[Contains comforting kangaroos and SPOILERS!!!]
The first time I saw the Suburgatory pilot (2011) on TV, I found it quite hard to warm to. For one thing, the premise of a single father uprooting his teenage daughter from Manhattan to the suburbs simply because he found an unopened box of condoms in her bedside drawer, seemed pretty flimsy… as if suburban kids aren’t as horny/sexually-active as the urban ones!? Why couldn’t she get mugged or start having nightmares about a terrorist attack or something? I know those aren’t especially hilarious suggestions for a sitcom… but I think it would take something as extreme as that to explain the impulsive relocation, as well as the father’s rabid insistence that she never return to the city, for any reason.
Besides that though, I also found the main characters quite annoying and unsympathetic… especially the sneery heroine of the show, ‘Tessa Altman’ (Jane Levy), who came off like a less-quirky ‘Juno’-from-Juno crossed with a less-naïve ‘Cady’-from-Mean-Girls. It probably didn’t help that Levy was 22 at the time, so she looked more like an immature college graduate than the precocious high-school student she was supposed to be. Just because she grew up in the big city, she acts like everyone else is beneath her… in one episode she actually praised a fellow New Yorker as a “holier-than-thou urbanite”, and wished she could be more like him! (ep #1.21, “The Great Compromise”) In many ways she’s just as judgemental and catty as the school’s established “mean girls”… and having watched the entire season one boxset now, I honestly can’t think of a single thing she said or did that I found laugh-out-loud funny… which is kinda strange considering she’s the lead character in a comedy! Oh, and the narrator too, of course… so it’s like there’s a snide friend-of-a-friend sat next to you on the sofa making snarky comments while you’re trying to enjoy the show. Eurgh! She’s just the worst.
Sooo… if I hate her that much, why did I buy the boxset, right? Well, I’ve been catching snippets of episodes and trailers on E4 over the years, and slowly became obsessed with Tessa’s inescapable frenemy ‘Dalia Royce’ (Carly Chaikin). There’s just something uniquely off-kilter and compelling about the character, with her dry delivery, implacable facade, and oblivious way of conversing with others… croaking out negative pronouncements at will, and blithely ignoring any interruptions or agreements until she’s said everything she intended to say, regardless of how far the conversation has moved along since she first formed the (usually ill-informed and insulting) thought she was trying to express. With her long blonde hair, heavy make-up, high-heels, and provocative clothing, I half-suspected she was a faulty fembot with cheap AI, who was running low on battery power. Her face is a blank-slate most of the time, and she only ever really smiles when she’s bullying or gossiping about her classmates… but Chaikin’s chops as a comedic actress are undeniable, and the scene where Tessa challenges Dalia to blink while wearing thick mascara makes me laugh every time I watch it (and I’ve watched it a lot!) For my money, she’s the funniest character on the show… and at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, quite possibly one of the greatest sitcom creations of all time!*
Consequently, my fave episode of the first season has to be #1.10 (“Driving Miss Dalia”), in which Dalia hires Tessa to drive her around and around the block of a boy she has a crush on (“Scott Strauss”), until they spot him… at which point Tessa is dispatched to ask him out on her employer’s behalf, little suspecting that Scott Strauss will fall for her instead! Dalia’s angry backseat-driving-and-demanding was hilarious, and her glee at finally getting a date with Scott Straus was totes adorable… though I was glad to see her back in alpha-bitch mode after Tessa admitted that she’d started seeing Scott Strauss behind Dalia’s back. Tch! This then led to an ongoing feud between the two girls, culminating in Dalia’s declaration of a weirdly specific and slow-burning plan for vengeance: “You know what’s gonna be painful? When my mother marries your father and I’m your new sister and Dad likes me best, and then we send you away to an all-girls boarding school where you find true love, and on visiting day, I come up and steal your new girlfriend. The following spring we marry in a civil ceremony which you are forced to cater. And everyone hates your catering. And you get a bad review on Yelp, which pretty much sinks your organic lesbian catering venture.” (ep #1.15, “Fire With Fire”)
Oddly enough, ‘Dallas’ (Cheryl Hines), the mother of this magnificent monster, is a happy, shiny sweetheart who brightens up the screen every time she appears, and is constantly going out of her way to make Tessa feel welcome and cared for… though she rarely receives any thanks for her efforts, of course. I feel like I should side with the rebellious tomboy on principle, but Dallas is so upbeat and endearing, it’s hard not to buy into her hot-pink and sparkly brand of femininity. Clearly she’s spoiled Dalia rotten and remains wilfully blind to the girl’s faults for much of the season, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a little womanly wisdom to pass along every now and again, if Tessa would stop snarking long enough to listen! Although I found the simmering “will-they-won’t-they” tension between Dallas and Tessa’s father ‘George’ (Jeremy Sisto) interesting in theory, I don’t really think he really deserved her… most of the time he seemed to treat her with condescension and cruelty, rather than respect and romance. He also seemed disgusted when Tessa started imitating Dallas’s appearance and life-style, which doesn’t say a lot for his opinion of the woman, does it? Feh! (ep #1.20, “Hear No Evil”)
I also have to give a nod to my second fave mother-and-daughter duo, ‘Lisa’ and ‘Sheila Shay’, played by Allie Grant and Ana Gasteyer respectively… although there’s a slightly more abrasive (and mildly psychotic) edge to their characters sometimes, both actresses deliver fantastically funny performances, aided by the inestimable Chris Parnell as father/husband ‘Fred’. Alan Tudyk is also charmingly cheesy as George’s old college buddy and new suburban neighbour ‘Noah Werner’, with a priggish wife played by Gillian Vigman (eps #1.8/15/19/20/22), and a hippy-ish surrogate-baby-mama played by Alicia Silverstone! (eps #1.19-22) In fact, there were so many comedy ringers in the supporting cast, it got harder and harder to sit through the George and Tessa scenes as the season wore on, and the writers tried to wring some drama out of the whole single-parent/estranged-mother set-up. I understand they wanted to ground all the wackiness with some serious grit, but the two tones didn’t really blend together… I was going to say “like oil and water”, but it was actually more like fireworks and water! Those two were such a buzzkill… I really identified with the teacher (Jackie Geary) who listened to Tessa’s heartfelt poem and then admitted that she simply didn’t care (at all) about what the girl was going through. (ep #1.16, “Poetic Injustice”) Of course she liked Dalia better! Who wouldn’t?
Nonetheless, I am eager to get started on season two… assuming I can find reliable downloads of all the episodes, since apparently the series wasn’t popular enough to score a full DVD release… which is pesky, because the first season discs had several Dalia-centric deleted scenes on them, and it pains me to think there are more unseen jokes out there that I’ll never get to enjoy. Dammit, you guys!
* I’m aware that my enthusiasm for Dalia may be partly fuelled by physical attraction… but as the Bad Teacher series proved, it takes a lot more than a low-cut leopard-print mini-dress to make a character worth caring about!