If there’s a positive trend in this fall’s television schedule, it exists within female-driven comedies. New Girl was the first show picked up for a full season, followed closely by Whitney, Up All Night, and 2 Broke Girls. (It’s Whitney Cummings world, everyone: We apparently just live in it.) Suburgatory similarly features top-notch female talent in front of the camera as well as behind it but just might be poised over the long haul to be the strongest show of this new crop. Tess Altman describes one of tonight’s plots as “cliché,” but in its second outing, the show continues to spin familiar tales in ways that feel fresh.
Coming from the writing staff of Parks And Recreation, Emily Kapnek knows about the value of world-building when it comes to comedies. Having a non-specific suburbia is fine for a single episode but would hurt this show in the long run. Populating the show not only with specific characters, but specific rules endemic to their specific locale, is what turned Parks from an initially semi-forgettable show into the premier piece of comedic television that it is. It’s not that anything in either Parks or Suburgatory is revelatory or subversive. The devil for both is in the details. And “The Barbecue” started us down the path towards specificity in this world.
Although the titular barbeque served as the B-story tonight, I liked how every citizen in Chatswin knows the “BBQ Code” by heart. That there’s a “keeping up with the Joneses” aspect to this iteration of suburbia isn’t original. But the hushed tones people took about the ritual and the collective fears of apocalyptic fallout should it not occur really served to turn the bland white picket fences into something much sharper. I imagine there’s a manual somewhere in George’s house that he simply hasn’t read yet, buried amongst pot roast dishes, that details the specifics of said barbeque in excruciating detail. (Noah wrote the manual. Of this, I have no doubt.) It’s a fairly familiar trope, yet rendered in a singular way that helped make this particular town more three-dimensional. Chatswin is certainly far from Pawnee at this point, but the latter town certainly seems like the model for the show’s development at this point.
World-building didn’t simply occur on sociological levels but biographical ones as well. Whereas the pilot emphasized the Altmans' relationship with the Royces, this week expanded our knowledge of their next-door neighbors, the Shays. Ana Gasteyer and Chris Parnell had great chemistry, and their back-and-forth banter while goading George to host the all-important cookout was a definite highlight of the episode. It was a wise move to set tonight’s episode weeks after the pilot, starting off with the latest Michael Bay-esque attempt to avoid having dinner with the Shays. A montage in which we saw George and Tessa avoiding Sheila’s gaze might have been perfectly fine. But the show conveyed plenty of information when George and Tessa went to DEFCON 1 at the outset of the episode. Suburgatory has the confidence in its audience to imagine every previous iteration on their own and simply chose to show the latest, and most outlandish, attempt.
Excising that montage left more narrative time for this week’s primary story: Tessa’s surprising and uncomfortable crush on next-door neighbor Ryan. Last week, I suggested that Suburgatory is the conservative cousin to MTV’s Awkward. This week’s “steamy” relationship between Tessa and Ryan only highlights how differently these two shows depict teenage sexual relationships. In Suburgatory, we see a harmless “Humpus in the Rumpus” that leads to a few rounds of heavy makeouts. (That’s “first base” in Chatswin. As we learned tonight, first base is regional. Check the manual in your local library should you have questions about the rules in your district.) The gentoo penguins depicted in the opening scenes die of infection once out of their habitat. The only thing Tessa gets infected with in this episode is a case of temporary bad judgment.
Over in Awkward., Jenna and Matty would have gone to the pharmacy thrice to restock their condom supply in the time depicted in “The Barbecue.” That’s not a critique; it’s just a comparison. Suburgatory isn’t interested at this point (and might never be) in getting Tessa or any other character on the show into anything resembling an acute crisis. Given both its network and its time slot, I’m pretty confident that isn’t going to change anytime soon. Suburgatory is the Bianca to Modern Family’s Kate, if one were to make a comparison of the respective characters to characters in Shakepeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Until one of the Dunphy girls starts getting busy, Tessa Altman’s chastity will stay intact. Again: That’s fine! But it’s worth noting all the same.
Tessa spends a lot of time looking at Ryan’s abs, which really serve as just one part of the shiny surface that pervades every single shot of the show. So often, pilots are poor representations of how a show will actually look and feel on a weekly basis. It was great to see colors pop in the same way in this week, and have Chatswin filmed in a bright, almost comic-book like fashion throughout. Comedies quite often don’t think about visual composition as a tool in its arsenal, but Suburgatory uses its camera and production design as a way to heighten both the universe of the show as well as augment its comedic content. It’s a comedy that demands to be seen in high-definition. It’s no Pushing Daisies, but its visual style is certainly welcome.
- Having George use a grill from New York to save the barbecue day was fine, if predictable, but let’s hope each episode doesn’t provide a “here’s where city life trumps suburban experience” moment. I love me the big cities, but I’m not interested in a series of lessons about urban superiority. (Luckily, Tessa’s continual mistakes even out the score at this point.)
- Everything about the Altmans’ “escape” from Sheila was comic gold, even if the final moment seemed more romantic than paternal. I wrote off any potential skeeviness as the pair of them recreating movies they watched together and moved on with my life.
- I wonder if last week’s use of Dalia or this week’s will be the show’s norm. That being said, a constantly shifting perspective that introduces as many people as possible is preferable. Next up on my personal “want to get to know list”: the closeted husbands.
- Ryan thinks Avatar is a foreign film, and apparently wants to have dinner with Scarlett Johansson’s corpse.
- “I’m stuck! Save yourself!”
- “Come on, Dad. I don’t have to study. I know everything already!”
- “May I be excused? I’m having a terrible time.”
- “Maybe I did something terrible in a previous life. Maybe I was Eva Braun.”
- “PICKLES PICKLES PICKLES PICKLES!”
- “You’re pouring milk that isn’t there.”
- “Intellectual, neurotic, self-loathing Jew. Much more my type!”
- “Is J. Lo’s ass big enough?” “It is for me.”
- “I’ll Yahoo it and get back to you.”
- “I like you. You’re good looking, and… you’re really good looking.”