Thursday, January 27, 2011

NBC Sitcom Roundup for 1/20/11

Another year, another bout of weekly NBC sitcommery. There's a bit of change in the water, though; Parks and Recreation has obviously joined my lineup, but I've also added a new "Funniest Moment" category to the end of each review, plus weekly power rankings of all four shows at the bottom of each roundup. Perhaps at the end of the season we can add up the rankings and consider the show (by which I mean Community) with the lowest score the winner. Think of it like golf, but with less funny clothes and more funny people.

The Office, Season 7 Episode 13 — "Ultimatum"

The Office has had many, many rough spots this season, but I thought it rallied magnificently in the midseason finale, "Classy Christmas," largely thanks to the return of Amy Ryan's Holly Flax, and that high level of quality is mostly maintained in this midseason premiere. I've talked before about my love of Ryan / Holly and I won't reiterate the same ground again, but one great, specific thing this episode nailed is how Michael and Holly really get and play off each other in a way that everyone else finds wonderfully annoying. The whole E.T. dialogue run which left Kelly shouting from over the wall for them to please shut up was perfect.

But it was actually the B-plots I enjoyed most about "Ultimatum," namely Darryl, Andy, and Dwight's book store / roller rink / strip club excursion (particularly Darryl's interaction with the book store cashier and Andy's with the skating DJ) and most everything that stemmed from Pam's chart of new year's resolutions. The scenes with Kevin crying while being force-fed broccoli and Erin stealing Creed's cartwheel thunder (Creed: "FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU! GOD!") made me laugh and laugh. This may also have been the single Jim-lightest episode of the entire series outside of the one where he was off on his honeymoon, with him inexplicably vanishing after the cold open. This isn't a criticism, exactly, as I thought the episode worked just fine without him, but it was a bit strange.

However, the one thing that was so unforgivable that it sinks the entire episode in my eyes unless I block out that it ever happened was them relying on an honest-to-god fart for comedy in the final act. I felt wildly embarrassed for the show at that moment. Never again, Office. That's not okay.

Funniest Moment: Holly holding up her ring fingers, followed by Kevin flipping her off and going "Hey! Right back at ya, bitch!" Coupled with Amy Ryan's reaction shot I was quite literally laughing so hard I had to pause the episode. And following that up with Michael and Erin's ludicrously over-the-top party in Michael's office left me with huge grin on my face. Best collective minute of the entire Thursday comedy block.

Parks and Recreation, Season 3 Episode 1 — "Go Big or Go Home"

Although the last season of Parks and Recreation easily trumped the Office season it aired against in terms of both comedy and character work, I have to admit that this premiere definitely didn't make me laugh as often as The Office's "Ultimatum." But that isn't to say I didn't enjoy it; the ridiculous enthusiasm of Rob Lowe's Chris Traeger and the understated Adam Scott as Ben Wyatt are proving brilliant additions to the ensemble. The running gag of Ben being forced against his will into playing the bad cop over and over again never fails to elicit a laugh. I also like the show introducing a new objective in the form of the Pawnee Harvest Festival. Part of what I enjoyed about the first couple seasons was the way they were always maneuvering toward and around getting the pit behind Ann's house filled and built into a park, and I'm glad something else is filling that same need for narrative drive.

I was a bit iffier on the basketball subplot. It had a terrific buildup in contrasting Andy's lackadaisical coaching style to Ron Swanson's military precision (especially the introduction of the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness), but I thought that, rather than being especially funny, Tom's vindictive refereeing just kind of caused the whole thing to fizzle out into an awkward anticlimax. I also have to ask, what the hell was up with that overly, almost creepily enthusiastic narration during the previously on segment? I was sure it was supposed to be a joke but there was no punchline. That was so weird.

Funniest Moment: A close call between Leslie tossing Jerry's painting into the lake in the opening (Jerry in general makes me laugh my ass off, he's like Toby from The Office taken to the logical extreme) and Andy explaining that "every time I look one of these kids in the eyes and he calls me coach, that's how I know... I agreed to be a coach."

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 11 — "Mrs. Donaghy"

So does Jack and Avery's mostly unseen nuptials going awry mean we're going to end up getting a big wedding episode after all? I was actually kind of appreciative of 30 Rock avoiding that cliche, but whatever. I enjoyed the cleverness of Liz and Jack's accidental marriage and the power plays and arm-twisting that followed, particularly the continuity-rich scene as they're read the list of questions at the end, Liz publicly dedicating $5 million to a school that asks "what is art?" in Jack's name, and Jack exclaiming "My adventures, I am the protagonist!" As usual, 30 Rock is at its best when Liz and Jack share a story rather than being divided.

Also as usual, 30 Rock is at its worst when Jenna and Kenneth are segregated to their own subplot, even if it's supplemented by Danny this time out. The pseudo-marital feuding failed to elicit any laughs outside of Danny telling Kenneth "Don't think for one second this means we love you less. Know that it means that," although Kenneth's scene with a double-drinking Pete was pretty good. Tracy's subplot was fairly nondescript, but it was nice to see Dr. Leo Spaceman. Altogether, a mildly amusing midseason premiere, although the weakest of NBC's Thursday comedy block... outside of Outsourced and Perfect Couples, of course.

And lastly, one quick, slightly off-topic question: when the hell is Liz's boyfriend Carol gonna show up again? They're still together, right? I guess only being able to get him for three episodes a year is the downside of casting one of the biggest movie stars on earth as a supporting character on your TV sitcom.

Funniest Moment: By default I suppose it would have to be Liz's press conference. "The Jack and Elizabeth Donaghy High School for Teen Drama, the Arts, and FEELINGS!" "Son of a bitch!" I do wonder how Liz and Jack's marriage could be a secret to Avery after that, but I doubt it'll ever come up again.

Community, Season 2 Episode 12 — "Asian Population Studies"

I knew as soon as I saw "written by Emily Cutler" (of "Contemporary American Poultry" and "Modern Warfare" fame) that we were in for another great twenty-two minutes Community, and the episode didn't disappoint in the least. One thing I especially loved about "Asian Population Studies" was the way that all three stories, about holding tryouts for the eighth member of the study group, Troy and Pierce's secret knowledge of Shirley's pregnancy, and Annie's crush on Rich, all elaborately intertwined into one comedic tapestry, flowing in and out of the same scenes. Outside of Abed and arguably Britta (who at least got to flash Fat Neil) the episode did a masterful job giving each member of the cast a lot to chew on, letting everyone flex their comedic and occasionally even dramatic muscle. Between his horrific puns, slow clapping, and hiding on top of the bookshelf, it's probably one of Chang's top five episodes of the series. I'm also curious to see whether or not he's actually in the group now (and whether the baby is his or Andre's, but that's for a few more months down the road).

One nitpick, though: Jeff saying to Rich at the end, "I've known you for almost two years now." Rich first appeared in the episode "Beginner Pottery," which aired on March 18th, 2010. I'm no mathemagician but I'm almost positive that's nowhere close to two years ago. Jeff couldn't even really say that to Britta or Troy, let alone Rich.

Funniest Moment: The moment I admired most for its absurdity and creativity was Chang slow-clapping himself and Jeff angrily explaining that you can't do that, but for some reason the single line that made me laugh longest and loudest was "My name is Kendra, and I spell it with a 'Q-U.'" Never seen that actress before in my life but she made a monstrous comedic impact in her five or so lines.

Weekly Power Rankings: 1. Community 2. The Office 3. Parks and Recreation 4. 30 Rock

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