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Friday, May 18, 2012

Suburgatory: Season One

Comedy nerds who sneer at any sitcom that is not on NBC or cable would do well to give Emily Kapnek’s Suburgatory a chance. Though the show’s awkward title and its premise seemed to promise a condescending look at the suburbs from its city-slicker protagonists, instead the series has given us a delightfully unique and fractured space populated by damaged but likable and funny characters. And while the zaniest and most inexplicable behaviors are predominantly the provenance of the natives, the writing staff have taken great pains to cut down the smug superiority of the fish out of water.

Suburgatory stars Jeremy Sisto as George Altman, a divorced father raising his precocious 15-year-old daughter Tessa (Jane Levy) on his own. Freaking out after finding a box of condoms in Tessa’s New York City bedroom, George moves them out to Chatswin, a posh suburb. There the both of them struggle to adapt to the mores of this cracked community, with its lavish spending habits, completely self-centered worldview, and resistance to differences. The Altmans are terrified of their tightly-wound neighbors the Shays, Sheila (Ana Gasteyer) and Fred (Chris Parnell) and perplexed by free-spending Dallas (Cheryl Hines) and her spoiled daughter Dalia (Carly Chaikin). The overloaded cast also includes George’s old friend Noah (a dentist played by Alan Tudyk) and Tessa’s high-school guidance counseler Mr. Wolfe (Rex Lee) and best friends Lisa Shay (Allie Grant) and Malik (Maestro Harrell).

Early episodes of the show didn’t quite calibrate exactly how much we were supposed to agree with Tessa, who narrates, about how horrible the people of Chatswin are. Jane Levy was a tremendously appealing actress from the very start, but what the show has gotten better at is undercutting her snobbery by revealing the faults and cracks in her persona. One of the earliest and most successful ways it has done this is through depicting her confusion about boys. Though Tessa acts tough and hard-shelled, she constantly falls for guys who more typically represent the ethos of Chatswin, such as champion wrestler Ryan “The Body” Shay. “The Body” got off maybe the best joke I heard on any sitcom this year: When asked who he would choose if he could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, he replied, “Scarlet Johansson, dead.”

Holidays are typically a boon to sitcoms since they are relatively easy ways to generate stories, and perhaps no sitcom took as much advantage as Suburgatory. The show started to truly find its way on Halloween, when Tessa’s stereotypical suburbanite get-up eerily reminds her classmates of a departed student. (Don’t worry, “A Better Place” is just the name of a prep school in Jersey.) The show used Tessa’s Sweet Sixteen to firmly place Tessa within the world of Chatswin even as it established her self-assuredness and independence. And Thanksgiving was the first start-to-finish great episode of the season.

After the Christmas break, the show seemed to really find its way, creating original plots ornamented with the kinds of absurdities that few other shows could get away with. Tessa becomes envious when the cool new poetry teacher fails to realize that Dalia’s poems are vapid, but her own attempts to exploit her absentee mother for an emotional reaction go for naught. Dallas divorces her cheating husband and opens a crystal emporium. Tessa thinks the new kid in school is a closeted homosexual, but in fact he’s an undercover narcotics cop.

Late in the season, the show embarked upon an ambitious plotline that featured George dating his friend Noah’s surrogate mother (played by Sisto’s Clueless co-star Alicia Silverstone). This plot was hamstrung by being squeezed into such a small number of episodes, and Silverstone does not seem to have great comic acting skills. Still her status as a “big-name” guest star presumably means that, even as the show leaves her plot unresolved at the end of Season One, we won’t be seeing too much more of her.

Suburgatory is buttressed by its gifted cast. In addition to the talented young Levy, Cheryl Hines is phenomenal as the immature but lovable Dallas, Allie Grant is a dynamite comedic actress, and Carly Chaikin gives hilarious readings to Dalia’s bratty remarks. Season One ends on an emotional note, with Tessa finally admitting that she is missing out by not having a mother, and thinking about leaving Chatswin to be with hers. Obviously, there’s not much show without Tessa in Chatswin, and when she returns this fall it should be well worth watching.

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