Somewhere during the hip-hop dance fight between George and Dallas I gave up trying to make sense of this episode. This isn’t exactly the bad Suburgatory, because the characters are recognizably themselves: Tessa’s a little righteous, Dalia is a lot whiny, George and Dallas gradually get sucked into childish behavior. But the episode is split into three distinct plots that don’t really resonate with one another, so it feels exactly like the sum of its parts. And those parts include a kidnapping, an adult dance-off, and the world’s grossest pudding skin, so it’s a wonder this episode stays afloat at all.
It starts when Tessa needles Dalia about the PSAT score that earned her a car, which is ultimately more a question of Dallas’ parenting than Dalia’s intellect. So the kids wind up in a hip-hop dance class, the one place where Dalia can definitely outperform Tessa, and the parents wind up in a passive-aggressive battle of parenting. Dallas throws a bunch of rocks from her glass house—funny barbs like how George lets Tessa leave the house wearing whatever she wants—and before you know it, Dallas is moon-walking and George is “break-dancing” in a trucker hat and nobody is winking and it’s glorious. By the standards of this episode, anyway. The commitment is vital.
Meanwhile the Shays kidnap Malik so they can barter for Ryan. Lisa is hilarious as the bait, leaning against a van, smoking a Twizzler, and distracting Malik with talk of getting back together. But what a cold turn! The implication is that Lisa cares more about her brother than her ex, but still. It’s even worse that Lisa sells out in service of some wacky antics. Malik makes a docile hostage, and Sheila makes a hospitable kidnapper, so they agree to have dinner at Malik’s to exchange children. At no point do Malik’s parents know any of this is going down, probably because Malik’s mom is too busy poking her lawyerly nose into Ryan’s business. Like he could have come up with emancipation on his own. The dinner is fraught with sitcom hijinks, but there are flashes of humanity, like when Malik tries to defend Lisa against Ryan. But the Shays leave dinner without their son. Instead, Ryan’s love for pudding skins brings him back home. And Malik’s mom’s distaste for pudding skin sinks her nefarious emancipation schemes. It’s all such fluff, a powerful storyline fizzling out. But at least it’s unusual, right? You don’t see parents kidnapping the kid of the people their adoptive son is staying with every day.
Oh, and the Werners get the illustrious private pre-school plot that television writers love. In a Chatswin twist, Opus is already trying out at six months, and Mr. Wolfe, who has some unseen and presumably (but only presumably) hilarious experience in this arena, is coaching him. Something something no-go. Opus is an average six-month-old so far as Mr. Wolfe can tell. He sure is cute, though, knocking over toy towers with the best of 'em.
Once again, Suburgatory is united only and very generally by its parenting theme. The Werners learn, well, decide to love Opus even though he’s not measurably a genius at six months. The Shays’ generosity with pudding skins convinces Ryan that they do love him, even if they were withholding the story of his adoption. Dallas and George criticize each other’s parenting, but when their kids make up, they see how silly they are. The morals are sweet but half-assed, none of it packing anything a middle-aged hip-hop dance student would even call a punch. Not that “Black Thai” has much interest in pathos, exactly. But the episode does strain for a sweet surprise ending for the Shays. Unfortunately, while Ryan’s adoption is clearly serious to Ryan, it’s not to this episode, at least not until the ending, so the reunion is inevitably thin. The Shays find Ryan at home, Ryan re-embraces his Shay name, and whatever emotion I feel is swallowed up by the credits.