How Suburgatory-esque to follow the intricate, golden “The Wishbone” with an episode where Tessa uses her tablet at the movies. The omens are there right from the beginning—and does ABC have some sort of stock footage quota?—with that voice-over introduction about metamorphosis followed by George emerging from a dressing room looking like the beautiful Chatswin butterfly he’s become. It couldn't be more overdetermined without George literally sprouting wings and floating off with the story. It’s not the cartoonishness itself but the quality of the cartoonishness that sinks Suburgatory’s airier adventures. It’s funny that George is dressed like Sheila. It’s preposterous that he’d then keep the sun hat on, rave about zero-cal beverages, and prepare whatever he was preparing for his prick New York friends all while they're obviously judging him. The missing ingredient, the spice that so elevates “The Wishbone,” is subtlety.
Here’s what I mean by “overdetermined”: Not only does Tessa narrate that George is a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, but Dallas has to underline. Not only does George look like Sheila in his sun hat, pink polo, and gardening clogs, but he and Tessa debate the subject. Across the way, Sheila is wearing the same outfit, which again becomes a point of discussion. Not only is it obvious that Dallas bedazzled the boards for George’s architectural pitch, but dialogue quickly points a neon sign at it. Worse yet: “It’s amazing how some glue and a few crappy plastic beads can really class up any project.” Dallas thinks the beads are crappy yet have a classy transformative effect? Keep picking and you’ll find “a bust of Lisa’s head,” but you get the picture. “Friendship Fish” is very, very written. If there were any one-sided phone-calls I’m sure we’d hear restatements of unheard questions like, “Why am I calling? I’m calling to yada yada yada,” because hand-holding makes the best context.
At the heart of “Friendship Fish,” though, is a scene that takes advantage of Suburgatory’s formlessness. It arises from a sleepover with which newly single Lisa is inadvertently smothering the life out of Tessa. Tessa calls Sheila as a fire marshal to rat out Lisa’s closet smoker (no, no, it’s a wood smoker that’s currently in Lisa’s closet), but a Poe-inspired nightmare about the talking, tell-tale friendship fish that died for Tessa and Lisa’s friendship urges her to confess. (This episode is like a puzzle whose missing pieces were replaced with some from other puzzles and some tape and a Chance card.) So the most scattered episode of the season finds its way to a quietly focused scene, and one that somehow doesn’t use all that many words. Tessa owns up to playing the fire marshal, and Lisa is stunned. But she explains: Ever since Lisa and Malik got together, Lisa has been spending less time with Tessa. And that's fine, but Tessa found other ways to fill it. (Yes, with her tablet; it’s Suburgatory-silly, but there’s still truth there.) There’s a funny bit where Lisa treats the tablet with jealous hostility. There’s a sweet moment where they dig into the friendship fish that’s been smoking since Lisa got back from macramé camp this summer. In the end, of course, Tessa and Lisa renew their vows, as it were. But their complications are the most interesting piece of this episode, recalling Tessa’s third-wheel phase and testifying to her independence. How comfortable is Tessa really with her social life? Have she and Lisa discussed Malik yet? It’s a good scene, but there’s a lot more in that mine if “Friendship Fish” would have explored it.
Instead, we have to spend time with George’s urban snob friends. Credit where it’s due: The story avoids a nice, comforting cliché in favor of sticking it to assholes. Instead of eventually winning them around to the lo-cal, silicone wonders of suburban life, George winds up competing with them for an architectural project he threw together with Dallas’ help. George doesn’t get the project, but neither do they, so that’s a win. Under these circumstances, George’s lame finger-gun exit almost merits a fist-pump.
A quarter of the way into the season, I’m less confident that Suburgatory is more confident this season. Of the two stinkers, “Friendship Fish” in particular indulges season-one cravings like turning the adults into Muppet Babies and throwing everything into the pot. On the other hand, the silliest thing Dallas says is about bedazzling. Fred and Noah are walking sight gags, but their performances are pretty even-keeled. Only George and his I-can’t-overstate-how-repulsively-snobby friends are forced into totally inhuman behaviors. That gives me hope. In an episode without Dalia, I’ll take what I can get.
- In case you missed it, Todd wrote a stirring, illuminating piece about “The Wishbone” and being adopted. More of that Suburgatory, please.
- As long as the producers are trying anything for a laugh, that fantasy montage of Malik offering his beloved a bust of herself and dancing with them in the front yard is pretty terrific. Possibly because it's hypothetical.
- I love when anyone (in this case Dallas, but also Leslie Knope) compares her significant other to someone who looks nothing like him. “He is my Snipes in shining armor.”
- Lisa is mercifully starting to show more range, but she’s still pretty soft and clipped. “Whether I’m headed to French or another man’s arms is none of your business.” I wouldn’t mind an all-out fight episode to see Lisa really let loose.
- Fred shows up to meet George’s friends looking like one of The Outsiders. “Folks around here call me Cha-Cha on account of being the best dancer in Chatswin.”