Suburgatory could use a bottle episode. Put the Altmans, the Shays, and the Royces in a single house and make them actually develop some stories for a change. It’s hilarious when Tessa liberates the football girlfriends, but we only hear about them afterward. They serve a great vignette about the school-spirit-industrial complex and then are seen no more. Yes, “Chinese Chicken” is more about Ryan and Tessa’s relationship than Tessa’s relationship to the football girlfriends, but the sweatshop still feels like a great sketch instead of a unified piece of Chatswin. And that’s far from rare. Much as I enjoy the show’s unusual narrative style of running out the clock with whatever works, Suburgatory too often serves up a course of appetizers and then kicks us out. I’m still hungry.
Take “Yakult Leader.” Technically there are two throughlines backing the episode. Yoni uses Yakult as a pretext to elbow George out of Dallas’ inner circle again, and Tessa tries to help Lisa find a boyfriend. But the plots advance in sketches, not surprisingly for Saturday Night Live reject Yoni. That story is at its best when it’s about main characters, so Dallas being almost irrelevant except as an external object of value concerns me. Can’t she ever overcome these goofy obstacles on her own? I realize Dallas represents a community that’s more comfortable throwing money at problems than investing personally, but the nonchalant way she admitted her printer obsession was about buyer’s remorse last week gave me hope she might be able to get past some of her silliness without George’s help.
Must be hard to develop characters within sketches, though. How many times do we need to see Yoni’s mysticism inexplicably sweeping Chatswin to get it? Yoni’s iffy credability is pretty funny, both for the upfront admission that Yoni doesn’t even buy into his mysticism and the sight and sound of slow, serious Yoni breaking character. So that’s one good joke. The key here is George spending time with Dalia, not only because of the plot resolution but also because of the closing implication that Dallas ought to spend more time with her daughter. Why devote as much time to Yoni’s country-club shamanism as to George’s walk with Dalia? Yoni isn’t that deep. George and Dalia are worth investing in.
The real sketch comedy comes in the great post-Malik exploration of what’s next for Lisa. First Sheila and Tessa cull the neighborhood for a lawn care worker to turn. Then Tessa interviews Lisa about a potential mate for her own search. Then Lisa finds a boyfriend in Ryan’s math tutor, middle-school student AJ. Then Tessa looks online. Finally Tessa and Lisa go on a double date with Ryan and Scott Strauss. It’s an outline, notes jotted down for a sequence of great ideas with no time to fill them out, a waste of so many concepts that would be great on their own. Tessa’s interview with Lisa only has time for one joke: Lisa’s only requirement in a mate is a torso. All that happens at dinner is Ryan admires Scott’s silky hair, the product of jojoba oil hand squeezed from jojoba seeds in a planter made out of jojoba husks. Even the interview scene is just about gradually revealing that the suitors are responding to a lawn-mowing ad (well, that and the cousin stuff). It’s so quick and lightly filled in that there isn’t even any time to see how Malik feels about all this.
Luckily we’re already invested in Lisa’s relationship with Tessa, and George’s relationships with the Royces, so the final-act moments of sweetness land. Dalia has come to really like Daddy Altman, and that backlit pan from their shadows floating across the street on up to them actually connecting as they walk Yakult crystallizes the scene. It also ties into the overarching theme of finding a parenting middle ground. Hard to know your daughter’s failing if you don’t talk to her about school. Better yet, Lisa realizes she wants to be single for a while. Obviously her crazy-eyed dive into the middle-school dating pool is a mask for pain, but this is Suburgatory so you never really know. Allie Grant’s abrupt tenderness at the end clarifies how much Lisa’s still hurting. Inviting Tessa to spend the night if she wants is another heartwarming step. Their friendship is what’s going to help Lisa, not jojoba hair.
All the episode’s problems lead back to its attention deficit disorder, but otherwise “Yakult Leader” does its job. It convincingly establishes that Lisa is in no hurry to get back together with Malik, and hints at Dallas taking a more active role in Dalia’s life. And it’s pretty funny in the process—in the Lisa half, anyway. Sheila offers Lisa’s potential suitors a dating stipend. The look on Lisa’s face as she affirms that a torso is all she needs in a lover is hilarious. When Ryan finds a great a parking spot, he double-checks with his sister: “We’re handicapped, right?” Sketches may not cultivate a strong narrative, but at least they’re reliable joke machines.