The second season of Suburgatory has been more eventful than some dramas: break-ups and adoptions and birth mothers and affairs and an apparently lengthy prison sentence for the KKK (free Kimantha!). After a few focused, late-season oddballs, “Go, Gamblers!” feels like the continuing adventures of everyone in Chatswin, more set-up or transition than an episode in its own right. This chunk of Suburgatory is distinguished primarily by the next steps in the plots: George and Dallas agree to move in together, Ryan and Tessa break up, and Sheila discovers there’s no god because Ryan’s going to school in Florida. Even the plots are barely touching, the joints being Ryan’s decision about college (which throws Sheila into her work) and George making peace with selling his house.
That’s not a problem for an episode this funny (“I always knew I was an Electra”). Suburgatory often fills the gaps between its landmarks with pure diversion. This is television, after all. Some might say that with disdain for the boob tube, but television can be as rich as cinema or literature or shaved-hair designs. Suburgatory is camped out between The Middle and Modern Family, and not just on the schedule. The comedy in the former is motivated by potent themes, and the comedy in the latter is motivated by a desire to pack as much entertainment (and suppressed rage) into a half-hour as possible. Sometimes, Suburgatory posits teenage relationships as a dark, delirious mystery. Sometimes, it just throw a bunch of jokes and plot points at the wall.
“Go, Gamblers!” is so funny I wrote down every other line, and that’s only because most of the jokes are responses to set-ups. There was reference to an underage production of The Full Monty, which Fred found brave. Lisa sells out to the North Las Vegas Institute For Casino Studies and spends the episode in snake-skin boots and beeping her pearl-finish Escalade. The Mid-Florida Tech cheer (“Ryan Shay / Ryan Shay / Mid-Florida Tech wants you / Real bad!”) doesn’t rhyme or flow or pun on the wad of cash the women throw in the air. It’s a perfect non sequitur. And the girl Sheila hired to be in the “craft room” of the Altman house is inspired. “Oh, ‘ello, I didn’t hear you come in. I was just sewin’ my poppet.” Sheila distracts the buyer and then tells her, “Take it easy, kid. You’re supposed to be a crafts geek, not a Victorian ghost.”
“Go, Gamblers!” is a crowded house, plot-wise, but it’s first and foremost the next piece of the Dalia puzzle. She has three major scenes, but the episode is so packed that “scene” overstates it most of the time. First she keeps up the creepy best friend routine. If it weren’t Dalia, a line like this one to Tessa would obviously be threatening: “I just hope one day I can return the favor and get involved in something you might not want me involved in. That’s all.” Later, she spies Tessa seeking counsel from Dallas about rigging the Ryan Picks A College game. It’s a welcome scene, but it’s a loogie in a Dallas-Tessa drought. Finally, Dalia uses that information to convince Ryan that Tessa wants him far away from her.
It all makes sense now. Well, except for the same-sex hook-up, but that’s because that’s the one part that’s actually true instead of a clue. Dalia is upset about Tessa encroaching on her turf: her ex-best-friend, her mom, now her house (although all of this started before the house stuff). Even Evan makes a bit of sense if you consider that Dalia might think of Evan as someone Tessa would be interested in. On the other hand, Dalia may or may not actually believe Tessa is a lesbian. Still, “getting involved in something Tessa doesn’t want her to get involved in” probably explains the George pictures, although that is some serial-killer-level detail. That she goes after Ryan, too, seals the deal. This isn’t funny and exciting anymore.
Ryan breaks up with Tessa in a scene with 11 lines. Like all dramatic moments on Suburgatory, this one feels rushed. I get it. This is a comedy. But Suburgatory tries to have serious moments and never quite gives them their due. Tessa doesn’t fight for Ryan; Ryan doesn’t fight for Tessa. It’s just actors getting to the next scene, the pace handcuffing their powerful performances. All I could think of was the delightful term “fan-wanking”: Maybe we’re meant to associate the Carmen Electra scene with Ryan’s adoption freak-out and see that he has a deep fear of abandonment. The episode in general and the scene in specific don’t even suggest that psychology. But I suppose the facts fit. What’s more, Ryan does say he’s most hurt by the fact that Tessa wants to send him away. That he can’t see the self-sacrifice is maybe more troubling.
And then there’s the look on Jane Levy’s face. If there’s one thing I take for granted in these parts, it’s Jane Levy. There’s an obvious point of discussion in a Sheila episode or a break-up episode or a money episode. But almost every episode is a Tessa episode, and except for the occasional voice-over and tablet love affair, she nails it. The break-up scene does plenty of damage even under constraints, but that kill shot is the clincher. Ryan and Tessa sit on opposite sides of his bed, both facing the same direction, the camera still and tight. Ryan’s face is out-of-focus in the foreground, his eyes shadowed and his expression grim. Tessa demands our attention through the whole exchange. “So,” she asks, “What now?” She’s worried, looking out the sides of her eyes, afraid to confront Ryan. She’s also worn out after 10 whole lines, sighing and looking downward. “Nothing now. We’re over.” She takes it in, tries to make sense of it. When it finally fits, she walks out, trying not to cry in front of him. And now Tessa’s ready to go Evil Dead on Dalia in the hour-long finale. It may not be as tantalizing as the “Decemberfold” mystery, but it’s hard to go wrong with Jane Levy.
- George wants to consolidate with Dallas. “We also have two Netflix accounts. I mean, who are we, Jay-Z and Beyonce?”
- Ryan announces his pick at a press conference. “It’s like a whole thing. There are hats involved.”
- Sheila on George’s, uh, house: “What she lacks in looks, she makes up for in girth.” Suburgatory is giving Veronica Mars a run for its money at the Standards And Practices game.
- Tessa tries to help Ryan pick a college. “Okay, so these are the California schools. How do you feel about California?” “You mean sexually?”
- I’ll say it at least two more times, but season two has been extraordinary for Sheila Shay. “Whatever happens, I’ll be fine. I have my career, and I have the two of you, and I have Leslie and Leslie’s baby Ryanna, which of course is not her name, yet.”
- Ryan Shay’s path to glory: “Follow your dreams. And don’t eat carbs. You have to do both if you want to achieve greatness.”
- At the end, George can see Dallas is concerned about them moving in together. “Are you getting cold feet?” “Yes. But for me it’s more of a circulation thing.”