Thursday, November 18, 2010

NBC Sitcom Roundup — "Viewing Party," "Brooklyn Without Limits," & "Cooperative Calligraphy"

The Office, Season 7 Episode 8 — "Viewing Party"

This latest Office was distinctly okay. Which is actually a relief, because fresh off of last week's ghastly episode "Christening," I'll take any laughs we can get and be thankful in light of how much worse I know it could be. I was cringing during the first five minutes or so with all the Glee jokes — I'm apathetic towards Glee, I neither love it nor hate it, but I sure as fuck don't want it invading other shows I watch — but the Glee references ironically toned down in favor of a mishmash of subplots as soon as the titular Glee viewing party actually started, and the episode became much more tolerable.

My favorite story was probably Dwight's unexpected connection with CeCe, Pam's relief, and Jim's emasculation, capped off by a strange but vaguely sweet conversation between Pam and naked Angela in the back of a car. I'm not much for baby humor — in fact, that was part of what made "Christening" so terrible and also why I quit Fox's Raising Hope after three episodes — but Dwight's simultaneous benevolence towards Pam and CeCe and malevolent humiliation of Jim made for an amusing contrast. Andy's pining over Erin is one of those subplots I've become tired of but it was spiced up this time by the inclusion of Darryl, who I'm increasingly hoping takes over as boss when Michael leaves. However, Andy swallowing the drugs or whatever then having a freakout wasn't funny. Other than not being pot, it was to identical dozens of "I'm so high!" scenes in any number of shitty straight-to-DVD comedies.

Michael's subplot was a mixed bag. As I've mentioned before, I actually, unlike many Office fans, really enjoy it when Michael turns into a raging, petulant manchild to the intense discomfort of everyone around him. Yeah, it's bizarre and it's awkward, but it's what separates him from every other sitcom protagonist on television. So I liked his anger at Gabe and his storming off to the other room. However, the whole "I'm not your father!" thing with Erin was just weird. For a show that used to earn its dramatic character beats (think back to Jim and Pam in the second season finale), that came out of fucking nowhere. Maybe it could have worked near or during Michael's departure episode if they spent a lot more time this season building a father-daughter dynamic between Michael and Erin, but as is it felt like the resolution to a character arc we never even knew existed.

Another weird part was when Oscar pointed at Dianna Agron and incorrectly proclaimed that she had been in a couple episodes of Friday Night Lights, because one of the main credited cast members on Glee was in fact in several episodes of FNL, but not Dianna Agron.

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 7 — "Brooklyn Without Limits"

With its third quality episode in a row, I think I'm officially ready to declare 30 Rock once again better than The Office. I know I said the exact opposite at the start of this season and labeled the show decrepit, but I was talking about the fourth season, and 30 Rock is one of the only shows I've ever seen (except 24 and maybe Friends) that has actually become better in its fifth season than it was in its fourth. I don't know if they got some fresh writers or they changed the coffee at the production office or what, but the show is feeling alive again in a way that most of season four didn't.

Of course it helps that this episode felt tailor-made for me, being primarily dedicated to skewering the Tea Party and with a bonus hilarious Nintendo reference ("Lesbian Mario Brothers!"). John Slattery's guest spot as a lunatic congressional candidate who wants to take back America and possibly reinstitute slavery felt a little reliant on being familiar with him from Mad Men and knowing that he was playing against type (not to mention it seemed like it was meant to air before the midterm elections, which makes me wonder if the show got knocked off schedule at some point), but it was an amusing satire nonetheless. I also loved the way Tracy Jordan's subplot mocked both the shallowness of campaigning for acting awards and ultra-gritty urban dramas, not to mention that the continuity of his fictional film Hard to Watch has been maintained across a couple seasons now.

The story about Liz's new jeans was a bit more generic and forgettable outside of the aforementioned Mario Bros. joke, but it didn't change this being a solid, funny, sharp little episode. 30 Rock has regained my trust.

Community, Season 2 Episode 8 — "Cooperative Calligraphy"

"Cooperative Calligraphy" is both a "bzzt, wrong!" to anyone who thought the show had lost its ability to entertain outside of broad, high concept gimmick episodes and the episode that made me start to consider that Community may one day be remembered as one of the greatest television series of all time. Not comedies, but series, period. Community is a brilliant fusion of great ideas, sharp writing, pop cultural awareness, distinct and likable characters, and a terrific cast with tons of chemistry and no weak spots, and it's definitely threatening to usurp the early years of both The Office and 30 Rock to win the title of my favorite post-Arrested TV comedy.

This was, of course, a textbook bottle episode, a budgetsaving measure presumably made to counterbalance the cost of the zombie episode from a few weeks back by featuring no guest stars (no human ones, anyway; there was a monkey, a cat, and some puppies) and no scenes set outside the library's study room except for the closing credit tag. And like all the best bottle episodes it expertly deconstructed the characters and their relationships. Secrets came out, fights were had, and emotions laid bare. Abed's socially uncomfortable observations and Annie's neuroses and even Shirley's possible pregnancy all had the light ingeniously shined upon them via the whodunnit mystery of the missing pen, but more importantly the pen became emblematic of the friendship among the group at large. The true success of Community is not just that I like these people but that it genuinely seems they like each other, something few sitcoms successfully replicate.

Toss in some strong continuity — Shirley's hookup with Chang, Pierce's broken legs, Troy's monkey, Abed knowing all the girls' menstrual cycles — and you got 22 golden minutes of television. I loved this episode and I love this show. It must get a third season.

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