Saturday, September 24, 2011

NBC Sitcom Roundup for 9/22/11

The Office, Season 8 Episode 1 — "The List"

It occurred to me while watching The Office's eighth season premiere, "The List," that the show has gradually evolved into more or less the complete opposite of what it was initially conceived as. Once upon a time, The Office was a bittersweet-to-brazenly-depressing portrait of being trapped in a joyless, dead end job with mostly annoying coworkers that thrived on tension and awkwardness. Moments so uncomfortable that your stomach started to knot and you had to fight the urge to look away from the screen were not an anomaly but the show's bread and butter.

Now, as we enter fall 2011 and the show's eighth season, The Office is a comforting 22 minutes spent among dear friends; a televised glass of warm milk. Moments of awkwardness are far more likely to be diffused with punchlines and cartoonish characters than allowed to let sit and fester, and episodes are routinely punctuated with heartwarming moments to make you coo "aww!" This was especially clear in this episode's ending sequence wherein new manager Andy goes to defend Dunder Mifflin's second tier employees to new CEO Robert California one by one, intercut with beaming faces all around the office and capped off with the millionth "Jim and Pam are cute and have a cute baby" moment of the last year.

But although the bite is almost entirely gone and the days of me counting down the hours until the next episode are long over, I still enjoy the show. The characters are so familiar and so well-defined and the cast so large that plenty of organic comedy can come naturally from even their most mundane interactions, which the show relies on much more at this point than particularly clever or original storytelling. As such, "The List" was an amusing and breezy if fundamentally unremarkable episode of television.

I'm still on the fence when it comes to the new bosses. Andy's somewhat awkward yet well-meaning characterization in this episode was too much like Michael Scott, so let's hope they can differentiate him a bit in weeks to come. I trust Ed Helms has the chops to play something a little more interesting.

New CEO Robert California, while still one-note, seems like a potentially interesting addition, bringing a certain menace (without being a villain) and a very different vibe than Michael. It was pretty clear that he was the best choice of the new characters in last season's finale, anyway, with James Spader being the only one to successfully craft any character at all from what he was given. I was a bit disappointed that the solution to the mystery of his list turned out to simply be winners and losers rather than something more abstract or him just playing mind games, but that's just a one-episode fault. Plenty of room to grow.

Finally, I'll just get this out of the way right now: Yes, there is undeniably a Steve Carell-shaped hole in the show. There's tons of comic talent left on the roster, including several actors who have led or co-led their own wide release comedy feature films, but Michael Scott was the main character and his relationships with the various employees were, barring Jim and Pam's romance, the most important in the show. If The Office had ended gracefully with his departure, that would have been fine, but it didn't and here we are. I miss and will continue to miss Carell's presence, but I won't bother reiterating it after this week, because it'd be redundant and what'd be the point?

Funniest Moment: I guess I'd have to go with Jim's incredulity at Erin, the office receptionist, not having a pen. Not exactly an enormous belly laugh, but there isn't too much to choose from this week.

Parks and Recreation, Season 4 Episode 1 — "I'm Leslie Knope"

One thing I've really enjoyed about Parks and Recreation is the way that it introduces longterm goals for its characters and narrative – filling in the pit in season one and the first part of season two and the Harvest Festival in the first half of season three – and, unlike other sitcoms that do so, such as the mystery of the titular mother in How I Met Your Mother, actually pays off and concludes these stories. It's a sitcom that believes in maintaining a strong narrative skeleton, and Leslie running for office may be its smartest yet. It risks isolating her from the main cast, perhaps, but it also really lights a fire under her character, will make the story move, and provides easy access to the unilaterally hilarious talk shows and news shows of Pawnee.

And "I'm Leslie Knope" did a great job kicking off her campaign and the show's season. It's not on par with the best of the last two seasons, but it never lacked for laughs and it's great to have the show back. Leslie's Perd Hapley interview was typically hilarious, the penis subplot made better use of the perennially underused Ann than the show has made in quite some time (and contained the friendliest possible utterance of "If I could go back in time and cut your eyeballs out, I would."), and Leslie and Ben's forced breakup managed to be touching without dipping into the mawkish. Great stuff all around.

I especially loved Andy being promoted from shoeshinist to Tom's old position as Leslie's assistant, which could result in him being assistant to a city councilwoman if she wins the election. Andy may have the best character development of any current sitcom character and some of the best character development on television, period, with him gradually and believably evolving from a broke, jobless, homeless and friendless man living under a tarp at the bottom of a mud pit into now being a liked, trusted, and happily married worker at city hall as we enter season four. I hope to see that development continue with him actually taking an active role in the government. Leslie and Ben breaking up didn't bother me at all, but I'd be really upset if Andy and April ever broke up.

My only hesitations in regard to "I'm Leslie Knope" are that, one, they seem to be deemphasizing Jerry's sad-sackness, which would be a shame since that's one of my favorite aspects of the show, and two, they blew through April being acting manager of the Parks department for three weeks in about one scene, which is a story I would have loved to see play out at least a little bit longer, even if it meant less Ron Swanson. But still, good solid episode and a promising return for one of the best shows on television.

Funniest Moment: Probably Andy dumping the Pepto-Bismol all over Kyle's shoe. What can I say? I'm a man of simple pleasures. I also liked Andy offering to be Leslie's assistant without pay for no apparent reason before April hurriedly stopped him. Basically, anything Andy does is gold.

Community, Season 3 Episode 1 — "Biology 101"

As of the end of Friday Night Lights earlier this year, Community is now pretty solidly my favorite show on television. I love Game of Thrones. I love Breaking Bad. I love Parks and Recreation. I love Spartacus. But Community is the true shit, a show that is pretty much everything I could ever imagine wanting from a sitcom; a near-flawless marriage of dazzling creativity, boundless ambition, wonderful characters, fantastic performances, hysterical dialogue, and a deep and abiding love of pop culture and the sitcom form itself. It even trumps every other sitcom on the air in non-comedy matters such as score, cinematography, and set design, as if to twist the knife of its effortless superiority. If you prefer another current sitcom, don't feel bad. It doesn't make you a bad person. It just makes you wrong.

And "Biology 101," while perhaps a bit lighter on laughs than last season's "Anthropology 101," was a great kickoff to what looks to be another potentially amazing season. Outside of Arrested Development it may be the most setup-heavy sitcom season premiere I've ever seen, opting to lay pipe for future developments with Dr. Marshall King and Vice Dean Leybourne rather than telling complete stories with them the way "Anthropology 101" did with Betty White (and I'm willing to bet that Abed's newfound love of Inspector Spacetime comes up again too, if the Cougar Town arc of last year is any indication), but that's cool. (Cool cool cool.) I love longform serialized storytelling. I think that's the shit TV is made for, so once again, for the thousandth time, Community and I sync up perfectly.

I do think they may have blown a few episodes of potential story by letting Pierce back into the group so quickly, but I trust that Dan Harmon and co know what they're doing. When it comes to comedy, characters, and storytelling, anyway. Between the abstract opening musical number, Abed's subplot relying on knowledge of Cougar Town, Doctor Who, and British sitcom conventions, multiple open-ended storylines, a protracted 2001: A Space Odyssey parody, Chang throwing a ham for no reason, and a plethora of references to various running jokes and subplots spanning the length of the series, I think it's safe to say they have absolutely no idea what they're doing when it comes to attracting new viewers. I can hardly imagine a sitcom episode more violently repulsive to your average Two and Half Men lover briefly clicking in to see what the deal is with this Community he's heard so much about, but that's totally cool. Harmon is now fully making Community for people who like things that are good, which is so rare and amazing on television.

Funniest Moment: While I absolutely loved the 2001 and end of Cougarton Abbey sequences ("You are the opposite of Batman."), the single exchange that made me laugh the hardest was right at the beginning of the episode, between Shirley and Star-Burns:

Shirley: "Oh, Star-Burns, I see you added a lizard to your special hat and sideburns. Am I missing anything?"

Star-Burns: "Yeah, the human being underneath it all. But no one's really interested in that, are they?!"

Shirley: "Noooo."

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

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