April 18, 2013



When SUBURGATORY went on the air last season, it had a clear vision:  as the title suggests, it was a light but acerbic satire about the perils of living a few too many miles from New York City, reflected through the gaze of Tessa (Jane Levy), a bright high-schooler who’d been brought from Manhattan to Chatswin, a nexus of conformity and consumerism, by her well-meaning but overprotective father George (Jeremy Sisto).

This season was much more of a muddle.  Whether it was series creator Emily Kapnek’s idea or ABC’s, Suburgatory tried to have it all ways, dialing down the satire and surrealism in favor of a more conventional exaggerated sitcom style, and the result was more often than not a mess.  Tessa was tamed by her romance with Ryan (Parker Young), the neighbor athlete who’d been established in Season 1 as a dim hunk; Tessa certainly wasn’t the first smart girl to fall for a good-looking guy who wasn’t her equal, but it made her far less interesting and even likable as a protagonist.  George, meanwhile, embarked on a serious romance with Dallas (Cheryl Hines), and in order to make that even remotely believable, Dallas became an eminently more reasonable and less caricatured person than the one we’d met last season, who’d been emblematic of the whole Chatswin ethos.  Not necessarily a bad development (and Hines can play it all, from cartoonish to moving), but it all left George somewhat vague, his relationship with his daughter not making nearly as much sense as it had before.  On the other end of the spectrum, Dallas’s daughter Dalia (Carly Chaikin), with the rest of the show’s parody largely removed, became stranger than the aliens on The Neighbors, veering weekly from mildly likable to dullard to, in recent weeks, a vicious villainess determined to ruin Tessa’s life because Tessa knew about a gay fling she’d had.  George’s one friend Noah (Alan Tudyk) was trapped all season in a storyline that had him hopelessly in love with former maid Carmen (Bunnie Rivera) to the extent that it ruined his marriage, none of which made any sense comically or otherwise.

The show tried to resolve some of these seismic contradictions in its 1-hour season finale (first half written by Producer Annie Weisman and directed by Ken Whittingham; second half written and directed by Kapnek), but instead tripped over its own tonal inconsistencies.   Suburgatory had begun with George moving Tessa to Chatswin against her will, and now things came full circle as he sold their house without even talking to her, deciding to move them in with Dallas and Dalia (unaware that the two girls were now mortal enemies).  George’s tendency all season to be weak and easily influenced was underlined by the fact that he was talked into all this by neighbor/real estate agent Sheila (Ana Gasteyer), a funny character but clearly the most unbalanced person in town–something that George would once have known.  Tessa, after an almost meta scene where she worried about losing her edge, donned her old fatigue jacket and boots, had a school hallway fight with Dalia whose violence was certainly intended as satiric (bodies were thrown into walls and through glass windows) but just came off as jarring.  Dallas informed George that they were breaking up because he’d never really loved her, and after he adopted a friendly stray dog who happened to be roaming Chatswin, he let Dalia stay for the night as his surrogate daughter, a development that was supposed to indicate that she truly cared about him, but which made both their characters more incomprehensible than ever.  Finally, after Tessa spent the finale’s second half trying to find someone who’d take her in, her mother Alex (Malin Akerman) showed up conveniently to announce that she was taking a place in Chatswin to be there for her daughter.  This suggested nothing so much as Kapnek throwing up her hands and deciding to figure it all out next season–especially since in real life Akerman has her own pilot that might well be picked up, potentially making her unavailable for the show going forward.

Suburgatory is still a pleasant enough show to watch, mostly because of its very skilled cast.  Levy and Sisto, when they (infrequently) get the chance, have a terrific rapport together, and along with Hines, Gasteyer and Tudyk, and Chaikin’s bizarre deadpan, there’s Chris Parnell as Gasteyer’s thoroughly whipped husband and Allie Grant as Tessa’s one misfit friend.  Almost every episode has at least one bright scene or funny bit of dialogue.  (In the finale, it was Parnell’s conversation with Grant, after she’d informed her parents that she wasn’t eligible for the school Purity Dance, about his own loss of virginity.)   But a series that appeared to have a strong personality just a season ago is now a jumble of contrived plotlines and characters at odds with themselves.  More and more, it feels like it’s trying to imitate MTV’s Awkward, but Awkward does it better.

The odds are strong that Suburgatory will be renewed, although if it’s moved from its sheltered timeslot after Modern Family, as is likely, the clock may start ticking quickly on its Season 3 (just ask Happy Endings about that).  The series needs to put itself back together before it can fend for itself on the fall schedule.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."