Episode 12: Body Talk
By: Carlos Uribe
Suburgatory is a show about a teenage girl who is stuck in her version of hell, the suburbs.
It is tough to be an executive producer of a television show. There's a lot of stress coming from not only making sure that it's actually produced but also in having to balance creative fulfillment with business demands. A television show isn't made for free as there's a lot of people that need to be paid and a lot of expensive equipment that needs to be acquired. A series doesn't exist because corporations out there are seeking to promote the arts but because they want to make a profit from advertising. The only way to make a profit is by making a product that people want to watch. At the same time, a television program is the work of creative people. A person who looks at it from just the business side of the industry might only see dollar signs but the creative team will look at it as a way to express themselves. All they have to do is find a way to express themselves in a way that people will be interested. It's not an easy accomplishment as audiences can be fickle. You don't necessarily need a good show to have a success but you need something with appeal. Talented producers can take something with appeal and make a good show out of it. Suburgatory's appeal might be the cartoonish world or the snarky narrator but the show uses these two elements to explore real human emotions in a meaningful way or to satirize society. There is a television show plot this episode where the series is able to make fun of the industry. It's possibly my favorite part of the episode. It's not just because I want to enter the field but because it uses it to reveal what exactly attracts Tessa to Ryan.
It all begins when Tessa realizes that she doesn't have any after school activities while Ryan has like a hundred. This makes her amenable to accepting a producing role for a school television production called “Teen Talk”. It's supposed to be a talk where where issues relating to the student body are discussed. There's an immediate crisis when the host of the program gets sick which requires getting a replacement. That person happens to be Ryan but he uses the show to talk about his body. When this turns out to be popular with the student body, the show changes it's name to “Body Talk” and it becomes about Ryan's body. Tessa gets frustrated because she wants to use her television show to talk about substantive topics rather than superficial ones. Tessa is probably a television writer when they're first starting out. When Tessa tries to change the program into the one she envisions, the ratings tank and Mr. Wolfe threatens to cancel the show. Mr. Wolfe makes Tessa realize that Ryan's body interestes the Chatswin community not because of it's good looks but because of his spirit. That's when Tessa realizes that's why she's with him. He might not be smart but he has a big heart to compensate. She's able to compromise her integrity and turns the show back into “Body Talk”. Is it a bit silly that Chatswin High takes it's television program so seriously that it actually has a ratings system? Of course, but it uses this satire of the television industry to explore why Tessa is able to like a guy whose obsessed with his own image.
What is interesting to note is the discussion of what's popular in Chatswin. It's not Tessa's program that seeks to inform the viewer with important topics that people want to watch. It's a superficial program that has a lot of spirit. This seems to implicate that programs that seek to have substance can lack a soul that more superficial programs can have but let's not get into that. It is no doubt that the popular conception is that reality shows and boilerpate procedurals are the most popular shows in the ratings. This isn't a wrong conception, even if I feel like it doesn't paint the complete picture, but the show isn't just commenting on the compromises that the producer has to make but the series that viewers actually want to see. There is a market out there for smart and intelligent programming but it's tiny compared to the broad and mainstream one. Tessa doesn't just represent a new member of the industry that has to learn how to compromise in order to keep her job but she represents the few that want to watch quality television. Tessa is the kind of person who would watch Breaking Bad or Mad Men. The rest of Chatswin isn't interested in that as they want to watch a show about Ryan's body. Chatswin might be a cartoonish world but it's only a very hyperbolic version of suburban America. The rest of Chatswin can thus represent a mainstream audience-they like shows like Jersey Shore, Two and a Half Men, and Criminal Minds. The show is able to effectively satirize the show because it uses it's protagonist not only as a vehicle for someone entering the industry but for a viewer with standards.
The whole television plot is merely a sub-plot as the main plot deals with the Royce family. It's discovered by the Chatswin community that Dallas' home is 58% on East Chatswin. They all turn against her as they kick her out of the country club and Dalia is transferred over to East Chatswin High. The show largely uses this to comment on the class divide between the two communities and in doing so it explores race. Dallas doesn't just find herself having to deal with normal water and regular gyms but Dalia is forced to deal with an African American version of herself. It's a good place to go if the show had really committed to it. The main plot is hurt since Dallas doesn't have any agency to actually resolve the problem as it's up to Noah and George to rezone her property over to Chatswin proper. It also doesn't help that it doesn't really do anything with the racial or class topics. It comments that they exist and they're large but they never really lead anywhere. It didn't have to try and resolve them but it could have at least stated something. The closest it got was to have Dalia complain about how people shouldn't judge people based on the color of their skin but it never takes this complaint anywhere. It makes sense that there would be more minorities in the poorer East Chatswin and it makes sense that there would be issues of living standards. The whole community on Chatswin has a lot of class snobery. It's just that if the show is going to bring them to attention then it's going to need to actually go somewhere. The episode went back to the status quo at the ending of the episode but it doesn't feel like the characters learned anything. It just felt so pointless-and that I think is because neither character had any sense of agency.
Body Talk is an episode of Suburgatory that I really enjoyed. The television plot was not only funny but it really hit home to me. The main plot with Dallas and Dalia was also funny even if it didn't have any emotional impact. This is an episode that argued that substance might not necessarily have a spirit but it ironically proved itself wrong. The television satire had more substance but it also had more heart. Overall, Body Talk might not be my most favorite episode of the series but it's one I still recommend watching.