wallop it can pack all the more unexpected. We all want to see ourselves reflected on TV, to see things we can recognize, and in Suburgatory, I more and more often have seen the relationship I’m building with my own brother and sister, no matter how late in life I met them. We, too, fumble through the dark, feeling out the maze, looking for the center, where we might find something that feels like a family.

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