Friday, December 24, 2010

NBC Sitcom Roundup — "Classy Christmas, "Christmas Attack Zone," & "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas"

Yeah, these episode reviews are like two weeks late, but when better to review three Christmas specials than on the day before Christmas? Okay, okay, starting next year I'll try to get my sitcom roundups posted in a more timely fashion. I'm also pleased to say that via Netflix Watch Instantly I've caught up on Parks and Recreation, and the second season not only managed to find a voice beyond aping The Office but was franky terrific — better than the 30 Rock or Office seasons it was airing against, to be honest, behind only Community. So starting with the return of the NBC comedy block on January 20th I'll be adding Parks and Rec to the rotation and doing a four-show sitcom roundup. Will I survive such chaos? Probably not. Let's get this Christmas party started with a Christmas party episode:

The Office, Season 7 Episode 11/12 — "Classy Christmas"

My sincere kudos to writer Mindy Kaling, director Rainn Wilson, and all the producers: they brought out the big guns for their hourlong midseason finale. "Classy Christmas" was straight-up classic era Office greatness and the best episode of the seventh season by a mile. I loved basically every minute of it. Admittedly this may correlate to my (recently documented) love of Amy Ryan, who I think is one of the most effortlessly likable actors in the world on TV or otherwise, but even before she showed up I was laughin' and hootin' and havin' a great ol' time.

But let's come back around to Amy Ryan in a minute. Starting with the smaller plots and working our way up, while Pam's homemade superhero comic book, Darryl's semi-estranged daughter, and Angela's probably-gay state senator boyfriend may not have been overwhelmingly great A-plots to anchor their own episodes, they filled out the edges of this one nicely. I particularly liked Darryl being given some extra shading beyond being the droll, detached guy in the corner office. Between Pineapple Express and Hot Tub Time Machine Craig Robinson may be the actor outside of Carell and Helms whose extra-Office fame has increased the most since the show began, and he deserves (and, after Carell's impending departure, will no doubt get) increased prominence.

Jim and Dwight's snowball war (or, more accurately, Dwight's snowball terrorism) was a hysterical turning of the prank tables. Of course this is coming from someone who has always been iffy on Jim's pranks (and I do mean always, even in the generally sublime season two); they never bothered me on the original British Office as Tim Canterbury wasn't supposed to be as much of a lovable teddy bear as Jim, but in shifting all the characters three or four shades up on the likability scale the American version has always struggled with making Jim's pranks side look like anything more than juvenile bullying. But they were all worthwhile to build up to Dwight's retaliation in this episode. Jim's humiliation upon breaking the window and his terror at the snowman army at the end were both wonderful to behold. And kudos to Rainn Wilson the director for the way he shot Dwight's reveal at the end, looking down from upon the rooftop like the grim visage of Death. Hilarious.

And finally, of course, the return of Holly Flax. As I've said before and I'm sure I'll say again over the next several months, I love Holly and I love Amy Ryan in the role. Few times in the history of television has a new character entered an established series and won me over as quickly as Holly did in The Office's fourth season finale. She stirs up the chemistry of Dunder Mifflin in such an electric way and feels like such an integral part of the mythology that it's crazy to realize she's only appeared in 9 of the show's 138 episodes. Long story short, I'm a huge fan of the character.

And her return in "Classy Christmas" (which I didn't know was coming until the day the episode aired, making for a nice real-life Christmas gift) didn't disappoint! I loved Michael initially turning into a raging manchild but swallowing his anger and jealously and putting on a show of normalcy when A.J. arrived. The Woody doll confrontation scene between Holly and Michael with the rest of the office caught in the crossfire may be my favorite scene of the season so far. "But someday I think we will laugh about this... when we tell our kids." "Yikes."

However, much as I love Holly, I also love the fact that Erin irrationally dislikes her from the moment they meet. It feels like bizarro world Michael and Toby.

General midseason thoughts: The Office is past its prime. I don't think I'm offending anyone when I say that. I doubt even the writers and producers would disagree (in their minds, anyway). If you put aside the absolutely wonderful "Classy Christmas" and the pretty darn funny Halloween episode "Costume Contest" (and, to a lesser extent, "Andy's Play") it's been a shaky season that has pointed surprisingly little towards the endgame of Steve Carell's departure as a series regular in a few short months.

But still, I love The Office. However disappointed I may be by episodes like "Counseling," "The Sting," and especially "Christening," I still find myself looking forward to visiting Scranton every single week. It comes down to the characters, which may sound obvious but isn't really the case for all shows. Something like 24 I watched for the action, something like Lost or The Event mostly for the mysteries, even other sitcoms like Arrested Development or 30 Rock I really watched / watch for the jokes. But The Office has such a deep bench of talent (as of Amy Ryan being added to the main credited cast there are now nineteen people listed as "Starring," something I don't believe can be said for a single other scripted show on television) that even when the jokewriting feels stale there's always a freshness to who the show is focusing on any given week.

30 Rock has definitely been more consistent than The Office this season, but I find myself way more excited for the return of The Office for two big reasons: one, Holly. I'm sure she won't be getting only Michael-related "mythology" stories and will have her share of episodic sitcommy stuff to do between now and May, but even in that context getting to watch Amy Ryan will be a pleasure. And two, seeing what the big plan for Michael's departure is — something they've had a year to map out, so hopefully it'll be good. I absolutely dread what The Office season eight may look like without Carell, but at the same time there's probably no television happening of 2011 outside of Game of Thrones and the ending to Friday Night Lights I'm more curious about. Bring on January 20th.

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 10 — "Christmas Attack Zone"

"Christmas Attack Zone" was pretty decent. Not on par with this season's extremely strong four-episode stretch between "Reaganing" and "College," but I had some laughs at the Jack Donaghy and Tracy Jordan stories. But first off I have a confession, one that I gather is blasphemous in 30 Rock fandom: I really don't give a shit about Elaine Stritch as Colleen Donaghy. Every TV forum and TV blog I read just goes fucking apeshit with praise for her every single time she shows up, and I just don't get it. Yeah, she was funny in her first appearance or two, but the hypercritical mom routine quickly became redundant and one-note. But I guess the rest of America is way more into Broadway shows than I am, because every time she makes her semiannual appearance I grimace in anticipation of reading novels worth of praise about the glory and the wonder of Elaine Stritch.

I preface with this because I want to make it clear that I'm actually saying something and not just shitting out prepackaged 30 Rock criticism when I say that I enjoyed the hell out of Colleen's story in this episode, largely due to bringing Alan Alda as Milton Greene, Jack's biological father, back into the mix. I would have liked actually seeing a bit more of the awkward dinner between the Donaghy clan and Liz, but the bits and pieces we did get were largely a joy that also made better use of Elizabeth Banks as Avery Jessup than any episode so far this season. Milton and Jack's exchange of "Listen to me, dammit, I'm a doctor!" "Of history! In what emergency would you be necessary, if someone wanted to know whether the 60s were awesome or not?!" "They were!" was my biggest laugh of the episode by far.

I'm not entirely sure whether Tracy's subplot was a tribute to or an unintentional knockoff of Sullivan's Travels, but I liked it for no other reason than that I largely agree with its thesis statement that critical society undervalues comedy as meaningful art while propping up manufactured "drama." As someone who believes Forgetting Sarah Marshall to be a greater film than The Reader in every meaningful metric, I appreciate 30 Rock for agreeing that sometimes comedy is just better. That, and the gag where Tracy's Kenneth voiceover was revealed to just be Kenneth standing off to the side. But Jenna and Paul's subplot again left me stony-faced (outside of the scene between Liz and Paul in the tranny restaurant, anyway). 30 Rock, I beg of you, stop, stop, stop trying to make me laugh with Jane Krakowski singing. I absolutely promise you it is never going to happen. Just let it go.

General midseason thoughts: 30 Rock is the TV equivalent of a warm and pleasant but somewhat stale long-term relationship at this point. There ain't much fire between us anymore and it hasn't been hot and heavy since 2007 or early 2008, but at the same time I have no interest in ending things — we still have good times and some regular laughs, so why would I?

I admit there was a point at the tail end of last season, when it seemed every other episode sunk half its time into the virtually-never-funny Jack / Nancy / Avery love triangle, where I briefly considered whether or not I even wanted to keep watching. It was a bleak era. But once Avery got pregnant and Jack committed to her the show felt like it had been let out of funniness prison and this season has been a stark, unmistakable improvement from the word go. I don't expect 30 Rock to start dazzling me on a week in, week out basis any time soon (or for the rest of its run), but there remains a lot of funny people behind the scenes coming up with a handful of great jokes every week, which is pretty much exactly what the show promised from the get go. I'm in it for the long haul.

There is an interesting elephant in the room, though, one that The Office is currently in the midst of confronting: Alec Baldwin recently stated his intention to give up acting in 2012, which would be at the end of 30 Rock's sixth season (which it has already been renewed for). There are three ways this can play out: one, he changes his mind, which is by no means out of the question if they flash him some fat green. Two, they end the show, which won't happen. Or three, they continue on for a seventh season without him. Although he may not be the protagonist, 30 Rock without Baldwin in my opinion leaves even more of a gaping hole in the show's heart than The Office without Steve Carell, so let's hope NBC offers him a raise, because the alternative would be hard to watch.

Community, Season 2 Episode 11 — "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas"

In terms of pure laugh count it's true that "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" falls clearly short of last season's blisteringly brilliant Christmas episode "Comparative Religion" (as well as The Office's "Classy Christmas"). Too much of the show's comedy is contained in the actors' facial expressions, especially Donald Glover's, for it to truly cross over uncompromised into the claymation medium. But I still loved this episode for no other reason than that it showed once again how creative and how incredibly ambitious Community is compared to every other sitcom on television. Absolutely nothing else would have the brass balls to try something like this, or the zombie episode, or the Apollo 13 episode, or most of this season's episodes. Make no mistake, Dan Harmon and the rest of Community's writing staff are going balls to the wall with every out-there idea they've ever had, holding back nothing, and it's awesome.

In a way I think this episode was sort of the thematic sequel to the third episode of the series, "Introduction to Film." Both revolved around Abed's issues with his parents (although more specifically his mother in this case), filtering them through pop culture as Britta tries her best to help him and is largely brushed aside for her efforts. Difference being that the study group is much closer and much more a family by this point, and fittingly the entire crew is involved in Abed's crisis this time rather than just Britta and Jeff. In fact, I thought it was interesting that the episode dispensed with Community's official protagonist Jeff (plus Shirley) fairly quickly after they reached Planet Abed, with Pierce surprisingly being the only one to make it to the end of Abed's mindtrip.

The resolution went for a sort of gooey heartwarmingness that I admit I'd probably cringe at if they insisted on ending every episode in such an emotionally blunt fashion, but hey, it's Christmas, and it seems to be a one-time thing. I'll let it slide. Using the Lost DVD a metaphor to represent "lack of payoff" won my heart as well. "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" may not join Die Hard or Home Alone on my list of Christmas classics the way I felt "Epidemiology" was an instant classic work of horror-comedy able to stand with some of the best ever, but nonetheless, nice show, Community.

General midseason thoughts: Not only is Community still the best sitcom on television, it's reached the point where it's insane to me that anyone would argue otherwise. The ambition approaches Arrested Development and the unreal chemistry of the cast approaches Friends week by week. True, this semester saw what I feel is probably the worst episode of the series, "Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples," but almost every single other episode has been one degree or another of fantastic.

Yeah, there's been a lot of high concept pop culture parodies, with zombies, 70s conspiracy thrillers, Apollo 13, Mean Girls, The Secret Garden, and now Rankin/Bass claymation Christmas specials all getting riffed on, but most of these have been so terrific I couldn't possibly criticize the show for it. Not to mention that other episodes like "Anthropology 101," "Accounting for Lawyers," "Cooperative Calligraphy," and "Mixology Certification" have been parody-free and outstanding, with the lattermost being understated and sad in a way that I didn't know this show had it in itself to pull off.

To go on would just decline into me listing a bunch of favorite moments from the season thus far, so I'll just say that "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" cemented Annie as my favorite character, I'm feverishly anticipating the show's return next year, and leave it at that. It's one of my favorite shows of all time, and my heart can barely take the notion that low ratings could lead to its cancellation next spring, especially if $#*! My Dad Says and Mike & Molly continue to shamble on, mocking television with their existence.

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