May 6th, 2010
The last time a Greg Daniels-produced series was ending its second season, the series’ star took a crack at writing an episode; the result was Steve Carell’s “Casino Night,” an episode largely comprised of a group of small moments for each character mixed in with some major developments with the two love triangles (Michael/Jan/Carol, and Jim/Pam/Roy) which were ongoing at the time.
“Telethon,” written by Amy Poehler and one of the final episodes of another Greg Daniels-produced show’s second season, is more or less the Parks and Recreation equivalent. You have a lot of small moments for all of the show’s supporting characters, you have movement on the two main relationships currently working their way through the series, and the end result (like “Casino Night”) is a really strong half-hour of television which embodies the series’ strength this year: it’s wonderfully odd, surprisingly sweet, and nicely balancing the line between awkward and hilarious.
April 29th, 2010
At the heart of Parks and Recreation are relationships which tend to swing between mutual tolerance and undying admiration. There is no relationship in the show that is entirely without complication, but there are also few relationships on the show which are outright hostile. The show has given just about every character on the show a chance to interact with another character in a sobering fashion, showing them something that goes beyond their comic persona to their true humanity. And yet, at the same time, their personalities continue to clash, which allows the show’s comedy to keep going even with a certain level of respect between the various people involved.
“94 Meetings” is an episode filled with tension, including continued tension in the show’s two romantic couplings, and when it overflows into something more than just your usual workplace personality clashes the show acknowledges it. There’s a point where characters go too far, and so long as the episode is willing to back them away from that cliff, and as long as we understand why they were there in the first place, then the show can continue balancing heartwarming friendships with undeniable conflicts for the foreseeable future.
March 25th, 2010
For a while, I wasn’t entirely feeling “Summer Catalog.” To some degree, the show has reached a point in its season where we have a very clear understanding of where its various stories are going, and the episode very clearly laid out how things were going to go wrong and reached its predictable conclusions…with about five minutes left.
At that point, “Summer Catalog” hit a big ol’ home run, finishing off its established stories and then more or less “debriefing” for the rest of the episode. What we ended with was an emotional denouement that placed the episode so perfectly within the context of ongoing storylines that any predictability was entirely irrelevant. As I put it on my Twitter feed, if you’ll excuse the figure skating analogy, the show went for a triple axel rather than the quadruple toe loop, going with something a bit more safe and typical, but they stuck the landing so well that it was all worth it in the end.
March 18th, 2010
While Parks and Recreation rarely shows its roots as a spin-off of The Office, emerging instead as a cousin of sorts, I think “Park Safety” was as close as the show has come to feeling like its predecessor. This is, in some ways, a compliment, in that The Office is a show I enjoy, and this was certainly a funny episode of the show.
However, the show went out of its way to create some very specific situations that brought the show more towards broad situational comedy, something that the show has managed to do a bit more subtly in the past. It didn’t end up damaging the episode too much, as those sequences remained funny, but for a show that has been going out of its way to form its own identity there were parts of this week’s episode that made it seem like the production team from The Office had gone into the wrong office for a day. Of course, there were also parts of the episode that dealt with Parks-specific story types, so the Pawnee charm was certainly not lost.
It was just, perhaps, viewed through a slightly different lens, which seemed purposeful in terms of viewing a running joke in a new light.
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.”
“Woman of the Year”
March 4th, 2010
In “Woman of the Year,” we learn that Leslie Knope was a member of the Indiana Order of Women at the age of nine.
This is, just to be clear, not a surprising fact: we’ve always known that Leslie was a strong believer in organizations like the IOW, so the idea that she had been this way since an early age (especially considering her mother’s commitment to civil service). What this establishes, however, is that this is something which means something to Leslie, something which she values at a level which someone like Ron Swanson is not completely able to understand.
However, what has Parks and Recreation in such a good place right now is that it is unwilling to sacrifice things important to these characters just for the sake of comedy: stories like those in “Woman of the Year” are driven by people who care rather than people who don’t understand, and while there is quite a lot of humour in the episode it all comes from a place of good-natured ribbing more than spite or something similarly unpleasant.
February 11th, 2010
I wrote about Valentine’s Day episodes on Wednesday night, and in the process I argued that I prefer shows which use the holiday to service their existing universe rather than forcing their universe to conform to the holiday. Accordingly, I was legitimately excited about how Parks was going to handle the holiday, because the show has a lot of characters in love, falling in love, or in a position where love is possible but perhaps not materializing as they might have wanted.
“Galentine’s Day” manages to handle those relationships with a subtlety beyond most shows in their second season, building the episode around a romantic story which loses its romance once it enters reality, in the process shedding light on the state of the show’s various relationships. And since, as noted, I’m more invested in these relationships than I had realized, it made for a great episode for a lot of different characters.
January 21st, 2010
One of the things that I find so interesting about Parks and Recreation’s second season comeback is that the show hasn’t fundamentally changed its stories. I can very much see how the show, in its infancy, might have brainstormed an idea about Leslie’s house looking like a crazy person’s garage, and the idea of Leslie trying to host a dinner party and using her connections with a city program in order to pull it off feels like something that could have gone horribly wrong in the first season.
I didn’t think “Leslie’s House” was amongst the best episodes of the season, as it felt as if there were just a few too many things going on at once, but the fact that the core of the episode didn’t implode with all of those elements present is a testament to the control the writers have over the universe right now. Despite technically presenting only a single story, the episode started to weave in a lot of recurring stories to complicate things, and it resulted in quite a few fun gags and just enough resonance to keep things from seeming overwhelming.
It’s a funny episode, and an impressive one considering the degree of difficulty, but I almost feel like there’s an extra ten minutes here that could have given some of the storylines a bit more time to breathe that would have really made the episode click.
“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.
Season 1.5: Three Questions Producers Need to Answer
December 10th, 2009
When we watch a television show as viewers or as critics, we want to believe that our opinions matter. This is not to suggest that we desire to control a particular story, by pushing it in one direction or another, but rather that how people respond to a show is capable of giving the producers some idea of how their show could reach either its widest audience or (for us critics, at least) its fullest comic and dramatic potential.
And yet, for Glee, the voices of fans and critics have seemed to fall upon deaf ears, as some of the common concerns (about the over-produced musical numbers, about the inconsistency between episodes) have remained staples of the show throughout the season. Now, again, this isn’t inherently a problem (it’s their show, they can do with it what they want), but it is important to acknowledge that this was not about ignorance: rather, the show finished filming over a month before the show started in earnest in September. It was produced in a bubble, the writers learning as they went along with only the reviews and reaction towards the pilot to guide them (and, even then, they had produced quite a few episodes before it aired in May).
As a result, when Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan head back to work in early January to start production on the back nine for the show’s first season (which I’m choosing to dub Season 1.5 as opposed to “Volume 2” or something silly like that), they will have with them the internet’s collective response to the show’s first thirteen episodes. And, for me, the big question now is quite simple: what the heck are they going to do with it?
After the break, I’ll offer my thoughts on where I feel their focus should lie, and why it doesn’t all line up with my own selfish desires for the series going forward.