“A lot of people think you can’t assign a number grade to something as subjective as a poem, but you can,” says Ms. Evans, the new poetry teacher at Chatswin High. With The A.V. Club and the Oscars and my friends getting really annoying lately, ranking has been on my mind. I’ve never been comfortable assigning letter grades here, but I suck it up and grade television anyway, because I have no principles. The important thing is I recognize that it’s pretty absurd. The A+ taboo just puts all that weight on the A, which I don’t think I’ve ever assigned in one of my reviews (though, to be fair, I’m not reviewing Mad Men or Louie), and it redefines the A- as a heartbeat away. On our profile pages, B- is the lowest grade under the “Loved” column, with C+ the top of the “Despised,” a nice joke, but it confuses the perfectly average C with something worse, and that throws off the rest. 80 percent is a great score, but 79 percent is suddenly not enough? But the real problem with grading everything on what looks like the same scale is the unidimensionality. Each individual show does its own thing, and grading takes all those different pursuits and flattens them down to a bar chart. Anyone who’s ever tried to rank three things has stumbled upon the quirk that A is better than B, and B is better than C, but C is better than A. That’s because they’re not all taking the same class.
So when I say Suburgatory tends to land in the B's for me, it’s a complicated, ridiculous statement. The implication is it’s trying to do more than the average comedy, but it’s not quite as unified as the best. It may not have the consistent resonance and thematic acuity of the top tier, but it’s definitely applying to join next year. Even in an episode that isn’t especially funny or moving, Suburgatory has not just style but purposeful style, and that alone sets it apart from the pack. Tessa’s anthropological voice-overs, the Candyland colors and cushion-y feel of the setting, the heightened characterization barely concealing genuine humanity: All the elements that go into making this show are working together, and not just to tell this surface story of Tessa and George growing up. They’re also revealing a consistent personality, a worldview marked by openness to the absurd, and trace amounts of suburban satire. Most of the time, goodness is rewarded, and everything’s going to be okay, but even in the suburbs, life isn’t always fair.
The opening voiceovers work really hard to distinguish Chatswin from real life when the rest of the show does that effortlessly on its own, but they’re also part of how Suburgatory works, dropping us right into the middle of an exaggerated subplot. Last week, it was Dallas’ divorce sweeping through Chatswin like Regina George’s nipple-less tank. This week, it’s croquet season, a metaphor for mating that everyone accepts but nobody talks about. After last week, I might have expected more in the way of genuine romance, but Suburgatory plays it cool. In fact, there’s a history of not immediately addressing elephants in rooms, and I’m honestly impressed by the simmer. Lisa shows up to prod Tessa a little bit, but there's no mention of Malik. And George and Dallas finally become Georgas, a croquet team but no more.
Of course, “Poetic Injustice” does feature one torrid romance, that of Sheila’s schoolgirl fantasy with George Stephanopoulos. The windswept dream sequence, where Ana Gasteyer and Jeremy Sisto play out Sheila’s fantasy tryst—she scolds Lisa, he shows up covered in oil, their tongues intertwine—is a fantastic centerpiece, but it’s over in the first few minutes. Fred mistakes her fantasy George for their new neighbor, so the rest of the episode sees him striving to best George and ultimately begging him to sleep with Sheila. Meanwhile, Dallas has a new exotic croquet partner each week—“This is Sven. From Iceland. He’s uncircumsized”—so Fred and Sheila try to set her up with George. After a half-hour of light bickering and Fred trying to grow a goatee and Sheila dry-humping George, we arrive at Georgas. It doesn’t have the cross-cut power of Lisa and Malik after the dance, but it’ll do.
Which brings us back to Ms. Evans, Jackie Geary’s hip poetry teacher. Tessa is obsessed with her approval, but Ms. Evans takes a shine only to Dalia, whose poem “AIDS :(” is the best she’s seen in her two-and-a-quarter years of teaching. There are two interesting points mixed in with all the ice cream. Tessa doesn’t see the first—“It’s weird. I don’t know what made me so desperate for the approval of a withholding older woman who clearly wanted nothing to do with me”—but neither did I. That’s two episodes in a row where Tessa’s mom and George’s ex are taken seriously, so we should probably start bracing for a surprise return, probably around the time Georgas graduates from croquet. (For the record, I haven’t even seen the previews for next week, much less anything beyond that.)
The other striking element of the Tessa subplot is that she and Dalia have a genuine exchange of ideas when Dalia tutors Tessa in poetry for extra credit. I don’t know why Dalia would need extra credit in a class she’s obviously acing or, for that matter, why everyone’s starting a new class in late February, but plausibility also suggests a tattooed English teacher at an uptight high school would probably have to conform to a different dress code. The point is Dalia pinpoints what’s wrong with Tessa’s poetry, and they both basically get along for a moment. Well, they reach a détente, but still. It speaks to the show’s worldview that even people who don’t get along can help each other. Once every four years.
- “Poetic Injustice” was written by Andrew Guest and directed by Elliot Hegarty. “And yes, you can also grade wit.”
- In their own way, Fred and Sheila make as good a tag-team as the twins. She: “Looking good, George!” He: “Really, Sheila? I’d say he’s looking a little fat in the face.”
- It bears repeating that Dalia is a formidable logician. She tells Ms. Evans, “I really don’t like Tessa.” And by way of explanation, “It’s just I really can’t stand Tessa.”