Sunday, January 22, 2012

Suburgatory 1-11: Out in the 'Burbs

Okay, let's get the weird incest thing out of the way first.  The first and only thing most people want to talk about with Suburgatory is the relationship between the central father/daughter couple which, because of a mixture of Dawson's Casting and the generally even, banter-filled relationship between the two, has been seen as perhaps more romantic than filial.  In truth, there's not a lot of basis for this, and I think Jane Levy and Jeremy Sisto actually do a good precocious-teenager/understanding-dad[1] relationship, and it's only made awkward by the too-small age gap and a few weird scenes (e.g. the two of them dancing in the Sweet Sixteen episode).  The father/daughter relationship in Veronica Mars was pretty similar, and nobody made much in the way of jokes, mainly because Enrico Colatani looks like he could actually have a teenage daughter.  But it's a fun oppositional reading to take, and once you hear the theory it's hard to stop noticing possibly-incestuous shit in the show.

At this point, though, it's hard not to feel that the writers aren't having some fun here.  This episode opens with a fairly gratuitous Jane Levy shower scene, which leads to the water being cut off, and both father and daughter going to answer the door in their towels.  Later, closeted guidance counsellor Mr. Wolf mentions bidding on a Perfect Strangers box set online, with the comment "You know, I don't think those two were really cousins."  The obvious context of the joke is his own unacknowledged homosexuality, but I can't help but think of it as a subtle nod to the improbability of Levy really being Sisto's daughter.

All of this ties in with the generally unreal feeling of Suburgatory.  The setting looks like a colourful theme park, the women look like Barbie dolls, and the characters all seem to be cliches exaggerated so much that it becomes vaguely surreal.  It would be easy to take this as a failing of the show, and from a conventional viewpoint it is, with the satire often being broad and unoriginal.  On paper it's a standard, not-particularly-great family sitcom, but there's a kind of ungraspable strangeness lurking below the surface.

Perhaps the strangeness has something to do with the swerve that seems to occur more and more in Suburgatory, where the show will intentionally invoke a standard sitcom plot and then veer off into something different altogether, or have everyone seem confused as to what page they're on.  In this episode Tessa seems to believe she's in one of those overly-earnest coming out episodes (as does Mr. Wolf at the end), when the boy in question is interested in the school jocks not for their good looks but because he's an undercover officer investigating for steroids.

The entire premise is ludicrous, of course, and involves that sitcom thing where people talk just vague enough to misunderstand each other.  But it's still a distinctly unusual plot, particularly in how nobody addresses or notices the absurdity of the (married) steroid-hunting undercover agent.  It also invokes two after school special topics -- gay acceptance and drugs -- and shrugs them off without much attention.  Only Tessa, determined to be the cool accepting city girl, gets drawn into the coming-out narrative, and the show more or less mocks her for it.  As it turns out, Chatswin may be superficial, but it's not bigoted -- if only perhaps because bigotry would involve taking an interest in other people.

There's also the manic stalkerishness of Lisa, the obligatory best friend character who has actually turned into one of my favourites.  She's weird in a real life way, that slightly off-putting air (instead of a mass of quirks, which is how TV usually does weird) that you see in the girl who sits alone at the lunch table.  She's also one of the few regulars who looks like she could actually be in high school, which helps.  In this episode she becomes fixated on the newcomer and promptly tries to appeal to the newcomer in many of her strange ways, from dressing up as a male jock to telling him that she's never been to his home city of Chicago but she's seen the musical.  What's notable here is the lack of reaction from Tessa, the undercover guy, or really anyone.  Lisa is never rejected and never learns her lesson -- she's just an odd element out in the plot's orbit.

I don't want to overstate the case here.  There are a lot of times when Suburgatory is comfortable staying in standard sitcom plots without changing it up much at all.  The show is still charming, but it's nothing revolutionary, and only moderately well-executed.  The plotline between George and Dallas episode isn't exactly a stock plot, building as it does off of a serialized storyline from previous episodes, but it does rely on a lot of misinterpreted double-entendres that wouldn't be out of place on Three's Company.

The basic recurring joke is that George thinks Dallas is making overt sexual advances at him through thinly-veiled double entendres, but the ditzy Dallas actually means just what she literally says.  Cheryl Hines is given a pretty thankless job here as one of the above-mentioned Barbie dolls, but one who's supposed to be at least somewhat endearing.  At the same time, there's an issue with the possibility of a Dallas/George relationship, which is that it's the equivalent of a real person dating a cartoon.  If Dallas is really dumb enough that she doesn't see the possible double meaning in asking George to squeeze her melons, while George is more or less a normal person, then it seems like any relationship between them would be so unequal that he would be taking advantage of her.

Certainly the suburban housewife culture deserves satire (especially as it's being glamourized in all of those Real Housewives series) but Dallas is a very problematic way to go about it.  Her overt sexuality and naivete are a joke, as over-the-top as everything else in the series, but even if it's done for the purposes of humour there's still the overt text of a hot chick seducing a guy, and that surface level doesn't go away simply because it's played for laughs.  As Community has discovered, an ironic mud wrestling match is still a mud wrestling match.

There's also a kind of tomboy misogyny in the way Suburgatory separates the sympathetic, intelligent girls in Tessa and Lisa from people like Dallas and Dalia.  Of course, the men of suburbia are mocked as well, but even superficial characters like Alan Tudyk's Noah[2] have at least a certain amount of cunning, whereas Dallas and Dalia are completely braindead.  The performances add more depth and nuance to these characters than the writing does, but it's still rather problematic.

"Out in the 'Burbs" is written by series newcomer Elliot Hegarty, who I know absolutely nothing about, and directed by Bob Kushell, who previously directed what was probably the series' best episode in "The Barbecue".  Comedy writing credits are always fairly arbitrary, but this does feel like a different kind of writing than most Suburgatory episodes, being less satirical and more broadly comedic.  All of the characters are mocked (even Tessa in her desire to live up to her own self-image), but for once it doesn't feel like they're meant to stand in for broad swathes of people.  It's a shift to a more character-driven, idiosyncratic kind of comedy, which I think frankly works better for this show.

As for Kushell, he mainly sticks to the show's day-glo aesthetic and conventional directing technique, but there are some decidedly odd shots in here.  For instance, one scene begins with George's head seemingly having been replaced by a melon (due to strange camera perspective) with Dallas whispering "squeeze it".  The Lynchian tableau doesn't last long, and is quickly assimilated back into a fairly standard scene, but that oddness is still there, creeping in at the corners.

(The giant "MELONS" sign really adds to the absurdity here.)

A lot of shows spend their first seasons trying to figure out what they'll eventually become, and Suburgatory falls into this category.  There are a lot of different shows it could become: a gentle family hang-out show, a sharp social satire, a character-based single-camera serial comedy of the kind that's so popular now, or something decidedly stranger.  All of these could be good shows in their own right, although some of them -- particularly the satire -- would require stronger execution than Emily Kapnek and crew have previously showed.  But right now I'm enjoying the show in its inchoate form, with all its goals and half-realized desires pushing against each other.  And maybe its this struggle between several different visions and possibilities that leads to that intoxicating, unplaceable weirdness.

Next week: "If you were really good, you'd get the mouse to stay off both paths.  You know, like dada.  Everything is pointless."

[1]Sisto might actually be my favourite TV dad in recent memory.  The guy is just so slick.

[2]Tudyk is predictably great in this role, but it's probably a bad sign that I had to look up his character's name on Wikipedia.

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