The good news is Ryan wasn’t cheating on Tessa, like the cliffhanger that ended the previous episode so ostentatiously hinted. The bad news is he’s not the only one whose only plots are romantic anymore. “Leaving Chatswin” is a slack affair, all obvious failures of comprehension and awkward comedy (and hillbilly slapstick?). The only real force comes from surprise. First, Dalia, uh, seduces (?) Evan outside his locker all of a sudden. The episode had been leaning on Evan for reaction shots a bit too heavily to that point for someone who had no lines, but by the time Dalia walks up to his locker romancing him with her Yiddish, it feels unexpected. She tosses his glasses across the hall even though he can’t see, she kisses him and bites his lip, and then she informs him how turned on he is before walking away. It’s Dalia, so it’s hilarious. And then, at the end of a plot that nobody will remember tomorrow, Suburgatory ends with another cliffhanger: Noah confesses that he’s in love with Carmen.
The cliffhanger structure is welcome, or it would be if these final-scene shock-comic confessions and declarations didn’t happen underneath the credits and ads for whatever it is that ABC airs after Suburgatory. But conceptually, for DVD and posterity, ending episodes on dramatic announcements is an effective hook. The fact that Ryan had been lying to Tessa about a three-day trip is pretty damn disheartening after such a sweet few episodes of romance. However, since it turns out Ryan wasn’t cheating on Tessa but was just covering his college recruitment days, I’m now more cautiously curious about the second cliffhanger, that Noah is in love with Carmen. I could even see it being a pure joke that’s never mentioned again. But more likely, this grand confession isn’t heavy enough to ripple as long as it seems. If I was initially hooked by the last line, and I’m pretty sure I was at least a little intrigued, that feeling is tempered by two nagging doubts: 1) How much is this just meant to shock? It sure feels like Suburgatory just wants attention. 2) How likely is this to pan out considering the last cliffhanger?
More crucially, I guess we’re entering the phase in this sitcom where everyone’s in love with everyone else and nothing else is going to happen. It’s a little early to be crying Parks And Recreation season four, of course, and it’s not like that tar is all that insulting, either. Even with a heavy focus on romantic relationships, Pawnee is no stranger to great comedy. But look at it this way. The show developed as an Ikiru-style drama of a bureaucrat trying to squeeze one damn public good out of government (and here I don’t mean “drama” in simplistic, funny vs. serious terms). It’s decidedly more cuddly now. Government doesn’t seem so hopelessly David Simon anymore. And that's just one example of a common trend toward happy, institutional romance on aging sitcoms.
Suburgatory seems to be softening, too. That’s quite an extrapolation based on just the evidence of Noah’s possible crush on Carmen and Dalia’s possible thing with Evan, especially because, if Noah is serious, then that is a huge deal (but come on, this is clearly just comic relief), and Dalia hasn’t exactly had a ton of romantic plots. But it’s not just that. Consider the relative ease with which Lisa and Malik got back together, the big fake-out of trouble between Ryan and Tessa, the come-what-may commitment of George to Dallas. It’s hard to imagine anything messing with any of the couples, who are all happily tangoing through rough patches. And now that Dalia’s interested in Evan, instead of continuing to expand Chatswin, it closes it off further, every last character pairing off.
What this means in turn is that this show about wealthy plastic values in a cultural exchange program with these two urban outsiders is becoming pure comfort, more or less reinforcing those plastic values. George’s two Valentine’s meals, Dallas’ rescue from East Chatswin, an honest-to-goodness fight over a maid. “Leaving Chatswin” has a feel-good story about a man who died alone in a country club afraid to ask his waitress out, two plane tickets in his locker. I repeat: That was a feel-good inspirational story about how his two country club friends who didn’t know him were there to look after his remains. Is anyone calling Chatswin on its bullshit anymore?
In the other corner, though, is Tessa freeing the football girlfriends. And “Leaving Chatswin” does confront the idea of Ryan and Tessa probably, eventually, amicably breaking up when he goes to college. And The Mother is still out there dropping reality-bombs in absentia. So maybe Suburgatory isn’t totally complacent. In fact, Ryan and Tessa starting to consider college is exciting and a little uncomfortable, welcome shades in a show like this. College distance is a lot more serious than not appreciating the same movie. They each individually investigate college life, and Lisa pretty clearly explains why they'll probably be going to different schools. And then Ryan gets hit with a steel pipe, and it doesn't hurt him. Twice.
- Fortunately Dalia was here to keep the comedy flowing with delivery alone. “You guys. Can you guys seriously shut up? I’m, like, seriously about to get started, you guys.”
- I also loved Tessa’s college fantasy. Ryan and his girlfriend reminded me of the two a-holes from Saturday Night Live.
- But seriously, Carmen has a family. Noah does, too. There’s no way this is more than a setup for hijinks, right?
- I love watching high school shows transition to college, but if Ryan leaves, it’ll be tough. “I can’t let my perfectly chiseled physique come between us. I’m gonna stay here in Chatswin and get fat with you.”