This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Ryan McGee, who’ll review the show week to week, and Erik Adams talk about Suburgatory.
Suburgatory debuts tonight on ABC at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
Ryan: At first glance, Suburgatory might look like the focus-grouped love child of Juno and Edward Scissorhands. Its combination of droll teenage female narration coupled with a satirical look at life in the suburbs seems at first to be simply recycling existing pieces of pop culture. But, much in the vein of MTV’s recent surprise hit Awkward., there’s more going on under the surface than a simple reshuffling of old tropes. Those expecting either a teen-centric bitchfest or a biting sociological sketch will probably be disappointed. The series’ pilot is a winning, if imperfect, comedy that sidesteps the bitterness of Heathers in favor of the sweetness of Parks And Recreation.
That sweetness makes sense, since Suburgatory creator Emily Kapnek recently cut her teeth in the Parks writing room. It will be sandwiched between The Middle and Modern Family, two other shows that feature harried families in heightened situations that nevertheless feel ultimately grounded. What grounds all three shows is the empathy that those shows feels toward their characters, no matter how outlandish they might act in a particular episode. And just like those other two comedies, Suburgatory eschews a particular protagonist in favor of several characters that share equal weight. You might be tempted from the promotions for this show to think it was all about the teenage daughter. But she’s really more of an anchor than a truly defined lead.
The daughter in question? Tessa Altman (Jane Levy), who finds herself deposed from her home in Manhattan to the suburbs after her father George (Jeremy Sisto) finds condoms in her drawer. (Tessa claims they are not actually hers, and there’s no reason in the show to think she’s lying. See what I mean about sweetness?) Suburbia seems like a brightly colored zombieland to Tessa, who struggles to fit into her new surroundings in ways you have probably seen in other shows/films of this type. She gets paired with the school’s Queen Bitch as part of her orientation. She’s called a lesbian. Her smarts are treated with scowls. Shall I continue?
If this sounds trite, well, on the surface level it is. There are not many ways in which an introduction like this can be made without seeming like a Mean Girls rip-off. But Levy often chooses to underplay Tessa’s sarcasm and bewilderment, making observations not in a confrontational, condescending way but rather as an uncensored observer of the insanity around her. Moreover, Suburgatory doesn’t let her maintain much in the way of superiority, as it’s interested in pushing past stereotypes quickly in order to locate some real heart and intelligence lurking behind the white picket fences and pink jumpsuits. There’s room for growth on both sides, which keeps things from feeling like an attack against either.
Helping to further punctuate any semblance of pomposity on Tessa’s part is George, who struggles as much, if not more, than his daughter. Sisto’s portrayal of George will probably divide people watching this show: Some will find George’s uncomfortable approach to every scene as indicative of a man out of his depths; others will wonder if Sisto longs for the days of Law & Order. I’m opting for the former interpretation at this point, and was happy to see this pilot give as much attention to his character as to Tessa. Seeing the ’burbs only through the eyes of high school would not only limit the show’s perspective, but also its narrative scope.
George isn’t the only adult that gets face time in this initial installment. Cheryl Hines, as mother to Tessa’s frenemy Dalia (Carly Chaikin), gets to flex her comedy muscles outside the world of Curb Your Enthusiasm. George sees her as a much-needed female influence in Tessa’s life, and while Hines’ Dallas seems every bit a walking stereotype in her first few scenes, she softens up the character in the final act to demonstrate real value to Tessa. Alan Tudyk also appears as George’s childhood friend who shows him the ropes around town. His character Noah is turned up to 11 in this pilot, but he’s also only deployed in a few short scenes. While his performance in this initial hour is broader than most, it also garners a majority of the laughs. Over time, such a performance might overwhelm the other parts of the show, but Tudyk can play small as well as broad when needed. Whether or not the show allows him to do it will be seen.
Tessa and George go off into their own spheres at times, but it will be their scenes together that form the heart of this show going forth. Neither seems really comfortable talking to each other, at least in terms of important topics. They are great talking around each other, or talking around certain topics with each other. So the escape from New York City seems to provide them the first time to talk in a meaningful way. But instead of taking the opportunity, they engage in unidirectional conversations, passive-aggressive reading sessions, and play-acting for their new neighbors. The journey from antagonism towards mutual understanding doesn’t fully get achieved in the pilot, but at least by its end there’s a sense that these two might actually have a chance to finally work as a true family. It takes the initial form of merely protecting each other from their new environment, but may eventually fill the void left by Tessa’s mother after leaving the pair right after giving birth.
While there’s a lot going for this pilot, there are plenty of things that don’t quite work. Straddling the line between satire and sentimentality is a difficult endeavor, and for many, the resolution to Tessa’s initial misgivings about her move might ring false. It’s a problem shows like 30 Rock sometimes have, where emotional moments occasionally ring false inside of a cartoonish world. (Cartoonish worlds such as those are great. They just don’t often allow for genuine emotion to seep through.) In addition, it’s unclear how many of the secondary/tertiary figures will become three-dimensional over time. In a row of endless people watering their lawns, it will be nice to have more than one or two exist as simple cardboard cutouts. Shows such as Suburgatory live and die by their specificity. Kapnek’s time in Pawnee taught her that, so hopefully that’s something that develops over the season.
Stray observations (with mild spoilers):
- Given the emphasis this pilot puts on the importance of mothers (both positive and negative), there’s no way Tessa’s mom doesn’t show up at some point this season to ruin things.
- Although there’s a scene set in a country club, there isn’t really a huge amount of class warfare going on here. Not everyone lives in a mansion, but social stratification seems to come from places other than money in this world.
- What I’ve called “sweetness” many people will call “conservative.” Awkward. is essentially pornography compared to what happens in the Suburgatory pilot. That’s not a knock on either show. It’s just a way to contextualize your experience.
- Appearing in one scene: Rex Lee, playing an enthusiastic but oblivious guidance counselor. Say it with me now, for old times’ sake, Entourage fans: “LLOYD!”
- Also in the pilot, though existing primarily to set up future storylines, is Weeds’ Allie Grant, who plays Tessa’s extremely shy, unpopular neighbor.
- Biggest Juno-esque dialogue: Tessa referring to herself as being called a “vagatarian” by classmates. Ugh. But a late scene in which Tessa’s mouth runs a million miles an hour during an apology points to a way in which her character can be verbally nimble yet non-derivative.
- An example of how specificity works in the show’s favor: Dalia’s “tour” of the high school is a trope you’ve seen before, but Suburgatory still manages to make it work given the way they approach it.
- “It’s like the Million Mom March.”
- “There’s no way that’s his natural color.”
- “This is Betty White’s bike.”
- “Antithetically? Listen to you now. You must never get laid.”
- “The little gangbanger!”
- “It’s a car women want to have sex with!”
- “Buddies are not your friends.”
- “In Manhattan, the handicapped bathroom would have leased for $950 a month.”
- “I mean, whose boyfriend are we talking about?”
- “That’s so lame that your mom died, beeyotch.”
- “What are we eating? It smells like Passover!”
- “She’s gonna take a sip!”
Erik: Suburgatory has several, high bars to clear if it wants to be as good as any of the reference points Ryan mentions above, and the pilot doesn’t do itself any favors by so consistently calling them to mind. (I could do with much less Juno, though I feel like that places me in the minority among potential viewers.) It’s not that I wouldn’t mind watching Mean Girls: The Series (as art directed by Tim Burton circa 1990), it’s just that I’d be more likely to stick with Suburgatory if it becomes, you know, its own show.
The characters and performances in the pilot point the way toward that direction, thankfully. Jeremy Sisto was actually one of my favorite parts of the pilot, his character being just as displaced as Levy’s. Levy has some breakout potential, but she also needs to break out from the sub-Ellen Page routine. It’s definitely doable: I felt the same way about Shannon Woodward at the start of Raising Hope, but by the end of the first season, Woodward’s Sabrina was one of the most-improved aspects of the show. As the ostensible lead of Suburgatory, there’s a little more riding on Levy’s shoulders, however. Thankfully she has a strong supporting cast and a knowledgeable showrunner backing her up—now the main challenge lies in defining Suburgatory’s voice. And if that means embracing the surreal and cartoonish details of the pilot, I certainly wouldn’t object.