"What ‘Susan 313,’ Sarah Silverman’s Unaired Pilot, Tells Us About Women, Comedy, And Unlikability"
Sarah Silverman’s brand of arrested-development comedy hasn’t always been for me. But the release yesterday of Susan 313, a pilot she shot for NBC, but that the network didn’t move forward, was revealing. Susan 313 is based closely on Silverman’s own life, specifically her breakup with very long-term boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel, and while it’s funny and awkward in a way that lies somewhere on the spectrum between Girls and The Mindy Project, it also does something unusual and very revealing. At various moments in the show, when Susan’s (Silverman) behavior seems particularly obtuse, the show pulls out to reveal Silverman watching the show with an audience focus group, and some surprisingly frank talk about why characters are or aren’t likable. It’s a bit of schtick that makes me understand why NBC didn’t move forward with the show. But the combination of the action and the commentary is a nice little mirror to hold up to similar shows that are airing now:
Susan has a lot in common with Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling), the selfish, shallow, but competent OB/GYN who is the main character of Fox’s The Mindy Project. She’s hugely self-absorbed, tthough at least she has the excuse of a breakup for some of her behavior. Susan’s prone to doing things like lying outside a former friend’s apartment pretending to be dead or taking off all of her clothes at the encouragement of a new tenant in her old building. And she’s seemingly unacquainted with some of the rules of adulthood, including how to get her water turned back on after a long absence from the apartment she kept even while she was living with her boyfriend.
But unlike Mindy Lahiri, when Susan behaves badly, absolutely everyone around her calls her out on it. When Jenny (June Diane Raphael), a friend that Susan utterly abandoned for her relationship, finds Susan back on her doorstep, she is unwelcoming, and seemingly with good reason. “I’m ten years older than the last time you saw me, so could it be that?” Jenny asks Susan tartly when Susan tries to pinpoint what’s different about her as a way of making conversation. “You’ll see, when you find that person, that person who deserves how amazing you are,” Susan says by way of explanation for her disappearance, only to have Jenny open the door to her apartment wider to reveal a man on her couch. “That’s Brooks,” Jenny tells Susan, out of patience. “We’ve been together for the last twelve years.”
Jenny’s new neighbor, Beth Ann (Tig Notaro) is more amused by Susan’s helplessness. When Susan comes to her door in desperation because her water’s been turned off, Beth Ann gets Susan to admit: “I’m a grown woman, and I should know how to get water to come out of my sink, but I don’t…I’m functionally atrophied. I don’t even know what cell phone service I have.” And in the spirit of all good friendships based in real talk, Beth Ann sets Susan straight on the relative merits of their situations. “When I finally came out as gay, my family disowned me and supported my ex-husband when he sued me for emotional distress. I lived in a women’s shelter…then I was picked up by human traffickers and sold as a sex slave to the Burmese Coast Guard,” she tells Susan, before pulling back on the last bit, admitting, “I made it up while living in a homeless shelter.”
And Susan 313 gets at both of the reasons this sort of accountability is so satisfying. One of the things that’s been frustrating about the new crop of anti-heroically irritating female characters is the maddening effect of watching other characters treat them as if their behavior isn’t completely beyond the pale. Girls calls out its characters and provides manifold consequences for their behavior. But Mindy’s exceptionally strange behavior, be it a million trips into a frozen yogurt shop, or dragging a broish coworker to a tea shop, frequently passes with no notice whatsoever. The same sort of disconcerting interactions have showed up in romantic comedies like Bachelorette, which followed three women behaving abominably in the leadup to their friends’ wedding and all walking away from the evening with new romantic partners, or Friends With Kids, where Adam Scott’s character dates a succession of shallow women based mostly on their looks, then gets rewarded with Jennifer Westfeldt, his long-suffering best friend. It’s one thing to see bad behavior get addressed, another one entirely for a show or movie make you feel insane because no one in the frame seems to recognize how a main character is behaving.
But in one of the cuts to the focus group, Silverman also cleverly brings out the schadenfreude inherent in judging such characters. “You’re so self-pitying. You’re young, and pretty, and you have this great apartment, and then it’s like boo-hoo, I broke up with my rich boyfriend,” a female member of the focus group tells Silverman. “I’m going to go with my instinct and guess that your’e an unhappy person,” Silverman shoots back at her. By the end of the episode, they’re reconciled, acknowledging that there’s a whole hierarchy of problems far worse than Susan’s, which of course doesn’t mean that Susan’s aren’t interesting or important. In fact, it’s a reminder that problems and reactions like Susan’s are probably more directly applicable to most of our lives than the challenges we tend to suggest are more important–and that there is room in our lives for both concern about the Taliban’s impact on women, and for personal, messy heartbreak.
In other words, Susan 313 may have been a tough concept in the long run, but right out of the gate it struck a terrific balance, allowing us to be irritated with Susan, but finding ways to allow us to admit that her oddest behavior might be something we ourselves do in extremis. That’s something few comedies about difficult women have been able to pull off effectively–Girls, in its second season, eager to prove that it wasn’t lionizing its heroines, leaned hard on the repulsion button. It may be more difficult to get audiences on board with selfishness that’s paired with vacillation, indecision, and helplessness than it was for HBO, AMC, and Showtime to sell us on a generation of men who got self-absorbed and hurt a lot of people to fulfill their ambitions (Olivia Pope may be the one woman who really falls into this category). But Susan 313 suggests that the right showrunner and the right network still might be able to get us to root for a brat rather than a master of the universe.