What a difference a summer makes. When we left Suburgatory, Tessa was running away, Jill was preparing her safari-themed nursery with a yard full of human-cheetah droppings, and Yakult was speaking to Dallas in the voice of Whoopi Goldberg. Chatswin isn’t really into restraint. But vacation has done wonders for Suburgatory’s temperament. All that potentially alienating wackiness got massaged away, leaving Chatswin a more relaxed parody, and not just for the characters. Watching the episode is like resting at base camp, slowly acclimating to the atmosphere. “Homecoming” collects all the dangling threads, catches up with almost everyone, and tells a funny story about parenting that sums up the show, and all without breaking a sweat.
The new Suburgatory fits right in with the new George, who’s so self-assured that, when Tessa says her favorite thing about spending the summer with her grandma is that her grandma goes to bed early, he laughs instead of researching local nunneries. It feels like an obvious set-up for an episode about George sweating it out and eventually buckling and interrogating Tessa about her summer activities. But it’s not. At least for now, the new George is really trying. Even better, Tessa calls George, “Dad,” again! It seems like nothing, and the moment flies by, but it’s a promising sign that both Tessa and George are starting to put the box-o’-condoms incident behind them.
In its place is Tessa’s relationship with her mother. For most of “Homecoming,” Tessa imagines a strong connection to her mother, a free spirit currently backpacking through Europe (and/or practicing medicine on children in Brazil), and Tessa tries to be more like her. So Tessa wears her mom’s jacket, she sports her sunglasses, she tries to play her music. Eventually she gives up, re-learning the lesson of “The Motherload”: Tessa’s relationship to her mother, whatever it is, feels great when it’s on Tessa’s terms, but it hurts to realize it’s a two-way street. Tessa can imagine a deep connection between them, but her mother doesn’t seem to care to participate in that connection. Suddenly a show about an overprotective parent becomes a show about a totally absent parent. Welcome to season two.
Luckily the new George is a wise soul. When he tells Tessa that she reminds him of her mother, it’s not just a pep talk, and it’s not just a poultice. He’s opening the door to more questions about Tessa’s mother and Tessa’s connection to her. From a thematic standpoint, George getting over himself for the good of his daughter is a welcome transition to a season with a different set of central parenting issues. Like when it’s appropriate to talk and when it's appropriate to pay attention to an interpretive performance by Malik and the thriving Medium Fan Club.
“Homecoming” doesn’t merely charge ahead into new territory. It refocuses Suburgatory so thoroughly that even the theme song connects directly to the central themes, the blood pumping through all the strange narrative limbs on this chimera. Noah is still trying to poach Carmen—“With Jill away on the book tour, all that baby has is me, so If I screw up, that’s on you”—but George tells Noah and Dallas to stop fighting and raise their kids themselves. The subplot is pure comic relief, a terrific excuse for Noah to pick up his baby from a coat-check and Dalia to feed Panuch licorice. But by explicitly tying what Tessa’s going through to the other kids in the neighborhood, “Homecoming” plays like a seasoned D.J. If you’re just joining us, Suburgatory is about parenting and being parented, the choices of the parents, the effects on the kids, the rebellions of the kids, and the reactions from the parents. Dalia Oprah Royce is comically sedate thanks to the way she was raised (read: medicated), but maybe outsourcing her parenting wasn’t the best decision for her. George is imploring Noah to learn from their mistakes, but it’s going to take more than a quick scold from the man who’s harboring Carmen to change things in Chatswin.
Which brings us to Lisa Shay, whose Carson Daly reference alone heightens the episode’s pulse. Lisa doesn’t get nearly enough mileage out of her leverage, knowing that Ryan is adopted, but there isn’t really enough time in the episode for her to go full Joffrey. Instead, she and Sheila quickly reach an impasse concerning Lisa being smothered by Sheila’s hands-on parenting. So Tessa narrates some half-coherent line about how letting go of things is as important as hanging onto others as the Shays (sans Ryan) watch the potting shed burn. On the Lisa side, it feels like progress. She bucks, Sheila responds, and they find a new balance in their relationship. But unless Ryan learns about blood types, common sense, or how to use Google, he’s not going to learn about his biological mother? Well, there’s plenty of time for that in the future, and the parallels between Ryan and Tessa are too strong to ignore for long. If only the new George would drop by with some relevant advice.
- In other catch-up news, George and Eden split up. In fact, Eden barely gets a mention. Suburgatory really wants you to like it again.
- Dallas extols the virtues of Carmen to Dalia: “Who will put you to sleep at night? Who will make you taquitos post-pi-la-tes.” Dallas is almost as good at Spanish as Noah. “Who will tell me to stop shaking you when I shake you? Because you know I’m inclined to shake you, girl!”
- I had no idea how badly I missed Lisa Shay until she pops up in Tessa’s room. Tessa tells her about the song. “She’s good, right?” “I’m not a record producer, Tessa. I never claimed to be.”
- Best detail from Fall Follies: Ryan’s throne of a picture next to Lisa’s proof.
- The Shays have more than one secret, apparently. Sheila: “Now you listen to me. It was 1991. Jungle Fever had just come out.” Fred: “Look, it started out mostly as bachelorette parties. I was trying to earn money for college.”
- Anyone else grossed out (in a fun way) by Ryan’s baby six-pack and the full-term pregnancy abs of his flaky biomom?
- No wonder Ryan gets the solo. He really becomes a cat.
- Does Dalia ever recognize that the busker is Tessa? She goes from “Here you go, sir” to “Good luck at the talent show,” but maybe she just assumes that's what he's practicing for?
- Dalia’s sweet side: “Have you ever employed someone who meant the world to you?”
- I repeat: What kind of asshole talks through Malik’s entire performance?!