Jan 10, 2013

Suburgatory: "Black Thai"

By Josh Oakley

There is a moment in this week's Suburgatory that is so short, and stuffed in the middle of an average scene that it may be missed. This moment is so singularly terrific, such a brilliant piece of acting, that it almost makes up for what turned out to be an incredibly subpar episode. This moment takes place around the dinner table at Malik's house. The Shay family is gathered there in order to win back the trust and presence of their son, Ryan, I mean, Eugene. Ana Gasteyer and Chris Parnell do their best with the material, but the show struggled a bit at handling Ryan's inability to connect with his adopted family. And then, Allie Grant speaks. She says so few words, but her face, lips slightly contorted, eyes watering, cheeks red with a hint of shame: "We didn't want to lose you". And your heart just shatters. The dopey music continues to play behind her, and the atmosphere soon shifts back to match the rest of the episode's content, but that moment. That moment is likely to be one of the most perfect moments this year in television, and it will be a shock if anyone remembers it at all.

That's the kind of show Suburgatory is: a sitcom with such sublime, authentic moments (even whole episodes!) that can be forgotten for what it often seems to be: a surface-level treatment of wacky live-action cartoon characters. But this show has been on a journey, and taken its audience through a number of these kinds of scenes, from Tessa's drive alone at the end of "The Motherhood", to Lisa and Malik's break-up late last year. It looks as if the Shay drama is largely over now, which is a damn shame, considering it's made up the heart of much of this season. The material wasn't handled perfectly in this episode, but the sight of Ryan Shay eating pudding skin and saying that "skin is thicker than water", his parents whispering "I love you" and Lisa whispering a correction to his misstatement, is a great moment that only this show could pull off.

The rest of this season's power has come from Tessa's relationship with her mother. It has been expertly used, but again, seems as if it may be over, or at least at the end of a particular arc. This episode's purpose was largely to wrap up the Shay business, so the rest of the plots were a complete wash. I don't know if the Werners employing Mr. Wolfe to help their child get into a good preschool is even worth mentioning, but I guess I already did. Suffice it to say, it lacks a solid beginning, middle, or end, and would have been better saved for when it could have actually made an impact.

The other story, which made an impact but not in a good way, is the outrageously misguided story of Tessa's PSAT feud with Dalia. Besides Allie Grant, Carly Chaikin is the show's best performer, and it's a shame when Dalia is played as one-note as the earliest episodes, back when the show was finding its uneven voice. It's an even bigger shame when only half of her lines are laugh-out-loud funny.

Dalia and Tessa's feud leads to a dance-off between the two, which seems like it will be the episode's low point, until Dallas and George begin dancing. While many shows botch pairing the "will they won't they" couple together, few have done so as egregiously as Suburgatory. There is absolutely no excitement, curiosity, emotion, or reason behind this relationship, and I cannot be the only one who prays for their break-up. Or, at least something interesting for them to do. A good conflict should not be too much to ask for. The best episodes of Suburgatory use the world's heightened reality to plumb some emotional truth, and this week's Shay plot does that to at least a certain extent. But the rest of the stories, and even some of that one, fail to bring this show up to what it can be. 

After reading this review, it may shock you to learn that Suburgatory is one of my favorite shows on TV, which is why I'll be covering it on a weekly basis. It can be easy to forget just how great this show can be, but the last episode was the very good "Krampus" and two episodes before that, the outstanding "The Wishbone". I'm sure next week, or the week after that, I'll be able to spend an entire article sharing all of the incredible things that week's episode did to me. But for this week, at least, we have that moment. And thank god, and Allie Grant, for that.

Grade: C+

  • Dalia's Line of the Week: "I'm not in the mood for sound anymore"
  • The one good part of that dreadful hip-hop sequence: "There's only one way to settle a beef in beginner's hip-hop, yo!"
  • While it looks as if Malik's role in the Ryan Shay/Eugene saga is over, I do hope Tim Meadows returns as Malik's father. Always a welcome presence
  • I didn't get to touch on this in the review (but I'm sure I will in the near future), so I'll just leave this here: the Shays are the funniest family on television.

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