Saturday, July 28, 2012

Tracing the History of the Suburbs to Suburgatory

Note: I don't start talking about Suburgatory until the bottom of the blog entry:
Two sharp satires of suburbia that have stuck with me the most are the Oscar-winning film American Beauty and the Showtime series Weeds. The degree to which both are considered edgy is related to the degree to which they paint a bleak picture of the suburb. The “suburb as hell” view is essential to both plots. Both Weeds and American Beauty condemn the suburb as some circle of Hell where people are imprisoned by a communal desire for conformity that is an artificial substitute for real problems.  In both cases, it’s the circumstances around them which push the protagonists to sin and for us to either root for them or at least empathize with them.

Since the creation of Brooklyn Bridge in 1875 allowed Manhattanites the option of escaping the evils of the city, the suburb has long been both one of America’s defining inventions. and its great paradoxes. The suburb came about when the grandiosity of the city was being overtaken by filth, crime, substandard living conditions, and an unwanted inflow of immigrants. Suburbia allowed Americans to own a piece of the countryside—what has long been considered the American dream—while retaining a closeness to the city. It allowed America the opportunity to remake the city in its own image. The balance between the contradicting desire of isolation and community; the arrogance in believing that the long-established urban ideal can be improved upon; the false premise of owning a piece of the countryside are all ripe for satire because they so intrinsically tie into the American Dream.

The theme of conformity in the landscape is referenced in the opening theme of Weeds which speaks of “Little boxes” made of “Ticky tacky” (implying fragility) that “All look the same” despite the fact that they are different colors (an implication of a failure of the community to accept diversity). Similarly,the memorable closing shot of “American Beauty” zooms away from a dead Lester Burnham to show a community of entirely identical houses that’s downright frightening in how far it stretches out.

 To examine why the suburb invokes such a powerful image, it might be helpful to go back to Levittown. Built in Long Island in the late 1940’s, Levittown was a mass-produced housing development that has long been considered by urban planners to be a prototype of suburbia. With the Baby Boom, the 1948 Housing Bill (which loosened lending restrictions) and the GI bill, Leavittown came along at the optimal time for suburbia to take off.

Leavittown was heavily marketed to the city dwellers and the concept of a rosier escape from the city was intrinsic to the idea of the suburb. The names of suburbs and housing developments often employed geopomorphic features, images of the country, or positive associations with place (Heaven, Eden, Paradise, Sunny, etc.). For example, take a look at the list of suburbs of Minneapolis: Golden Valley, Edinah, Eden Prairie, Maple Grove (as if you’d realistically find an orchard of maple trees there), St. Louis Park, Rosemont. This was satirized appropriately enough on “Arrested Development” when Michael Bluth picked a name for a housing development that his son, George Michael, said sounded like salad dressing.

Meanwhile, “Suburgatory,” a new show this past season that flew relatively low on the cultural radar (but fortunately, got renewed), shows you don’t have to condemn every element to effectively satirize it.

The show follows teenage daughter Tessa Altman (Jane Levy) and her single dad George (Jeremy Sisto) as they move from Manhattan to a suburb where communal pressure to fit in is particularly heavy. Like someone who watched American Beauty or Weeds, Tessa has a preset expectation that suburbia will be like Hell. George is on the opposite end of the spectrum. As the dramatic tension unwinds between the duo over whether this new town and subsequent lifestyle is good or bad, the show allows for an even-sided exploration.
In the closing credits of Suburgatory’s pilot, we see George out and about alongside all of his neighbors as they all water their law. George smiles while receiving a compliment from his intrusive neighbor from across the street, Sheila Shay (Ana Gasteyer), on the niceness of his lawn. It’s an empty compliment: the lawns (long considered to be the most frivolous vestiges of suburbia) are all identical. Whereas Tessa would take the compliment with cynicism, George has no such pretensions and that's the basic yin and yang of the show

            The irony of the situation is Tessa's process of growing up is to throw all the snark out the window and accept her new environment. While many of the characters (Ana Gasteyer's Sheila Shay, her school nemesis Dalia Royce, etc.) are fairly constant (though no less hilarious, the show has a GREAT supporting cast), Tessa slowly realizes that there are some hidden depths behind her initial assumptions. Cheryl Hines (deserving of an Emmy nod), in particular, shines as perky Southern belle Dallas Royce whose evolving relationship with Tessa is an often-underlooked source of pathos for the show.

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