Thursday, May 12, 2011

NBC Sitcom Roundup for 5/5/11

The Office, Season 7 Episode 23 — "The Inner Circle"

Okay, so I guess that's what an episode of The Office without Steve Carell looks like. It wasn't very good, was it? Not that I'm going into full panic mode just yet — if we're several episodes into season 8 and the show is still this shaky on its feet, then it's time to sound the alarm. But this episode was trying to work around the shit taco that is Deangelo Vickers and ultimately, even if season 8 blows, won't prove in any way representative of what is to come.

But Deangelo, man. I don't know what happened. I mean, I know that I feared Will Ferrell was going to be awkwardly shoehorned in, throw the energy of the show off, and be forced into doing Will Ferrell schtick, and he was. But he very specifically didn't do any of that in his first episode "Training Day," and somehow I feel doubly offended that the show tricked me into liking him before deciding that he'd be playing a completely new character in "Michael's Last Dundies" (shy stage fright man), and another in "Goodbye, Michael" (dumb screaming lunatic), and now another in "The Inner Circle" (juggling sexist, curiously completely over his stage fright). I've seen TV characters develop more consistent and coherent personalities within one scene.

And then getting rid of him by having a basketball hoop fall on him? There are no words, and not in a good way. That is some lazy fucking writing. I also don't have any words for new character Jordan Garfield, not as a criticism, but simply because she's 100% bland and vanilla right now. Let's hope they beef her up comedically over the next two episodes.

Funniest Moment: The laughs, big or small, were pretty thin on the ground. The only two moments that really connected were Kevin telling Deangelo "Oh, I think it's eighteen-hundo" and Jim's subsequent reaction, and Darryl letting out a shocked "DAMN!" when Jim brought up the allegations of sexism to Deangelo. Pam's young adult novel series was also funny, but more "cute" funny than "ha ha" funny.

Parks and Recreation, Season 3 Episode 12 — "Eagleton"

I'm neither the first nor the thousandth person to note that despite being born as a thematic and stylistic spin-off of The Office, Parks and Recreation has evolved into something much closer to a live action take on The Simpsons, with the mythology, rich cast of characters, and general joyous absurdity of Pawnee, Indiana being insanely reminiscent of Springfield. And with the introduction of hated neighboring city Eagleton mirroring The Simpsons' Shelbyville, the comparison deepens all the more.

The specifics of this episode were superb, as Parks and Rec tends to be. Leslie was great, Ben was great, Parker Posey fit right in as Lindsay Carlisle Shay, the revelation of Ron's birthday party at the end was both funny and really sweet, the sickeningly posh city hall and prison in Eagleton were hilarious, and Andy sent Tom flying with a bag of trash. But what I found most interesting was how the episode spoke to the other way that Parks has evolved from its pilot other than becoming much more Simpsons-y: the exponentially increasing competence of Leslie Knope.

At the start of the first season, Leslie was clearly being written as Michael Scott with a vagina. Her town hall meetings were horrifically mismanaged and she seemed dim and constantly in over her head and largely incompetent at her job. Then, throughout the second season, the writers gradually made the discovery that Leslie, while socially awkward, is actually a really great parks department deputy director. She knows Pawnee's history and government with textbook perfection, knows the right people in politics and how to grease the wheels and make shit happen, isn't afraid to take initiative and is perennially upbeat even in the face of disaster.

Now, in season three, we've seen her turn a crippling budget crisis into a robust surplus, singlehandedly put the city and parks department back on their feet, turn every adversity into a positive (such as the new softball field in this episode), had it dropped in "Soulmates" that she's a summa cum laude political science graduate, and now, in "Eagleton," we learn that she was actually offered plum spots in city governments throughout upper-class Indiana that she turned down out of loyalty to her hometown before the series began. Leslie Knope is not only good at her job, she's damn near the best, now less like Michael Scott and more like what a character from The West Wing would be if they were funny and employed in local city government rather than the White House.

There's no grand, unifying point to this train of thought except that Parks and Recreation is an exhilarating watch from the pilot through season 3 because it's an example of a show with an absolute willingness to evolve, think on its feet, and change course in really fundamental ways. It just feels so alive and so vibrant. I love it.

Funniest Moment: I'm dangerously close to going with Ben's reaction shots of disgust at the Eagleton town hall, aka my quickly-becoming-standard "I'm gay for Adam Scott" funniest moment pick, but it's hard to beat April holding up the scissors with murderous intent as Lindsay Carlisle Shay exits the Pawnee parks department. The garbage fight was also hilarious. Pure, broad slapstick, but hilarious nonetheless.

30 Rock, Season 5 Finale — "Respawn"

Was it just me or did this not feel like a season finale even a little bit? It was light on laughs, had little narrative ambition, and didn't really resolve or put a satisfying bow on anything. Talk about going out with a whimper rather than a bang, especially at the end of what's otherwise arguably the best 30 Rock season since the first two. It almost feels (though I know this isn't actually the case) like "100" was produced as the season finale and Tina Fey and co were then suddenly told they'd have to throw together two more on short notice.

Jack using Kenneth as a surrogate Avery was pretty clever and clearly the episode's highlight. Liz and Tracy on the other hand did nothing for me outside of a few moment-to-moment punchlines, and Jenna and Paul kill the funny and momentum same as they always have (and of course they made Jane Krakowski randomly burst into song for the billionth time, and as always, it was about as funny as 9/11. Just keep beating that horse, 30 Rock). Lastly, they had to go and cap off the season with an incredibly awkward and unfunny Lost gag with Kenneth that was both about a year late and made me appreciate just how skilled Community actually is when it comes to pop culture meta references.

I'm going to do more elaborate full season retrospectives for all of these shows in the week or two after their finales, so I'll wrap up "Respawn" here. But I leave you with one final nugget for thought: What the hell happened to Chloë Moretz's character Kaylie Hooper, who vowed to destroy Jack and take over Kabletown? That was clearly intended to be a recurring character (her one episode was all setup and no payoff), and now the season's gone, and nothing. What gives!

Funniest Moment: Lutz begging Liz not to look at him as he uses his adult diaper made me laugh. So did the judge going, "Gavel gavel gavel! I lost my gavel over the weekend." But I'm disappointed that's all I got for a season finale.

Community, Season 2 Episode 23 — "A Fistful of Paintballs"

I'm going to keep this brief, because this is only the first half of a two-part finale that was initially intended to air as an hourlong episode, so it seems odd to review it by itself. After "For a Few Paintballs More" I'll have much, much more to say. But what we got here was masterful and the millionth testament to how Community is playing on a field of ambition and creativity that no other sitcom on television dares tread. It's one of the greatest TV series of all time and I love it beyond words. I love how they used the Black Rider as a red herring antagonist, how they're bringing the Pierce situation to a head and especially how they made Annie the protagonist (at least of this half) rather than focusing on Jeff à la "Modern Warfare." Masterstroke. Brilliant. Loved it.

Funniest Moment: Like "Modern Warfare," this episode succeeded more on the basis of me having an enormous, shit-eating grin on my face the entire time than on punchlines. There were dozens of hilarious bits, but I was having such a good time already that they stood out less than usual. It's a tough call. Jeff's obsession with being better-looking than the Black Rider was pretty great, as was Troy's input on the size of Jeff's forehead.

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

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