Tuesday, November 30, 2010

NBC Sitcom Roundup — "WUPHF.com," "College," & "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design"

The Office, Season 7 Episode 9 — "WUPHF.com"

If you read too many TV blogs and forums like I do, this was among the most fascinating episodes of the season solely for the wide range of reactions it got. I read comments and reviews ranging from "best episode of the season, it felt like season two again!" to "this is fucking terrible, I'm done" and everything in between. I can't remember the last time I saw so little consensus. But I'm afraid I have no strong opinion one way or the other and must take the pussy middle-of-the-road stance of declaring it okay.

"WUPHF.com" was light on belly laughs, the only two I recall being Stanley sharing his lighthouse fantasy and the very clever "Washington University Public Health Fund" reveal. Kevin getting lost in the hay maze won a chuckle for the way Brian Baumgartner sold Kevin's panic, but there isn't a human being on earth who didn't know exactly what was going to happen the second he stepped into the maze. But what's actually interesting is that, outside of Michael and Toby's moment in "Counseling," this is the first episode that legitimately felt like part of Michael Scott's farewell tour.

Ryan Howard isn't really a character. Perhaps he was in the first three seasons as the temp filled with thinly-veiled contempt for Dunder Mifflin and all his coworkers, and maybe even in season four when he became Evil Ryan the VP, but since getting arrested and resurfacing as a bizarre hipster stereotype he's just a walking punchline who no longer has much of a place in the ensemble (and has fittingly had his office relocated to the closet). But the way Michael projects his need to be a mentor and father figure onto Ryan has always been a key part of Michael's character, and this episode put a small bow on this longrunning subplot by having Michael admit that Ryan is lazy and selfish and using everyone but saying he'll stand behind his employee nonetheless. I don't know if the show has any additional Michael-Ryan stories in store for Steve Carell's final seventeen episodes, but if this it I could live with that.

The main thing I hated? The sudden, out-of-nowhere subplot about the cap on sales commissions, which spat boldly in the face of the "sales is king" Sabre policy that shuffled Jim back down to his old position last season. I know this isn't a mythology show like Lost and loose continuity isn't a huge deal, but even as someone who only watched season six's episodes exactly once each I was immediately like "wait, what? Bullshit!" It led to a somewhat amusing moment at the end with Jim's prank on Gabe, but I'm going to be frustrated if this is a running subplot in coming weeks (and since Jim no longer has incentive to do his job, I don't see how it couldn't be).

But as a positive closing note, I thought there was a marked improvement in the character of Erin this week. I was getting fed up with them writing her as an absolute moron too dumb to convincingly breathe, let alone work as a secretary, and her protectiveness of the color ink is much more along the lines of what they should be doing with her; weird and neurotic, but not fucking retarded.

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 8 — "College"

I said last week that season five is noticeably better than the fourth, and upon a little introspection the reason is clear and singular: we've finally moved beyond the turgid, seemingly endless love triangle between Jack Donaghy, Avery Jessup, and Nancy Donovan. I don't care that it was packed with famous actors, I absolutely loathed that subplot, and it seemed like it was all the show's greatest comedic weapon was stuck with for months on end.

But now corporate shark Jack is back, albeit a noticeably softened and humanized version from how he appeared at the beginning of the series. But that's okay; that's just character development, stemming less from Avery and his unborn daughter and more from his friendship with Liz. Watching him let go of the microwave division in this latest episode was a solid little Jack story (even if I could have done without the engineers explicitly noting the deliveryman was played by Alec Baldwin... thanks, I got it, 30 Rock), and I loved the way it collided with the pranking of Pete in a funny-yet-melancholy, pizza-shotgunning belated college party in Jack's office. It was great to see some writers room antics again too.

Liz's brief taste of popularity stood out less than the rest of the episode but was still amusing. Her threat to put her crewmember's dog down "with a smile" at the end was hilarious and ballsy in its willingness to make the show's protagonist aggressively unlikable. All in all, another pretty good 30 Rock joins a pretty good season.

Community, Season 2 Episode 9 — "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design"

Another Thursday, another outstanding Community. I'd be bored with the consistent goodness if it wasn't so goddamned good, but with "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" I have officially decided that Community has surpassed the peak years of both The Office and 30 Rock (as well as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Party Down, Always Sunny, and whatever Fox cartoons and laugh track CBS shows you care to name) as the best post-Arrested Development sitcom. It's simply brilliant and the current shining example of how film is lagging behind TV when it comes to comedy.

I won't bother going through everything I liked about this 70s conspiracy thriller spoof because that would just be summarizing the whole episode, but I'll note that it was interesting how half of the main cast either put in tiny cameos (Britta, Pierce, Shirley) or was entirely absent (Chang). Even Troy and Abed's role was pretty small in terms of screen time; this was really the Jeff, Annie, and Dean Pelton show, all the way from the hilarious "explosive" message to Annie to the Dean crying "would that this hoodie were a time hoodie!" in a scene that showcased exactly why Jim Rash should be added to the primary cast posthaste.

If the climactic scene featuring five subsequent fake shootings felt vaguely familiar to you, don't worry, that just means that you have good taste in sitcoms and were having flashbacks to "Pier Pressure" and "Making a Stand," the two Arrested Development episodes featuring J. Walter Weatherman using his missing arm to scare people. Both involved fake injuries to teach lessons and both were hilarious. But even more so than those Arrested episodes this demands a second viewing so you can see it knowing all the layers of conspiracy from the very beginning. It's just such an efficient and elegantly written 22 minutes of television even removed from the comedy that I can only applaud.

I was initially concerned that Abed and Troy's blanket fort was going to be superfluous and disconnected (not an entirely unfounded fear, if you look at recent Community episodes like "Aerodynamics of Gender" and "Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples" where the different stories seem to take place in different worlds), but the way the traditional 70s thriller chase involving Jeff, Annie, and Professor Professorson cut through it justified the whole damn thing. I was also impressed by how good it looked — after last week's bottle episode I assumed they were cutting back on costs, but these were some nice production values when it would have been easier and cheaper to just use vanilla dorms. I also kind of hope that Abed and Troy writing a screenplay together wasn't just a throwaway line and actually comes up again!

However, in spite of all that, the funniest part of the episode was near the beginning when Annie blew off walking, then blew off standing, then blew off talking language, then writhed on the floor of a busy school hallway shouting "BLEE BLOO BLUH BLOO BLOH BLEE BLUGH BLUGGHH" at Jeff as he walked away. Alison Brie is a national treasure.

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