Suburban Tales I: Durham County
The wonderful world of the suburbs has gone through several subjective optics since the fifties, even though one could argue suburban life was present in the Little Rascals shorts of the thirties: the kids lived outside of the downtown core, had vast fields and newly developed areas to play around, not to mention older farms from where they could commandeer unused shacks and oddities to create a clubhouse and a new car.
There were also the Blondie films of the thirties and forties, which focused on the trials of Dagwood Bumstead’s life as married man, supporting his family with lots of humorous ups and downs.
It wasn’t until the fifties when the burgeoning culture of nuclear families in starter homes found further idyllic reflections on TV, both in TV series like Leave It To Beaver (1957-1963), as well as commercials where housewives in housework suits or flowing dresses vacuumed in style and felt proud to have shiny new streamlined appliances.
The commercial imagery was sexist to the core, but it represented an ideal: perfect homes, streets, driveways, lawns, gardens, and great neighbours with whom one could BBQ on weekends and knock back a few beers (when drinking on screen was no longer taboo in networks’ Standards & Practices rulebooks.
Suburban life is a very, very broad subject which some might hard to believe. It’s loathed by townies because it’s out in the middle of nowhere – or as friends David & Mike would call it, ‘a far away yonder’ known colloquially as Bumblefuck, because you haphazardly bumbled into some insular pocket that begged the question: ‘Why the hell would anyone want to live here? And how the hell do we get outta here?!?!?!’
Green fascists hate the ‘burbs because it’s based around a car culture that goes against the more logical city/small town scheme of work/shops/homes being within 5-10 mins. walking distance, and being walkable.
You could bike in the ‘burbs (as I did to spend $1 on 4 specific snacks my mother never bought: chocolate bar + gum + chips + more chocolate), but depending on the development scheme, you probably required a car to get anything, as was dramatized in the Steven Spielberg’s eighties suburban fantasies E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Poltergeist (1982).
(I’ll have reviews of the three Poltergeist films later this week, since Warner Home Video recently released the first film on Blu-ray.)
Burbanites (of which I was one, and still am, due to a quirk of genetics, if not a warped spirituality) tend to be split along black and white lines: they either hated the experience and fled, or they retain a fondness for the environment that to them wasn’t evil at all, and remains a great place to raise families and/or retire with a big yard for roasting meat, fish and sausages. My memories are really, really good, but I’ll save that blather for the Poltergeist column.
The suburbs have never gotten their due in film and TV because the people who live there are portrayed as buffoons (The ‘Burbs), slapstick morons (Neighbors), or catty bitches (Desperate Housewives). In Viva (2007), set in the sleazy psychedelic late sixties/early seventies, the perfect lifestyle masks sexually repressed characters who sometimes delve into some swapping and ‘escorting’ – a bit of experimentation while Money Earning Husband is away for the day or out of town on ‘business.’
None of the clichés or off-beat portraits are wrong; they just represent a satirical poke at the ‘burbs where the characters never feel real.
Perhaps that’s what made the first season of Durham County such a striking shocker. It’s set in a suburb outside of Toronto, and the incipient malaise from past demons, potential health risks, and dysfunctional families are kept shuttered behind immaculately maintained monster homes / snout mansions – the ugly, ersatz chic budget estates that pepper areas outside of the older suburbs (which during the fifties and sixties included modest 2-level homes and bungalows, and in the seventies largely consisted of semi-detailed homes with big yards).
Durham may not represent the weirdness of my suburban childhood, but it’s plausible because the characters are utterly ordinary. A burnt out cop, a cancer mom, unhappy children, an ex-teen hockey star, and yoga mom. The dramatic events are compressed and the unraveling of repressed rage unfurls like a tight soap opera, but the unhappiness of the Sweeney family is more believable than the Klopeks of The ‘Burbs (much as I like them), or the stupid characters that deserve far worse fates in Disturbia.
Season 3 of Durham County is already underway – it debuted Oct. 25 on HBO Canada – but prior Seasons 1 and 2 are readily available in Canada as a 2-pack from Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada / Muse International). (Well Go USA has released Season 1 in the U.S., and Season 2 streets Nov. 23rd.)
Mark R. Hasan, Editor