Why Will Ferrell on The Office Worries Me Immensely
January 26th, 2011
In my reviews of The Office’s seventh season at The A.V. Club, my focus has inevitably fallen on Michael Scott’s imminent departure. Note that I did not say Steve Carell’s imminent departure: while I understand that the actor is the one leaving the show, my interest lies in the conclusion offered the character rather than in the loss of Carell’s presence. While I very much appreciate Steve Carell, and think that he should have already won an Emmy for his work on the show, I think that the real questions relating to his exit have to do with his character. That is where my investment lies, and that is where I’ve felt the entire season has channeled its focus in order to offer final moments for Michael to interact with his various co-workers and his potential love interests.
Inevitably, however, Carell’s exit moves from the realm of the narrative into the realm of the press, as news leaked that he would be exiting ahead of the season finale (thus creating a transition period towards the end of the season) during the TCA Press Tour. To some degree, I would have rather not known this information, but I’ve sort of accepted that Michael’s final episode will feature an enormous buildup, an extensive ad campaign, and probably even a “Best of Michael Scott” clip show leading into the episode in question (which will probably be an hour long itself). Steve Carell’s exit from the series is going to be a media event far removed from the narrative, and so there was always going to be some level of distraction away from Michael Scott’s character amidst that circus.
However, news that Will Ferrell will be appearing in a four-episode guest stint in order to help send off Carell is enormously disheartening, stripping away any sense that this exit actually belongs to Michael Scott. While I enjoy Anchorman well enough, and find Ferrell to be a fine actor when divorced from his most juvenile characteristics, this pairing threatens any sense of long-term characterization simply to chase after a larger audience, prioritizing the actor over the character and the hype over the show.
And, at least to me, that seems like a huge mistake.
“The Set Up”
January 14th, 2010
After just writing about Community’s handling of Jack Black’s guest spot by calling attention to how distracting it could be to have a recognizable guest star show up on your show, it’s interesting to turn our gaze to Parks and Recreation, where two “big name” guest stars (at least in my circles) debuted. While Community drew our attention to Black’s disruption in order to make a large meta-joke, Parks and Recreation does something similar but different in creating an extra layer of comedy for those who know that Will Arnett and Amy Poehler are married in real life.
It was a good example of how casting someone recognizable can help a storyline rather than hurt it, as Arnett was simply a fun casting choice: he’s funny, and the marriage added an extra layer to the scene, but it wasn’t dependent on a guest star, just as the show didn’t need to have Justin Theroux playing the aptly named Justin, a friend of Ann’s who Leslie takes a liking to. Both characters, despite being cast with recognizable faces (for me, at least), played roles which weren’t played as the “point” of the episode, but their performances gave them an added weight, which is especially helpful when Theroux might be sticking around for a while.
And so now we can look at the episode less in terms of who was in it, and more in terms of the episode built around them…okay, I’m going to talk some more about Arnett. Sue me.
January 14th, 2010
There was a lot of talk early in 30 Rock’s third season about the proliferation of guest stars into the series, which was met with a lot of negative response from critics and viewers alike. The show felt as if it was being dominated by those guest stars, and that the stories were not so much about their presence in the show’s universe than they were about the characters themselves (which, in most instances, were indistinct enough to effectively become the actors playing themselves). It’s not that the show couldn’t write compelling guest stars (Dean Winters’ Dennis Duffy kills every time), but rather that something about the way they were integrating them into the show’s dynamic was off-putting.
Tonight, Community performed an experiment through the use of Jack Black, purposefully testing the show’s characters dynamics in order to see if adding another character to the mix would upend their rhythms. However, like many experiments where the facilitators are controlling every variable, the results are exactly what they want them to be, and Black’s character Buddy is a fundamental distraction who feels distinctly out of place. But by actually tapping into our expectations that the presence of a big star with a penchant for overacting would disrupt the flow of the series, and by allowing Black to essentially play an amalgam of his most annoying qualities without any context, the episode says something about how we react to interlopers on shows which focus on tight-knit groups.
In the process, the show gets quite a funny episode, and reinforces how much we like this study group as it is.
“Up All Night”
January 6th, 2010
For a show that likes to wrap up each episode with a lesson that defines the show’s themes, I’m somewhat disappointed that Modern Family seems to be unable to learn lessons based on the first part of its season. Now, don’t get me wrong: the show is still early in its run, so I’m not expecting the show to have ironed out all of its problems. However, for a show that is often considered such a “well-crafted” comedy (a quality that I would not challenge in terms of the show’s best episodes/scenes), there’s a point where some fairly serious structural issues are coming to the surface for me as an audience member, and I’m concerned that the level of critical praise for the series will keep them from investigating these problems further so long as the ratings stay strong.
So when episodes like “Up All Night” seem particularly flat, I want the writers to notice that it’s because they separated the families, and that as a result one story felt like an extended comedy sketch, another felt like a series of comedy sketches, and the other rested on its laurels due to the presence of the week’s guest star. There were some token efforts to tie the three stories together, but in the end the show told three stories that felt like they were only firing on one cylinder.
And while, as always, the show is capable of being quite funny on occasion, there are episodes like this one which indicate that the writers aren’t willing to go the extra mile to push the boundaries of their characters or their situations each week. And the Modern Family we see in “Up All Night” is not the show at its finest, and I have to wonder if the creators will bother to recognize that so long as the show remains an “unqualified” success.
November 18th, 2009
In terms of the great comedy battle of 2009, which continues to rage amongst shows both new and old, Modern Family is at a distinct disadvantage: with Parks and Recreation delivering some legitimately great comedy and Community doing a really compelling and confident meta-storyline, the simplicity of this show is a disadvantage in terms of being flashy. There comes a point where the hype surrounding the show creates greater expectations than the storylines themselves can live up to in terms of their premise, requiring viewers to appreciate the strong execution where originality isn’t overtly present.
“Great Expectations” is a solid episode of the show, featuring a number of fun loving gags and a couple of big guest stars, but nothing stands out as particularly stunning as compared to some of the other comedies. In this instance, I think there was enough nuance to each individual story to continue to prove how strong the writers understand these characters, but it nonetheless follows similar patterns to what we’ve seen in the past. I think it’s one of their stronger episodes due to a nice role reversal, but it’s not reaching as high as some of the other comedies are right now.
“Ron and Tammy”
November 5th, 2009
“Now listen to one of mine.”
There’s nothing special about “Ron and Tammy,” except that it’s probably the funniest Parks and Recreation to date.
There’s a guest star, yes, but not one who feels overly forced into the story or on who the show relies too heavily. There’s no special event taking place in the context of the episode to make things more exciting than usual, and there’s even a B-Plot that has nothing to do with the A-Plot. And if you were to write down the plot of the episode without any context (which would read “Leslie and Ron feud with Library Services over an Empty Lot”), you would probably think this episode would be downright dreadful.
But what makes this episode so special is that this episode is less an aberration and more a sign that the momentum just isn’t going to go away, and that this sitcom has finally found its groove. The episode’s situation is one of the show’s funniest, and it features some of the best lines in the show’s short lifespan, but it feels like the show could have just as funny a scenario in the future without any trouble. It is an episode that not only convinces you that it is great, but also that the show behind the episode is just as strong if not stronger for having spawned it.
If you are for some reason still one of those people who never gave this show a chance, you need to watch this episode not because it is singularly great but because it is symptomatic of a broader greatness. You’ve been listening to the other guys, with their offices and sketch comedy shows, for long enough: tonight, listen to the genius of Ron F**kin’ Swanson.
October 14th, 2009
This is going to see like a really weird connection, but one of the things that I found really interesting about The CW’s Privileged was how quickly it dealt with its built-in back story. The show was dealing with an estranged mother and a distant father in its central protagonist, and it got both out of the way quickly…in fact, perhaps too quickly. The show never quite felt as purposeful when it moved past those interesting dynamics, and while they were important parts of its early identity it seemed like they could have been burned off more slowly to heighten their impact.
However, Modern Family makes an enormously compelling argument for getting back story out of the way, or at the very least the value of back story in the early stages of a sitcom’s development in particular. While the show is essentially checking off a list of recurring character we’ve yet to see (Benjamin Bratt was just cast as Gloria’s ex, for example), the seamless integration of Long into the cast only brings out more of our characters, and the way the episode depicts a past “Incident” is a hilarious piece of back story that does nothing to diminish what could be introduced with time. On a drama, a character like Long evokes the same kind of emotions each time she returns, and the show can only go there so many times. On a sitcom, however, as long as things remain funny and as long as a diverse set of characters are involved, you can keep on bringing her back with minimal loss of comic value.
And considering where this episode starts off at on that front, DeDe could be a funny recurring player on the show for seasons to come.