Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Despite The Social Awkwardness, Suburgatory Season 1 Is Generally Enjoyable.

The Good: Decent characters, Most of the acting, Moments of awkward humor
The Bad: Odd "conditioning" aspect, Not overly compelling or original, Voice-overs get tiresome
The Basics: Suburgatory Season 1 starts out with some interesting satire, but develops awkwardly as a broader social commentary that is not as compelling.

There is a wonderful moment in the film God Bless America (reviewed here!) where the minor protagonist asks the middle-aged murdering protagonist Frank if he finds her attractive. His reaction is one of utter revulsion and he notes that he is not a pedophile. He maintains a level of disgust throughout the film over the idea that their relationship would be anything other than friends or a parental type relationship. I can see why the girl would ask, though; the boundaries between what is viewed as acceptable and has eroded in some pretty disturbing ways in recent years, in both movies and television. Suburgatory Season 1 is actually a decent example of such an erosion and there is a deeply disturbing sociological aspect to the way the show is made that is far more poignant than anything actually in the series (at least, so far). Suburgatory employs a well-beyond legal-age actress (Jane Levy) to portray a minor child (Tessa is fifteen years old at the outset of Suburgatory Season 1). In the course of the first season, Suburgatory uses Levy to not just discuss issues pertaining to minors, but to show them. So, while the initiating incident in Suburgatory Season 1 involves Tessa's father finding condoms she has is not necessarily objectionable (hey, if kids are having sex, at least this show is promoting them being smart about it!), some of the portrayals that follow are.

What comes instantly to mind is a moment where Tessa lets herself be groped by a guy she likes. Legally, there is no problem because actress Jane Levy is not a minor. But the disturbing aspect of the scene (and a few others in Suburgatory Season 1) is what it is doing to our society. Yes, we are being conditioned. Tessa is a minor, being groped by another minor. That's fine, it happens in real life every day. But the reason it can be shown on television is because Levy is over the legal age. But, in the context of the show, Suburgatory Season 1 is normalizing people of all ages watching minors participate in sexual acts. And that, should lead us all to a moment of Frank-esque revulsion.

Beyond that sort of thing, Suburgatory Season 1 is a ridiculously standard ABC comedy. While the show began with a biting sense of wit, with somewhat mundane Voice-overs and Levy staring blankly passing for humor, Suburgatory Season 1 slowly evolved into something both more predictable and more preposterous.

After finding his fifteen year-old's condoms, single father George Altman moves his teenage daughter from New York City to the Chatswin suburbs. Hoping that the change in environment will help Tessa have a more peaceful, safe young adulthood, George and Tessa quickly find themselves experiencing culture shock from the move. Tessa is forced to deal with peers who are wealthy, emotionally vacuous, and politically unaware. George, at the same time, finds himself attracted to his married neighbor, befriended by the local dentist, and struggling to pay enough attention to Tessa to make the move worthwhile.

As the season progresses, Dallas and George build an awkward friendship, though George finds himself in a relationship with his best friend's surrogate mother. Tessa helps her school's principal come out of the closet and is assisted by Lisa in running for student council. Threads continue late in the season that move Tessa closer to a meeting with her maternal grandmother, but by then the show is a bit of a mess.

Usually, I find myself exploring each of the characters in a show and discussing the finer points of acting and plot for the season, but with Suburgatory Season 1, it is hard for me to muster up the enthusiasm for it. The season starts surprisingly well as a "fish out of water" culture clash type story. Suburgatory Season 1 is set up as George and Tessa against the world, though Tessa almost immediately finds an ally in Lisa, her neighbor and peer who is also an outsider. But by the end of the first season of Suburgatory, the show has become convoluted with messy character twists - Dallas's separation does not become an opening for George (in true sitcom form, before George can make a move, Dallas is already dating someone else), that it is hard to muster up the enthusiasm to write much more about the show.

What works in the first season of Suburgatory are the two main characters and Lisa. The three outsiders in Suburgatory Season 1 are consistently funny and smart and interesting. While George jumps to far too many conclusions to be as evolved as he claims, Tessa and Lisa are more often than not emotionally intelligent, if sometimes impulsive in appropriately youthful ways.

And to be perfectly fair to Suburgatory Season 1, the show has an exceptional cast that it uses remarkably well. Led by Jeremy Sisto (George) and Jane Levy (Tessa), the cast is fleshed out by the hilarious Alan Tudyk and Chris Parnell. Allie Grant continues her tradition of playing surprisingly mature and unsurprisingly smart young women as Tessa's friend Lisa. Cheryl Hines adds major obvious sex appeal as Dallas and Carly Chaikin fills the niche of the socialite adversary Dalia exceptionally well. Chris Parnell and Ana Gasteyer have great on-screen comic chemistry as Fred and Shelia Shay, Lisa's parents. Say what you will about Suburgatory, but the show uses its cast brilliantly.

As Suburgatory Season 1 wends from being a culture clash that takes the Altmans from city life to community barbecues and fighting for less cafeteria waste to a girl bored about her boyfriend (who only dreams and talks of his experiences in Africa) and a man getting in over his head with the woman carrying his best friend's child, the show goes from clever to more mediocre. Fortunately, throughout, the actors sell their characters and the writing has just enough to keep the audience amused.

For other shows from the 2011 – 2012 television season, please check out:
Modern Family - Season 3
30 Rock - Season 6
The Big Bang Theory - Season 5
Happy Endings - Season 2
New Girl - Season 1
Once Upon A Time - Season 1
Weeds - Season 7


For other television show reviews, be sure to visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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