Early-season check-in: Suburgatory

Over the next week or so, I’m hoping to check in with a number of the fall’s new series. Most have aired half-dozen or so episodes by now, so it feels like a fine time to see what they’ve improved on, if anything, since the pilot. These pieces won’t be too long, but they will still be good. Obviously. Up next: Suburgatory.

The Suburgatory pilot was definitely my favorite of the new comedy offerings of the season and the for the most part, the ABC series has stayed right in rhythm with the level of quality it suggested in that opening episode. My favorite part of the pilot was the well-executed and developed relationship between Tessa and George and they’ve continued to be entertaining and heartwarming in a substantial way. Three of the four post-pilot episodes have been solidly funny, with last week’s pretty tepid effort serving as the one exception. In short, I quite like Suburgatory.

However, I am very curious to see how the series advances and shifts (or not) over the next dozen or so episodes. The father-daughter relationship dynamics can power a lot of stories, serve as our entry point into this zany world and join along with us as we laugh at the crazy, dumb rich people around them. In simple terms, that is what Suburgatory is and will continue to be and I’m basically okay with that. Jeremy Sisto and Jane Levy are really great, charming performers and their chemistry is what makes the series run so smoothly on a week-to-week basis. But for Suburgatory to become a consistently good series and not just generally funny, it needs to develop the characters it likes to poke fun at.

Which of course means that last night’s “Halloween” was a really fine step in the right direction. I think I’ve liked Cheryl Hines’ work as Dallas more than most, but she hasn’t had much material to work with since that bra-giving moment in the pilot and that’s just unfortunate. Thankfully, “Halloween” provided a few worthwhile beats that keyed us in to the kind of person Dallas really is and why she acts the way that she does. George poking her about scary movies and general Halloween terror was a smart, fairly innocuous way to go about exploring Dallas’ closed-off persona.

On a similar note, finally introducing her husband (played by everyone’s favorite television star Jay Mohr!) helped add another shade of complexity to what can be a bit of a one-note character. I assumed that the series would present the possibility of a George-Dallas pairing at some point and bringing her husband into the fold in the same episode makes sense dramatically. The moment where George remembers the name of her dress’ designer is simple, but important for the development of Dallas and her relationship with George. We don’t know a whole lot about her husband because she doesn’t talk about him at all, but you could tell that George’s knowledge and her husband’s ignorance meant something. I’m not sure what that exactly means moving forward for all three of them, but I am certainly more interested now than I was before last night’s episode.

I also thought that “Halloween” provided Lisa a nice, fun little story. The exorcism sequence was one of the funnier things this consistently funny series has done, particularly because it seemed like Lisa was aware of how ridiculous it was*, but still felt like she needed to do something symbolic to make Tessa realize her feelings. Lisa has been slightly less one-note than Dallas, but this episode gave her the opportunity to express her fears about what can happen to girls at this school and it also provided an enjoyable look back into the series’ world.

*And also because of Malik Rev-Run Run DMC-era costume and his ginger ale tossing. Who knew that Randy from The Wire could be pretty darn funny?

Neither of these plots was especially complicated or deep, but they were purposeful and much needed, I think. Tessa and George are well-formed, likable and engaging characters, but focusing too much on them makes the series’ world feel too much like a cartoon and devalues some of the more emotional beats the writers try to pull off at the end of each episode. I can’t care about the supporting characters if the series doesn’t either. It’s only episode five so there’s nothing to be alarmed or overly-praiseworthy about, but I thought last night’s episode was a great step towards making Suburgatory a much better series.

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