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Your New Favorite Show: Suburgatory

June 22, 2012
Suburgatory promo poster

Rare is the TV show that can pull off being so real and so surreal at the same time.

ABC’s Suburgatory is such a show. The premise of this no-laugh-track, multi-camera sitcom is relativly simple: single father George Altman (Jeremy Sisto) fears for the virtue his teenage daughter Tessa (Jane Levy) after finding condoms in her room. He decides to move their little family from hip, bustling Manhattan to the idyllic New York suburb of Chatswin. Despite being only a few miles from the city, Chatswin seems like a totally different world to our two heroes wherein they are beset by busybody neighbors and painfully superficial high-schoolers.

Many of the standard “fish out of water” storytelling rules apply. George and Tessa see astonishing and sometimes terrifying things at every turn. They are unaccustomed to both the sincerity and shallowness of Chatswin’s denizens. Tessa, whip-smart and sarcastic, finds herself dealing with a clueless school counselor, a clique of snotty, soulless popular girls, and the assumption by everyone that she is a lesbian (“You mean because I’m not dressed like I have a pole in my locker?”). George fights off alternately nosy and amorous housewives as he tries, for the sake of his daughter, to embrace the banal suburban lifestyle. Tessa naturally resents being consigned to this lifestyle and is often snarkily reminding her father how great it was in Manhattan.

George and Tessa have moved into the house across the street from Fred and Shiela Shay (Chris Parnell and Ana Gasteyer) and their son, Ryan (Parker Young), the jock, and daughter Lisa (Allie Grant), the awkward and unpopular. Lisa and Tessa of course become friends by necessity. Tessa’s nemesis is the vacuous and spoiled popular girl Dalia (Carly Chaikin) who wears a lot of eyeliner, is constantly texting, says “biotch” a lot, and seems to begin and end every sentence with “you guys.” Dalia is comically ignorant but so secure in her ignorance that she corrects Tessa’s use of words like “chronicle,” which Dalia does not believe is actually a word (“It sounds like something you find on the bottom of a boat.”) George’s old college buddy, Noah Werner (the always brilliant Alan Tudyk), is a dentist who has been living in Chatswin for a while and offer services as teeth whitening stockton. He has wholly embraced the suburban lifestyle and tries to show George the ropes.

The cast is well chosen, but the truly stand-out performance is that of Cheryl Hines as Dallas Royce. Dallas is an impeccably yet often scandalously dressed former sorority girl in her late-forties with a perpetually absent husband (Jay Mohr, who we don’t even see until well into the first season). She always has perfect hair and sculpted nails, wears a lot of animal print, and her toothy smile could power the Eastern seaboard. As she says about the PTA, “without P, we’re just T & A” She is maddeningly positive and sincere, which at first confuses George and Tessa. But it is this sincerity that makes her character so compelling. She is guileless, except inasmuch as she tries to hide an obvious attraction to George. Hines’ performance has a sweetness that demolishes the idea that she’s just a plastic, tanned, and bored housewife. George and Tessa often seek her advice, making her, in a bizarre way, the show’s Yoda.

The show alternates between satisfyingly real portrayals of people who feel trapped by social constraints, and surreal exaggerations of those constraints. Character quirks are magnified to distortion, such as Ryan’s tendency to shirtlessly gyrate in slo-mo, or Lisa’s misguided worldly wisdom about how high-school relationships work. Tudyk’s expressive face is the star of the show when Noah gets visibly distressed, even terrified, when George inadvertently breaks the rules of suburban living in Chatswin. The late-season addition of Eden (Alicia Silverstone, reunited with Sisto for the first time since 1995’s Clueless) as an organic food enthusiast is milked (soy, natch) for many a bizarre moment (such as when she makes “wheatloaf.”)

Suburgatory is a pretty rewarding watch. There are not a whole lot of laugh-out-loud moments, but a sitcom doesn’t necessarily need them to be funny. The show is easily as smart as Modern Family, and I predict great things from star Jane Levy, whose range and delivery make her a relatable audience surrogate. The first season ended with a bit of an emotional cliffhanger so I anxiously await season 2 of this great show. Check it out Wednesdays on ABC.

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