The darker side of suburbia’s well-manicured lawns and white picket fences has been properly documented and satirized in both film (The Stepford Wives, American Beauty) and television (Desperate Housewives, Weeds) over the past few decades. Suburgatory — ABC’s smart and affable addition to the genre — is among the latest to throw its fancy, colorful hat into the ring.
After single father George Altman (Jeremy Sisto) finds a condom in his 15-year-old daughter’s room, he panics and uproots the two of them from Manhattan to the picture perfect suburb of Chatswin because it’s supposed to be one of the best places to raise children. Not surprisingly, Tessa (Jane Levy) is not very happy with her father.
Once they arrive in Chatswin, George and Tessa are assaulted by pastels and curious neighbors. With her perfect hair and blindingly white teeth, Dallas Royce (Cheryl Hines) is the typical, stay-at-home suburban housewife. Her jerky husband Steven (Jay Mohr) is almost always out of town, so she takes an immediate liking to the comparatively rugged George. Unfortunately, Dallas’s spoiled daughter Dalia (Carly Chaikin) clashes immediately with Tessa. Meanwhile, the monstrously overbearing Sheila Shay (Ana Gasteyer) lives across the street with her husband Fred (Chris Parnell) and is ready to pounce whenever George commits an atrocity like trying to grow the wrong type of flower on his lawn.
It’s not all bad news. George has an ally in Noah Werner (Alan Tudyk), the college buddy-turned-dentist who encouraged George to move to suburbia. Tessa forms a bond with fellow outcasts like Sheila’s black sheep daughter Lisa (Allie Grant) and Malik (Maestro Harrell), who is possibly the only black person in Chatswin. Tessa also gets advice from the well-meaning, self-involved guidance counselor Mr. Wolfe (Rex Lee).
Initially, the show takes all of the expected pot shots at the vapidity of suburbia and the people who live there. (There’s an entire episode built around a missing collection of Shirley Temple dolls.) Suburgatory starts to stand out when it delves a bit deeper into the fears and anxieties of its suburbanites — except for Sheila, who remains gleefully beastly throughout the season — or when it turns out that Tessa and George actually enjoy parts of Chatswin. (Tessa dancing hideously to her favorite indie band during her lavish Sweet Sixteen was a true highlight.)
With her pale skin, red hair and sharp wit, Levy comes off like a TV version of Emma Stone. Suburgatory is actually pretty generous in showcasing its talented ensemble — and even its recurring players — but Levy does a fine job of anchoring the show as the flawed Tessa, who alternately acts like a know-it-all and can be completely insecure. (Basically, she’s a teenager.) The actress has a nice, natural chemistry with both Sisto (whom she treats more as an older friend than a father) and Hines (as the mother figure Tessa didn’t even realize she was craving.) I’ve really admired Sisto since his unhinged work on Six Feet Under, so I get a kick out of seeing him do comedy as an overwhelmed dad. (Though I’m not sure I totally buy him as the neighborhood Casanova.) Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) — and her outrageous cleavage — wears the best clothes on the show, gets most of the best lines and delivers them like the comedic pro she is. More importantly, she sneaks in enough warmth to keep her connection with George and Tessa from feeling forced.
The rest of the characters are considerably more one-dimensional, but the talented actors who play them are still able to bring the laughs. Chaikin’s dead-eyed/deadpan work as Dalia is hilarious, and the actress makes the most out of every single line of dialogue and every single disgusted look Dalia gives Tessa. (“You remind me of Tyler Perry right now: you’re joking, but you’re not funny.”) Tudyk is silly as the genial and perpetually orange Noah. (Though never sillier than during a nude steam room fight in Ep. 10/“Driving Miss Dalia” that was clearly an homage to Eastern Promises.) Gasteyer and Parnell, a pair of underrated Saturday Night Live alums, bring total commitment and believability to their outlandish characters. Also, Parker Young — as Sheila and Fred’s dim bulb son Ryan — stands out even among the great tradition of TV knuckleheads. The only one who really didn’t click for me was Lee’s inessential Mr. Wolfe.
The show is light on big-name guest stars, with the notable exception of Inside the Actor’s Studio host James Lipton as a psychologist, the voice of Whoopi Goldberg in the season finale, and Alicia Silverstone, who turns up in a four-episode stint as a love interest for Clueless co-star Sisto. So, like I said…the show is light on big-name guest stars.
As you can probably tell by now, the stakes on this lighthearted sitcom aren’t very high. Still, the Mother’s Day-themed finale manages to achieve a surprising amount of emotional resonance by cleverly connecting the dots back to the pilot and Tessa’s attitude about having a relationship with her absent mom. There’s plenty of material to work with in the upcoming second season, and I have confidence the writers — led by creator Emily Kapnek (Emily’s Reasons Why Not) — will deliver.
Suburgatory: The Complete First Season is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. You may recall me complaining about how the first season of ABC’s Revenge was diminished as a home video title by not getting a Blu-ray release. Well, I’m about to sing a familiar song. (To be fair, Revenge is an ABC Studios production, while Suburgatory is a Warner Bros. release)
Some close-ups here look pretty good, and the medium shots are just ok, so it’s not quite as big a downgrade here. However, the visual presentation of the show is absolutely diminished by not seeing the vibrant pops of color that dominate Chatswin in all their HD glory. (Especially the orange that dominates Noah and Dallas’s skin.) Everything is supposed to look immaculate, but the image is not nearly as sharp or detailed as it should (or could) be. Wide shots look particularly bad.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track doesn’t have much to do other than deliver the dialogue clearly and intelligibly (which it does). I appreciated the rear speakers surprisingly springing to life when one character was in a different room from where the main action was occurring. Other than that, there’s not too much going on. (Though good luck getting “Pleasant Nightmare”, the show’s theme ditty, out of your head.)
Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell: Life in Suburgatory: (27:53) The cast and crew reiterate the idea that suburbia isn’t quite hell for Tessa…but it’s close. Sisto discusses the pros and cons of community — people are there to help, but they’re also there to judge you — while we get a breakdown of each character. (Even the minor ones.) The highlight is Hines casually pulling out one of the “chicken cutlets” her character wears during an interview.
Unaired Scenes: (31:09) A total of 32 scenes from episodes spanning the entire first season. (Though there seemed to be more stuff cut out of the pilot and “The Nutcracker” Christmas episode.) The majority of them were perfectly at home on the cutting room floor, but my favorites involved Dalia failing to grasp the meaning of the word replica and Malik re-enacting scenes from Medium. (Don’t ask.)
Suburban Slip-ups Gag Reel: (7:22) More amusing with better production values than the average gag reel. I loved Sisto asking Levy, “Are you having voiceover right now?” in the middle of a scene. Meanwhile, there’s also plenty of bleeped-out cursing and singer James Ingram struggling to act.
Most satirical suburban works latch on to the idea that soullessness and depravity live just underneath the surface of all those perfect houses and PTA meetings. Suburgatory proposes the idea that, below the soullessness and depravity underneath suburbia’s immaculate appearance, there are actually some good people (I apologize for going all subterranean on you.) In short, the people of suburbia aren’t evil; they’re just guileless and really don’t know any better. (Like when they throw out entire plates of food in Ep. 6/“Charity Case”)
I didn’t catch this show when it premiered last year because I didn’t think we needed another riff on suburbia and because I thought it had a stupid title. I still think the title is kind of stupid, but thanks to this set, I’ll be tuning in for season 2 when it premieres this fall.