I’m not sure Suburgatory gets enough credit for how weird it is. While I have no idea what it’s doing beyond gradually opening its characters' minds to this ever-expanding self-contained universe, I’m entranced by its strangeness. Like Joe Wright’s Hanna, another eminently weird piece of contemporary cinema, it’s a coming-of-age story in this fairy tale land, a candy-colored dreamscape of soft light where everything is relaxed. It’s a world out of time because its whole purpose is to slow down a child’s maturation, but even adults behave like children here. Cars bounce off each other without a scratch, twins pop up like a mythological beast, and a music box jingle plays during a tense negotiation with no stakes. Modern Family it ain’t.
Because of its perspective—not a suburbanite becoming disaffected but an urbanite becoming seduced—it doesn’t seem like Suburgatory intends to explore the ups and downs of the super-strength safety net that catches you whenever you fall. It seems like a funny, unique quality of this universe, not a subject. But the show is all about perceptions. Early on I mistook Tessa and George’s snarling disdain for these people as antihumanist when it turned out to be a starting point, not a mission statement. So who knows how deep Suburgatory wants to dig into the suburbs? For now it’s working the other angles, maturation and conformity.
“Driving Miss Dalia” largely sequesters Tessa and George in their own subplots, which is unfortunate because they’re the bedrock relationship of the show but fortunate because there’s no HBO stuff going on this week. Tessa and Dalia are getting their driver’s licenses (to the hero’s journey strains of spaghetti western music), but instead of an opening to discuss Tessa’s new mobility or responsibility, Suburgatory goes for this chauffeur stalking subplot. See what I mean about the weirdness? Hopefully that responsibility stuff is down the line, considering the narrative’s premise, but for now we get this extraordinary Dalia showcase, starting with a bunch of DMV dumb jokes and an outsized sight gag. Carly Chaikin can milk the funny out of that overmedicated vibe Dalia’s got, but this week she gets to unleash the adolescent girl within, all insecure, crazy screaming over a boy. And her flirting! “Zambia, is that, like, an antidepressant?” she says with a smile. “Is that the one that gives you diarrhea?” As Tessa says, it’s tremendously humanizing.
The boy is Scott Strauss, who makes his entrance in slo-mo to Ferris Bueller music. He’s the newest corner of this world Suburgatory’s building and a presumably recurring character, but he’s also a way into the age-old theme of perceptions. When Tessa only knows him from what Dalia was saying, she thinks he's a flighty, slick, popular kid, but then Lisa paints a picture that’s a lot closer to the reality Tessa sees. It’s easy to see how both vapid Dalia and disaffected Lisa arrived at their perceptions of Scott, and it’s easy to see how both could be exaggerations of the real Scott. The whole thing also offers Tessa a moral test, another step in her coming-of-age, and, naturally, a whole lot of funny conversations between her and Dalia. I’m keeping “You remind me of Tyler Perry right now” in my back pocket.
As for George, remember what I said about adults behaving like kids? It’s hard to knock a show for living up to itself, and Suburgatory has always had a cartoonish side (and, cards on the table, I’m on the worst day of my Gwyneth flu so far), but to me, this one wasn’t especially funny or meaningful, just a filler plot that had George in all his antic-y glory barging into rooms at inappropriate times and eventually engaging in the suburban version of Eastern Promises’ shower-fight with Alan Tudyk, Chris Parnell in a speedo, and an old man (Jack Walsh) you may recognize from How I Met Your Mother or Scrubs. Okay, that sounds awesome, and at least we got some further exploration of this dreamland where “once somebody dings you you can’t be undung.” I especially loved the five Chatswin Country Club board members moving in unison, and that first shot of the steam room was gorgeous (thank you, director Ken Whittingham), perfectly evocative of George drifting through his week of membership. It’s not bad, but maybe it’s just a letdown after the cold open, which ends with George and Dallas sitting there smiling together at the DMV, a joke slowly fizzling in all their unspoken tension.
- Big round of applause for Ryan McGee, whose dissections each week without fail opened my eyes to new discoveries about Suburgatory.
- This Week in Mean Girls: Dalia rocks a bedazzled neck brace, and Dallas tosses off, “I don’t let Dalia have hard liquor on school nights.”
- Did I mishear or is Kenzie short for KcKenzie? It may have just been my screener but I desperately hope not.
- “Don’t get cocky.” A Star Wars reference?
- Is Driver’s Itch a thing? Or do I not want to know?
- “What are you guys doing here?” “Antiquing.”