The Office, Season 7 Episode 2 — "Counseling"
Although we'll probably see Steve Carell a couple more times after this season (it's realistic to assume he'll be back for the series finale, if nothing else), one thing that The Office is going to have to take care of before his departure is putting a bow on Michael Scott's key relationships — with Holly Flax, of course, but also Dwight, Ryan, the Halperts, maybe Stanley and Phyllis and, if we're lucky, Toby. Last Thursday's episode may be the first step in that process.
Michael's inexplicable hatred of Toby has always been one of my favorite running gags on The Office, reliably making me laugh for over half a decade now, so I was thrilled to see Michael's assignment to six hours of counseling with Toby last week being followed up on. The execution left me a little bit wanting, though. Like many great elements of sitcoms, Michael's one-sided feud with Toby may be one of those things that's hilarious at the corners of the show, rationed out in throwaway lines and quick moments, but when brought to the forefront risks overexposure to the point of no longer being particularly funny. I laughed here and there but rather than building towards a climax I felt like this episode's A-plot kind of started at the top and then slowly burned out. That said, I did like the final scene with them bonding in a tiny way and burying the hatchet for just a moment over their mutual dislike of Gabe.
Dwight and Pam's stories both had some chuckles but ultimately symbolized how far The Office has drifted from its initial intent of mining dry comedy from banal office life. A parody of Pretty Woman featuring Dwight in the Julia Roberts role is one of those things that I'd have no problem with on other, more naturally cartoonish shows, but on The Office? It was a little much (although it did contain my biggest laugh of the episode, when Creed declared that they should build their own mall to Erin's baffling agreement). Meanwhile, Pam conning and bluffing her way into a promotion was cute, but a gargantuan stretch in realism for a show that authentically and depressingly had her fail out of art school a couple seasons back. I'll be curious to see if Pam's new office administrator position has actual longterm plot relevance (perhaps even a setup for increasing her prominence after Carell's departure?), or if it was just a throwaway one-episode thing.
30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 2 — "When it Rains it Pours"
In a twist on how I've usually felt over the last few years, 30 Rock was actually quite a bit more enjoyable than The Office this week. In classic Rock tradition, the show split three ways into a Liz story, a Jack story, and a Tracy story, and while none had me rolling, all three amused. Liz's ulterior motive-laden flirting with Paul Giamatti's character was probably the comedically weakest plot but still had some highlights, including Liz's admission that her pilot boyfriend Carol "sounds made up" and Brian Williams making another brief but always-welcome guest spot to deliver a junior high ice burn on Liz for her rumored sluttiness. Giamatti deserves credit for hiding behind a beard and silly ponytail and blending seamlessly into a (by 30 Rock standards) fairly dry, unflashy guest spot.
Jack Donaghy and Tracy Jordan's subplots were alike in that both found excuses to simply let the the actors riff for long stretches of time, with Jack making advice tapes for his unborn child to view after his death and Tracy playing Cash Cab, the best jokes in each plot being Jack revealing that at Harvard he was voted "Most" and Tracy's explanation that he cannot return to Abu Dhabi or he will be executed. Tracy's subplot also featured the return of Dr. Leo Spaceman, who despite only appearing in about a dozen episodes to date might just be one of my top five characters in all of 30 Rock. It's to the show's credit that they've always resisted overusing one of their most potent comedic weapons, and it makes every time he shows up a huge treat.
Community, Season 2 Episode 2 — "Accounting for Lawyers"
No twist here: Community was once again, to the surprise of no one paying attention to contemporary TV comedy, the week's big winner. The episode's plot had a sort of sandwich structure, with the first and third acts being primarily a character study of Jeff Winger (during which we left Greendale's campus for one of the first times ever, and the first time ever for bulk of an episode) and the middle act taken up by a miniature, five-minute heist flick with Troy, Abed, and Annie as a sort of tenth-rate Ocean's Eleven crew breaking into Rob Corddry's law office to obtain proof that he sold Jeff out way back before the beginning of the series. I thought it worked brilliantly, giving the show a wide berth for both quieter character-based humor and broad slapstick.
Don't get me wrong though, I may love Community, but I'm also willing to be critical. This episode marks the second in a row (and probably damn near tenth total) where we follow Jeff on a character arc from selfishness and narcissism back to goodness and friendship again. I'll excuse the show because it's worked both times, but I'd like to see Community take a long, long break from this particular episode structure. Redundancy aside, it was interesting to see Jeff revert back to his pre-Greendale lawyer persona and see him in his original environment (or, as Abed aptly put it, his "origins"), and I hope to see Drew Carey as Jeff's former boss again. I loved the hole in Carey's hand which inspired him to become head of his law firm so no one could ask him about it; Community is nearly on par with Arrested Development in lending all its supporting characters a memorably absurd twist.
I have no complaints whatsoever about Troy, Abed, and Annie's heist subplot. Troy and Abed may be the classic Community duo but this episode proves that the show's three youngest characters are more comedically potent still as a trio. Annie's repeated chloroforming of the unfortunate janitor was, for lack of a more elegant way to put this, fucking hilarious.
This also marks the second episode in a row that ends (before the traditional Troy / Abed credits gag) by hinting that Chang is about to snap into evil insanity. I look forward to seeing where this goes.