Portrayals of what hides behind the beautiful façade of white picket fences, meticulously kept gardens and immaculately presented homes in the suburbs have been explored countless times in everything from The Stepford Wives (1975) and Blue Velvet (1986) to American Beauty (1999) and Desperate Housewives (2004-2012). However, nothing is quite like Three Busy Debras (2020-), the multifaceted darkness of which is not hidden but rather explicitly showcased in the silliest of ways.
Set in the fictional town Lemoncurd, Three Busy Debras follows the bizarre day-to-day lives of three rich unhinged housewives named Debra. Usually dressed in all white, the brunch-loving women constantly find ways to keep busy — whether it’s drinking shots of Gardasil, going flower picking at graveyards, or doing some spring cleaning (which, to them, equals taking all of their money out of the bank to clean it).
Created by and starring Sandy Honig, Mitra Jouhari, and Alyssa Stonoha, Three Busy Debras initially originated as a stage show and web series before its premiere as a scripted comedy on Adult Swim. Throughout each episode — there are sixteen in total with a runtime of approximately eleven minutes each — there’s a distinct sense of creative freedom that feels liberated from compromises of their vision, particularly in the second season.
As Three Busy Debras parodies and satires the suburban life, along with the complexity found within friendships among women, it produces results that are both exaggerated and fathomable. When the Debras are forced to spend the night together due to a plumbing issue in the first season (“Sleepover!”), viewers quickly learn more about them as secrets unravel. The sleepover turns more sinister the longer it goes on — not because it’s the horror film it disguises itself as, but because one of them wants to talk about their feelings. Ending up being held captive, the two Debras realise that the only way to escape is by being vulnerable. Both in the moment and afterwards, none of them acknowledges that the lies they told to escape were, in fact, truths.
There’s an understanding within the group that Honig’s Debra is the leader, Stonoha’s Debra is cold and blunt, and Jouhari’s Debra is the less intelligent one. Homogeneous yet individual with distinctive traits, the trio constantly perceives themselves as better than others. However, even though they spend all their time together and view themselves as a unit above everyone else, they aren’t particularly kind to each other.
When Stonoha’s Debra suddenly misses brunch due to depression, her friends aren’t worried about her, but irritated because she’s bringing them down. The episode ends with her “feeling better” and assuring her friends that if she ever gets depressed again, she’ll keep it to herself. Even though their relationship is abusive, they return to each other because it’s all they know.
In the first season, the annual tradition ‘Debspringa’ — a twist on the Amish Rumspringa — is introduced to viewers. That day, the Debras go off to live their lives differently and apart. Equally genius and sad, the episode ends with them returning to their codependent group and suburban lives since it’s what they’re used to. “I want nothing and no respect,” says Jouhari’s Debra at the end, even though the entire episode has proven the complete opposite. When they return, all donning their signature outfits while quietly sitting at the table as they so often do, it feels surprisingly sad.
Even though the Debras behave terribly towards each other, they’re even worse towards the town’s other inhabitants. They treat their domestic labour as disposable rather than equal human beings, and they struggle with saying “thank you” simply due to them never expressing gratitude towards others. When Lemoncurd experiences a milk shortage at the beginning of the second season, the Debras can’t even grasp the concept of queues. “Waiting for something I want? Next, you’re going to tell me I have to wait for something I need,” says Stonoha’s Debra.
While Three Busy Debras is undeniably very silly, it feels surprisingly liberating to watch these women acting out in ways so often only reserved for their male counterparts. The three Debras are disrespectful, immoral, selfish and violent. They treat anyone they deem unimportant terrible; yet, they’re powerless against Lemoncurd’s societal rules, simultaneously caught in a hierarchy of their own and undermined as women. Lemoncurd, where cops jog in formation (“Dispatcher, approaching 1-2-3-4 in 5-6-7-8”) and iguanas deliver your mail, upholds grim rules that are often revealed in passing. Underneath its colourful and whimsical surface, there’s more than meets the eye.
“You know what we do with women who make a mess in public?” a man once asks the Debras, before reminding them that they “tie their tubes.” Later, in season two, it’s casually mentioned that murdering a woman is “technically community service.” Within Lemoncurd, the Debras are a product of their world, simultaneously perpetrators and victims. These women want more but they’re confined within their limited spaces, both within their friendship and as women. Just when they get a chance to experience something else — or, rather, be their true selves — they still reluctantly return to their life of brunches and shallow conversations.
When Three Busy Debras was released, it didn’t solely offer something new for viewers; it also offered something to Adult Swim that the network has openly struggled with — material made by women. Although the network is known for offering viewers cutting-edge content, it’s also famed for being behind the times when it comes to having women in credited creative roles. The network has repeatedly been criticised throughout the years for its lack of diversity behind the scenes and, in 2016, several former employees anonymously came forward to talk about the gender disparity among writers and creators.
While fitting in with the kind of offbeat type of comedy Adult Swim has become a home to, the absurdism of Three Busy Debras feels special, as its short runtime allows for small ideas to quickly flourish in unpredictable ways. From the fact that the food court in Lemoncurd’s mall is a literal court, to the equally disgusting and beautiful insanity of surprise garnish used for a portion of pasta, everything about Three Busy Debras is refreshingly silly and surreal.
In one episode, Jouhari’s Debra is occupied with trying to fit a grown man’s dead body into a way too tiny purse while trying to be charming; in another episode, Honig’s Debra is repeatedly walking into someone else’s kitchen counter simply because, in her own house, there’s a door in that exact spot. While these are visually fun elements, sometimes the joke is simply a normal line that’s delivered in the weirdest of ways, twists on classic idioms and sayings, unexpected changes of accents, or even sudden horse mimicking. Whether it’s the silliness of using a normal-sized rake in a miniature zen garden or using sound effects where they don’t belong, Three Busy Debras showcases that you should never underestimate the power of simplicity.
Three Busy Debras features meticulously crafted production and costume design and regularly references recognisable work, as seen in an end credit scene where the Debras channel Sex and the City, complete with milk cocktails. In the second season, viewers also see the trio posing à la Charlie’s Angels at the start of their milk heist (as well as referencing Marie Antoinette-type characters when they live in excess after the steal), dressing up as Hansel and Gretel, and referencing Millais’ painting Ophelia at the local mall. Amongst the nonsensical and whimsical, there’s also regular experimentation with different styles of storytelling, which often masterfully ventures into genre territory.
The second season’s fourth episode, “To Have Debra, To Hold Debra” is structured as a play in three acts, featuring passionate love, abusive partners, betrayal and childbirth. Perfectly echoing classical dramas like A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), it’s a stunning episode that — besides incredible lighting and camera work — features the trio showcasing some of their best work through their nuanced theatrical performance within the performance. Moreover, in “Who Has Done It?” the Debras are caught in a whodunit which sees both new and returning characters. It’s a highly entertaining episode filled with everything you could wish from this kind of mystery, including suspects isolated within the place of the crime, hidden agendas, and messages left on walls.
Three Busy Debras constantly defies logic, and it’s undoubtedly the closest thing we currently have to a live-action cartoon. Aside from the fact that characters are usually wearing the same outfits, their actions rarely have consequences. A character can be injured and bloody, only to be fine by the next shot, as well as change jobs and functions within their world without explanation. Furthermore, despite the Debras constantly finding themselves in absurd situations, they never learn any lessons. They never evolve in their worldviews or expand their perspectives beyond their own realm. It’s as if each episode is a reset — things start over and reach new heights, only to do it all over again.
Sharp yet constantly self-aware in its critique of society, Three Busy Debras regularly makes fun of itself in the process by, for instance, mocking the lack of depth within its world. Possibly inspired by the Debras we might find within ourselves as well as around us, it embraces some of the ugliest yet most human behaviours. The series takes ordinary premises — for instance, what might happen when one is feeling insecure, jealous, sad or left out — and then pushes things to the extreme.
It’s a delicate balance, being completely outlandish yet grounded, but as a viewer, you never feel lost in the surreal world of Lemoncurd. Everything comes from a place that makes emotional sense and, because of that, the show can get as silly as they want because there will always be that very base as a starting point for viewers to connect to. Moreover, despite its short runtime, Three Busy Debras consistently succeeds at efficiently packing a punch, often conveying more nuance than its longer counterparts. Nothing, yet everything, makes sense in the world of Lemoncurd, and the carefully crafted chaos of each episode is nothing short of perplexing — and a must-see.