Most comedies burrow into humorous stereotypes to reveal the full, three-dimensional human beings inside, but not many are about that process, and even fewer commit like Suburgatory. Watch one episode, and it looks like a bunch of cartoons bouncing off each other—which isn’t far off, actually, not that that’s a problem. Compare that to an episode of a vanilla comedy like Modern Family, New Girl, Up All Night, or whatever CBS airs. It’s easy to come away thinking Suburgatory is the shallowest simply because everything in Chatswin is so much more heightened, while more generic comedies seem to more closely resemble real life. They all reach that final Full House moment, with or without the tinkly music, but on Suburgatory, that little catharsis involves a pet kangaroo and three seconds of under-the-shirt action. It’s understandably harder to take seriously at first blush. But watch a few more installments, and the relief is unmistakable. Every episode enriches the characters in the expansive world of Chatswin. Subplots take their time bubbling up to the surface. And growth is naturally slow but real. Suburgatory is playing a long game. And right now, it’s handily winning.
Because it’s invested in long-term storytelling but looks like a bunch of standalones, Suburgatory is a great example of the hazards of episodic reviewing. For several episodes, George and Tessa were so snobby it was more off-putting than any incest jokes Twitter could come up with. What did those pill-popping, conformist, street-walking soccer moms ever do to the Altmans? As it turns out, that rigid opening position gave the Altmans plenty of room to grow, and the season has methodically explored the hearts and minds of the former stereotypes that call Chatswin home. Until “Down Time” it would have been incredibly plausible to think Dalia doesn’t care about her parents’ divorce beyond the material spoils headed her way, but enough time has passed that Dalia and Dallas are both realizing the permanence of the situation. “Down Time” glimpses the wounded women underneath the bubbly chit-chat. It also finds surprising behavior in Ryan Shay. Even Noah gets a moment that isn’t superficial. There are real people in these characters.
At its most basic level, though, “Down Time” is plain funny, a half-hour of well-made entertainment. Writer Brian Chamberlayne previously wrote another laugh-out-loud episode where the real Dalia poked through her medication for once, “Driving Miss Dalia,” and director Alex Hardcastle helmed two of the strongest episodes yet, “Thanksgiving” and “Fire With Fire.” So it’s no surprise that their collaboration delivers such consistent hilarity surfing across the harder truths: the numerous manifestations of Sheila Shay’s aggressive parenting (“Regular bowel movements, from what I can hear”); the funk music cue for all of Lisa and Malik’s interactions; poor, awkward Evan using Barry White to hit on Tessa; Dallas getting Yakult a grill like Nelly just to avoid facing whatever she feels about the divorce. Just because several characters are experiencing new, complicated feelings doesn’t mean life stops being funny. The quintessential scene is Dalia opening up to Noah late at night as they eat Chinese take-out on the hood of his car, the camera slowly getting closer to her. For every sincere confession of her anger, there’s a reference to “The Hangover monkey, like from that movie The Hangover” that lets us see the real person without going blind.
Meanwhile, the one time Dallas finds herself undistracted, she winds up unable to leave the mattress store, much to the frustration of the salesman played by Jonathan Slavin. Naturally George climbs up next to her and inspires her to get back to her life for the sake of her daughter, and she sits up and asks, “Am I okay?” with a totally unfamiliar expression that just hurts. As usual, Cheryl Hines is a ninja. Even more beautiful is the way the subplot wraps up, with Dallas talking to Dalia about all of their resentments, rational and otherwise. These aren't clear, definite emotions with a precise, writerly cause and effect, and it's okay that the characters don't fully understand what they're feeling right now. Each of them has something to pull them a little further—a new wardrobe for Dallas and a pet Kangaroo Jack for Dalia—but this is a long-term story that doesn’t wrap up after a tearful monologue.
Tessa is also feeling recently alone, immediately going from the cool, urban girl to the third wheel among her group of friends. What’s most fascinating is how Jane Levy plays it straight. The words insist she’s okay with the new dynamic of her group until Lisa and Malik start conspiring, but Levy suggests Tessa’s discomfort early on, independent of the voice-overs. In any case, “Down Time” nails that situation. It’s not the dating per se but the conspiring, for lack of a better word, that affects the dynamic, the way Lisa and Malik are going to grow closer and Tessa will still be at a certain remove. Maybe that’s why she agrees to spend an evening with puppy dog Ryan Shay. At the end, she even agrees to let him feel her boob, just one, for three seconds, and it’s weirdly sweet as they stand there in her front yard at night.
Tessa’s situation hasn’t magically resolved itself either. She and Dallas and Dalia are just going to have to get used to life. Sure, next week, Tessa will be relatively well adjusted, Dalia will be a superficial rage-monster, and Dallas will be a flighty real housewife. But unlike some comedies, that won’t be the status quo. Each of them is changing. The suburbs are opening up. It’s been weeks since Tessa exalted the city, and not just thanks to hiatus.
- We’re only a few months from Emmy season. Blah blah they’re just awards, but still, Allie Grant happily shimmying under the bathroom stall to announce “I’ve taken Malik as a lover” is at least as brilliant as what Carly Chaikin and Cheryl Hines pull off tonight. In a just world, Suburgatory deserves some serious awards scrutiny. “Cause me and you, we’re for real. Like Thelma and that other hoe.”
- Tessa sure knows how to spend a night alone—biting into a stick of butter, really getting into Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and combing her dolls’ hair—but it was nice of Ryan Shay to rescue her.
- James Lipton may not have much range, but he brings all the menace of his Arrested Development warden to his role here as Dalia's therapist with unusual methods. "Until you put those words into my mouth, I didn't even realize I felt them."
- Mom of the Week goes to Sheila Shay: “Now you listen to me, Lisa Marie. For years I have sat here while you prattled on about your social life when nothing even remotely interesting was going on. Well, now that things are getting real, I want details.”