Every Tuesday I watch Trophy Wife come into its own, and every Wednesday I realize it could be even better. The competition is pointless. That’s just how I’ve been experiencing network comedy over the past month. Suburgatory is taking no prisoners. Last week had me eager to see how Dallas is handling the breakup. “The Birds And The Biederman” drops an answer in its first sentence. That’s not coincidence. That’s a sign that Emily Kapnek and company know exactly what the audience wants and how to keep doling out this story. Inch by inch the season has been blazing a trail through the woods. History informs every moment. This episode depends on a lot of Tessa-Dalia interaction, and the “this again?” face Jane Levy throws at her enemy starts off the show in the middle. The cast has never been funnier, and they’re all written with particular comedic voices. Puns butt up against wacky antics, and instead of sticking out, the broadness is part and parcel with the show’s style. Suburgatory has long been one of the only half-hours on the air with an aesthetic that shows some thought. There’s a default look to a single-camera comedy. And then there’s big, colorful, plastic Chatswin. Best of all, Suburgatory shows every other sitcom how the feels are done.
“The Birds And The Biederman” builds its emotional slide perfectly. The plots are all about children acting as intermediaries for family squabbles. Basically this episode is suburban Justified. Tessa and Dalia negotiate on their parents’ behalf to zone Chatswin so that George and Dallas never have to run into each other. Meanwhile Victor becomes a receptacle for Fred’s disappointments about Sheila being all-business lately. And Lisa is torn between her new friend Junebug and her old friend Tessadactyl. So the premise gets things off to a delightful start. Any time Jane Levy gets to be the cartoonish one is a treat.
But it’s the control that makes “The Birds And The Biederman” great. First, it picks up where we left off: In light of the break-up, Dallas is trying to be more independent, exemplified by the glory of Cheryl Hines trying to operate a remote all on her own. As the plot unspools, there are all kinds of little details about what’s been going on in Chatswin. George and Nora, Biederman’s groomer, are spending a lot of time together. Nora’s even getting familiar, as in a beautifully blocked scene that has George in another room while Tessa shouts about her latest drama and Nora standing right there in front of her. Lisa’s taken to hanging out with her brother’s girlfriend, which Nora has mixed feelings about. Sheila is apparently in work mode whenever she wears her blazer, which extends to bedtime nowadays, yet another funny shot.
Toward the end comes a couple of comedy set-pieces that bring the episode to its peak. First Sheila confronts Fred in not only her blazer but an eye-patch. Then she narrates what happened, in black-and-white like any crime reenactment worth its salt, as a hummingbird feeder that Fred hung to arouse memories of their wedding accidentally leads to a swarm of hummingbirds, one of which dives right for Sheila’s right cornea. A wide shot lets the slapstick speak for itself, and magically the hummingbirds look believable enough to keep the comedy from deflating. Back in the present day, she peels back her eye-patch to reveal what looks like two sausages surrounding a narrow eye slit, leans toward the camera, and accosts her loving husband. “Does this look like romance?!”
The only thing better than Ana Gasteyer physical comedy is a Carly Chaikin monologue. The scene begins suddenly, as Tessa’s just finished telling Lisa about her plan to divvy Lisa’s schedule between her and June, with Lisa volunteering to celebrate her birthday in a closet to spare them both and Tessa agreeing that’s probably the best solution. Then Tessa rounds a corner and there’s Dalia, flanked by two clones (Kaitlin and Kenzie perhaps) and two businessman (Schulman and one Lansky). She’s there to hammer out the zoning once and for all, and she builds to this methodically paced proposition in that typical Dalia drone: “We can alternate Mondays. However, if you breach this agreement and trespass on a Monday designated to us, we are entitled to damages including but not limited to one Szechuan Sunday per month. Plus we reserve the right to invoke cloture terminating your Mondays as designated herewith.” After a beat she adds, “Bitch.” Everything but the first sentence takes place in one long shot, which heightens the tension, making it funnier and funnier that Dalia Royce is improvising this comprehensible paragraph of legalese.
And then comes the pathos, which is the crux of so many sitcoms that my reflex is to scream like a baby dissatisfied with his dinner. But again, Suburgatory isn’t just piling on this drama. That’s actually been propelling the whole season. It starts with Victor packing up to leave because Mommy and Daddy don’t love each other anymore. Maybe it’s cloying for some. The Victor side of things is an easy manipulator, at least. But Gasteyer plays it so seriously. She’s just a mom trying to understand why her son is reacting this way. She reassures him, makes up with Fred, and throws out one last joke to keep the show above water. “And I just want you to know that your pumpkin bread is moister than mine ever was.” Okay but what about his Schweddy balls?
Next Tessa apologizes to Lisa. “I hope you know I never would have let you celebrate your birthday in a closet.” “I hope you know I would have,” Lisa responds, which at first is kind of an uncomfortable joke about Lisa’s outsider status, but then she adds, “For you.” See, Tessa is going to find it in herself to be civil around June. But what complicates all the good feelings is that Tessa isn’t going to spend time with Lisa and June together. All she means is that she won’t dump her jealousy on Lisa. She’s still abandoning Lisa because she can’t handle Lisa’s new friend. And on top of that bittersweet mixture, think about this from Tessa’s perspective. She’s painted as a loon—which has a bit to do with behaving like one—but the season kicks off with her declaration of cold war against Chatswin. That town has hurt her, and now her best friend, well, her only friend is unintentionally but nevertheless salting the wound. There’s a lot of emotion swirling around this scene.
And then comes the real punch to the stomach. Dallas runs into George at the dog park. And Nora’s with him. Cheryl Hines’ whole body sinks. It’s real now, permanent. And because this season is so fine-tuned, you can really feel how this is the first time they’ve seen each other since the break-up. Dallas saves face so things aren’t totes awks. Then she tries to make things light and a little flirty. “Maybe we’ll mix up our Moo Shu Mondays some time and— ” but George cuts her off. He has to get back to his girlfriend. The final shot of the scene is Dallas watching George walk off to Nora in the distance, and then she scoops up hers and slowly walks past the camera, trying not to look as hurt as she is.
The actual final scene is a funny stinger—you can imagine what happens to make Sheila yell, “You double-blinded me!”—a way to drop us off with Modern Family more gently, but what makes “The Birds And The Biederman” so great is that controlled descent. There’s no funny silver lining here. There are a lot of hurt people trying to pick up the pieces. And season three isn’t skipping a single step.
- Of course Dallas has a dog for validation: “Alright, let’s show these bitches who’s pranciest.”
- The scene where Dallas vents to Dalia is hilarious. Dalia finally starts to pay attention at the end. “If you want me to negotiate on your behalf, I need 10 percent.” “Five.” Dalia takes a long pause. “No.” Now that’s a negotiator.
- Fred goes to bunk with Victor when he can’t find a friend on ChatRoulette. “ChatRoulette, incidentally, is all weenises now.” First of all, worst euphemism ever. Victor’s taking notes. “All weenises, got it. Thanks, Dad, for giving me all this great advice.”
- Later Fred role-plays his plan to win Sheila back with Victor. He’s so proud when Victor-Sheila replies, “Why don’t you go ahead and touch my boobies?”
- If you think Chaikin’s phoning it in with Dalia, look at the scene against the lockers where Dalia and Tessa are exhausted. Chaikin calibrates her performance like a chemist, I guess—you get the point.
- Post-negotiation, George and Dallas go to war via montage. “Furthermore, he must cease and desist tweeting about me.” “I’ve never tweeted about her! I’m not even on Twitter!”