“Krampus” is exactly the parting shot Suburgatory needs before the winter hiatus, encapsulating the show’s eccentricities without sacrificing the general quality of the season so far. Tonally, it swings from a heartfelt mother-daughter chat to a Mr. Peepers sketch. The plot breaks down into several connected stories about parent-child relationships, each with varying degrees of comedy, but all with a recognizable human core. For every forced moment, such as the awkward hotel hug, there’s a golden nugget, such as the wide shot of Alex hunched over to connect with her daughter. And in the end, Tessa comes home, but Ryan won’t.
It’s sexy-messy, everything sort of working together but not in perfect parallel, running the gamut in style but in service of the same themes and moods. It’s frankly pretty ambitious for such a low-concept sitcom. Tessa wants to spend Christmas with her mother, but quickly yearns to be at home with her father. Dalia wants her surrogate mother back. Ryan feels betrayed by his parents and leaves them. Jill is worried about her son taking after Carmen more than her. Yes, somehow a neighborhood feud over who gets the best housekeeper has become a season arc. It’s the bubble wrap in the package, and I can’t believe how enjoyable it’s been to play with. Dalia has never been as excited about anything as she is about being reunited with Carmen. Between opening that present, her one-sentence monologue, and the music video “You Missed A Spot,” Carly Chaikin alone keeps the episode from getting too serious.
But where Chaikin is minimalistic, Parker Young is enormous, which can be off-putting. My investment in Ryan’s subplot changes on a semi-second basis, starting with the frozen-computer dialogue. Then comes the car freak-out that is eye-rolling and hilarious in various degrees all at once: Ryan creeping into frame from the top, Fred and Sheila getting hysterical inside, Lisa trying to close the window. Somewhere in the sound mix Chris Parnell shouts, “He’s transforming!” I’m still chuckling over that. Eventually a shirtless Ryan shouts at the sky and runs off into wherever. Overall, it’s a pretty funny sketch, even if it has some drag. Then the forest-creature bit goes a little too far, even for Chatswin, but at least Malik’s dad shares my concerns. “Did you just put a human being in our trunk?”
It’s weird, though, that a teenager finding out he’s adopted is less moving than a teenager suffering a breakup. Like much of Suburgatory, even that complaint is a mixed bag, because “Krampus” strikes a nice tonal balance and avoids sacrificing Ryan’s Ryan-hood (except, y’know, literally) for the sake of boring ole “traditional character development.” If the episode has such a dynamic emotional cocktail and manages to connect subplots of wildly different tenors, then what’s to complain about? It’s just that an account of my sympathies during this episode would find I felt exactly as much for Eugene Goldfarb as I did for Dalia, who is sad about missing her maid.
That said, I do appreciate the diversity of melancholy—a holiday staple. Ryan faces the most serious stress but plays for laughs. Dalia is more effectively funny-sad, only everything works out for her. Tessa’s interested in her mother but generally unfulfilled, which is a particularly absorbing state. George’s anxiety during Alex’s motor-mouth thank-you subtly delineates their personalities: she acting on instinct and he stuck in his head. Malin Akerman is leaning just hard enough on “impulsive” that I worry for Tessa a little every time I see them together. When Alex takes out her makeup in the middle of conversation, I took it as a sign of distraction or disinterest, a version of checking your texts while a friend talks. But then it leads to this great little sequence where Tessa says she isn’t a red-lipstick girl and Alex finally gets to play mother. By the end, I was disappointed for Alex that she woke up on Christmas alone, but she takes her lumps. Needless to say, Akerman is really living up to the role.
But I was most moved by Malik and Lisa. Part of that is existing sympathies—because these two are such fun together—but part of that is the realism. There are enough logical leaps in Ryan finding out he’s adopted because a photographer told him, so that my emotional reactions aren’t kneejerk, even if that is totally believable for Ryan Shay. But to see Lisa openly crying and not saying anything humorous gets me immediately. To see Malik suffering silently alone hurts; and to see Lisa reject Malik and Ryan reject Lisa takes all the joy of Dalia’s music video and thrashes it in the streets. The Shay siblings have had an electric fall together, becoming one of the show’s most fruitful relationships, and I’m desperate for them to reconcile. I wanted Allie Grant to get some range-stretching material, but not like this! Not like this!
Mercifully, after piling on the misery for peak-suicide month, “Krampus” tries to give some happy endings as well. Tessa kisses Ryan—with tongue, to his very public delight—and admits her growing crush. Tessa hugs George hello. Most importantly, Daddy Altman gets Dalia what she wanted. But “Krampus” remains Suburgatory’s least heartwarming holiday episode yet, and it’s all the stronger for it.
- Tessa voiceovers about how Lisa tells her to go visit her mother, but it’s an abrupt transition from the two girls having a serious and welcome heart-to-heart to Tessa sitting on her stoop. Suburgatory usually has so much going on that it’s cropped pretty closely, but the moments on the edges of plot are often the best (e.g. Dalia’s full music video or Malik in the backseat).
- Please note that the only less-than-very-good episodes of the season so far are “Foam Finger” and “Friendship Fish.” Should’ve known from the double-F. (“Mr. F!”)
- I’m so happy Jill’s back. She basically accuses Carmen of making her child “an infant with a thick Mexican accent,” Noah gets some mileage out of his Speedy Gonzales, and Carmen answers her, “Yes, master.” The Werner household is a delight. Now we may get to see what Jill parenting a child for herself looks like.
- Jill has a fine line to walk: “I want the baby to love me as a mommy, but I need him to respect me as an author.”
- It’s indescribably funny to hear rum-ball-drunk Lisa adopt the photographer’s twang when she spills the beans to him: “That’s ’cause Ryan isn’t really a Shay.”
- It bears repeating that “You Missed A Spot” is amazing. And Dalia couldn’t have done it without Chef Alan and step-mom Wan’Er.
- Ryan printed out business cards for his new life: “Eugene Goldfarb, No Longer Living A Lie.”
- Dalia pulls Carmen out of a box of Styrofoam peanuts. “I’m gonna go play with Carmen in my room. She’ll clean this mess up tomorrow.”