After last week’s episode, in which everyone seemed to suffer from temporary memory loss, this week’s Suburgatory got back into the character groove. It was probably the least funny episode so far, but that certainly doesn’t make it the worst. There has been a tension in the show’s construction to date, a central problem it has yet to fully address: Does it actually want to be a live-action cartoon, or does it actually want to populate the candy-colored backgrounds with flesh-and-blood human beings? That schism seems to exist as well in the fanbase of the show, with both sides seemingly split down the middle. Me? I’ll always favor character-based observational humor over a steady stream of punchlines. And on that front, “Halloween” offered a lot more hope for the show’s long-term success than recent weeks.
What primarily worked was how the show used the holiday to explore specific fears of certain characters, rather than go for a string of ironic costumes designed to elicit cheap laughs. Sure, we got a slutty mushroom halfway through the episode. But really, the episode centered on persistent worries bubbling to the surface. There wasn’t really an “A” story or a “B” story in this outing: Both held equal weight, starting and ending in the Altmans’ overly decorated front yard. And while the episode bookended its stories there, “Halloween” didn’t really focus on either Altman as the primary protagonist. While we saw their stories unfold through their eyes, tonight’s episode was really about the two people with whom they primarily interacted: Dallas and Lisa.
Cheryl Hines has taken a bit of a beating so far around here for her part in Suburgatory, and I can’t quite understand why. If anything, she’s barely registered as Dallas Royce, a superficial housewife that until tonight more or less stayed on the same level of artificiality since the pilot. Sure, she gave Tessa that nice bra at the outset of the series, but she really hasn’t made an impact since. Much like Alan Tudyk’s Noah, she’s come in on occasion, made a few funny statements, and then left without leaving a lasting impression. With little else to discuss, the primary focus has been on her character’s look, and the “cracks” that have appeared from Dallas (or, in some viewers’ eyes, Hines herself) trying too hard. Tonight, we saw the first real signs of a beating heart underneath those designer threads.
When George tries to make her more amenable to allowing “scary” decorations on his lawn, he doesn’t realize that he’s in fact forcing Dallas to confront a lifetime of desensitizing herself to anything and everything simply to survive. That’s an extreme way of putting it, certainly. But the surface aspects that have defined her character were revealed tonight as a shield meant to defend herself, not unlike a couture executioner’s scythe. That’s hardly a unique character trait, but there’s something to be said for old narrative tropes executed effectively. One need only look at the horrific Royce family photo for insight into her psychology: Steve as Creepy Shirtless Santa, Dallas and Dalia each equally sexualized/infantilized as Santa’s Sexy Elves. That mothers often resemble their daughters has been a hallmark of Suburgatory to date. That they might loathe that resemblance wasn’t suggested until tonight.
Then again, the show hasn’t really tried to create actual romantic chemistry between Dallas and George until tonight, either. In trying to let Dallas enjoy a good scare, George ends up reminding her how good it feels to feel… well, anything, really. Her husband’s absence has been played as a lark thus far, but will have a much sharper edge going forth now that we’ve seen the two of them together. Jay Mohr can be a galvanizing presence in the right role (Action, anyone?), and could bring an interesting dynamic to what has been a toothless world so far. The show need not go dark and brooding now that he’s arrived, but there’s a chance for some real emotional moments to occur among the adults of this world. By simply remembering the name of the designer who made her dress, George managed to pay Dallas more respect than her husband has in years. It was a simple moment. It was a silly moment. But for Dallas, it was an important moment. And Hines made that moment sing.
On the teenager side, a predictable plot was salvaged by another effective emotional throughline. From the moment people talked about Misty having gone “to a better place”, I doubt anyone thought that the girl who formerly inhabited Tessa’s house was actually dead. But the storyline didn’t depend on that mystery to maintain interest. Instead, it focused on Lisa’s fears that Tessa would be just another in a long line of girls who abandoned her in favor of the cool crowd.
Another trope? Sure. But tropes often last because of their continual applicability, not simply because they are an easy go-to for a show looking for a plot. Tessa, Lisa, and Malik formed a friendship a few weeks back, but it’s hardly immutable at this stage. Lisa’s “exorcism” isn’t really about literally banishing a dead spirit so much as an over-the-top way of maintaining the status quo. However, Tessa and Malik are such patient participants in her delusion that any fear she might have had should have dissipated long before Misty briefly returned from remedial school in Paramus, New Jersey.
And thus, we end the episode with fewer belly laughs but more character building. Not every episode can be gut-bustingly funny. But every episode should leave the audience feeling like they know at least a few of the characters better than they did at the outset. We’ve gotten to know George and Tessa at the expense of the show’s other figures to date, so it was nice to get some time with Dallas and Lisa this week. The Altmans can stay at the center of Suburgatory’s narrative wheel. But if things moving on the outside of that wheel remain a perpetual blur, many fans will lose interest. With a show that has as much potential as this one, that would be a shame.
- Having written all this, I realize I liked this episode a lot more than I thought I did when I started this review. The power of critical thought! Or, you know, something.
- I didn’t think I’d actually root for a potential George/Dallas romance. But if this helps the show avoid scenes like the one at the beginning between George and Tessa, I’m OK with it. That was a little too much father/daughter frolicking for my test. Far creepier than any guillotine, people.
- Was tonight’s flashback to the Altmans’ time in NYC the first one since Condomgate? I don’t think we need one every week, but in special circumstances, the show should definitely deploy more.
- Having grown up near a street that did all but send hit men to your house if you dared decorate it with non-white Christmas lights, I believe that the Neighborhood Association would have fined George an amount with many, many zeroes after it.
- Tessa likes her cat clock, and by association, the ‘burbs. But just a little. All together now: awwww.
- “No one likes to be scared, George. It just makes them cry, and scream, and pee my pants.”
- “Look at all these bees in here!”
- “We don’t have a lot of time. Hoarders is on in an hour.”
- “I have a very strict no-shoe policy. Why are you wearing shoes?”