Thursday, October 20, 2011

NBC Sitcom Roundup for 10/13/11

(I felt there was too much positivity in my NBC sitcom roundups as of late, so effective immediately and until I decide I've had enough, I've added Whitney to the lineup. May god have mercy on my soul.)

The Office, Season 8 Episode 4 — "Garden Party"

Well, after three pretty solid outings for The Office's eighth season, we got us a bit of a clunker. Not an apocalyptic clunker – "Garden Party" is no "Christening" – but an incredibly generic, run-of-the-mill Dunder Mifflin party episode, one we've seen a million times before, and one where the few things that differentiated it were primarily for the worse.

The garden party setting, while outwardly harmless, gave rise to one of the dumbest episode framing devices in the history of the show with Jim's garden party advice book. Never mind that most of the resulting Dwight wackiness was less than hilarious; even for a sitcom, the idea that Jim wrote a complete book (from the look of it, a decently thick one) in preparation for this one event, created an anonymous online profile, and somehow got Dwight to buy it in lieu of however many real garden party books there are on Amazon to get a couple silly laughs is unacceptably stupid. Moronic. Almost insulting.

Josh Groban as Andy's brother was the worst, most obnoxious kind of stunt casting, the kind that made last season's finale so grating and that The Office admirably held itself above for six seasons (unless you count supporting players from The Wire as stunt casting, anyway). Now, Groban's performance for his first scene or two was fine, but then they had to bust out the guitars and go for the "funny" singing (i.e. just plain singing), which became an ultimate comedy pet peeve of mine at some point between the hundredth and millionth time they did it with Jenna on 30 Rock. Nothing but hate for that part of the episode.

Of course it all came around to a feel-good ending where the office rallied in support of Andy to make him feel welcome as their new boss, which would be great if they hadn't done the exact same ending two goddamn episodes ago in "The Incentive." Let's start thinking a little outside the box, guys!

Now, granted, there were some funny punchlines here and there as the show's viewpoint swung erratically around the party, including Mose making chaos while parking cars, a bird stealing Erin's hat, and the Citizen Kane debate between Oscar and Darryl. But alas, those bits were but sprinkles covering tuna-flavored ice cream. Worst episode of the season by far.

Funniest Moment: Ryan toasting the troops. All of them. Both sides.

Parks and Recreation, Season 4 Episode 4 — "Pawnee Rangers"

Like The Office, this was a fairly run-of-the-mill Parks outing, but with the important caveat that Parks and Rec's current mean quality level is much, much higher than The Office's. Multiple stories stemming loosely from the same event (most of the office being out camping, the few people left taking advantage of the empty nest), Leslie being triumphant, Ron being stubborn, Ann being awkward, Chris being peppy, Jerry being put upon, Tom and Donna being materialistic, Ben being a nerd, heartwarming ending, etc. All bases covered.

The main Pawnee Rangers vs. Pawnee Goddesses story, while light on Andy and April goodness, was full of funny stuff, especially in the contrast between the two camps and in Leslie's overly precocious kids. After a string of "Ron is awesome and always right" stories last year like the burger cook-off, it was nice to see an episode take him down a peg and show that he can, in fact, be wrong. I also like that, at least as of four episodes in, they seem to be alternating election and non-election stories for Leslie. Good way to do it, I'd say.

Ben, Tom, and Donna's "TREAT YO SELF" B-plot was definitely the highlight of the episode, if only because of Ben eating soup alone on a bench, his fear of acupuncture, and the Game of Thrones and Dark Knight references. Nevertheless, this has been the third consecutive episode to pair up Ben and Tom, so I wouldn't mind Ben getting a new story partner next week. Chris and Jerry's subplot all seemed like buildup for the two-second punchline of Jerry's reaction shot when Chris tells him he fucked his daughter, but that punchline was funny enough to make it all worthwhile.

Funniest Moment: Andy's intensity while reciting the oath of the Pawnee Goddesses.

Community, Season 3 Episode 4 — "Remedial Chaos Theory"

Best sitcom of last Thursday? Yes. Best TV episode of the week? Certainly. One of the best of the year? Absolutely. Best Community since "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons?" Quite possibly! "Remedial Chaos Theory" was the sort of condensed, propulsive brilliance Community specializes in that makes all other sitcoms feel small, dull, and gray in comparison. Granted, it's not the first sitcom episode to explore multiple timelines, but it is the first to explore seven multiple timelines, and weave countless subplots and running jokes through all of them in a manner reminiscent of a man juggling a dozen knives.

What's great is how the episode managed to have its cake and eat it too, being alternately absurdist, dark, poignant, slapsticky, or (in the case of the prime timeline) heartwarming depending on who got the pizza, and, like they've done with action movies, zombies, and Westerns, they made it all fit seamlessly within the framework of the show's reality. In addition to all the stories they were juggling, "Remedial Chaos Theory" showed supreme confidence in its grasp of tone, and how to make it veer in wildly different directions without ever feeling haphazard or uncontrolled.

It doesn't take a master sitcom analyst to look at the episode and notice that the group dynamic immediately improves when Pierce or Jeff is missing. When Pierce is absent, everyone starts getting along. When Jeff the judgmental steps out, they immediately lose their inhibitions and start having fun, which Jeff of course judges them for upon his return ("You guys see what happens when I leave you alone?"). This seems to tie directly into Jeff's nightmare about literally becoming Pierce back in "Biology 101." But beyond Jeff and Pierce, it's also interesting to look at how the absence of the others impacts things.

When Britta is gone, the group loses its heart and gets mean, with Pierce getting a little too harsh with Abed. With Shirley missing, they get selfish, letting her pies burn. When Abed is gone, they just plain stop having fun, with everyone getting really real then hurting each other's feelings. And without Troy, everything goes to fucking hell, seeming to say that without his goodhearted enthusiasm anchoring them there can be no group at all. (The only one for whom this theory seems to break down is Annie, who just last week in "Competitive Ecology" was voted most popular in the group, but whose absence seems to have little ill effect on anyone.)

Even putting aside the breadth and ambition of its storytelling, "Remedial Chaos Theory" was just hilariously funny. From Britta's pizza dance to Troy's candy cigarette to Annie's gun not being a pregnancy test to the Norwegian troll doll to Jeff repeatedly hitting his head on the fan to Britta's repeated botched attempts at singing "Roxanne," the episode refused to lighten up on the onslaught of comedy for a second. Granted, this is more the rule than the exception when it comes to Community, but it's always nice to see and nice to laugh as hard as this show demands.

It's also interesting to note that, save last season's "Competitive Wine Tasting," this is the most brazen episode yet concerning the seemingly inevitable romantic collision of Troy and Britta. I have no extremely strong feelings on this one way or the other, but I am curious to see if Community can pull off coupling up the study group (actual couples, I mean, so not counting Jeff and Britta's secret sex last season) without it starting to feel incestuous the way Friends did around the point that Joey fell in love with Rachel. The show has pulled off 98% of what it's taken a swing at up to this point, so I have no reason to believe they'd botch it.

But the most important question to ponder moving forward is, of course, whether or not we'll ever visit Evil Troy and Evil Abed in the dark timeline again. The show would continue on fine without them, but it would be a shame not to follow up on that astoundingly brilliant tag. If we ever return to that timeline I hope we get a chance to visit in on psycho Annie.

Funniest Moment: For the sheer, manic energy of it I'd have to go with Troy's Darth Vaderian "NOOOOOOO!!!!" upon seeing the Norwegian troll doll amidst the fire, but he also had the funniest line delivery not a minute into the episode. Shirley: "Time flies when I'm baking!" Troy: *grinning widely* "No it doesn't!"

Whitney, Season 1 Episode 4 — "A Decent Proposal"

Watching Whitney's latest pile of shit masquerading as a sitcom episode, it occurred to me that I'd seen this story before: Whitney and Alex's game of romantic chicken was instantly evocative of Jeff and Britta in Community's second season premiere, "Anthropology 101." Now, I'm not saying that Whitney's writers ("writers" in the same sense that one who defaces a urinal with graffiti is an "artist") ripped off Community – nothing about Whitney implies that anyone involved has ever seen a funny episode of television – but it's fascinating to compare the two and see why one works and one doesn't.

Now, you might say, "Tim, you asshole, one is funny because it has good writers, good jokes, Joel McHale, and Gillian Jacobs, and the other is unfunny because it has shit writers, shit jokes, Whitney Cummings, and Chris D'Elia!" And, of course, you'd be right. But beyond that, examining story structure, Community's romantic chicken worked because the two people involved weren't already in a longterm relationship, they were forced to put on a performance for everyone else's benefit, there was another character (Abed) driving the stakes upward, and they had the people around them choosing sides ("Jeff Winger you're a jerk!").

Whitney, however, shows no aptitude whatsoever for the basic notion of comic stakes: The romantic chicken is being played exclusively between two (uninteresting) people, and, whoever wins, no one will care and nothing will result. It will have no impact on Whitney or Alex as people or on their relationship. It's small, boring storytelling. And, yes, as I mentioned above, on a moment-to-moment and joke-to-joke basis, it was cripplingly unfunny. This show sucks the big dick.

Funniest Moment: Geez. That's a little like being tasked with finding the tastiest turd in a toilet bowl full of shit, isn't it? I guess if I had to choose I'd go with the part at the end where Jonathan from 30 Rock proposes to the redheaded one, because it was hilarious that Whitney actually thought I would be emotionally moved by that. You just want to pat the show on the head and say "Aw, good job, champ!", like you would to a kindergartener showing off their artwork.

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

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