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Suburgatory: “The Nutcracker”

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There’s been a lot of talk both here and on other parts of Al Gore’s interwebs about the unique relationship between George and Tessa on Suburgatory. Normally, I bracket this topic off to a bulleted point in the Random Obervations section, but it’s gotten to the point where I have to get all of this out of the way up front. Part of this is to clarify something that should have been obvious but apparently is far from it. A recent article over on Vulture singled The A.V. Club out (which is to say, singled me out) along with another site as conjuring up an alt-world wherein we ‘ship the two seriously as a couple. In response, series creator Emily Kapnek said that it was a shame certain people “feel very committed to sexualizing” the pair. Continuing, Kapnek states, "Is it intentional that their relationship felt fresh and different and unlike other stuff on TV? Yes. Did I think people were going to sexualize it? Certainly not."


Well, of course not. No one in their right mind thinks Kapnek did that. And characterizing what has been discussed here both in my reviews and in the comments doesn’t represent a serious or malicious attempt to ‘ship a father/daughter duo. Neither that Vulture article nor Kapnek seem to grasp the phenomenon that’s unfolded this Fall on the show. It’s true that no one behind the scenes or in front of the camera intends for any type of chemistry between Jeremy Sisto and Jane Levy. It’s also true that intentions do not translate into reality. Plenty of shows intend to avoid being racist, sexist, or simply straight up sucking. But they do anyways. Not because they intended to do so, but because what actually made it to air reflected some shortcomings that were imperceptible to those making the piece of pop culture in question. What I, other critics, and plenty of viewers of the show have perceived doesn’t stem from some collective need to perv out on a perfectly pleasant comedy. Rather, it comes from the fact that George and Tessa have continually said and done things that would make even Arrested Development’s Tobias Funke sit up at home and think, “Hmmm…there's a chance that might get misconstrued.”

Why bring all this up? Why start out on the seeming defensive? Because tonight’s episode is potentially the first in which what Kapnek intended and what we at home actually saw actually coalesced. When Lisa stated to Tessa that she was the reason why George was perpetually single, that was the moment in past episodes where I would drop my laptop in abject horror. But “The Nutcracker” moved into territory not really explored thus far in the show yet makes plenty of sense once finally introduced. To date, we’ve focused primarily on Tessa’s stranded nature in Chatswin. It’s not that George has particularly enjoyed his time there, but it’s never truly been about his displacement. But tonight, we got a sense of just how long Tessa’s overly close relationship with her father has essentially cut him off from any possibility of romantic involvement with anyone, no matter where they live.

Tessa’s reaction to Lisa’s accusation doesn’t merely stretch back to the moment the Altmans moved, but rather extends back to… well, Tessa’s entire life. In the pilot, she mentions that her mother split right after giving birth. If we take the last two weeks as a representative sample, then George is someone that hasn’t come close to having a serious relationship in a decade and a half. That knowledge, coupled with the way things actually played out in tonight’s outing, shifts the dynamic in a necessary way. Whereas Tessa last episode was written and directed to act like a scorned lover, here she acted like an unwittingly needy daughter. Suburgatory probably always intended this to be so. But again, see above re: intentions.

It helped that the two had little time together tonight, as George balanced time with Zoe, art teacher Amy, and Dallas throughout the episode. What works about this isn’t that he’s the super stud the show keeps telling us (and Tessa) he is, but rather how unsmooth he is with all of them. He is essentially terrified of Zoe, is terrible at small talk with Amy, and unwittingly leads Dallas on with a pair of red mittens that mean the world to her but were in fact bought in bulk. George’s lack of skillz makes sense, given the history implied tonight. Here’s a guy who probably never got past the first date most times before Tessa’s disapproval forced a break-up. Had she done so consciously, then we’d hate her. Since she didn’t, she now has the chance for repentance and possibly change. Not severe change, mind you: Change is often the enemy of comedy, and it would be a shame for them to lose what Kapnek has attempted to create in their dynamic. Keeping them “fresh” and “different” will be paramount to this show’s success. But they can be fresh while Tessa calls him “Dad” occasionally, as well.


Outside of the pair, the world around them seems to be building nicely. If it wasn’t as dense as “Thanksgiving,” it nevertheless gave some key secondary players some solid scenes. Lisa, in particular, is settling into a groove lately as the writers and Allie Grant figure out her particular rhythms. (Has she really “been there, sister” with the romantic rebounds? Who cares? It was a funny line.) Noah demanding soft rock in order to soothe the savage Zoe was a fun detail. But most of all, Cheryl Hines found another gear with Dallas, toning down her early extremes for someone that lives in absolute gaudiness yet is far softer and saner than her interior decorating would indicate. Sure, the kiss under Chekov’s mistletoe was expected. But it was an unexpected moment for both, with Dallas surprised she actually acted on her impulse and George surprised by what that kiss made him feel.

The timing on the kiss works, too, especially since “The Nutcracker” strove to clear a path for George to pursue any romantic avenue he wishes. Now? The only avenue he wishes to pursue has a ring on her finger. Whereas casual marital extracurriculars were built into the initial social landscape of Chatswin, Suburgatory wouldn’t risk George overtly trying to woo Dallas away from her husband. Nor would it have Dallas flee on the off chance it would work with George. It’s a “will they or won’t they” as old as television itself, but there’s enough reason for the tension to boil at least through the end of the season without the show having to really strain to keep the pair apart. The idea of Dalia and Tessa having to share a bedroom sounds funny on paper. But I’m perfectly fine to wait quite a while for that potential scenario to unfold.


The point is this: While this wasn’t the strongest outing of the season, it mostly closely matched in output what was actually intended when conceived. Plenty of shows have to work out the kinks in the early goings. Very few of them produced unintended kinks as a result, but hey, give the show points for that. Or don’t. It really doesn’t matter. It was an unfortunate byproduct of the show, but it’s even more unfortunate if that topic overshadows all the strong elements of Suburgatory. Pointing it out was part of what I felt was my job, but not at the expense of drowning out any other discussion of the show. When it comes back in 2012, this will all hopefully be a distant memory, something that’s not even a footnote in the show’s history. There’s enough material for the show to start strong next year. Let’s see if they can do it.

Stray observations:

  • Weird intro, with the plastic model transitioning into the Altmans in their car looking at the equally plastic decorations lining the houses. Visually striking? Yup. Consistent with anything in the show so far? Nope. I don’t want to deduct points for visual flair, but it has to mean something in order to actually matter.
  • There was a lot of Rex Lee tonight, although I found everything involving him and the employees of that dim sum restaurant pleasant but unmemorable.
  • George trying to detect Amy’s sarcasm levels in class was great. As someone who tries to detect tone on comment boards, I sympathized.
  • Glad to see Dalia’s continuing rivalry with Yakult continue. This could be the Superman/Lex Luthor of Suburgatory.
  • “There’s not one good thing on the whole Internet.”
  • “And I do get super horny around Christmas!”
  • “I thought you ‘like’ liked me, in a different way than you like the Chinese family that makes the dim sum.”
  • “Listen to the sonorous sound of my voice: Stop throwing snowballs!”

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