Fake holidays are the stuff of television. Sure, movies like Turkey Bowl sometimes depict homemade traditions, but television is full of Chrismukkahs and Spring Smackdowns and Festivi. Chatswin already has a special way with holidays—the Mother’s Day race, for instance, or the Fall Follies. It’s like the town is so full of money, leisure time, and organization skills that it naturally erupts in all these peculiar events. Hence Junior Secretary’s Day, not an excuse to throw a party with all the main characters but just another quirk of life in the pink, plastic, planned suburbs. For one day in January a non-subhuman subsecretary gets a day off to drive down cul-de-sacs flashing her neighbors through the sunroof of a limo at noon. And closeted junior secretaries pretend to be celebrating Salesman Of The Year while hiding out in a neighbor’s basement. Like Fred.
There’s something almost topical in Fred Shay accepting a demotion to junior secretary, but “Junior Secretary’s Day” breezes past because this isn’t about That. Everything else may be, but Chatswin is a place out of time. In fact Fred’s story is so not a magazine editorial that it starts with the sight gag of him dressed in tin foil crouched in George’s basement, just before George knocks him out in silhouette. And that’s nothing. A couple scenes later, Tessa’s high on wisdom-teeth anesthesia and convinced that aliens are coming for her teeth, and Fred appears complete with his tin-foil hat (“As you know, Sheila and I share a psychic connection”), and there’s a whole conversation about the alien invasion that involves Tessa tossing periodic squirts of apple juice at her trespasser. She even takes a crystal hologram of George and Dallas doing what they love (sitting on couches) to mean Fred captured them already. Which is to say the only thematic underpinning is a general resentment /awe of neighborhood nosiness.
But let’s get back to that broad comedy. I laughed a lot at “Junior Secretary’s Day” and only groaned a bit during that alien conversation, which starts with a premature “so it begins” eye-roll but deftly escalates to manic Carrie Matheson heights. I don’t even know what happened during the scene in Tessa’s bedroom, just that Tessa constructed a color-coded revenge-board in rib-poking solidarity with television’s most indomitable women, and that it involved comically simple numerology (citing the number of rings in a standard six-pack, among other things). The scene is a perfect little dance, a wild-eyed Jane Levy in concert with silly dialogue and monomaniac camerawork. So what if it’s a cliche for television to translate “medically drugged up” as “cuckoo bananas.” It’s still funny.
None of which compares to the glory/terror of Sheila Shay. She gets some real shtick, too, suddenly appearing behind George like a vampire or Jenna Maroney and eventually flirting with The Night Porter in Hugo Boss equestrian-wear, itching to gas the rats. Needless to say, Ana Gasteyer is so riveting that it complicates Suburgatory’s view of busybodies: How do you not root for such a winner? Sheila Shay is supernaturally diligent, but what’s that quote about sufficiently advanced intelligence seeming like magic? It’s exciting to watch her toy with George, and of course George is the one transgressing, harboring her husband and abetting his relatively serious lie. Which brings us to the hysterical gift-basket sequence: First George and Ryan talk past each other, each too concerned with how he’s coming off to see through the other; then George hides in the closet from Sheila, who can tell something’s off just by smelling the difference; and on George’s way out, Lisa catches him red-handed, so he says, “I’m not stealing,” and she says, “I don’t care.” That’s everyone in a nutshell. Naturally Sheila wins, and the episode closes with Sheila wishing her junior secretary husband a good night.
Between that last-minute shrug at resolution and Dallas’ short-circuited romantic tension, “Junior Secretary’s Day” takes a strong stance against bullshit sitcom conflict. Well, any real-life Sheila has reason to be frustrated that her husband has been hiding in a neighbor’s basement because he’s afraid to admit he’s been demoted, but it’s still a relief to see that Sheila accepts Fred’s position. After all, he’s been through enough. But Dallas seeing her joint decor in George’s trash and assuming the worst, egged on by the sad guitar, has all the makings of another annoying silly-woman-stable-man subplot that could be prevented by good, old-fashioned communication. Instead it fizzles out, because Dallas learns the truth in the margins of a totally different conversation with Tessa, and the show quietly subverts expectation. Refreshing.
More subversion: Tessa voice-overs that “what makes a good couple work is . . . a complete mystery,” and Dallas tells her that real people get along differently than how it looks on paper. It’s mercifully unpretentious, Suburgatory concluding that people are weird and all kinds of crazy romances work out. For all the antics in this broad episode, there remains that great scene of Ryan Shay tying a sock around Tessa’s aching head and making her smile even though it hurts. All the Shays are amazing, really, but only one has a poster of himself shirtless in his locker, I hope. Ryan and Tessa dance around the idea of dating without any resolution. He marvels at how much better her socks smell than his, and she teases that she washes hers. Then there’s a low-angle shot from the hall of him adjusting the sock and making her giggle-moan—neither euphemisms—the two of them basking in the glow of Junior Secretary’s Day.
- George says that Tessa doesn’t think she needs her wisdom teeth out. Dallas says, “Initially Dalia said the same thing about collagen treatments, but I got her to come around.
- “Have you brought vermin into Chatswin?” Sheila comes on strong. “Rats laugh at humane traps, George!”
- Fred’s surviving on GORP. “Please don’t tell Sheila I’m eating carob. She thinks it’s for liberals.”
- Lisa suggests Ryan bring Tessa the homework she missed, but Ryan’s been giving her space. “I don’t think Tessa wants me bringing this homework. In the Biblical sense.”