I grew up in the suburbs. I lived on a tiny street where my family knew all the neighbors, and I went to one of the best public high schools in the state. I got a great education, and I adore my childhood home. But did I love — let alone like — the suburbs? Not so much.
ABC’s new show “Suburgatory” takes everything I hate about small, white picket-fenced towns and amplifies it by 100. The moms don’t just dress like their children — they also act like them while picking out jean skirts that only a two year old could fit into. Walking down the halls of the surreal yet oddly familiar high school, just count the number of nose jobs: one, two, three…
Girls have one freshly manicured hand glued to their Blackberry and the other to a can of Red Bull. The judgmental eyes of suburban high school students would make anyone want to eat in the bathroom at lunch.
At least this is what Tessa Altman’s (Jane Levy) horrifying experience is when her Dad makes the rash, impulsive choice to move them out of New York City after discovering a box of condoms in her drawer.
“Pretty ironic that a box full of rubbers landed me in a town full of plastic,” Tessa notes after watching moms drive by in SUVs with kids in the backseat staring at her like she is some sort of mythological creature. Whoever told single dad George (Jeremy Sisto) that the suburbs were more pristine than the city forgot to warn him that the sheltered life was actually a miniature living hell.
The pilot, written by Emily Kapnek (former “Parks and Recreation” writer), puts Tessa’s guard up from the moment she looks around at her blonde, beauty pageant neighbors. She has grown up without a mother — who abandoned her and her father when she was young — and she sees no need to change that now. Tessa narrates her hellish journey with a critical and witty eye. But her off-screen commentary would be nothing without someone to bounce off of.
Enter Dad. Tessa and George’s father-daughter relationship is sincere, sarcastic and honest, making it the crutch of a show otherwise located in a phony world.
Dalia, Tessa’s not-so-friendly “buddy” from school, and Dallas, Dalia’s mother, are always dressed in bright pink from head-to-toe, which make Tessa and her dad practically Goth in their green earth tones. The surreal nature of everything around them puts Tessa and her father in the spotlight just from their lack of color.
The rolling-eyes and mocking side comments between a cynical daughter and her father — who really doesn’t know what he has gotten himself into — breathe life into a seemingly plastic society.
High school stories are hardly rare in television and movies. But what makes a story unique is always the voice behind it, and Tessa’s voice is one I certainly want to listen to. She isn’t forced to sit in the bathroom at lunch on the first day of school, but instead makes that her first choice. She apparently has no interest in befriending her cake-faced peers.
The question from here is about what direction will the show take. Will Tessa be an outcast forever, or will she befriend the girls she seems to hate? Can her relationship with her Dad stay strong when every woman in town is hitting on him? Is it possible for her to find someone like a mom amidst the Barbies of the town?
Maybe I only laughed because I also grew up in a town that I was just waiting to get out of. But isn’t that how most of us felt? College was the light at the end of the tunnel, a way out of the small town where we knew virtually everything about everyone. So when a TV show or a movie comes along making fun of everything I grew up hating, of course I’m going to laugh.
“Suburgatory” invites us to peer outside Tessa’s bedroom window at the chaotic and unnatural world around her. “The way I saw it we’d need two things to survive,” she says as she watches her Dad being attacked with flirtation from the neighbors. “Automatic sprinklers and a restraining order.”
Now I understand the real reason my suburban home had a sprinkler system.
“Suburgatory” airs on ABC at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesdays.
Rosenberg is a member of the class of 2012.