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Farewell Suburgatory – ABC’s Surprisingly Dramatic Live-Action Cartoon Version of a Family Sitcom

Spoiler Warning – This post discusses the plot of “Stiiiill Horny,” Suburgatory‘s series finale, which aired on 5/14/14.

If this is truly the end, Suburgatory died as it lived – over-the-top but surprisingly heartfelt, concluding its third and (likely) final season with will they/won’t they couple Tessa Altman (Jane Levy) and Ryan Shay (Parker Young) getting freaky.  The scenario was classic Suburgatory, giving us the initially familiar before morphing into something completely unexpected.

17-year-old Tessa, who also serves as the show’s JD from Scrubs-like narrator, had been unable to move on from her break-up with Ryan all season just as her father George (Jeremy Sisto) spent most of the season attempting to come to terms with his abrupt break-up with Dallas (Cheryl Hines).  There, Dallas thought herself unworthy of George, not liking the sacrifices he was making for her, while Tessa was forced to break it off with Ryan rather than attempt a long-term relationship after he left for college.  So, she distracted herself from losing Ryan by engaging in several side activities, such as unwittingly joining a cult (they seemed like a nice band of musicians) in one episode and most recently taking up knitting with a group of older ladies, each of whom urged her to put down the knitting kit and go and find a man.  Moving on was especially difficult, though, because Ryan kept coming back to visit his family living across the street from Tessa.  On top of that, his younger sister Lisa was Tessa’s best friend, leading to some typical sitcom machinations when Lisa ended up really liking Ryan’s new college girlfriend, who was pretty much a Tessa clone.

By the end of “Stiiiiill Horny,” George realized he was still in love with Dallas, but couldn’t completely get over his pride, proudly informing Dallas he was no longer mad at her instead of offering the declaration of love he truly felt and she needed to hear.  She left him with the assurance that there was no being friends for them anymore, not when she wanted so much more.  Tessa, meanwhile, offered friendship to Ryan only to learn it was most likely goodbye:

Whereas George couldn’t bring himself to admit his feelings to the woman he loved Tessa would not go out without a fight, embracing Ryan in the middle of the street like something out of a romantic comedy, their shared passion requiring no words but lots of kissing.  It is a big, romantic moment, not entirely dissimilar to any other monumental kiss by any number of prior will they/won’t sitcom couples.  However, this being Suburgatory of course it would go bigger than expected,  Tessa and Ryan quickly escalating their romantic embrace to a something closer to a public sex display, him shirtless, her down to just her bra, the closing credits cutting off before either party had removed any clothing beneath the waist.  You thought you knew where the moment was going before it went somewhere weird and funny and awkward and awesome, reminding you that there’s nothing else quite like Suburgatory on TV.

Suburgatory Tessa Ryan Still Horny
This is most likely the last ever shot of Suburgatory

Sadly, now there isn’t anything on TV like Suburgatory unless Warner Bros. TV manages to find it a new home, the most likely candidate being  TBS since a) all of their new original comedies have failed  and b) they previously saved Cougar Town after ABC canceled it at the end of its 3rd season.  For now, Suburgatory remains dead after giving us 3 seasons and 57 episodes, the exact same output for the similarly canceled too soon ABC sitcom Happy Endings.

When Suburgatory premired in 2011, it was broad and weird, revolving around a Manhattan teenager (Tessa) transplanted to a cartoon-like affluent suburb in the fictional town of Chatswin where she and her dad George (Jeremy Sisto) were the only ones who seemed to recognize the insanity surrounding them.  They show was pure satire, with most of the women of Chatswin coming off like Stepford Wives for the Real Housewives generation, and the show juxtaposed the earth tones dominating George and Tessa’s fashion sense with remarkably bright sets and costumes for everyone else in Chatswin.  George mostly attempted to make peace with it whereas Tessa plotted ways in which she could get back to Manhattan, positioning her as a Daria-like annoyed observer, quick with an eye-roll and witty one-liner.  

The first 3 minutes of the pilot:

For as fairly straight-forward as the pilot was, the show would progress to continually exaggerate just how filthy rich and out of touch with reality everyone in Chatswin was.  It didn’t always work, but the emotional beats for the characters were always spot-on.  As the AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff argued,

” The genius of Suburgatory is the way its candy-coated surface—the very thing that makes it possible for the show to have outright awful episodes—makes the emotional wallop it can pack all the more unexpected.  When the show zeroes in on its emotional content, everything about it immediately clicks. Dallas, for instance, is never a better character than when the stakes are high, when she digs deep into her survivalist soul and finds just the advice needed for the situations other characters have wandered into that week.  Where Suburgatory most excels on an emotional level is in its depiction of the relationship between George and Tessa, as well as its various storylines about its numerous teenage characters. Suburgatory is the best show I’ve ever seen at depicting how teenagers are constantly, brutally forced to realize that their parents and other adult confidantes are just fellow human beings and that forgiving people for the ways they’ve unintentionally slighted you is a vital part of growing up.” 

Never was this more clear than in Tessa’s begrudging realization that she needed to connect with and know her mother Alex, who had left her while still a baby, leaving George to raise her on his own.  The show’s uncanny gift for sneaking in an emotional punch came out in the second season premier when Tessa took the stage at a talent competition with just her guitar to perform a song her mother had originally written.  To that point, every episode of the show had opened with an abbreviated theme song featuring Alih Jey’s pleasant voice seemingly speaking for Tessa’s view of living in suburban Chatswin, “Last night I had a pleasant nightmare, Na-na-Na-na-Na-na.”  However, this episode completely re-contextualized the theme, adding additional lyrics and revealing the song was actually written by Tessa’s mother:

So, the pleasant nightmare was not Tessa being transplanted from Manhattan to Chatswin but in fact Tessa’s mother giving birth and running away from the responsibility of motherhood.  That is some fairly heavy stuff for a family sitcom filled with cartoon-like representations of wealth and ignorance.  By the time Tessa’s mother Alex did return later in the second season, played by Malin Akerman, the show did not back away from the inherent drama of Tessa’s need to connect with her mother even though doing so hurt George, who had been betrayed when Alex left him so many years ago and would not stop Tessa from reaching out to her but didn’t like it.

Sadly, Akerman then landed the lead in the (now-canceled) Trophy Wive, and Parker Young bolted for Fox’s (now-canceled) Enlisted, both only entertaining competing offers because Suburgatory was on the bubble and not guaranteed to come back for a third season.  Of course, it did come back, but with a reduced episode order, budget, and cast, forcing the show to drop Alan Tudyk’s unfailingly hilarious best-bud-of-George Noah and Rex Lee as the Chatswin High School principal.   Tudyk and Young only appeared in a handful of season 3 episodes, and in Young’s case they were little more than cameos.  The result was undoubtedly the show’s weakest season yet, with any and all drama related to Tessa’s relationship with her mother dropped and Tudyk’s absence poorly explained.   The season came off oddly unfocused as its attempt to frame everything around George and Tessa’s struggles to move on from their respective break-ups got somewhat in the way of more obvious story choices, such as the fact that Tessa was a senior in high school bound to leave for college soon.  However, even with a weaker batch of episode season 3 still maintained Suburgatory‘s knack for laugh-out loud jokes (usually involving Dallas’ daughter Dalia, played by Carly Chaikin) and sneakily effective heart-breaking (or warming) moments, such as Malik proposing to Lisa like something out of (500) Days of Summer:

Even if the show had been renewed (or finds another home), it’s not clear if Parker Young would have been part of the deal, as his package of leading man looks, adorable temperament, brilliant comedic-timing, and well-defined abs has “next big comic book movie star” written all over it.  The show’s creator, Emily Kapnek, has another sitcom (Selfie) on ABC’s fall line-up, giving us yet another redheaded Kapnek protagonist (Suburgatory had Jane Levy, Selfie will have Karen Gillan).  If Suburgatory is somehow revived, its central premise of a a Manhattan teenager transplanted to a ridiculously affluent suburb may have already exhausted its possibilities with Tessa bound to head off to college.

So, if this is the end then let Suburgatory end with Tessa and Ryan basically doing it in the middle of the street.  It was emotionally uplifting but over-the-top and crazy, everything that made Suburgatory great.

Suburgatory proved that a character  can exist across 3 seasons without ever really inserting any inflection in her voice – witness the brilliance of Dalia Royce

Suburgatory introduced us to movie star in-waiting Parker Young

Suburgatory showed us there was more to Jeremy Sisto than just being the guy from Clueless

Suburgatory showed us there was more to Cheryl Hines than Curb Your Enthusiasm

Suburgatory gave us Alan Tudyk basically being a cartoon character before he voiced the actual cartoon villain in Wreck-It Ralph

If this is goodbye, then so be it.  Thanks for the good times, Suburgatory.

Source: AVClub

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