It takes some serious acrobatics to contort Tessa coaching the elementary school outcast to a beauty pageant victory into a moral failure of such proportion that she owes Dalia Royce an apology and a crown, but that’s the gist of “No, You Can’t Sit With Us.” Here’s some sample narration transitioning from the boys’ camping trip to the girls’ beauty pageant: “Victor had survived in the woods, but to survive this pageant, I would have to be strategic.” This episode clearly hasn’t spent enough time in the sun. It’s all spray tan.
What happens is Tessa discovers how Dalias are made when she visits Victor at school. The blonde squad, festooned in T-shirt slogans like “No, You Can’t Sit With Us” and “You’re Not Pageant Material,” ice out “a mini Lena Dunham” named Alana. So Tessa enters her in the Little Miss Chatswin pageant, coaches her, and gets go-go juice (red bull, orange juice, and speed?) banned by appealing to Dallas’ sense of herself as a moral and ethical person. Just before Alana goes on to perform her talent, a brick-wall stand-up set, Tessa pumps her up by tossing off a few zingers about how dumb everyone in the crowd is. Inspired by this performance—and Jane Levy is smooth as a Westeros power player backstage—Alana tosses out her wholesome set (including “a pretty cool ‘What’s the deal with popsicles?’ riff”) and takes potshots at Dallas’ plastic surgery, among other things. She wins by default on account of her competitors conking out from lack of go-go juice, and she does the sixth-grade version of flipping off the audience before walking off to continue her reign of terror elsewhere, fluffed by a parade of cameras and emboldened by a fan of cash. The takeaway: By trying to stand up to bullies, Tessa created a new one.
Leaving aside the plausibility lapses like how go-go juice is presented as an on-off switch, it takes some actual effort to present the argument that Tessa is the one at fault here. It’s as simple as a single line explaining that conclusion. Something about how you can’t overthrow Toddlers And Tiaras by participating in it, which is the lesson Tessa ostensibly absorbed in the season premiere. It makes sense that Tessa would take responsibility even if she weren’t entirely to blame for creating a new bully, too, because that’s who Tessa is. Besides, she does commit some crimes of manipulation. Even if her heart was in the right place, she’d own up to the selfishness.
The problem is the larger point. “No, You Can’t Sit With Us” never denies that mean girls are fostered by a certain kind of culture, its values inherited from older role models and its critiques cushioned by pampering adults. But it also asserts that standing up to bullies creates bullies. It might be a radical plea for non-violence, for opting out of the system, if it actually did the work of breaking this story. Instead Dalia’s sad because her winning streak is at an end, and Tessa—who has more than enough reason to snub Dalia on a good day—apologizes to her and Dallas in front of everyone. Dallas I understand, although all Tessa did was appeal to Dallas’ moral ego to get her to enforce the ban on performance-enhancing drugs. But of all things, a new-money mean girl winning the beauty pageant gets Tessa to apologize to Dalia? In what world?
Until you think about it, it’s a pretty smooth ride. Suburgatory was made for such ridiculous lampoon. The opening presents Dalia as the pope of child beauty pageants. Dalia makes the sign of the cross over a prospective mentee, not to absolve her but to direct her to problem areas. “We’re gonna have to do something about her hair, shoes, and scrawny little shoulders,” she tells the girl’s mother. Later Sheila tries to bar Alana from entry without three forms of identification, which gets Tessa’s dander up about the poll tax or something. Clearly Tessa’s in this to stand up to the man, not boost a girl’s self-esteem. During a coaching session, Tessa asks Alana if she has any special skills. “I’m lactose-intolerant. Only one in my family.” And the way Dalia nonchalantly tosses her hand out in expectation of a high-five from a lackey is worth a questionable plot point or two.
Tessa survives the pageant, but for Victor to survive in the woods, he would have to be strategic. There’s an actual parallel here about kids internalizing the attitudes of their elders, and this being such an essential fact of Chatswin life makes the shoddy narrative all the more frustrating. But at least with Fred and Victor, it’s clear that’s what’s happening. And with Noah there to make all the off-color jokes (“Well, I’m calling it,” he says after five minutes of searching for a runaway Victor. “He’s just a rental, right?”), the plot never loses its relative edge, either. If only Tessa could thread that needle.
- While deciding what to do with the weekend Sheila’s away, Fred talks about wanting to get back in touch with his masculinity while ironing her underwear. Then she tells him he’s watching Victor that weekend. He whisper-whines, “I’m going on a mancation! You said!”
- The campsite scene speaks volumes about each of the guys. Noah sits with his legs crossed reading a magazine while ex-Scoutmaster (“They kicked me out after three weeks for ‘seeming gay’”) Fred tries to make a fire the old-fashioned way while George takes a match to a Duraflame log.
- For those, like me, who were wondering if the Shays had adopted Victor, he’s their foster son.
- It’s not clear if Dalia does spy on Tessa or just coincidentally chooses the same song, but the “Love You Like A Love Song” montage comes with a great punch-line from Dalia, standing outside her pupil’s recording booth. “Okay, that sucked. Let’s try it again with a lot more reverb and auto-tune and robot sounds and someone else’s voice coming out of your mouth.”
- “Mother Nature always provides, unlike my birth mother, who provided very little.” Victor’s jokes surf this hilarious sadness. “We did sleep outside a lot, but we just called it hiding.”
- Dallas: “For the record, God made this, I may have had some help with these, and that right there is just hard work at the gym.” Dalia: “And a butt implant.”
- When Dalia guilt-trips Tessa, Dallas says, “Dalia’s about to lay her first tear. Someone grab me a mason jar, quick!” She’s serious, and the bit kills. It’s a silent comic montage, a portrait of Dalia dropping a single tear, a portrait of a desperate Dallas with her arms cupped underneath Dalia’s face, a portrait of Tessa wondering if she’s the one who’s supposed to go get a mason jar.
- I might have misheard, because Tessa’s narration breaks in, but I love the idea that when George says, “Victor, you are aptly named,” the kid doesn’t get it and says, “What?”
- At the end, Tessa announces a final award that hasn’t been presented yet. Sheila: “Cutest Non-White? We’re not allowed to do that anymore.”