thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Suburgatory: When Abercrombie Attacks

In girl culture on October 20, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Sarah Todd

What teenager hasn’t hidden out in the biggest high school bathroom she can find, luxuriating in reading a book away from prying eyes? Who among us hasn’t rolled her eyes at blondes who can’t blink (too much mascara) and at jocks humping lockers in the hallways? To people who are lucky enough to have escaped such fates, these descriptions may sound like teen movie clichés. But as someone who attended a small, preppy, wealthy, hugely white Midwestern public high school until age 16, I feel like I can say: The blondes who can’t blink are very, very real.

The new ABC series Suburgatory knows from high school horrors. The half-hour comedy/terrifying flashback-inducing documentary of my teenage years tells the story of a 16-year-old girl whose single father transplants her from a happy New York City life to the suburbs after finding a package of condoms in her dresser drawer. Jane Levy plays Tessa, a red-headed, sarcastic heroine who greets each new Stepford-like vision with perfectly raised eyebrows. Inside, she’s sprinting toward the nearest Metro. Jeremy Sisto plays her dry yet sweetly befuddled father. Among those rounding out the cast are Cheryl Hines of Curb Your Enthusiasm as a perky suburban mom with a heart of gold and Carly Chaikin as her daughter, the popular, mean, permanently bored Dalia, whose personality Tessa accurately described as being as flat as her hair.

Suburgatory has plenty of fast-paced quips and sly visual jokes (a glimpse of a glee club with members who, from the neck down, look very much like the cast from Glee, the flowers on bathroom windowsills and student desks). And Tessa has the makings of a great heroine in the Daria/Lindsay Weir/Emma Stone-in-Easy A mode. But as the show finds its voice, I’ll be curious to see if it will keep playing quite so safe, and so conservative.

For one thing, there’s that unopened package of condoms. It’s easy to imagine a dad–particularly a single dad–getting freaked out by finding his teenage daughter with them. But deciding that the box of condoms means they’re packing up their Manhattan life and moving to the suburbs seems like kind of an over-reaction. If she was doing drugs or if she’d gotten pregnant, maybe you could see a worried father dialing U-Haul. But those kinds of plot points seem like they’d be too edgy for this show. Tessa objects to the pristine, bland, conforming nature of the suburbs, but Suburgatory itself is pretty clearly targeted at the very audience it satirizes–there’s a reason it airs in the same family-friendly line-up as The Middle and Modern Family.

It’s also notable that the audience never finds out what Tessa was doing with the box of condoms–is she sexually active, or did she have them just in case? Is there a specific someone, or was she just trying to be prepared? The only further comments about the box come from Dallas, who seems willing to believe the story that Tessa was holding them for a friend. Whether or not viewers are meant to go along with that belief is unclear, but it was interesting that the show felt it needed to give viewers that kind of out–perhaps so as not to upset the abstinence-only set.

I also worry that Suburgatory has a bit of Glee‘s mean-spiritedness. Glee often gives viewers whiplash: one minute cruel comments from Sue or Santana or Quinn or whoever are punchlines, the next there’s a lesson of the week encouraging tolerance and acceptance. These lessons nearly always ring false, because moments earlier the show was effectively asking the audience to laugh with the bullies.

Hopefully, as Suburgatory develops it’ll get rid of uncreative joke-cliches about weight and sexuality (like how the girl who is supposed to be overweight but actually isn’t overweight isn’t allowed to eat dessert, or how gay men wear sweaters knotted around their necks and lesbians are vegetarians) and include more jokes that are genuinely original and funny–and a more diverse cast who can offer new twists on Tessa’s outsider perspective.

When Suburgatory does avoid cliches, it’s pretty great. Dalia’s deadpan delivery of the line “Sucks your mom died, bi-yatch” was just the kind of moment I’m looking forward to seeing more of. As the two teenage enemies stand in front of a dressing room mirror, wearing matching outfits with furry pink vests and sparkly sequined goggles, you can see our city girl realizing just how far from home she really is. She tells Dalia her mom’s not dead. Dalia barely notices.

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