Cultural Catchup: The Week in Comedy

After a week away in New York, which was really exciting, I came back to a pretty huge backlog. While I might not end up reviewing any individual shows beyond Mad Men (which went up earlier tonight), I do want to be able to comment on the comedy of the past week or so. Drama might be a bit more intimidating (was two episodes behind with both House and Sons of Anarchy), but we’ll see if we get to that in the days ahead (Reality won’t be there at all: Top Chef was predictable, Runway was boring, Survivor was expendable, and Amazing Race was a week ago and similarly uneventful).

For now, thoughts on (deep breath) The Office, Community, Parks and Recreation, Glee, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, Saturday Night Live, Modern Family, Cougar Town, The Middle and Greek (phew!).

The Office – “Niagara”

I generally disprove of hour-long episodes of this show, and my frustration with the series generally rises in kind with the show’s “cringe factor.” However, I have to say that “Niagara” was an enormously intelligent hour of television that hit some amazing emotional notes while balancing it with awkward comedy. The hour took some liberties (selling Dwight as a ladies man, for example), but the character beats that they allowed were honestly fantastic. I loved little stuff like Dwight’s fascination with the male twins, and Oscar’s terror at possibly ever dating Kevin, and Andy’s torn scrotum, but somehow none of it took away from how great those big Jim/Pam moments were. Every one of them was balanced by comedy, like Jim’s speech turning into him breaking the news about the baby to Meema, or Jim’s sweet tie-cutting moment featuring Pam noting how much she knows about Andy’s scrotum, or the beautifully shot/emotional montage of Jim and Pam’s Maid of the Mist wedding coinciding with the humorous (but, fitting the moment, charming) YouTube-inspired dance sequence.

It was the kind of balance that these hour long episodes usually lack, feeling like they fall too quickly into overly broad comedy, dragging out scenes longer than necessary. But, fitting for an episode which tied off Jim and Pam in the right way at the right time without dragging it out, everything felt like it never went so far over the edge that they can’t come back. When the show went over the top, like with Michael’s speech or the wedding dance, it was well within the characters and was done in the interest of either helping out or turning a wedding into a legitimate celebration. That Jim was prepared for the dance (knowing his siblings/co-workers too well) with the boat tickets is the same as the show knowing it needs to service both sides, and the execution on “Niagara” was pretty darn great.

Parks and Recreation

I was behind on two weeks of this one, and I don’t have anything more to say than that I laughed. A lot. They’re turning out some really great episodes right now, with some great serial elements (Leslie’s relationship with Louis CK’s Dave is beyond charming) and some strong standalone storylines that are bringing out some great shades to the supporting cast. If you’ve yet to give the show another chance after a more uneven first season, what in the heck are you waiting for precisely?

Community

Sticking with NBC, I thought that “Social Psychology” was probably the weakest episode yet, although I really liked it overall and might consider it stronger than the “Pilot” in some ways. I loved little moments like Abed making himself Phoebe to Annie’s Chandler, primarily because it was as self-referential for the show (which paired Annie with Abed, and Jeff with Shirley) as it was for Abed himself. I really like the show’s versatility on that front, something that will allow it to grow in the future. The Jeff and Britta stuff was a bit much here, but thought the Vaughn storyline never took any of the characters so far out of their individual identities to make the “Will they, won’t they” a huge distraction or hindrance to the comedy at play.

Modern Family

At this point, I refuse to believe that anyone has definitively called the apparent “Fight to the Death” between Community and ABC’s big new comedy. I think both are great, and most interestingly they’re proving themselves in similar ways. Like Community, Modern Family mixed it up with some new pairings, this time moving outside of the individual family units to put Manny/Claire (which was both really funny and kind of awesome), Alex/Gloria (which was much the same) and Jay/Phil (which was the most broad, and for me the least interesting despite the genius of the two individual characters). Combine with the greatness of Cameron and Mitchell’s Costco adventure, which managed to also tell us quite a bit about their characters, and you have a strong episode of television…and, for this week, a one-up on Community.

Cougar Town

The show remains smarter than its premise, and I quite like how it’s handling the central storyline. Cox, yes, is a bit over-exuberant, making her character’s sexual escapades a bit much for this young male at the low end of the demo. The rest of the show isn’t attempting to relate as directly to the image of the 40-year old woman struggling to regain her sexuality, dealing instead with messages of parenthood and questioning how far acting (Jules’ big show that inevitably proves a hindrance, Grayson unable to turn his flings into anything more). When the show sticks to those messages, I find that it’s quite touching and charming, along with quite funny: when it feels like it’s obsessed with “old people getting some,” I’m not quite there. The balance has been solid thus far, so I’m sticking around, but it could change at any moment.

The Middle

I neglected watching this last week when I didn’t get home in time to watch it live, but after a full season pickup (which was not afforded its timeslot mate, Hank) I figured I should catch up. And, outside of it erring too close to Malcolm in the Middle, it’s a charming little show that managed in its second episode to build on its premise without losing its charm. Heaton and Flynn make a believable couple, and the three kids are fitting into their roles well. If we accept it as a parent-led version of Malcolm, I think that it works, although expanding into the kids’ universes would perhaps help things a bit in terms of expanding its world. I also think that Axel needs to put on pants. And a shirt – that must be some awkward role for a teenager to play. I was out this afternoon and people were talking about the show casually, so I think it has a chance of catching on along with the other comedies, so check it out if you haven’t done so yet.

Glee

Todd over at The A.V. Club notes that he laughed a lot at this one but felt it was a mess, but I agree with only one of these. I didn’t laugh a whole lot at “Vitamin D,” which is unfortunate. It was the first episode that seemed downright boring, where the things happening were simultaneously too fast and too slow and yet felt inconsequential and pointless. The musical numbers were charming, and the overproduction totally fit with the whole hopped up on drugs side of things, but overall there just wasn’t anything here to make me forget the overdone nature of the love triangle or (more importantly) that they’re not actually getting any interesting material out of it. Emma agreeing to marry Ken is a total soap opera storyline, and to feel like I’m watching Days of our Lives is not exactly my ideal position for the show. I really liked what the episode did with Rachel, subtly shifting her goal from a Grammy to Sectionals, but that was something that should have been done a few weeks ago, and even here it’s playing second fiddle to a whole lot of mess. I’m not close to being done with the show or anything, but my expectations are being lowered each time we get an episode like this one.

How I Met Your Mother

“Robin 101” was in some ways a necessary episode, settling how Ted would deal with Barney and Robin dating and how Barney would deal with, well, dating. I liked the premise of the episode in that it let Cobie Smulders play crazy (the sledgehammer to the briefcase was great), and Marshall’s barrel was a cute little storyline, but it didn’t really do much to advance any of the storylines involved. Robin and Barney aren’t going to suddenly have a perfect relationship, and Ted’s supportive stance isn’t going to remain entirely without conflict forever. The show will eventually renege on a lot of this, so it’s a bit of a false premise: however, as an individual episode, it was solid.

The Big Bang Theory

This one was a dud for me. I enjoy character interaction best, so separating Raj and Wolowitz was a bit ill-advised (as Raj is great and Howard is not, cancelling one another out) and seeing Sheldon/Penny/Leonard together on the other end had potential which was never really realized. I don’t dislike the idea of Sheldon “training” Penny, but never having her figure it out made her seem too stupid, and it was missing some form of resolution that didn’t involve reminding us that Leonard and Penny are having sex (I seriously need no more reminding of that, thanks). The Pavlovian element of the episode was cute, but also Intro Psychology simple, in a way that reduced the episode to one gag and Jim Parsons’ greatness at selling it. The show needs more to go on, and didn’t get it here.

Saturday Night Live

Really only one note here: in all of the show’s inconsistency (overall), I will say that I remain perplexed just how much Kenan Thompson we’ve been getting. He’s been around way more than ever before for me, and to be honest with you I don’t get it: he lacks any really good impressions, and his characters are not much better, so why so much? I don’t have an answer, but I really wish I did.

Greek

Whoops, I knew I missed one. I thought that this past week’s Greek was solid if unspectacular. I thought that the Rusty/Jordan stuff was trending a bit too close to the Max/Casey stuff for me to really be able to enjoy it (although it was well-acted and plotted overall), and putting Casey back into a quasi-romantic scenario was kind of  off-putting. I’ve enjoyed her storylines all season because it felt like she was moving away from a love triangle, and now she’s headed right back into the same love triangle as before. I think it’s being handled well, as I buy her new friendship with Evan and I like the dynamic of Evan and Cappie being borderline friends in the midst of the triangle. However, I just don’t want the show to devolve to that point again, so I’ll be curious to see where they go from here.

Cultural Observations

  • There’s a lot of pretty great comedy on TV right now, eh?

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