There’s a fine line in comedy between being outlandish and simply being cartoonish. The former comes with a certain kind of specificity, triple jumping out from the norm into something recognizable yet clearly out of the ordinary. The latter? Well, it turns normal human beings into objects designed to deliver humor. During its short run, Suburgatory has done a good job at letting the laughs derive from character-based observations rather than turning these people into joke-telling machines. But tonight’s episode, “The Chatterer,” abandoned Tessa for large chunks of the episode, and with it, the episode abandoned the laser-like focus that comes from seeing the world through her perspective.
Now, leaving Tessa on the sidelines isn’t inherently wrong and should be expected. From the beginning, this show has been about both her and George navigating their new territory on parallel yet separate journeys. But while we’ve gotten a slight handle on Tessa’s psychology so far, we’ve not had nearly enough time with her father to gain insight into his actions. We have Tessa’s voiceovers to help us fill in the gaps, but no such aide when it comes to understanding what George is thinking. That wouldn’t really be a problem… except when the things that he is doing make absolutely no sense.
George joining the school’s PTA seems on paper like a slam-dunk idea. Last week, I talked about the need for Suburgatory to build the world of Chatswin bit by bit with each passing week to ground some of the sillier aspects of the show’s sociological savagery. But the show never really decides on why George truly joins, and as such his short time with the group feels like a lot of ideas that never coalesce into coherent psychology. He starts out mad with neighbor Sheila, who has not only been packing lunches for Tessa but also started a college fund for her. Since she’s the head of the PTA, he decides to stomp over her metaphorical ground the way she’s been stepping over his literal one. But then that turns into a power grab for the PTA, which turns into a series of lessons about men for the other members, which turns into George spouting acronyms fit for a 15-year old girl. There’s no real throughline to any of these actions, and the lack of connective tissue between these stages robs the storyline of building to a true climax.
Also robbing the story of any climax? The whiplash speed at which tonight’s episode barreled not only through George’s PTA adventures, but Tessa’s journalistic journey in transforming the dull school newspaper into a must-read gossip mag, The Chatswin Chatterer. I’m all for narratives that don’t linger past their expiration dates, but narratively, this show burned through more story than a half-season of The Wire. I bring up The Wire as an example not because I wish to draw a serious comparison between The Chatswin Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. I bring it up because Maestro Harrell, who played Malik in this episode, also played Randy Wagstaff on the seminal HBO drama. What could have played out over multiple episodes instead got condensed down to a 20-minute episode. As such, the show constantly had to tell us about the seismic character shifts in each storyline rather than show how they actually played out.
When it comes to Tessa’s storyline, this is slightly less problematic. The primary shifts occurred with Malik’s character, not hers. And this part of the story ends with Tessa admitting that she’d like to get to know the real version of him. So that’s imperfect, but acceptable, especially if this week served as an introduction to a character that will be added to Tessa’s inner circle. But it’s still odd that at the outset of the episode, she’s totally fine taking lunches from a woman she only last week tried desperately to avoid. Whether it’s intentional or not, Suburgatory keeps skipping massive amounts of story, leaving us at home trying to piece out what happened since last we saw these people. In three episodes, we have moved forward what seems like four to six weeks. Maybe that amount of time justifies Tessa’s new comfort level with accepting Sheila’s lunches (even without the pudding), but it robs us of a chance to see how this town is affecting both her and George. I assumed their fish-out-of-water status would drive a lot of the humor of this show, at least in its first season. So why show them already swimming in episode three?
George’s transformation not only feels as choppy as Tessa’s but has the added problem of not actually having him do things that his character might realistically do. Tessa’s attraction to Ryan last week surprised her, but also felt part and parcel of who she is. There’s a difference, however, in showing an action that surprises both character and audience and action that feels funny for funny’s sake. Had George abused his position of power to either 1) get the men of the neighborhood angry for giving ideas to their wives, or 2) attempt to seduce at least one of the moms, then I would have been onboard with his less savory side. That’s not something we’ve seen from him thus far, but it wouldn’t seem like a violation of character, either. (Hell, his first line in the PTA meeting? “I promise not to hold my membership against you.” Hey now!)
But for George to get that swept up so suddenly in the world of suburban moms just felt like the show saying, “Know what’s funny? A manly man with a goatee wearing mom jeans! That’s gold!” And maybe it would have been, had Chatswin gradually shifted his character toward that end point over a few weeks. I’m not looking for realism in Suburgatory, per se, but I am looking for the show to do better character work with its two core protagonists. People like Sheila, Dallas, and Noah can vacillate episode by episode, going to wherever that week’s story needs them to travel. But Tessa and George are the audience’s entry point into this world and need to be treated with slightly more care than the rest of characters. Jeremy Sisto gamely played every beat tonight, but nothing George did tonight felt remotely true. That fault lies not with him but on the false humor placed upon him to perform. And in a town as fake as Chatswin, that’s a problem. It’s far from an unsolvable one. But it’s worth watching as the show progresses.
- That the show didn’t mention the racial implications of an African-American student hanging out with a clique called “The KKK” feels like a completely missed moment. Why introduce Kaitlin, Kenzie, and (my favorite) Kamantha at all if not to pay it off in Malik’s rapid social ascendance? I know this show is on between The Middle and Modern Family, but a little subversiveness wouldn’t kill this show, would it?
- Malik loves two things: world jumbles and re-enacting scenes from Medium. And in these respects, is he not exactly like the rest of us?
- I touched upon George’s rapid, near-schizophrenic shifts in the episode, but when did Sheila move from trying to bone George to mother Tessa? And why need these two things be mutually exclusive?
- Dallas’ tennis outfit. You GO, girl.
- Almost no Alan Tudyk this week, which must make the Whedon fans at home plenty annoyed. Still, he did get in this great line in during his short scene: “You are so obsessed with MILFs, you don’t even notice the ILFs.”
- “Let’s get involved, moms. Without the P, we’re just T&A.”
- “Maybe it’s time someone gaveled you!”
- “Oh my God. What was Dalia doing in non-fiction?”
- “I’ve tried. But I don’t like Internet pornography.”