Revisiting Suburgatory 10 Years After the Series Finale |

Revisiting Suburgatory 10 Years After the Series Finale

Suburban satires are a solid staple of pop culture at this point. Even before Ira Levin’s seminal novel The Stepford Wives was published in 1972, Shirley Jackson—best known for her gothic horror stories like The Haunting of Hill House—skewered the one-upmanship and superficial niceties of suburban life in her 1948 debut The Road Through the Wall. Since then, we’ve had multiple Stepford Wives film adaptations, Desperate HousewivesMean GirlsConfessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, and plenty more I could add to this laundry list—including Suburgatory, the short-lived sitcom that ended 10 years ago today. The styles may change, but the instinct to recoil at uncanny conformity and latent racism remains. 

Suburgatory follows New Yorkers Tessa (Jane Levy) and George Altman (Jeremy Sisto) as they transition from Manhattan living to the homogeneity of Chatswin—a move instigated by George after he finds condoms in Tessa’s room. Tessa is, unsurprisingly, perturbed by her new surroundings and her peers, wondering whether her dad wants her to turn into yet another “zombie-eyed girl in the back of a fully-loaded SUV.” George likewise finds himself baffled by their new home and his interactions with their overbearing neighbor Sheila (Ana Gasteyer), slightly less overbearing and very flirty neighbor Dallas (Cheryl Hines), her vapid daughter Dalia (Carly Chaikin), his fully suburb-pilled best friend Noah (Alan Tudyk), and plenty of other kooky characters. Tessa eventually finds her outcasts to hang out with—classmate Malik (Maestro Harrell) and Sheila’s sheltered daughter Lisa (Allie Grant)—and even a love interest in the form of Lisa’s clueless yet very sweet jock brother, Ryan (Parker Young).  

Tessa’s hatred of Chatswin is nothing short of vitriolic; early on in the first season of the show, she confesses to a crime she didn’t commit (stealing Sheila’s Shirley Temple dolls), hoping that it’ll get her sent back to Manhattan. She makes fun of the place every chance she gets, channeling her inner “mall skank” (it was 2011, slutshaming was fine back then) in the pilot to unnerve her father and donning a similar get-up for her Halloween costume. By the series finale, though, we see her in the middle of the street, making out with the Chatswin hometown hero, Ryan. She’s embracing a man who could rightfully be deemed the town’s mascot—needless to say, the place has found its way into her heart. 

When I went to revisit the show to mark a decade since its finale, I came up against an issue that’s becoming all the more frequent these days: the damn thing wasn’t streaming anywhere. Granted, I’m in Ireland, and at the very least people Stateside can watch the show for free as it livestreams Prime Video’s Freevee (for now), or purchase it on Prime when the Freevee run ends. As many Reddit users have mentioned on r/Suburgatory, the first season is usually the only one you can buy, making the latter two seasons yet another addition to the ever-growing slush pile of lost modern media. I’ve complained about this plenty before, but it bears repeating: give us the shows!

What I could revisit of Suburgatory, though, brought me right back to the early 2010s, with all its advantages and foibles. When the show premiered in 2011, I too was a high school misfit living in the suburbs—albeit one not quite on the same level as Chatswin—dreaming of getting out as soon as I could. The pilot episode is soundtracked by late ‘00s hits like Lily Allen’s “Fuck You”—the bubbly yet barbed song matching the show’s tone perfectly—and The Ting Tings’ “That’s Not My Name,” and the fashion is obviously… different. There’s also loads of jokes made at the expense of Chatswin women getting plastic surgery, which were very of the time but now feel out of place in a culture that values individual agency and acknowledges that the desire to get work done does not exist in a vacuum. 

Visually, Suburgatory leans into the disturbingly cheerful and sterile facade of the suburbs, but without too much stylistic distinctiveness so that it ends up having that bright, flat feel found in many sitcoms of the era (sorry, Cougar Town, but I’m thinking of you). Instead, Suburgatory stands out from the rest of the early 2010s comedies because of its quippy dialogue, off-the-wall bits, and tendency to lean into the surreal. The dissonance between its visual tone and the series’ unexpected, irresistible weirdness is similar to that of Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23, which also may have looked run-of-the-mill to a viewer flicking through channels, in spite of the layers of humor beneath the very-well-lit-surface (funny when you think that we suffer through the opposite problem now—lighting-wise, I mean). 

Tessa and George’s back-and-forths have a similar charge to those of fellow single parent and teen daughter pairing Rory and Lorelai Gilmore, but with more bite because Tessa’s far more outspoken and gutsier than Rory (and doesn’t become utterly annoying by the end). And even if, looking back, it doesn’t make sense that supposedly cool dad George would think moving out to the suburbs (where there’s nothing for teens to do except get into trouble) would stop Tessa having (safe! Having condoms is a good thing!) sex, Sisto and Levy have an excellent chemistry that forms a solid foundation for the series. 

Most of Suburgatory’s stranger jokes come from the side characters, and the absolutely stacked ensemble cast hit these out of the park like comedic Babe Ruths. No one does tightly wound quite like Gasteyer, who weaves in an underlying empathy that makes Sheila more than a grating neighbor—she’s also a caring helicopter parent! Fellow Saturday Night Live alum Chris Parnell is her perfect match as Sheila’s cowed husband Fred. Grant brings the same intensity to Lisa as her TV mom, exquisitely complementing the mild-mannered Malik. Cheryl Hines is like a walking ray of sunshine, and Chaikin steals most scenes with her deadpan delivery. 

Sadly, the show was canceled in 2014, and its 13-episode run in the third and final season (as opposed to 22 episodes in the previous two seasons) was a harbinger of our own brief TV series today. We’ve seen the lead players move on—Levy starred in yet another short-lived TV wonder, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist—but sometimes I wish we’d never had to wake up from this most pleasant nightmare.

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