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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Suburgatory: “Charity Case”

Illustration for article titled Suburgatory: “Charity Case”
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So yea, that was the first really bad episode of Suburgatory. Just getting that out of the way up front. I imagine tonight’s episode is what people who don’t watch this show assume Suburgatory actually is on a weekly basis. Now, that’s an unfair stereotype for those people to have. This is generally a much smarter, much sharper show than naysayers give it credit for. But people that haven’t bothered to tune in due to a fear that the show deals in surbuban stereotypes wouldn’t have their minds changed if they decided to make tonight’s installment their first foray into Chatswin.

The primary problem with Suburgatory to date is that it hasn’t fleshed out the townsfolk as well as it has fleshed out George and Tessa. That’s not a real knock on the show, however: Such fleshing out takes time, and has to work from the inside out. No one would expect a fully realized world at this stage of the game. What’s more alarming is that the show often seems uninterested in actually putting in the work to make Chatswin more than a cardboard cutout of a town, one filled with flat people that are all surface and no substance. It’s fine for these people to have perspectives that differ from the Altmans; indeed, that difference will be the primary driver of comedy in the series. But it’s another thing entirely for the townspeople of Chatswin to be so stupid that they act like aliens sent from another galaxy to observe humanity. If the Altmans are always superior to everyone else in town, I will lose patience with this show and lose it quickly.

Tonight’s main plot centered around Tessa’s horrified nature at the waste surrounding her in town: People water their lawns in the rain, throw out perfectly good food without eating it, and generally remain oblivious to their excess. She wants to organize a food drive for those less fortunate, but it soon turns into Chatswin High’s First Semi-Annual Florida Clarisonic Face Brush Fundraiser. Tessa tried to break through what she calls the “Bubble of Ignorance” by bringing in one of her old friends from New York City: a transsexual prostitute named Gladys. That only leads the community to rally around Tessa and George, sensing not that other people outside their community need help but rather than Chatswin needs to rally around the poorest citizens inside its own borders.

There’s actually a way in which Suburgatory could have flipped the script and turned Chastwin’s general obliviousness into a positive. The episode hinted at this several times, suggesting that this inner gaze actually fostered a sense of community that’s well-intentioned, if out-of-touch. (“Help” takes the form of sno-cone machines in Chatswin and other items easily obtained at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.) But tonight’s installment went far too broad, far too often. Last week, Suburgatory showed the first signs of hidden depths behind Dallas’ surface appearance. Tonight? Her hair feathers made more of an impression than she did. Having a character like Mr. Wolfe stay in the Bubble of Stupidity is fine for the long haul. But not every character can stay like that over the course of a season/series if Suburgatory wants to be anything more than a perfectly average way to spent 30 minutes.

The show attempted to give a little bit of shading to Alan Tudyk’s Noah, who tonight got the most screentime of any episode thus far. He hires George to install a skylight in his tricked-out bathroom. Slightly miffed at working under his friend, George agrees to do the work but also sneaks in a quick shower mid-job. You know, like ya do. Naturally, the maid walks in, and naturally, George stumbles and chips his tooth while exiting the shower, and naturally, this leads him to Noah’s dentistry practice, and naturally, it bored me to tears. It was Sitcom 101 through and through, and not even the last-minute attempt to FINALLY establish a back-story for these two characters could save it. Do we need to know Noah used to feel like a second fiddle to George growing up? Only if the show plans on actually humanizing Noah as a character. Otherwise, their final scene together smacks of cheap sentiment, something that will be ignored so Tudyk can eat up the scenery in context-free glee.

I’m hard on tonight’s episode because we’ve already seen that the show is capable of so much more. Sure, cranking out a pilot is in some ways easier than cranking out the fifth of sixth episode of a show that wants to last a few years. But falling back on cheap gags and plots this early in the game could either be an aberration (let’s hope) or a sign that the writers are already running out of ways to keep things interesting (let’s hope not). What will make Suburgatory a show that will sustain interest over the long haul is making Chatswin a place that constantly surprises both the Altmans and the audience. Every time the show reinforces stereotypes that either party has about this town, then it does itself harm. Tonight was hardly a blow from which the show can never recover, but it should stand out as an example of how NOT to produce an episode of a series that could truly be special.


Stray observations:

  • Yup, that was Kate Micucci as Noah’s dental assistant. The Gooch! Let’s hope this won’t be the only time we see her in Chatswin.
  • Amazing how the “exterior” shot of NYC made the version shown on How I Met Your Mother look like the corners from The Wire by comparison.
  • People in Chatswin question George’s ethnicity. At least they aren’t questioning his semi-creepy chemistry with Tessa. I know he was still woozy from surgery, but calling her “baby” while she put a comforter over him? Does the show just do this to fuck with us at this point? That HAS to be it, right?
  • “Needy? Is that with a ‘y’ or an ‘ie’?”
  • “Where IS Orlando?”
  • “Maybe I can weaponize it!”
  • “Yea. You ate that rank meat.”