Part of what makes Unsupervised so essential is its focus on the American dream. Also its creative use of the root “frick,” but mostly that American dream thing. It may have been in the background for a few episodes—this show serves many masters—but tonight, just in time for the return of Mad Men, the American dream is trotted out, coldly scrutinized, and groped. Because “Jesse Judge Lawncare Incorporated” is so interested in this thematic tour, some of the narrative elements are forced, not to mention slightly reheated, but there are just enough fun doodles in the margins to compensate.
It all starts with a look at allowance, which Gary and Joel don’t get, because they basically don’t have parents. In fact, “Jesse Judge Lawncare Incorporated” uses allowance less as a take on welfare, as Jesse Judge views it, and more as an insight into parent-child relationships. Darius gets an allowance for doing well in school, because that’s what’s important to his parents. He even negotiates a raise, but only after making a prepared argument based on evidence of his academic success. Megan and Christina, meanwhile, are opposite extremes of less functional relationships. Megan gets an allowance that she doesn’t earn in the way that Darius does, so there are strings attached. In Megan’s case, the horrible parental restrictions on her spending involve forcing her to buy a bikini instead of a one-piece in another terrific scene involving Megan’s mom. (Key quote: “Oh, well, why don’t you just wear a chastity belt?”) Christina doesn’t earn her allowance, either, but where Megan is still hyperobedient when it comes to authority, Christina has all the power in her relationship with her father. Martin always has a brief lecture for Christina, but he also always concludes by giving in and in this case supplementing her allowance for a bikini that he doesn’t approve of.
The cherry on top is how Martin works overtime to support them and comes home physically unable to walk inside the house, instead falling out of his car and writhing his way across the lawn. Just a few scenes earlier, he’s living the dream, the very specific American dream of one particular Panamanian immigrant, sitting in his yard and literally barking at his gringo lawn guy. Now we find out the truth. Someday he wants to save up enough money to retire to a beach and drink beer, but for now, he has to keep slaving away at the gross Internet café and come home beat. (There has to be a joke here.) In the other corner, there’s Sid, who’s as weird as ever. He’s living an independent life because he’s abandoned all of his obligations, including a wife and kids (and, lest we forget, his kangaroo lover). In the closing tag, as everyone discusses what they learned this week, Joel tells Sid he should probably call his kids, to which Sid responds, “Nah.” It’s just funny and understated enough to make a great button, but it’s also the other side of absentee parentism. Unsupervised lets Sid occasionally offer surrogate parental advice to the kids, but it doesn’t let him off the hook, and “Jesse Judge Lawncare Incorporated” is an especially cold look.
But it’s the episode’s title character who offers Gary and Joel a real shot at the American dream. They’re trying to throw a house party like in “Pilot,” so they get jobs in manual labor like in “Rich Girl.” Truth be told, there are repeated elements, like Joel resigning himself to an economic class he’s not strong enough to break out of, but “Jesse Judge Lawncare Incorporated” plays like an alternate version of those stories. Instead of a raucous party that offers fleeting moments of growth and boobs, this time we get three people standing around ashamed of their bodies and a fourth dancing alone. Instead of entering the work force out of resignation, Gary takes his job as an opportunity. And instead of quitting to pursue a better life, Gary quits to appreciate the life he has.
I can’t tell if all these lower-class television morals to opt out of the endless pursuit of more money in an unfair game is an obvious good or a troubling comfort, but Unsupervised sure makes its case against monomania, occupational or otherwise. Jesse Judge is so focused on his outdoor business he develops a melanoma, to which Joel gives good after-school special: “Wear sunscreen.”
Which brings us to body-image issues. I don’t buy the shoehorned bit about Joel suddenly feeling shame about his body. It’s a plausible plot point never quite convincingly developed, and of course Gary’s going to talk him out of it at the end, anyway. That’s just expected, but for Gary’s pep talk and Joel’s bravery to inspire Megan to reveal her bikini is actually sweet. And for once Megan gets to see that all her stressing is over nothing, much to the delight of the onlooking boys. (Joel: “You look like frickin’ Mick Jagger!” Darius agrees: “The old-ass singer with the muscles like beef jerky, right? With the big lips?”) On the other hand, Darius is seriously uncomfortable taking his shirt off, and that’s going to take some time to work on. It’s nice to see another untidy resolution. Unsupervised is one comedy where serious issues don’t have easy answers.
- That was Charlie Day as Jesse Judge. “I can do anything my mind believes to do.”
- On top of being thematically termite-like, this episode has a handful of really amusing elements, like Joel’s pride in his armpit hair. I loved the first wide shot in the opening scene, which reveals Joel to be wearing blue jeans in the pool. I can’t even describe how much I laughed at Megan’s mom and Christina’s bikini and Martin’s Shawnee Indian references. And that party shirt just screams Joel.
- In mythology news, we learn why Gary, Joel, and Darius always wear the same outfits: poor, poor, and has multiple instances of the exact same ensemble down to his paper-white shoes, respectively. It’s a cute, funny scene that tries to ground animation tropes in real life, but it needlessly raises questions about Megan, Russ, Danielle, and the rest.
- So how much of Sid’s backstory is complete fabrication? I’ve been going along with it, mostly because the character has always been extra cartoony relative to the rest, but now that we’re deeper into the series, Darius is obviously right.
- Megan’s mom is the best: “Sweetie, you have a nice body. Doesn’t she, Gary?” “Well, you don’t got no boobs, but, you’re skinny and stuff, so, you might look good in a bikini.” I hope we get to see what those two kids are like together before the season is up.
- Gary’s impressed with Darius and Joel’s party décor: “Dude, this place looks awesome. It’s like a cross between a resort and dirt bike track.”
- Joel practices his explanation for wearing a shirt at his own pool party with Darius: “Anyone asks me why I’m wearing a shirt, I got my ribs ripped out by a Bengal tiger.” “That’s not even a believable story.” “I was throwing cotton candy at a Bengal tiger, and he tried to maul me.”