Saturday, October 9, 2010

NBC Sitcom Roundup — "Andy's Play," "Let's Stay Together," & "The Psychology of Letting Go"

The Office, Season 7 Episode 3 — "Andy's Play"

I was cringing less than a minute into "Andy's Play" when the show opened with its second musical number intro in three episodes, but it made a big turnaround and delivered the best episode so far this season. First off, the titular play wound up being hilarious. Andy's cell phone going off coupled with Michael's balloons and runaway liquor bottle was some good old fashioned can't-look-at-the-screen awkwardness that had me laughing harder than I have at The Office in a while. I didn't quite buy the entire office going backstage to console Andy afterward (if no one else Stanley would have just gone home), but it made for a warm moment without feeling overly cloying, and the way Michael put aside his own jealousy over not getting a part in the play was hard not to like.

As for the various subplots about the show's romantic couples, I enjoyed Jim and Pam the most (unless you count the moment of hipster Ryan answering Kelly's inquiry of the time by showing her the analog clock on his iPad). A new baby is one of those things that can kill a sitcom dead if they try to really integrate it into the plot (while the Friends approach of having Emma mostly disappear had the creepy side effect of making Rachel and Ross look like terrible, terrible parents), but the brilliant trick of The Office is that since the camera never follows the characters home she can appear once or twice a season and nothing seems strange about it; in fact, it's almost nice to see little baby Cecilia every few months. Her part in this episode was kind of cute and kind of funny. The Hurt Locker analogy was great.

Dwight and Angela I was less invested in. It seems like the show is trying to make us care about a relationship that was always a joke, while I'd honestly rather see Dwight with Pam's friend Isabel from the wedding and happy hour episodes. And sorry Office writers: you're putting in a noble effort, but Andy and Erin will never be the new Jim and Pam. I like them fine in throwaway humorous moments (Erin's panic attack last season upon learning that Andy and Angela had sex was hilarious) but, like with Dwight and Angela, attempts to inject genuine pathos fall flat.

However, I liked the way Erin herself was written much better this week. The disposable camera bit in last week's "Counseling" was funny as a self-contained joke, but there's a line between writing Erin as flighty, neurotic, and naive and writing her as a full-blown gibbering retard who shouldn't be allowed to handle scissors, and that gag crossed it. Her terrible babysitting technique and asking if Andy wrote Sweeney Todd was a vast improvement.

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 3 — "Let's Stay Together"

In an impressive one-two punch, NBC also gave us the season's strongest 30 Rock this week, one on par with the show's early years. I loved the big plot with Jack and Congress and NBC's racial issues and Liz and Toofer's head writer squabbles and Tracy and Dotcom making a new black sitcom about a man and a talking dog specifically because it was a big plot that interconnected almost every major character into one comedic tapestry rather than having everyone segregated into their own disconnected storylines like the last two weeks. Barring Kenneth and Jenna's subplot, every scene led into the next and every character's actions informed everyone else's. That's the kind of sitcom writing that impresses me, the kind that Arrested Development excelled at.

Lots of great moments to highlight here, but I think the best may have been Liz awkwardly sitting in on the African-American talk show she had no business at (hosted by The Wire's Reg E. Cathey in a brilliantly dry guest spot). The climactic scene of Jack leading Congresswoman Queen Latifah on an unfortunately racist tour through TGS headquarters was also hilarious, especially the predictable but still funny sight gag with the "White" and "Colored" signs by the bathroom doors. This episode also removed Family Man Jack Donaghy and have us back Business Shark Jack Donaghy for 22 minutes of blissful respite.

Kenneth and Jenna I was less impressed with, and not just because their disconnected subplot broke the perfect flow of the rest of the episode. Two weeks ago I said, "Yeah, Kenneth is working at CBS now, but I give that maybe two more episodes," and now, two episodes later on the dot, he's back at NBC. The audition scene fell completely flat. I didn't even crack a hint of a smile. I know he's the show's breakout character or whatever but he's become one note over time. Yes, he's a hick. We get it.

Community, Season 2 Episode 3 — "The Psychology of Letting Go"

In sharp contrast to this week's Office and 30 Rock, "The Psychology of Letting Go" is Community's weakest effort so far this season. It was still the best of Thursday's sitcoms, but only by a razor-thin margin, rather than the Grand Canyon-esque gulfs of the last two weeks.

We'll start with the relatively bad and get it out of the way first thing: Britta and Annie's oil spill subplot just didn't quite work. Shirley's running passive-aggressive commentary on them leaving her out was hilarious ("Skinny bitches."), as were a few throwaway moments ("You don't have to yell at us! Nobody is on the other side of this issue!"), but the oil catfight climax was incredibly predictable from the second that Britta and Annie started feuding, and worse, not particularly funny. Not that I require every Community joke to make me bellow with laughter, but when half an episode is devoted to a subplot that leads to a big punchline which makes me smile faintly and go "heh," that's unfortunate.

I liked the main plot with Jeff trying to expose Pierce to the truth of his laser lotus cult a lot better, if only because basically every single line in the scene between Jeff and Patton Oswalt's school nurse was laugh-out-loud hilarious. The religious debate had definite shades of last year's Christmas episode (in fact, this episode specifically brought that one up, and I can't decide if making the comparison so blatant helped or made things worse), but I give the show credit for tackling the death of a main character's parent in such a bizarre, lighthearted way. I'm not sure if I've ever seen anything quite like it on television before.

This week's best stories were actually its smallest ones. John Oliver's restraining order against Chang led to several great moments, particularly the force field cafeteria scene (not to mention Oliver faking his way through an anesthesiology lecture to impress a sexy college girl, which becomes doubly hilarious if you imagine her trying to one day apply his imparted knowledge in the field), and the subplot with Abed and the pregnant girl, played out entirely in the background without a word of dialogue and frequently out of focus, while not traditionally funny, was very clever and impressively experimental; almost Arrested Development-esque in its "fuck the casual viewer" attitude. The final scene of Professor June Bauer trying to explain the plot of Inception to the natives was a clever way to do a pop culture reference with an absurdist twist.

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