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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Suburgatory: “Dalia Nicole Smith”

Illustration for article titled Suburgatory: “Dalia Nicole Smith”
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“Dalia Nicole Smith” isn’t a model episode—no Shays, no comic set-pieces, no gross-out sight gags—but it does boast that confusing emotional blend that makes Suburgatory stand out from the crowd. It’s divided between the Altmans and the Royces, and those family boundaries are still strong. Just seeing Dalia on a tour of Havenbrook is enough to turn Tessa off the whole idea of the school. George can’t bring himself to talk to Dallas, but he wants nothing more than to make her jealous from afar. Dalia only applied to Havenbrook, but it’s okay—she nailed the interview: “I’m super into tanning, nail care, red carpets, my housekeeper Carmen, blind items, Brody Jenner, Bentleys, apps—both foodstuffs and the kind on my phone. I’m really into molly.” Then she accidentally insults her admissions officer, played by Tig Notaro, for failing to belt properly, calls an end to the interview, and pageant-waves her way out the door. She’s got this.

It’s a magnificently strange episode from the first shot, a fantasy sequence where a giant close-up of Tessa pulls back to show her in jail, scratching tally marks on the wall. That’s apparently a metaphor for the college admissions process, so you might think this is the one where Tessa and Dalia will start to prepare for season four (tell your friends). But it’s not, at least not for Tessa. Tessa gets caught up in her dad’s romance, which is never quite sure of itself, either. And if Dalia didn’t blow her interview, she honks right as Tig passes, scaring the stack of papers out of her hand, and that seals the deal. So she spends the episode figuring out what she is going to do with her life in lieu of college. Even trying to make sense of that is confounding. Dalia staying in Chatswin feels like a foundation for season four, but Tessa explicitly refuses to go the local college. How would season four work?

Just look at the George plot. At first, it’s about trying to make Dallas jealous by casually double-dating Karen and her son, Kenny, whom they bump into at a Havenbrook hot spot. That might even be what drives the rest of it, considering they’re all local. Maybe George is hoping Dallas will see them together some time. But he never lets on. Instead he’s apparently very infatuated with Karen, whom Tessa describes as boring but hot. All the dialogue about traffic bears her out. And all the while, Karen and Kenny are a little too into each other. It doesn’t help that he raves about her pie, then looks over at her, beaming.

The incest levels are more Arrested Development than Game Of Thrones, but the closeness between them, the shrug of a conversation, and the distance between Tessa and Kenny project the sense that another shoe’s about to drop. Turns out he’s just a mama’s boy, and Tessa actually likes him once she gets to know him on her own terms. However, Karen comes clean—she was just in this for her son, and doesn’t actually like George. George asks Kenny if he should try again, and he and Tessa both egg him on, so perhaps this isn’t about Dallas anymore. And then, Tessa narrates over the credits about how she hasn’t left yet, but she’s already letting George have his independence. That bookend doesn’t match—I’m not sure how you tie all that up in a bow—but it’s interesting to see how explicitly Suburgatory takes the idea of the adults behaving like children in Chatswin.

The Dalia story also has one of those crystallizing moments, semi-pun semi-intended, when Dallas realizes how her parenting has failed to prepare Dalia for independence. To make things even clearer, Dalia’s planning for the future revolves around continuing to sleep in her carefully designed bedroom until she dies. “One day my husband and my children are gonna sleep in there with me.” After a series of odd jobs, Dalia finds her calling as a trophy girlfriend to an old guy in a wheelchair named Harold. So Dallas determines to get her into Havenbrook by any means necessary. Unfortunately, Tig ain’t buying. And right there, Dallas briefly faces some moment of truth. “I blew it. I bought her so many actual gifts, I forgot to nurture her natural gifts.” But Tig corrects her. It turns out Dalia knows a thing or two about belts, she observes, standing up and showing how much better she looks after taking Dalia’s advice about defining her waistline. (“I tell you, it’s made a world of difference. Even my wife noticed.” “Oh my gosh! Not about your sexuality. I totally called that one.”) So Dallas gives Dalia a space in the crystal shop to sell all kinds of belts she designed. Which is to say, Dallas continues to gives Dalia pretty much everything she wants. I mean, I was already cringing from the moment she shows up in the admissions office, but this happy ending is deliciously complex. Baby steps.

That’s what I admire most. “Dalia Nicole Smith” sets its two main characters off on life choices they’re excited about but which look less promising to me. It’s the Lisa-Malik wedding writ large, a complicated stew of emotion. And with the season—possibly series—finale looming, moments like this take on even greater meaning. “I don’t know how I feel about this,” is an unusual response to a sitcom. That’s what makes Suburgatory so special.


Stray observations:

  • The Dalia monologues aren’t top-shelf, but the start-stop list of belts lands beautifully, as does the flashback montage of Dalia’s latent belt wisdom. “It’ll be a cinch.”
  • We don’t get much wordplay—another hallmark of Suburgatory writing—either, but there is one bit that sings. When Dallas tells Dalia that she’s not getting into college, Dalia just says, “K.” Her mother’s response: “No, it’s not k. It’s the opposite of k. But I promise that one day soon it will be k.”
  • Tessa sure knows how to sell herself. Among her extracurricular activities, she includes an initiative to help a new Cambodian child assimilate, which entails walking him to school sometimes. “I performed in a multicultural world music band. I played lead rain-stick.”
  • This is so Dallas. “That is so Dalia. Hate her or love her, you have to love her.”
  • I’m also confused about Karen’s hot-cold routine. This, for instance, feels obviously flirtatious: “Some girls like to play hard to get. Speaking of, it’s getting late.” Just pick a side, Karen!
  • After Karen and Kenny leave, having insulted Jessica Seinfeld and her male equivalent Nick Cannon, Tessa says, “Not to die on this hill, but Nick Cannon has brought a lot of enjoyment to a lot of people, and unlike Karen’s pie, has won actual awards.”