Change can be the enemy to comedy. If characters actually learn substantial lessons, then they often cease to be the people that make audiences laugh on a weekly basis. Still, there’s often a base level of continuity threaded through shows, even if they don’t aspire to the dense narrative structures of Lost. Tonight’s Suburgatory felt out of sync with what has transpired to date. That could be the function of ABC airing this episode out of shooting order, which is entirely possible. If so, then the curious disconnect makes sense. In fact, I hope that’s the case. Because otherwise, “Don’t Call Me Shirley” signals a potential problem with the show going forward.
Before getting to those specific problems, it’s worthwhile to note that this episode wasn’t any more or less funny than other post-pilot editions. The pilot still stands well above the others in the show’s brief lifespan, but what has followed has still elicited more than a few laughs from my particular seat on the couch. Writing about television comedy can sometimes be a tricky thing, insomuch as there’s always the chance to make a fun piece of television sound duller than a Schopenhauer dissertation. Tessa’s voice-overs have always been strong, Dalia’s gum-chewing narcissism still delights, and there’s a great deal of fun to be had with at least a half-dozen more characters. Much like the suburbs themselves, there’s little wrong on the surface with Suburgatory.
But while characters usually can’t truly change in comedies, they should still develop. You could argue that Monica and Chandler didn’t really change a whole lot as people during the course of Friends, but their inherent eccentricities were modulated over time to the point that their coupling eventually made sense. Things didn’t happen in a vacuum, even if most episodes were a restaging of a similar, insanely popular template. “Don’t Call Me Shirley” happens in a time in which we’re eons away from the establishing the type of history from our favorite denizens of Central Perk, but it still seemed tonight as if the characters had already forgotten their brief time together.
The main narrative thread of tonight’s episode centered around the theft of Sheila Shay’s precious Shirley Temple doll collection. It’s a collection that receives better attention and much better clothing that Sheila’s actual daughter, Lisa. The sounds of a single police car pierce the suburban sky, serving as a reminder for Tessa of her good ol’ days back in New York City. The notion of crime apparently doesn’t exist in Chatswin, and the missing Shirley Temples set off a panic amongst its denizens. It also sends Dallas and Dalia to seek refuge with George and Tessa, where tension and revelations arise in equal measure. Everything that I’ve described is a perfectly reasonable episode of comedic television. Everything, that is, except context.
It’s not that the situations themselves fell flat due to comedic timing or poor writing. They fell flat due to an odd lack of context for the various interactions. Tessa and Dalia haven’t been BFFs, but they really haven’t been enemies since the pilot. Sheila and George wouldn’t still be fuming mad about the PTA debacle in last week’s episode, but certainly wouldn’t be as comfortable as they were tonight. Everything tonight felt like a recapitulation of the pilot, which would be fine as a second episode of the season/series but felt odd after a few episodes of attempting world- and relationship-building. Yes, Tessa and Malik sat together in lunch together. But Lisa sat apart: Was this a function of the staging of the “teachable moment,” or a reflection that this was filmed before the Veronica Mars-esque trio formed at the end of “The Chatterer”?
Episodes airing out of order is hardly new, but acknowledgement of them is clearly higher in this day and age of television viewing. Doctor Who switched up some episodes this year, and while that fanbase might be more attuned to such a switcheroo than that of Suburgatory, I’d be willing to wager more than a few people watching tonight found the interactions tonight at odds with what we know about these people to date. That has little to do with people having greater knowledge about things such as production codes, and more to do with an increasingly sophisticated television audience that expects a modicum of growth and connective tissue between one episode and the next. Again: This isn’t about building a mythology for Suburgatory. It’s about letting people feel that what they are watching is building towards something, no matter how modest a goal that is.
This of course assumes that this is the case. I went looking for that production code, but while the aforementioned Doctor Who has plenty of wikis where once can research such minutiae, we’re not quite there yet with Suburgatory. If this was indeed planned as the fourth episode, then Tessa’s sudden desire to return to New York City makes little sense. Had this been her fourth attempt to get George to move the pair back, then fine. But while she’s sulked during her time in Chatswin, brewing up schemes to force her father’s hand hasn’t been part of the game. Having finally founded a triumverate of like-minded souls in the suburban wasteland, why try and leave now? And why not have Malik and Lisa press her to stay? Even in the repetitive nature of situation comedies, context like this matters. Context isn’t always necessary for a sitcom to possess, but it’s difficult to be anything more than “passable” as a series without it.
Ideally, the laughs in Suburgatory will come from how these people grow and mature (not change) through prolonged interactions with each other. Show creator Emily Kapnek learned a thing or three about the comedic potential of character development from her time on Parks And Recreation. There, a line from Ron Swanson connects not only by what he does or says, but how that action confirms or confounds what we know about his character. There’s no reasonable expectation for such a history at this point for Tessa, George, or any of the other characters. But there’s a reasonable expectation that the show will hopefully work toward that as the series progresses. It’s hard, slow work. But episodes like tonight’s show no effort of that work at all. If it’s an aberration due to production schedule, then we’ll enjoy this episode in its proper place once the DVD comes out next summer. If not, then a show that debuted with such promise may be less interested in creating characters and more interested in maintaining archetypes.
- Another reason this episode felt out of order: George’s “transformation” through his prolonged exposure to Dallas felt like a variation on last week’s PTA plot. Mercifully, his transformation this week felt human-scale and in-character. But it was curious to have these two similar plots in back-to-back weeks.
- I’m very glad we didn’t spend an episode watching George build panic rooms for nervous citizens.
- Why is there a Warholian portrait of Mr. Wolf in the cafeteria?
- My favorite touch of the episode: Tessa and George falling back into simplistic hand gestures during a perceived break-in. It conveyed a ton of backstory on their relationship, and I’d love to see more of their old routines incorporated into their suburban life.
- Not that I like dwelling on grades, but the "B" is what I would have given the show as its second entry. Were this the planned fourth installment, I think I'd knock it down quite a bit.
- “I haven’t felt this vulnerable since I test drove a smart car.”
- “Dalia? Did I accidentally summon you?”
- “Unreal. She even sleeps like a bitch.”
- “Aww, Words With Friends!”