The first time I can remember seeing Alanna Ubach onscreen was in Legally Blonde, where she played one of Reese Witherspoon’s cheerful and ditzy best friends. She had a specific kind of bob in a perfectly brassy auburn that is so emblematic of the early 2000s. Ubach is a memorable presence, with her divinely expressive face, striking eyes, and an incredibly versatile actor’s toolbox that you remember her whether her character is a lead or a colorful support. It’s tremendous fun to look at her astounding 175 credits as an actor and realize how amazing she’s been for so long. Whether she’s a surly teen in Sister Act 2, doing a Jeanine Pirro to rival Cecily Strong, or being the “crazy co-worker” in Waiting, The Flight Attendant, AND Clockwatchers, Ubach has versatility from here to the moon and back. An entire series of articles could be written on how many memorable characters in so many beloved movies Ubach brought to life (I haven’t even touched on how she had a singing part in Coco!), but for now I want to celebrate Queen Alanna’s simply spectacular work on Ted (streaming on Peacock).
I never in a million years expected to enjoy Ted. I liked the first movie well enough, but between the needless sequel and my general disinterest in Family Guy, I was prepared to let this particular exercise in IP expansion pass me by. As Dustin notes in his review, every instinct I had directed me away from the series, but I kept hearing how good it was. I sat down to watch and was far more taken with this goofy ’90s-set sitcom than I ever expected. It’s hilarious and more heartfelt than it may seem on the surface. A huge part of that is Ubach in her role as Susan, the mother of this sitcom family who plasters a big smile and bigger hair over any stresses she’s feeling.
How to describe Susan Bennett? As brought to heightened life by Ubach, Susan might be best seen as a deeply good person whose big heart is frequently in conflict with the considerably narrower world of the early ’90s. Susan is simply the best of her family, though she might be too humble to recognize that. She’s the sugar side of the character spectrum from her husband Matty’s salt: always there to assuage, mediate, and comfort.
As you might expect for someone as sensitive as she is, Susan can be a push-over; her devotion to Matty, despite how much he takes her for granted, is a running theme of the show. Importantly, however, the show never frames her as a fool because of her big heart nor are we invited to look down on her. Susan can locate her backbone when she must. In one episode, Susan sings a glorious solo in the church choir in a rare moment in the spotlight. It’s important to her, and it means a lot that she can perform in this way. Of course, boorish Matty doesn’t show up to support his wife and cannot understand for the life of him why she’s angry about that. He rationalizes his absence with weak excuses as she ignores him, pointedly reading a book in bed. Her eyes don’t travel above her glasses to regard him, but Ubach purses Susan’s lips just enough to show you her anger. It’s a small moment, but in Ubach’s hands, it’s an impactful one. Susan could’ve been a doormat to Matty, totally and utterly, and in the process becoming a sad clown of domestic imbalance. Instead, Susan feels more human for it, no small feat given how wacky the comedy series can be.
Attention simply must be paid to the physicality Ubach lends Susan with the perfectly measured control of a master. For me, it starts with the eyes. Ubach keeps Susan’s eyes wide and ever so slightly alarmed, fitting for someone so sensitive and sheltered as she is. When Susan smiles and crinkles her face, it feels like a rare treat for how much she otherwise appears to be grimacing. Watching emotions play across Susan’s face is one of my favorite parts of the show because no matter what’s happening, Ubach puts every ounce of expression out there for all to see. The effect is transcendent, especially because it all plays out from under a fantastic side-swept mountain of hair. Susan’s hair is somewhat of a joke unto itself with it nearly eclipsing her face at all times, but it also stands as a sign of how incredible Ubach is. Even with a thicket of distraction riding her head, Ubach makes herself seen. Susan’s voice is also a treasure: raspy, nasal, even slightly twangy, and yet still soft. Ubach brings Susan’s voice and New England accent just up to the line of caricature or cartoon but holds it in perfect balance. Ubach keeps all these plates spinning together and feeling unified, holding heart together with hilarity. In this way, Ubach makes Susan a reflection of the show: just this side of ridiculous and so human.
There’s a moment I keep thinking about when Susan walks in on her niece Blair kissing her girlfriend. The way Ubach plays Susan’s heady mix of surprise, intrigue, nervousness, and fright is just perfect. Susan’s face pulls and twitches, her mouth worrying into different shapes as she stammers her way through a conversation. As she withdraws, she watches through the narrowing space between the closing door and the doorframe, her eyes staring out from the darkness. It takes a hilariously long time for her to close the door, stretching for what feels like an hour. Ubach finds this kind of absurdity in Susan that has you watching her at all times, waiting for the next kooky moment.
To cap off this ode to Alanna Ubach, please enjoy this scene in which Ted tries to be a marriage counselor for Susan and Matty: