Sunday, May 2, 2010

NBC Sitcom Musings: 30 Rock, The Office & Community

Three years ago at the end of 30 Rock's first season I was completely in favor of the show's Emmy win for Outstanding Comedy Series. It got off to a slightly shaky start, buoyed more by Alec Baldwin's instantly classic interpretation of the sleazy executive archetype in Jack Donaghy than the scripts themselves, but soon grew into itself, finding a manic, madcap, often surreal voice that at its best moments even reminded me of Arrested Development's goofier bits. Episodes like "Tracy Does Conan" and "Hardball" (still, I think, the two best of the entire series) achieved comedic nirvana while The Office was in the midst of some slight third season growing pains with the whole Jim-Karen-Pam love triangle and, well, the less said about My Name Is Earl the better. An Emmy well awarded.

30 Rock's second season was still an easily recommendable sitcom but not quite up to the standards of season one. Not that the writers dropped the ball in any big way — quite the contrary, that's the season we had "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" — it was just a little less fresh, while The Office season four was roughly on the same level as season three (except for the episode "Dinner Party," a minor masterpiece of cringe-inducing, soul-crushing awkwardness, which I absolutely fucking loved). That year was definitely more up in the air but I certainly didn't have a problem with 30 Rock snagging the Emmy again. I still watched and laughed at every episode. It was just a little more ambiguous which show was truly better.

But when it comes to the latest Emmy, 30 Rock season three versus The Office season five, again won by 30 Rock, Emmy dropped the ball. 30 Rock was still ahead of the TV comedy curve, sure, anything written by Tina Fey will be, but was palpably treading water by that point, declining to innovate its format, take risks, or develop its characters in any permanent way (the show's only true long-running story arc is Liz and Jack's initially antagonistic relationship becoming a close friendship, which was pretty well complete by the end of season two).

The Office season five was meanwhile the show's best season since its second, with immensely likable new characters in Holly Flax and Erin Hannon, brilliantly awkward episodes like "Golden Ticket" and the "Lecture Circuit" two-parter, the long-time-coming Dwight vs. Andy showdown in "The Duel," the absurd sheer joy of "Cafe Disco," and the pièce de résistance, the entire Michael Scott Paper Company arc spanning the last quarter of the season where new boss Charles Miner (played by Idris Elba of The Wire) came in and fired Michael, prompting Michael to start a rival paper company. That arc was hilarious, exciting, bold, and not only some of the best comedy of that TV season but some of the best television, period. So I think the Emmys messed up there.

As for this TV season we now near the end of with The Office season six and 30 Rock season four, while I hate to admit it since I used to love the show so much, I'm really feeling 30 Rock's age. I've come this far and I continue to like Jack Donaghy so I'll probably stick it through to the end, but as a show that never tweaks its tone or settings, has no real running story arcs, never introduces any major new characters, and really evolves in no way except the well of jokes and episode plots running gradually drier, it's become a creaky thing. "Sweet, a new 30 Rock! Play that shit!" has become "Oh, a new 30 Rock. I guess I'll get around to that." The Office season six isn't nearly as strong as season five but I'm still enjoying it (outside of the abysmal clip show episode), perhaps because unlike 30 Rock the dynamics change, the characters develop, and the plot has at least a little sense of forward momentum.

The new NBC show that has risen forth from nowhere to become possibly my favorite sitcom on television is the college comedy Community, now nearing the end of its first season. It's tonally much more on par with 30 Rock than the The Office, with a cartoony, madcap, surreal nature to it and little in the way of genuine awkwardness or human drama (and as such, we'll see if it's feeling similarly old if it ever makes it to season four), but I'm really loving it. It's clever as hell, has a big cast of completely distinct and hilariously messed up characters, does pop culture references just right, and best of all has a strong satirical touch in the way it parodies or plays up sitcom tropes. Community deserves this season's Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy, although I'm already cringing in anticipation of Glee winning. I'm glad that the torch will be passed, but I fear it will be to the wrong show.

Consensus: Watch Community now while it's still young and easy to catch up on, because it's hilarious. The Office has its rough patches but I'd definitely still recommend getting into it if you haven't, and start from the beginning because it's a show that builds on itself and has satisfying character arcs (and because season two is the best season). 30 Rock is a little dusty at this point but at least watch the first two seasons. Skip My Name Is Earl now and forever. I'm not really into Parks and Recreation either, but some worthwhile critics like it.

Note: This post isn't to imply that NBC sitcoms are the only sitcoms worth watching. Starz' Party Down is outstanding dark comedy and possibly the most underwatched show on television outside of Friday Night Lights, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is ongoing, Curb Your Enthusiasm has been renewed for another season, and although I haven't yet watched it, many non-stupid people have recommended Modern Family to me. (I don't like How I Met Your Mother or The Big Bang Theory because the laugh track murders it, the animated sitcom trio of The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy have all grown incredibly stale and I stopped watching each years ago, and Entourage is a piece of shit and if you like it you should feel bad about yourself.) But I was just specifically interested in analyzing the NBC comedy block in this post.