Assessing through Assessments: NBC Thursday Comedy Roundup

Assessing through Assessments: NBC Comedies

March 14th, 2010

I don’t have a whole lot to say this week about the Thursday night comedies that’s particularly new, since I’m a few days behind, but I’ve rarely let that stop me before. However, rather than prattling on about all four shows, I figured I’d highlight some passages from other reviews of the episodes; this is an intriguing time for all four comedies from a critical perspective, so there’s some diverse thoughts floating around that I relate with to varying degrees.

And so, in a longer form than I had initially intended, I’ll highlight some of those great reviews and offer my own thoughts on “Basic Genealogy,” “The Possum,” “St. Patrick’s Day,” and “Future Husband.”

I’m of two minds when it comes to this week’s episode of Community, “Basic Genealogy,” which means that the diversity of opinions relating to the episode from a critical perspective are awfully convenient. Take, for example, this passage from Todd’s review at The A.V. Club:

I do wonder if trying to cram all of the characters and their families into the episode made it far too overstuffed, if the show, in attempting to avoid the classic sitcom traps of having a character’s family member visit and take over the episode, ended up just having a whole bunch of family members take over instead. So, yeah, this wasn’t my favorite.

I completely agree with Todd on this: the episode felt like it had too many visits going on at once, which meant that none of them felt like they really had time to develop, and when they (mostly) came to sentimental endings it felt like a little bit of a sweetness overload. However, if we view the stories independently rather than part of the same episode, I agree with James over at Time:

Jeff’s decision not to betray Pierce brought the show around to the heart of all such surrogate-family comedies–“If you’ve got friends, you’ve got family”–without getting corny. The subplots with Abed’s cousin and Britta’s ass-whuppin’ demonstrated how Community has quietly become one of the best shows at handling race and culture-clash comedy.

I think this is an example of where the show “coming together” is somewhat damaging: I don’t think that the episode shows some sort of weak spot, or a failure of execution, but rather a few too many ideas piled into one. But those ideas are still so strong that I laughed a whole lot, even if things didn’t add up quite like last week’s fantastic episode.

By comparison, I found that this week’s Parks and Recreation (“The Possum”) really did come together, finding the right stories for just about every one of the show’s characters. I’m, in particular, in agreement with Alan Sepinwall in regards to April and Andy’s flirtations:

I’m also still really grooving on the Andy/April tensions, which works because Andy is both so oblivious (which we knew last season) and so sweet (which we’ve learned since Ann rightfully kicked him to the curb), and because April is so guarded and cynical that she’s not the type to just come out and tell Andy how she feels. (And Leslie only found out because April was panicking about Fairway Frank.) There are some shows that feel like they’re just dragging out the romantic tension because they can, but I completely buy that these two wouldn’t be capable of making a move yet, and am enjoying them inch ever so slowly towards each other.

I will add to this that Chris Pratt was really great in this episode: Aubrey Plaza was great too, but Pratt manages to make Andy seem so blind in one moment and so aware in the next. Something like “shoeshine headaches” is totally believable, but so is Andy being so loyal that he did everything he could possibly do to fix their friendship. He’s too oblivious to see that April has feelings for him, but he’s not so oblivious that he doesn’t realize they have some sort of connection. Leonard Pierce, writing over at The A.V. Club, didn’t quite focus on this resolution:

The plot of “The Possum” is a bit of a trifle, and its subplots drop like autumn leaves, but it’s got tons of laughs both precise and broad, and the way it contrasts Ron and Leslie’s opposing, but equally dysfunctional, attitudes towards local government, fits snugly into the show’s overall premise.  It’s not often that shows need to focus on the ‘situation’ part of ‘situation comedy’, but as long as they don’t forget the other half, episodes like this can be pretty enjoyable.

I’d actually argue that what makes Parks and Recreation so strong right now is that stories which may be a trifle in the big picture (Ron’s building code violations, the angry possum) actually do mean something to these characters, and this story managed to focus various broad character elements (Leslie’s love for task forces, Ron’s libertarianism, Andy’s self-delusion) within situations that revealed grounded character elements (Leslie’s concerns over honesty, Ron and Mark’s friendship, Andy’s appreciation for April). The show isn’t necessarily separating situation and comedy, but it’s also not suggesting that the former must always take the form of the latter, and that’s working really well for the show.

Which brings us to the show that everyone tends to agree isn’t working, The Office, even if the ramifications of those struggles remain sort of uncertain. In the end, I agree with Todd (who was pulling triple duty along with Archer at The A.V. Club this week) on the Sabre arc:

The biggest problem with the Sabre arc is that it hasn’t told us anything we didn’t already know about these characters or this world. All story arcs on TV shows are essentially there to resolve themselves, so the status quo can return. It’s one of the pleasures and irritations of the form. The reason to do a story arc is to reveal just how your characters will react to the changes and events happening in their world…The problem with the Sabre arc is that it mostly just copies [the Michael Scott Paper Company] storyline with a guest character who’s even less interesting than Charles Minor. Kathy Bates is a great actress, but her Jo character is pretty much a walking bag of cliches. She’s a tough-talking, shoot-from-the-hip, take-no-prisoners kind of Southern good ol’ gal, and if that description doesn’t give you a sense of just how much she feels exhumed from a big bag of old character elements, well, I don’t know what will. There’s really nothing about her that feels fresh or revelatory or new, and seeing Michael suck up to her has gotten rather tiresome awfully quickly.

Todd later goes on to suggest that the show is basically just long in the tooth, and you can’t change that fact, which is right on the money. The show is getting older, so the more this happens the more problematic it becomes. I think the issue right now is that the MSPC arc felt new, felt like a shift in terms of what we were used to seeing from the show, while the Sabre arc feels anything but. If this was last season, I think we’d be talking about The Office struggling a little bit in its fifth season: instead, people are throwing out “Jump the Shark” comments, largely because last season avoided these same problems. And to be honest, I think that “St. Patrick’s Day” wasn’t half bad independent of the season’s larger problems, as Alan argues quite efficiently:

“St. Patrick’s Day” wasn’t all that funny, with most of the comedy coming out of Dwight’s quest for Mega-Desk, but I’ll take an episode light on laughs if it feels like the show I know (which hasn’t always been the case this season).

There’s power in familiarity, and I think that the reaction to the Sabre storyline (and, to some degree, Jim and Pam’s baby) indicates that the potential loss of familiarity is what scares people the most. For me, I enjoyed the episode more than recent outings primarily because it all felt a bit familiar; while I’ll accept Todd’s concerns that all of that seemed regressive to some degree, I like Andy/Erin as an alternative take on Jim/Pam, and I like the Dwight/Jim dynamic in a more basic form.

Sometimes, though, back to basics definitively works out in a show’s favour, as it did with this week’s 30 Rock. No, the episode wasn’t particularly brilliant, but it was the first time where it felt like things were actually happening, and where it seemed like something approaching momentum was in the show’s favour. And look, James agrees:

Both plots have the potential to give the show some interesting forward movement, so color me, like Kenneth, optimistic. If not yet enough to throw my wallet out the window.

While The Office is sort of stuck in a rut, by comparison it seems like 30 Rock is finally moving forward. Liz’s trip to the Dentist, Tracy’s EGOT, and the real-life Comcast purchase of NBC all came out of either previous storylines or real-life happenings, and the importance of this is paramount to the show’s success. Leonard over at The A.V. Club doesn’t necessarily agree, and his C- for “Future Husband” views the episode in the context of the recent disappointment with the series:

There’s too few laughs, too much padding, a subplot with Kenneth losing his wallet and doing donkey impressions that’s so broad that it’s downright stupid, and what’s with all the reaction shots of Kenneth smiling broadly while Jenna and Tracy act wacky?  If it was meant to be ironic, it failed, and if it was wasn’t, it was straight-up old-school playing for time in an episode with not enough good material.  This may have been the laziest episode of the season with weak outings from two of the three main characters and zero contributions from the supporting cast…

I will agree that the Kenneth side of things might have gone too broad, but for me the show is at its worst when it feels like it has characters and a “supporting cast.” For once, it felt like the things that were happening in the episode were sort of out of the characters’ (and even the writers’) control, things that were motivated by delusions of grandeur (EGOT), drug-induced memory loss (Liz’s “Future Husband,” played by Michael Sheen) or real-life NBC Drama. And so it seemed less like the show was crafting a comedy episode and more that a comedy episode was happening in this universe, and the result is something that nicely set up some stories heading towards the end of the season. Also, Elizabeth Banks continues to be kind of fantastic in her guest starring role, and she’s certainly my second favourite Jack girlfriend after Edie Falco at this stage.

Overall, I thought it was a solid night for the NBC comedies: Office is still at a transition stage in its critical lifespan, 30 Rock is still overcoming the sense that it’s fallen into fourth place, and the 8pm comedies are still doing much better in the ratings I give in my head than in the Nielsens, but overall NBC has four renewed comedies that will be interesting to watch in the future.

Cultural Observations

  • I enjoy that 30 Rock hasn’t shied away from pointing out some of the failings of 24-hour cable news cycles within the Avery Jessup story, and that Brian Williams makes another great cameo – the NBC side of the show’s universe is always a lot of fun, and I enjoy the sense of humour that Williams/the network seems to have about it.
  • Personally, I thought Katharine McPhee was quite good on Community: sure, she isn’t quite a strong enough actor to sell the grifter side of her character as well as others perhaps could, but she was a strong presence in the episode and was helped by some good performances from both Chase and McHale.
  • The possum is apparently public enemy #1 on television even if it’s only #3 on Pawnee’s Most Wanted Pests list: Parenthood did a similar story in “Man vs. Possum,” so we just need one more for a trend.
  • Odd return for David Koechner on The Office: did we really need to see him again?

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Filed under 30 Rock, Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office

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