Taking cues from Mean Girls as well as Desperate Housewives and even Daria, Suburgatory takes aim at homogenized consumer culture of the 2010s. The premiere episode, airing 28 September, acknowledges and even lifts from its influences, but also sweetens the cynicism. The result is a show that’s more ABC Family than Tina Fey.
The borrowings are easy to spot, from a comment on the shady doings that might go on inside picket-fenced homes “with 2.3 children,” to a Regina George clone, who comes equipped with a flirty, fake-boobed mother. But the show also offers some whip-smart dialogue and a central father-daughter relationship with seemingly boundless opportunities for conflict.
Spunky Tessa (Jane Levy) has more guy friends than girls, rocks combat boots, and expects everyone to speak Sarcasm as fluently as she does. She’s especially on edge as Suburgatory begins, being newly uprooted from her beloved Washington Square Park by her paranoid “cool single dad” George (Jeremy Sisto) after he found condoms in a drawer. Now transplanted to a quiet cul-de-sac neighborhood upstate, Tessa is quickly mistaken for a lesbian on her first day at school. Plainly, her dad has ruined her life.
Tessa and George wake up on their first morning in their new home to silence instead of car alarms and ambulance sirens. Like most fictional depictions of the suburbs, this one is packed with compulsively watered lawns, nosy neighbors, and luxury mid-size SUVs. Tessa’s new peers sip Red Bull while their moms redecorate their palatial bedrooms whenever they get bored sipping daytime cocktails. But unlike Wisteria Lane—populated by murderers and sociopaths—Tessa’s street is home to a lot of phony people whose love of luxury and creature comforts is the repeated target of lighthearted derision.
Suburgatory doubles down on genre comedy, also taking aim at the high school coming of age story. When she arrives, Tessa is assigned a Buddy, a sort of school tour guide and human FAQ. Tessa’s Buddy, Dalia Royce (Carly Chaikin), advises her that she’s just that, and not a friend. Dalia points out Malik (Maestro Harrell), the “diversity student,” whose friendly hello hints at friendship to come. For the most part, however, Tessa’s day is a nightmare: taking refuge in the handicap bathroom stall throughout lunch period, Tessa meets a bullied girl, who rejects Tessa in turn. With that, making friends gets moved down Tessa’s to-do list for another time.
While his daughter suffers at school, George meets Dallas Royce (Cheryl Hines), a bored housewife just busting out of her bra. Her husband hires George (who happens to be an architect) to add a skylight to their daughter Dalia’s magnificently magenta-colored bedroom. George seeks Dallas’ obviously poor parenting counsel and instigates a mall trip to encourage some girl bonding. The mall outing is, of course, a disaster after Dallas criticizes modest Tessa’s beige sports bra, and George purchases a skanky outfit for his daughter, based on Dalia and Dallas’ advice.
Tessa devises to get her own revenge for the mall episode, arriving at the dinner table that evening wearing the very same revealing outfit, accessorized by hair extensions and a Red Bull. She embarrasses George in front of his old friend Noah (Alan Tudyk), whom we learn was the catalyst for their move to town. Noah dines at the local country club, naturally, and is fond of spray-tanning himself so he looks “like a Nerf ball,” as George notes. The scene perfectly highlights Levy’s combined charm and swagger as Tessa. Her swagger and toughened exterior melts, however, in the concluding moments of the pilot, when Dallas drops by to deliver a new pink bra as a present, revealing Tessa’s yearning for a mother figure after all. But will she be able to find one here?
Conveniently, Sheila Shay (Ana Gasteyer) lives across the street. A pot roast-making Bree Van de Kamp type, she spots George outside and calls out an invitation for dinner, for him and his wife. At this point he must yell back that he has no wife, at which point the entire block knows he’s single. The set-up proceeds, as Sheila’s son Ryan (Parker Young) provides a few seconds of comedic public dancing (he’s offbeat enough to seem a good match for Tessa) and his sister Lisa (Allie Grant), the bullied girl from the bathroom, comes over late in the episode to collect cookware her mother sent over with her pot roast, suggesting the two odd girls out might bond after all. The episode thus ends with all generic gears engaged: Tessa can grow up and dad can try to keep up.