Saturday, September 25, 2010

NBC Sitcom Roundup — "Nepotism," "The Fabian Strategy," & "Anthropology 101"

Since it's the only multi-show block of television I watch I've decided to start doing weekly reviews of NBC's Thursday night comedy lineup, namely The Office, 30 Rock, and Community. "Reviews" isn't even the right word; I'm not going to waste time with extensive plot summary or tiptoe around spoilers or in any way write for the benefit of people who haven't seen the episodes — there's dozens of TV blogs that take care of that, even a couple good ones — but I'm just gonna jot down some quick impressions of each show on Friday or Saturday once I've caught up on Hulu, even if they're as short as a couple of sentences. This week's thoughts will be a little longer, though, since I wanna discuss each show in general first.

The Office, Season 7 Episode 1 — "Nepotism"

I'm not exactly taking a bold stance when I say that The Office is years past its prime (in fact, if anything, this view is so widespread that my actual bold stance is that I currently enjoy The Office more than 30 Rock). No surprise — seven years is ancient by TV standards. The well of ideas runs dry, characters get stretched into increasingly cartoonish versions of what they once were (see Ryan, Kevin, Meredith, Creed, and even the relatively new Erin), episodes like this one open with admittedly charming but very broad dance numbers that never, ever would have happened back in season two. With Jim and Pam married with a baby and Dunder Mifflin's financial collapse averted, I doubt many people would weep crocodile tears if the show brought itself to a (still late, but relatively) graceful end next May.

But The Office is one of NBC's biggest hits, and that ain't gonna happen. In fact, even Steve Carell's announcement that he will be leaving the show at the end of this season did nothing to deter the Peacock Network, who swiftly announced that there will be a new boss in season eight whether that means giving a current character a promotion or bringing in someone entirely new. The end of The Office as we know it is nigh, and this season carries a lingering dread, but, I confess, a vague sense of excitement. What will the post-Carell Office entail? Fresh blood and renewed sense of purpose? Or a ghastly, shambling corpse of a once-great sitcom embarrassing itself beyond measure? Probably closer to the latter, but either way, it'll be something fascinating. Save for HBO's Game of Thrones it might be the single television event of 2011 I'm most curious about.

But whatever they're planning for Michael Scott's departure, this episode makes no hint of it. Outside of a couple "what I did over the summer" confessionals at the beginning it doesn't even feel like a season premiere, plunging us straight back into business as usual without even the courtesy of mentioning last season's whistleblower subplot that took up most of the finale. It's not that I want Andy fired or anything, but he doesn't seem to have been punished in any way, retroactively giving the whole story a "what was the point of that?" vibe. Unless you count his karmic punishment of losing Erin to Gabe, which I doubt was related to the whistleblowing. Speaking of, doesn't it seem a little weird for the show to make its two newest characters a couple, the ones who could most use integration into the main cast? It's like they're sticking them out in no man's land.

The subplot with Michael's nephew was clever in theory and Luke was an amusingly well-sketched portrait of a little douche ("I love cinema. My favorite movies are Citizen Kane and The Boondock Saints."), but it never achieved the true potential of its akwardness until things took an impressively bizarre, uncomfortable turn with the spanking at the end. That I was a fan of, and much to my relief I finally had a big gut laugh a few minutes before the credits rolled. Pam's elevator prank against Dwight was gently amusing, including a moment that was funny but again shows how cartoonish the characters have become when Dwight starts pissing in the corner of elevator five seconds after they get stuck. At least the Devil wasn't in there with them.

All in all, a watchable but unremarkable season premiere, certainly not a speck on season three's sublime "Gay Witch Hunt" but not an embarrassment either. The Office's greatest strength at this point is probably its enormous cast — eighteen people listed as "Starring," as far as I know the biggest main cast of any show on TV right now, including hourlong cable dramas — and with the star leaving in about twenty short episodes and Jim and Pam's wistful love story resolved they gotta spend this season reaching into that bench and making some of their second-string into starters. In human years The Office is a senior citizen, and I just hope it can stay healthy for as long as possible before getting rolled permanently into the TV retirement home.

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 1 — "The Fabian Strategy"

If you were unfamiliar with the show you would never guess from a cursory glance that 30 Rock is becoming a creaky thing. It's as peppy as ever, with cheerful music and snappy editing and impressive guest stars, including Elizabeth Banks and no less than Matt goddamn Damon in recurring roles this year. But, outside of Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy's initial antagonism gradually becoming a codependent friendship, a process which was complete by the end of season two, 30 Rock is a show that has resisted any evolution since settling on a tone in the first half of its first year. Yeah, Kenneth is working at CBS now, but I give that maybe two more episodes. Liz has a new man, but the downside of a character being played by one of the top movie stars in the world is that we know he can't be here to stay. Make no mistake, we'll be back at square one very soon.

And that's fine... as long as the jokes stay funny. With no additions to the main cast or character development beyond Liz and Jack becoming friends or shifts in setting or premise since the pilot four years ago, 30 Rock is in many respects actually coming to resemble Tina Fey's previous place of employment, Saturday Night Live. With each, the question of a new episode's quality comes down to one and one question only: were the jokes funny? And 81 episodes in, the answer with 30 Rock is "yes, but not nearly as funny as they used to be." I don't blame them. Anyone would get a little burned out writing a total of about eight new hours of wall-to-wall punchlines every year for half a decade.

In a strange, nearly unprecedented twist, the part of the premiere that actually made me laugh the most was Jenna's subplot, something I'm not sure has happened since season one's "Hardball." Seeing her usurp Pete's responsibilities as producer was a pleasure, bringing out entertaining new sides in both characters. I also liked Tracy and Kenneth's more absurd, hallucinatory subplot, although I hope I'm not speaking only for myself when I say that Tracy Jordan's crazy person gimmick has grown stale over time. Lots of sitcoms have characters who serve only as walking punchlines, but they're usually not third billed.

Jack didn't fare quite so well. Alec Baldwin can rasp all he wants but last season's seemingly endless Jack / Avery / Nancy love triangle really burned me out on the character's love life. Unless they bring in some more absurdist twists befitting the the rest of the show I just don't want to listen to Jack talk about him and Avery anymore until the birth, especially when they don't even pay Elizabeth Banks to show up. Let's move away from lovey dovey Jack back to the corporate shark, the one that we all, ironically, fell in love with.

Liz and Matt Damon's plot where Damon was revealed to be a crybaby wasn't quite as tedious but still did little to separate itself from Jon Hamm, Liz's last handsome and seemingly perfect boyfriend with a hidden character flaw. I'm a fan of Damon in Bourne and Good Will Hunting and The Informant! but he's doing little to distinguish himself in this part, even less than James Franco did as Liz's one-episode love interest last season. Truth be told, I miss Dennis Duffy. He may have been the worst of Liz's love interests for Liz in the world of the show, but he had the most personality of any of them by far.

I don't want to sound overly down on 30 Rock. I may gripe, but I'm still watching and still laughing here and there and it's still a country mile better than any of the new sitcoms that premiered this fall. But I am, sadly, well past the point of bona fide excitement over new episodes. In fact, I didn't even watch this one on Hulu until two days after it aired, something that never would have happened a couple years ago, and just a few hours after that while writing this post I had to skim the episode's summary on Wikipedia to remind myself exactly what happened. But that's okay, because there's a new sitcom in town that has casually swept aside 30 Rock to become the new king of madcap comedy, and that show is Community.

Community, Season 2 Episode 1 — "Anthropology 101"

I'mma be straight with you folks — I fucking love Community. A few months back I would have told you that it was the best comedy on television. Now that the great Party Down is deceased, I will tell you that it's the best comedy on television by far. You are absolutely missing out if you are not watching this show. It's terrific. The cast is electric, the tone and pacing maybe the best of any sitcom since Arrested, the dialogue tremendous, the jokes consistently laugh-out-loud hilarious, and the running, self-aware commentary on sitcom tropes even as it plays them up or parodies them is incredibly ambitious. If you haven't seen the first season don't bother with renting; hop your ass right on over to Amazon and buy that shit.

I don't want to gush and gush and gush. I have 21 more episodes to review (and, assuming being aired against CBS's groanworthy The Big Bang Theory doesn't kill the show, hopefully a third season after that), so gushing must be rationed, but I thought this was a really great premiere. The Jeff / Annie twist in last season's finale had me concerned that Community was going to be invaded by unwelcome soapy elements, but the way this episode blew all that to pieces was pretty goddamn brilliant, from the one of the funniest, most graphic kisses in sitcom history between Jeff and Britta to Annie's hilarious, shrieking, running-start punch to Jeff's face in the study hall (while Derrick Comedy cameoed in the background). Shitting all over the will-they-or-won't-they sitcom tradition by twisting Jeff and Britta's romance into a series of angry power plays makes countless televised romances now just look lazy and unimaginative in retrospect.

Much of the advertising for this premiere revolved around Betty White's guest spot, which again made me nervous, but once again, I should have had faith. As tired as I may have become with the Betty White meme her role as the gang's crazy, urine-drinking, potentially murderous anthropology professor worked. Most films and shows and sketches since White's recent career resurgence have cast her in same redundant "old lady saying inappropriate things, lol!" role, but Community took the unique approach of simply coming up with a funny character and casting a talented actress in the part. There's nothing about Professor June Bauer as written that couldn't have been played by a man in his forties, but White gave it a fresh vibe and fit seamlessly in the show's world.

I could go on and on about the episode's myriad brilliant touches, beginning a few seconds in when we see Troy getting out of bed in his Spider-Man pajamas (referencing actor Donald Glover's summer campaign to get an audition for Peter Parker) and lasting until a throwaway moment at the end where the gang agrees that Troy's oldwhitemansays Twitter feed would make a moronic TV show, a subtle yet viscously scathing takedown of CBS's $#*! My Dad Says seconds before its premiere, but why bother. If you watched the episode then you already know that Community fuckin' rules, and if you didn't, then you better catch up stat, because you're missing the best comedy on television.

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