Arts & Culture

Jews Watching TV: Is Suburgatory The New Lost?

Suburgatory premiered this fall with a real clunker of a name and a fine enough premise about a single dad and his daughter moving from their big city life to the suburbs. Read More

By / October 28, 2011

Suburgatory premiered this fall with a real clunker of a name and a fine enough premise about a single dad and his daughter moving from their big city life to the suburbs. It’s like Green Acres but with less Acres. The first couple episodes found humor in the seemingly bottomless comedic well of high school and out of water fishes. All the while there was something frankly off about the show’s universe. At first it felt like a reflection of the Altman’s discomfort in this town; however, I’m starting to suspect there is something more severe at play. What if the name Suburgatory isn’t just a stupid pun, it’s a stupid pun that reveals the secret of the entire series? What if all these characters are dead and the universe is actually purgatory or something equally as otherworldly?

I broke the evidence down into three categories:

1) The Father and His…Daughter

Jeremy Sisto’s George Altman seems way too young to have a daughter that looks and acts as old as Jane Levy’s Tessa Altman. Now it’s not uncommon for there to be only a slight age disparity between parent and child in Hollywood, but how these particular characters behave is bizarre. It’s obvious the writers are trying to go for a Gilmore Girls-ian chumminess; however, the result is more reminiscent of the banter of old film couples. Add in the fact that the two look absolutely nothing alike, and their interactions could be best described as flirting. The opening scene from this week’s episode had them bickering over their front-yard’s Halloween decoration, which slowly got more and more uncomfortable until Tessa, with a come hither gaze, tells her DAD, “You’re all talk.” He wrestles her down and puts her neck in the guillotine; all the while the viewer at home developed a fully formed case of the creeps. The title sequence drives this home. As it cycles the pair through different wardrobes they look much more like a married couple than father and daughter. Sure, Electra complexes are real things and considering the lack of a mother, it makes sense that they’d have a very close relationship, but it does cast an uneasy shadow over the entire show. Maybe he isn’t even actually her father but instead a guardian angel looking to guide her through Suburgatory towards Subureaven.

2) Chatswin, ________

Suburgatory is set in Chatswin, which exists somewhere outside of New York City. It could be Westchester or Connecticut or the beyond. That same first scene starts with eerie music and two nearly identical blond, dead-eyed moms, power walking in unison. The show is meant to be a satire of the lilywhite, Stepford-ian world of suburbia but in examples like these it’s pushed to an unsettling degree. The non-billed housewives have a female homogeneity that has rarely been seen outside of a Robert Palmer music video. The leader of this pack is Cheryl Hines’s Dallas that possesses an accent and demeanor that is vaguely southern and totally bonkers. Similarly, her daughter, Dalia, is not just another mean girl as she’s barely a human girl (she’s like Rachel McAdams meets a Terminator robot). Both of these characters, Lloyd from Entourage, and that guy who played Steve the Pirate in Dodgeball try to maintain a homeostasis of their respective worlds by enforcing rules meant to keep it as is. All these rules and weirdos (plus an evocative score) bring to mind another indeterminably located, rumored to be purgatory, ABC show setting, Lost’s Island.

3) ABC

ABC as a network has a history of shows that are not what they seem to be on the surface. Beyond the most obvious example Lost, there is Cougar Town and Desperate Housewives, comedies that go well beyond what their loglines present them as. So with the network’s former golden goose, Desperate Housewives, set to fly away with its final season, maybe ABC explicitly wanted another comedy with a universe that slowly reveals its strangeness. This week Tessa took over the spirit of the dead girl who used to live in her room, Misty. Yes, it was revealed at the end that Misty was just at Better Place Remedial School, it still wasn’t explained why Tessa would embody her spirit. And that’s it, it’s the unexplained, it’s the questions that make the show’s universe peculiar. In the second episode of Lost, Hurley didn’t ask Jack straightly, “Do you think we’re in purgatory?” Instead, that show kept on stockpiling bizarreness and unanswered questions. Is this what Suburgatory is doing? Is Suburgatory ABC’s air to both Desperate Housewives AND Lost?

Is the answer an obvious yes? Not really but Suburgatory does have an undeniably mysterious tone. Something is up, whether or not it’s Shyamalanesque in conception. It is this tone that separates it from any other comedy on television. The show doesn’t pretend to be set in a real reality like Parks & Recreation or Modern Family, or sitcom reality like Happy Endings or Community; it’s set nowhere or anywhere or everywhere. If it’s revealed after, let’s say, five seasons that in fact it is purgatory, I’ll be the first person to proclaim that the show is (and maybe I am) brilliant. Until then, Suburgatory, though far from perfect (it is not nearly funny enough yet), is a welcome addition to sitcom landscape.


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