Suburgatory: “Sweet Sixteen”
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Suburgatory: “Sweet Sixteen”

After last week’s hiatus due to the Country Music Awards, the ABC Wednesday comedy block is back this week, and along with it Suburgatory. This season has been one featuring a consistently reduced set of expectations on my part. I’m not exactly sure this is the show’s fault. It’s just that what I thought this show wanted to be and what it actually wants to be are two different things. Whereas I expected a show that moved past its candy-coated shell into something either more incisive or at least sinister has been content to float along that surface. It’s not coasting, by any means. But it’s certainly not looking to delve any deeper, either.

Take tonight’s episode, which once again reconfigures a key relationship in a way that belies a lot of what’s come before. Sheila Shay isn’t a primary figure in the world of the show. She comes and goes as either story or budget allows. At first, she seemed like one of many horny housewives who caught one glimpse of George and decided they wanted to live inside his facial hair. George and Tessa lived in fear of her for a while, due to her hyper-eagerness to welcome them to the neighborhood. After that, she turned into an arch-villain leader of the PTA. Tonight, the housewives came back more desperate than ever, all eager to help George after he injured his back.

So, fine: We’re going back to the original incarnation of Sheila. Plenty of shows work out the kinks in the early episodes as they put characters through their paces and see what sticks. What’s more alarming is that neither George’s sudden worry about his own mortality nor Sheila’s over-attentive care of him moved out of first gear. Finding a single chest hair isn’t fun, and it’s believable that he would have overreacted. But he didn’t really exhibit true anxiety throughout the hour. Instead, he wallowed inside a watered-down version of Misery, with Sheila playing the Annie Wilkes to his Paul Sheldon. There’s a lot of fun space in which the show could have played to either George’s anxiety or Sheila’s smothering. Visually, the show hasn’t been afraid to go cinematic in the service of an atmosphere. But everything on this side of the episode was muted. Either the script didn’t go far enough, or everything incisive about this aspect of the show ended up on the cutting room floor.

The source of George’s anxiety, Tessa’s impending 16th birthday, worked far better, if imperfectly. In the minds of the writers, there’s a really strong friendship between Tessa, Malik, and Lisa. Unfortunately, Suburgatory has decided to tell us about this friendship rather than show it. We consistently hear how close these three are, but we rarely see them interact. Until the episode’s closing scene, did they spend more than 45 seconds together all episode? I wouldn’t care about the length of time these three spent together, except that their friendship is the basis around which the entire tension of Tessa’s party hung.

Any excuse to put Dalia and Tessa in close contact works in the show’s favor. Not only do they work well as comic foils, but any screen time between them deepens Dalia’s character. Whether or not Suburgatory actually WANTS to deepen her is another story. But just as the pilot softened Dallas through her gift to Tessa, so too did tonight’s episode slightly humanize Dalia through her choice of party dress for Tessa. If she’s just a gum-chomping, texting airhead, then Dalia simply won’t work in a long-running television comedy. She needs to either occasionally show humanity or at least competence in order to justify her continued presence on the show. (Even Kamantha got some character work tonight. Who would have pegged her as a Terrence Malick fan?) Not only did Dalia pick out a stunning dress, but she did a great job organizing the party. She did so in a tone-deaf manner, but that’s fine: She doesn’t have to be likable in order to be interesting.

Tessa’s push/pull relationship with the party would have worked without the hook of her friends’ attendance at said event. Throughout this series, she’s fought enjoying anything in a non-ironic manner. So having her favorite indie band dangled in front of her put Tessa’s emo nature through the ringer long before Dalia’s choice of dress dazzled her. Agreeing to the party in many ways is agreeing to life outside of New York City, something Tessa simply isn’t ready to do just yet. All of this led to perhaps my favorite moment in the entire series: Tessa’s earnest, open, insanely dorky dance to Average Shelf Life. She does it without any pretense, losing herself in the moment as if she were alone in her room dancing with her eyes closed. Jane Levy’s performance in this scene is without artifice or pretense, and I wish tonight’s episode had actually shown the other kids at the party won over by her unaware, impromptu exhibition of joy. Instead, it chose to simply cut to a full dance floor, with no indication what caused that transformation.

Then again, the episode basically glossed over that no one in attendance probably knew who Tessa was. That might have cut too deep, so instead a large portion of the party was dedicated to Noah slipping all attendees Tessatinis in order to stain their teeth and increase his own client base. Suburgatory seems set on having an “A” story for both Tessa and George each week. It’s a noble goal, but there wasn’t enough time spent on either one to make them click. Tessa doesn’t want a small pizza party simply because she’s averse to ostentatious celebrations: She wants a small pizza party because she only has two friends.

That’s in the subtext of tonight’s episode, but buried so far below the surface as to be essentially non-existent. Having only two friends means Tessa has two more friends than most teenagers feel they have. But it also means there was plenty of material to mine in which Dalia not only dangled a party, but larger social acceptance. Seeing Tessa tempted by that, or at least wanting it despite herself, would have been preferable to scene after scene of Sheila potentially poisoning George. Conversely, I wouldn’t have minded the George/Sheila scenes had they been given enough room to develop from innocent caretaking to imminent homicide. Both plots featured fine ideas, but much like Suburgatory itself, neither went below the surface in order to see what might lurk underneath.

Again, though, that’s on me more than the show. As an admitted fan of both Heathers and Mean Girls, I still understand that neither would find their way into a comedy on a major network. About as far as Suburgatory is willing to go is to stain the teeth of the mean girls in Tessa's orbit. To stop looking for those elements might help me in the long run. But to stop looking for them is also to admit that a promising show is settling for what’s easy versus what’s interesting. If that’s the case, well, I’ll always have Tessa’s Dance of Joy to hold onto.

Stray observations:

  • The show is slowly returning Alan Tudyk’s character back to something more human-sized since the pilot. He started out way too high-strung, but has gradually come down into the same orbit as everyone else.
  • Unfortunately, the return of Dallas’ husband a few weeks back hasn’t really translated into anything interesting. Can the show really not afford Jay Mohr? Having him onscreen gave the show some interesting texture that was absent before and hasn’t been seen since.
  • Malik and Lisa doing the Robot is just the best. Can we please just have those two hang with Tessa for at least half of every episode?
  • This Week In Uncomfortable George/Tessa ‘Shipping: “Look how cute you two are!” STOP IT, SHOW!!!!! STOP IT! YOU’RE KILLING ME!
  • “It’s about a prostitute who becomes a… scientist or something?”
  • “When I was a boy, we danced free-range.”
  • “Normally, I’m not the kind of girl to be impressed by giant snowflakes… lasers… that guy.”
  • “Hey Tessa, have you seen The Thin Red Line? It really is emotionally riveting!”
  • “He said my name. Practically."

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