Suburgatory: "Victor Ha"
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Suburgatory: "Victor Ha"

Partway into “Victor Ha,” George shows up at school to bring Tessa a specially made sack lunch, but Dalia finds him first, and he takes pity on her when he finds out she hasn’t been eating. So they retire to the cafeteria, where Dalia regales him with the complicated, controversial tale of hair feathers at Chatswin High. It’s relevant for a couple reasons, the first being the writing-class symbolism of food as nourishment that runs throughout the episode like a deep, deep river. The second is Dalia is telling a story about an inane, overblown feud between her and another girl at her school that frames herself as the obvious good guy. She continues, “And she was all— ” but suddenly Tessa sits down with her dad and the girl who gave her a subcutaneous hematoma, so Dalia shuts up midsentence and targets her frozen glare. “Don’t let me stop you,” Tessa says, before putting on a subtle ditz caricature. “She was all what?” I wish I could convey the specific expressions wielded by the actors, particularly Jane Levy, who’s hurt and collected and not embarrassed to be righteously pissed off in the middle of the cafeteria. It sounds serious, because there are serious emotions here and the actors are playing straight, but the tension is what makes it so funny. And that’s before Dalia goes Daniel Plainview on Tessa’s milkbox. Yes, you read that right. Suburgatory is funny again!

After the season premiere, the biggest question was how empty Chatswin would feel going forward. It makes sense for that episode to feel a bit smaller than normal with its sense of departure and melancholy, but what happens with a less dramatic plot? If “Victor Ha” is any indication, Chatswin feels as full as usual. Part of that is the cast. There are still three whole Chatswin households filling up just 20 minutes. Now, Suburgatory does feel contained in a certain way. In that cafeteria scene, for instance, even though there are several other students that could show up, including one cast regular, I still never had the sense that there was anyone in that room except Dalia, George, and Tessa. But that says more about Suburgatory’s erstwhile overactivity. The show is still full. It’s just not overflowing. Malik gets a cameo, Tom has a scene, and Kimantha gets a name-check. The titular Victor Ha even augments the feeling, which makes sense considering Fred and Sheila adopt him specifically to fill up their house. But what really restores that Chatswin liveliness is the humor. Nothing makes a comedy feel fuller than laughter.

Start with Dalia, who, as predicted, makes a pretty funny villain once she crawls out of bed. Even her opening scene, in which Dallas tries to spoon-feed her eggs Carmen-ara in bed, is pretty funny, though mostly for the way Dallas speaks to her, first in baby-talk and then in elaborate sentences with surprisingly old-fashioned diction. “Heed this, Dalia: You will undergo nourishment even if I have to ingest, digest, and straight retch this into your mouth like a ruby-throated hummingbird.” The rest of the episode consigns Dallas to a reliable gag of slinging ‘90s smack at Tessa (“See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya,” “Talk to the hand ‘cause the face don’t give a damn,” etc.) after Tessa convinces George to stop seeing Dalia. Meanwhile Dalia pulls off another delightful twist on the lengthy, deadpan monologue when she pops out of a closet and picks up her story about Kimantha and the hair feathers midsentence. She also gets some serious mileage out of George saying it’s good to see her when he bumps into her at school. When Tessa comes over to tell Dalia that she’ll allow George to see her, Dalia responds, “He could never hate me.” And then she moves her head ever so slightly to rub the following words in, like she’s imagining smearing them all over Tessa’s face: “He thinks it’s good to see me.”

Over at the Shay household, Lisa is thrilled to have the house to herself for a change. Malik is, too. That is, until Fred and Sheila come back early from a couples retreat with a new child in tow. They yank young Victor Ha in front of them and the camera dollies in on him like he’s bad news, which he is, for Lisa. Combined with Sheila’s overzealous mother and Lisa’s sometimes worrisomely unhinged overlooked child, Victor provides some terrific comic tension. At the foster child fair, Sheila interviews him about his Ryan-like qualities. “How would you describe your body?” He thinks for a moment. “Above average?” After Lisa appears in the mirror behind Victor like it’s a slasher flick, she interrogates him in their shared bathroom, asking whether he’s a grifter. “Are you a con man because I’m getting some mighty weird vibes coming from your direction and it’s not the onesie. Entirely.” She warns him—threatens him, really—that breakfast won’t be hot, so he shouldn’t get his hopes up. “We get breakfast?!”

There’s that nourishment theme again. For the first time, Victor might be well provided for, but he’s clearly just here for an episode. He was, let’s face it, purchased on a whim by a lonely mother who pushes him into lying about his athletic hobbies and prowess. (It’s amazing. For all the serious emotions beneath Suburgatory, the characters still have moments of motivated suburban satire, like George and Dallas carrying out their kids’ rivalries and Sheila buying a replacement son.) And poor Lisa, Suburgatory’s underdog and comic breakout, is at cross purposes with Victor. It’s obvious where this is headed. But then Lisa, trying to sabotage his favor with the family, winds up bonding with him over one of his actual interests, Bionicles, and gets him to come out to the family (“He isn’t a Ryan. He’s a Lisa”). Truth be told, Fred and Sheila are happy he isn’t really into football, because football took their son away, and there’s no way Bionicles will take Victor away from them. Here I was concerned Chatswin might start to feel empty.

“Victor Ha” is hilarious, and it hasn’t sacrificed any of the emotional complexity or control of the premiere. This isn’t the laugh and then cry mode of modern sitcom writing. It’s more like a funny drama, with moments of broad comedy, pointed satire, and occasional pathos all rooted in complicated relationships. When George tells Tessa that Dalia seems to have needed him, she responds, “Oh, well. Too bad,” and it’s hard to blame her. These actors are electric, and there’s not a weak link in the cast. There are lingering questions, though. How different is “this time” going to be if George is friendly with Dalia, or if George is behaving like a helicopter parent to Tessa? It doesn’t get much more suburban than that. Tessa’s final-act gesture is sweet, but even if it doesn’t violate her fire-forged vow, it’s at least a bit of a softening for the very next episode to see her give into the insiders. But that’s one of the great things about this season so far. Dalia can inspire sympathy even while she’s a raging diva. Lisa can cross over into villainy even though she’s been wronged. And Tessa can be kind without relinquishing one iota of her well-earned anger.

Stray observations:

  • Clueless reunion: “Victor Ha” is directed by Amy Heckerling!
  • I suspect the Shays are foster parenting Victor, but from the sounds of it, they may actually be adopting him. Future episodes will probably clarify this point.
  • Fred and Sheila listen to Poor Little Bitch Girl by Jackie Collins on the road: “Svetlana surveyed her nude image in a full-length mirror, readying herself for a 30,000-dollar-an-hour sexual encounter with a 15-year-old son of an Arab oil tycoon.” This on the heels of Fred talking out his plan to trick his and Sheila’s genitals into staying robust with his own daughter.
  • At the foster child fair, Victor pops up wearing a shirt advertising himself (“Talented!”) and says, “Can I help you find what you’re looking for?”
  • Upon which comes a succession of jokes about how parents only want white babies. Commentary!
  • Tessa’s getting advice about the Dalia-George situation from Lisa and Victor. “I don’t know what to do.” Lisa: “Have you considered vaginal reconstructive surgery?” “Why would I consider that?” “I don’t know, I just keep seeing these pamphlets at the doctor’s office.”
  • Lisa also likes playing with her Bionicles. “Victor, my whole life I’ve lived in a house where no one understood me. I know how it feels to be ashamed of your Bionicles.”
  • Victor confesses: “Mom, Dad, I’m not who I said I am. I’m a grifter.”

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