All the things that make Suburgatory a good TV show can also make it a bad one. To watch the series is to careen wildly between highs and lows, racing from storyline to storyline, joke to joke, overblown satirical moment to pitch-perfect dramatic beat, set to a lovely Radiohead cover. To love the show is to understand that this is the stew creator Emily Kapnek is cooking up, one that pops with all sorts of wild, funky flavors. Not every bite will be to everybody’s taste, but hopefully there will be one or two bites per stew that are transcendent.
Nowhere was this collision between the show’s best and worst selves more evident than in the back half of its second season. The series nixed a voyage of self-discovery for its lead character, Tessa Altman (Jane Levy), shifting focus to more over-broad suburban and endless romantic plots between Tessa’s father, George (Jeremy Sisto) and Dallas Royce (Cheryl Hines). (The show’s most obnoxiously over-the-top satirical character, Dallas often appears to be trying to single-handedly populate an entire Real Housewives franchise.) There were good episodes in there—“Chinese Chicken” is one of the show’s funniest ever—but the overall effect was one storyline being squashed in favor of wheezy gags about how city folks are like this, but suburban dudes are like this. Yet, Kapnek and company stuck the landing, with a stunner of a one-hour finale that wiped the slate clean for a third season that was far from a sure thing.
This being a TV sitcom, everything is back to the status quo by the end of tonight’s season premiere. But in its third season, Suburgatory has simplified in ways that directly benefit its ability to keep its many tones meshed together. From its pilot, this series has felt overstuffed, filled with elements that could add spice here and there, but weren’t necessary. For season three, the series cut a number of regular and recurring cast members and drilled down to its core trio of families: the Altmans, their across-the-street neighbors the Shays, and the Royces. Stories that would be swept away in a flurry of Tessa narration in earlier seasons now have room to breathe.
Everything on Suburgatory only works if there’s a hint of ballast keeping the satire from floating off into outer space. Focusing on only three families makes it easier to find the humor in Dallas reconnecting with daughter Dalia (Carly Chaikin), and the writers can also provide the development with genuine pathos that weren’t possible in earlier seasons, because everything had to rocket along so quickly. It also means that stories that might fall down the show’s black hole of occasionally weird racial politics (such as Dalia’s obsession with her maid) get just enough time to tweak themselves to become more interesting and weird. The Shays, struggling to find ways to occupy themselves after their son leaves for college (and actor Parker Young leaves for Enlisted), take in a foster child who initially seems like another wacky and unfortunate one-episode plot. However, the kid sticks around long enough to get actual depth and character growth.
Suburgatory’s hidden strength has always been its cast, but the series’ greatest accomplishment is in the wide variety of teenage players it’s been able to find—particularly when it comes to the show’s many different takes on what it means to be a teenage girl. Levy, Chaikin, and Allie Grant (as Tessa’s best friend, Lisa Shay) all offer deeply nuanced, surprisingly poignant portrayals of young women constantly coming to crossroads within their own lives and within their families, while still being so dead-on at delivering lines that they’re able to wring jokes out of just about anything. Add to that core cast the show’s sprawling, more effectively deployed list of recurring players, and Suburgatory is poised to better balance its comedic and dramatic souls.
These episodes were filmed months ago, in ways that occasionally show. There’s a joke about twerking—though it’s a funny one—and one episode prominently uses Lorde’s “Royals” as a music cue—a good idea when the song was affordable and unknown, but overkill in a world where it’s been played 5 million times. But the episodes also feel better calibrated in ways that make the wacky moments feel less strained and more connected to the emotional gut punches the series now dishes out almost as a matter of course. There’s always been a fantastic show about growing up—at any age—at the middle of Suburgatory, but easy gags about suburban weirdos obscured it. Season three solves that dilemma, no matter how inadvertently. The show may have been simplified due to budgetary concerns, but that makes its core themes shine all the brighter.
Created by: Emily Kapnek
Starring: Jeremy Sisto, Jane Levy, Carly Chaikin, Allie Grant, Cheryl Hines
Returns: Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on ABC
Format: Half-hour single-camera comedy
Three season-three episodes watched for review