I’ll be honest: I had started to despair a little about Suburgatory. But then along comes this week’s episode and damnit if I’m not once again really hopefully about the long-term prospects of this show. Seven days ago, I thought this would be a comedy that rose and fell on the strengths of its jokes in a particular episode. It didn’t seem to want to be character-centric so much as simply taking shots at the enclave of Chatswin. That’s not a horrible thing if the jokes themselves were outstandingly funny, but little about the past few weeks has lived up to the potential of the pilot. Luckily, along came “Thanksgiving” and with it new life for the show.
Series creator Emily Kapnek wrote tonight's episode, and it's clear that having the person in charge of the show seems to have done the show a world of good. All of my complaints about depicting the citizenry as cardboard cutouts went out the window this week, with an astonishing number of characters suddenly realized in three full dimensions. (Kapnek's last credited script got Tessa, Malik, and Lisa into their triumverate in “The Chatterer”) Having more people in play than in any episode of the show should have diminished the character work. But Kapnek's script, coupled with Alex Hardcastle’s direction, packed in more development for more people than the rest of this season combined.
The holidays can be both a merry and stressful time for most families. Suburgatory took advantage of this chaos and squeezed many characters to the breaking point tonight. We’re used to seeing Tessa and George do the majority of the narrative lifting in this show, but both the Royces and the Shays saw prominent screen time as well, giving all three families ample time to exhibit the problems behind their respective white picket fences. To date, the majority of these people have been walking, talking joke-delivery systems. So it was a relief tonight to have the comedy springing from character observations rather than the setup for a punchline.
For the Altmans, New York City was once again the center of their strife. But rather than just moan about it, Tessa actually took action in order to see the home she missed so much. Stuck with Dallas in a hair salon while George worked, Tessa tricked Dallas into driving her into the city for lunch in exchange for a Brazilian blow-out. (Is that actually a thing? I’m bald, therefore clueless when it comes to these things.) Seeing the two women in Manhattan was a blast, thanks to Dallas’ joy over seeing knockoff handbags and sunglasses on street corners. Having an outsider not recognize knockoff material is a total comedic trope, but Dallas’ energy sold the bit and justified its use.
What also made the trip work were the respective ways in which the two women felt violated by seeing George kissing a woman on the street during their visit. Suburgatory has dropped the thread a bit on a potential George/Dallas romance since “Don’t Call Me Shirley,” but his kiss on her cheek reignited some flames on her part in the outset of the episode. Cheryl Hines can sell Dallas as a flighty housewife who named her dog after her favorite probiotic drink in her sleep. But it’s the softer moments–whether lingering on George’s kiss or feeling duped by Tessa after their haircuts–that make Dallas more than just a funny Barbie doll. Couple that with her interactions with her husband Stephen, and you suddenly have a character worth following on her own, irrespective of her relationship to the Altmans. When Jay Mohr is on this show, the mood simply changes. I don’t know if he’s simply not on the same wavelength as everyone else, or if the show has an opportunity to explore more melancholy themes when he’s in everyone else’s orbit. But I do know that when he’s in the picture, Suburgatory is a stronger show.
Over at The Shays, Lisa strove for some independence from Sheila in the face of another holiday. Lisa has been a fairly one-note character, with her quiet, nervous energy as her sole attribute. So watching her take a stand thanks to Tessa’s advice was pure pleasure to watch as she fought Sheila’s mind games throughout the episode. The best part? She ultimately took a stand on her own, without Tessa’s help. From sweating alone in her room to proudly dropping her bath towel in front of the full family, she fought her natural instinct and landed… well, naked in the back of the Altmans’ car. But still, progress! It’s clear that both Fred and Ryan (both back this week, thank God) feel equally oppressed by Sheila, and now look at her with new respect. (Ryan’s speech to her about taking a risk wasn’t quite on par with his line about Scarlett Johansson in “The Barbecue,” but it was damn close.)
Even Noah’s family got fleshed out over dinner, where we learned in quick fashion
- how much Noah’s wife Jill and Dallas hate each other,
- how much Jill hates Noah’s speechifying, and
- Noah and Jill planned an early C-section for their daughter Jenna so they wouldn’t miss their cruise.
But it’s the way in which this information was deployed that resonated. These weren’t jokes made at the expense of these characters, but rather observations made to hurt or expose them in a social setting. Dalia drops the second bomb on Jenna to punctuate her pomposity, but only after Jenna insults Dallas’ dinner. It’s a subtle change, but it makes all the difference in the world. Having Dalia be indiscriminately mean limits the scope of her character. That’s not a crime, exactly, but by deepening her character in small ways such as this, Suburgatory has limitless potential with her or any character in its world.
So count me as thankful that Suburgatory demonstrated that the pilot wasn’t a fluke. I’ve barely talked about George and Tessa this week, whereas in previous reviews they were the only two I could actually discuss. Fleshing out this world will only make this show stronger. Having the Royces simply dress up in ridiculous outfits makes for a cute gag, but showing the unhappiness under the surface gives those outfits powerful context. If tonight’s episode means that the show has started to figure out what makes its characters tick, then we could be in for some great episodes in the near future.
- Everything involving Yakult, Dallas’ dog, was hysterical, especially Dalia’s inexplicable hatred of him.
- People in Chatswin love dressing up for holidays. Can’t wait to see this show’s winter holiday episode.
- Sheila Shay thinks all Belgians are sex offenders. And apparently all the Shay women are blessed in certain parts of their anatomy.
- Dallas in the art museum: “I’ll take it.” Total spit take there, earned by the loooong pause before anyone said a word in that scene. Another great pause: the one between “Son of a… ” and “ …bitch!” thanks to a NYC car horn blaring.
- This Week in Uncomfortable George/Tessa ’Shipping: You just had to talk about George’s cul-de-sac, didn’t you, Tessa?
- “Just sit there and we can both get blown.”
- “Daddy, you know Cashmere loves cashmere!”
- “It's like when I saw Ace Ventura in that super confusing ‘spotless sunshine’ movie that had the Titanic lady with the mid-sized naturals.”
- “She looks good in wool!”