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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Suburgatory: "Blame It On The Rainstick"

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If you had told me that Tessa joining a hippie cult band would be one of the season’s highlights, I would have given you an exit beating with your instrument of choice. But here we are. Senior tanning class drives Tessa into the open arms of Mae Whitman’s Caris (as in “charismatic”), the leader of a nomadic band that’s kind of like Polyphonic Spree if Polyphonic Spree were also a violent cult. Caris introduces Tessa to all the white robes. “Tessa this is Carol, Tommy, Lonny, Dommi, Noni, Connie, Bahami, Mikey, Likey, Tikey, Psyche, Moop, Meep, Nimmy, Timmy, and Luke.” Whitman is magic. Every moment Caris is on-screen is funny, and she gets funnier the more we find out about her. What starts as an ethereal New Age avatar turns into a smiling psychopath, and that in turn heightens the dynamic between Caris and Tessa.

As usual, Jane Levy throws herself into this latest silliness. Over dinner she plays a little something on rainstick for George in the kind of bit that would show up on an Emmy reel, if the Emmys were aware of Suburgatory. Soon Tessa’s skipping tanning class regularly, wearing white, and festooning her hair with feathers. She speaks all dreamily and smiles no matter what she’s saying. But apparently her dazed breakup with Lisa gets to her because the drummer calls her out on her weak rainstick-playing, and she snaps back about his weak drum-playing. “Whoa, hey!” Caris says. “Whoa. Not cool.” It’s the pause that slays me. But Caris just wants to know what’s wrong, and Tessa tells her about Lisa. “Would it help if we killed her?” Tessa’s stunned, so Caris clarifies. “If we murdered her, I mean.”

That scene with Lisa is the centerpiece of “Blame It On The Rainstick.” It’s always delightful to see Tessa match Lisa in eccentricity. In this case, that eccentricity is as Ann as the nose on plain’s face, too: Lisa has a Harvey Dent sunburn because her buddy hasn’t been there during tanning class, and Tessa suddenly has silver dots on her cheek and a moony expression even as she exerts herself to clamber through the bathroom window. Lisa tries to remind her that tanning class will be very real to her when she fails, but Tessa is unphased. “I’m marching to the beat of a different drummer. Luke. That’s my band’s drummer.” She’s still smiling like she’s in the midst of a perpetual fond memory as she tells Lisa to find a new buddy and falls through the window. “Burn,” says some girl who just walked in. “On your face. You should get that looked at.”

So maybe this isn’t such an odd plot for this season. Here’s yet another story about abandonment. It isn’t serious. Tessa’s never in real danger of permanently running off with the cult band. But maybe that’s why such a broad plot doesn’t stick out. Dallas, who teaches tanning, is so worried about Tessa she even tracks down George to alert him to his daughter’s absences, but he dismisses the situation with air quotes, so she “dismisses” “him” right “back.” Which is great, because it means Dallas gets to rescue Tessa in spite of everything that’s going on between the Altmans and the Royces. Lisa goes after her, too, but Tessa tries to warn her away. “Lisa, this is a cult and they’re going to kill you. They’re going to kill you. They told me they want to kill you.” Lisa’s frozen in fear with a big smile across her face, which is about as funny in Allie Grant’s hands as you can imagine. Instead Dallas shows up and saves the day, which doesn’t require much since Tessa wasn’t in too deep yet, but it’s the thought that counts. It’s been a long time since Suburgatory has gone to the Dallas-Tessa well. It still means something, even if “Blame It On The Rainstick” doesn’t really lean on it.

Meanwhile, Noah’s back! The return of everyone’s favorite wacky supporting character is cause for a certain amount of alarm, especially in such a grounded season. Funny as Alan Tudyk is, Noah’s obnoxiousness tends to bring out the worst in the show, and it wasn’t at all clear he’d fit into the new Suburgatory. But the writers are way ahead of you. Noah’s been at anger management to control his outbursts, which is the diegetic way of saying he’s been to character rehab. Not in any permanent way. In the final moments of the episode George finally frees the original Noah from his shell-shocked, uh, shell. In effect, “Blame It On The Rainstick” gives the audience a reformed Noah before bringing back the old, alienating one, but it doesn’t play like a rebuke to either side. It’s just that for one episode Noah gets to be funny in a very different way from usual.

Naturally Tudyk makes the most of timid Noah, flinching at George’s fist-bump, hiding in his own office, and biting into a salad that’s mostly onion. There isn’t much to the plot, and George being so wrapped up in his friend that he ignores his daughter is a little questionable. But whatever the goofy lark of an episode description signaled, “Blame It On The Rainstick” proves that Suburgatory can still go big. There’s even a gross-out scene at the dentist and an inspired cut to a spaghetti sauce bubble popping on George’s face like blood. Season three isn’t just better than previous seasons at melodrama. It’s better at the wackiness too.


Stray observations:

  • George trying to decide how to wear his pants to see Noah again: “Natural waist or sagging? Sagging, definitely.”
  • George starts listing things to bring out Noah’s rage, but Noah’s too weak to bite. “The sequel to Bring It On?” “Was entitled Bring It On Again, and aptly so. It got the job done.”
  • Dallas notices Tessa’s absent from class, so Lisa covers. “Tessa’s here, she’s here, she just has a raging UTI. You know how much bacteria loves Tessa.”