Friday, December 24, 2010

NBC Sitcom Roundup — "Classy Christmas, "Christmas Attack Zone," & "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas"

Yeah, these episode reviews are like two weeks late, but when better to review three Christmas specials than on the day before Christmas? Okay, okay, starting next year I'll try to get my sitcom roundups posted in a more timely fashion. I'm also pleased to say that via Netflix Watch Instantly I've caught up on Parks and Recreation, and the second season not only managed to find a voice beyond aping The Office but was franky terrific — better than the 30 Rock or Office seasons it was airing against, to be honest, behind only Community. So starting with the return of the NBC comedy block on January 20th I'll be adding Parks and Rec to the rotation and doing a four-show sitcom roundup. Will I survive such chaos? Probably not. Let's get this Christmas party started with a Christmas party episode:

The Office, Season 7 Episode 11/12 — "Classy Christmas"

My sincere kudos to writer Mindy Kaling, director Rainn Wilson, and all the producers: they brought out the big guns for their hourlong midseason finale. "Classy Christmas" was straight-up classic era Office greatness and the best episode of the seventh season by a mile. I loved basically every minute of it. Admittedly this may correlate to my (recently documented) love of Amy Ryan, who I think is one of the most effortlessly likable actors in the world on TV or otherwise, but even before she showed up I was laughin' and hootin' and havin' a great ol' time.

But let's come back around to Amy Ryan in a minute. Starting with the smaller plots and working our way up, while Pam's homemade superhero comic book, Darryl's semi-estranged daughter, and Angela's probably-gay state senator boyfriend may not have been overwhelmingly great A-plots to anchor their own episodes, they filled out the edges of this one nicely. I particularly liked Darryl being given some extra shading beyond being the droll, detached guy in the corner office. Between Pineapple Express and Hot Tub Time Machine Craig Robinson may be the actor outside of Carell and Helms whose extra-Office fame has increased the most since the show began, and he deserves (and, after Carell's impending departure, will no doubt get) increased prominence.

Jim and Dwight's snowball war (or, more accurately, Dwight's snowball terrorism) was a hysterical turning of the prank tables. Of course this is coming from someone who has always been iffy on Jim's pranks (and I do mean always, even in the generally sublime season two); they never bothered me on the original British Office as Tim Canterbury wasn't supposed to be as much of a lovable teddy bear as Jim, but in shifting all the characters three or four shades up on the likability scale the American version has always struggled with making Jim's pranks side look like anything more than juvenile bullying. But they were all worthwhile to build up to Dwight's retaliation in this episode. Jim's humiliation upon breaking the window and his terror at the snowman army at the end were both wonderful to behold. And kudos to Rainn Wilson the director for the way he shot Dwight's reveal at the end, looking down from upon the rooftop like the grim visage of Death. Hilarious.

And finally, of course, the return of Holly Flax. As I've said before and I'm sure I'll say again over the next several months, I love Holly and I love Amy Ryan in the role. Few times in the history of television has a new character entered an established series and won me over as quickly as Holly did in The Office's fourth season finale. She stirs up the chemistry of Dunder Mifflin in such an electric way and feels like such an integral part of the mythology that it's crazy to realize she's only appeared in 9 of the show's 138 episodes. Long story short, I'm a huge fan of the character.

And her return in "Classy Christmas" (which I didn't know was coming until the day the episode aired, making for a nice real-life Christmas gift) didn't disappoint! I loved Michael initially turning into a raging manchild but swallowing his anger and jealously and putting on a show of normalcy when A.J. arrived. The Woody doll confrontation scene between Holly and Michael with the rest of the office caught in the crossfire may be my favorite scene of the season so far. "But someday I think we will laugh about this... when we tell our kids." "Yikes."

However, much as I love Holly, I also love the fact that Erin irrationally dislikes her from the moment they meet. It feels like bizarro world Michael and Toby.

General midseason thoughts: The Office is past its prime. I don't think I'm offending anyone when I say that. I doubt even the writers and producers would disagree (in their minds, anyway). If you put aside the absolutely wonderful "Classy Christmas" and the pretty darn funny Halloween episode "Costume Contest" (and, to a lesser extent, "Andy's Play") it's been a shaky season that has pointed surprisingly little towards the endgame of Steve Carell's departure as a series regular in a few short months.

But still, I love The Office. However disappointed I may be by episodes like "Counseling," "The Sting," and especially "Christening," I still find myself looking forward to visiting Scranton every single week. It comes down to the characters, which may sound obvious but isn't really the case for all shows. Something like 24 I watched for the action, something like Lost or The Event mostly for the mysteries, even other sitcoms like Arrested Development or 30 Rock I really watched / watch for the jokes. But The Office has such a deep bench of talent (as of Amy Ryan being added to the main credited cast there are now nineteen people listed as "Starring," something I don't believe can be said for a single other scripted show on television) that even when the jokewriting feels stale there's always a freshness to who the show is focusing on any given week.

30 Rock has definitely been more consistent than The Office this season, but I find myself way more excited for the return of The Office for two big reasons: one, Holly. I'm sure she won't be getting only Michael-related "mythology" stories and will have her share of episodic sitcommy stuff to do between now and May, but even in that context getting to watch Amy Ryan will be a pleasure. And two, seeing what the big plan for Michael's departure is — something they've had a year to map out, so hopefully it'll be good. I absolutely dread what The Office season eight may look like without Carell, but at the same time there's probably no television happening of 2011 outside of Game of Thrones and the ending to Friday Night Lights I'm more curious about. Bring on January 20th.

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 10 — "Christmas Attack Zone"

"Christmas Attack Zone" was pretty decent. Not on par with this season's extremely strong four-episode stretch between "Reaganing" and "College," but I had some laughs at the Jack Donaghy and Tracy Jordan stories. But first off I have a confession, one that I gather is blasphemous in 30 Rock fandom: I really don't give a shit about Elaine Stritch as Colleen Donaghy. Every TV forum and TV blog I read just goes fucking apeshit with praise for her every single time she shows up, and I just don't get it. Yeah, she was funny in her first appearance or two, but the hypercritical mom routine quickly became redundant and one-note. But I guess the rest of America is way more into Broadway shows than I am, because every time she makes her semiannual appearance I grimace in anticipation of reading novels worth of praise about the glory and the wonder of Elaine Stritch.

I preface with this because I want to make it clear that I'm actually saying something and not just shitting out prepackaged 30 Rock criticism when I say that I enjoyed the hell out of Colleen's story in this episode, largely due to bringing Alan Alda as Milton Greene, Jack's biological father, back into the mix. I would have liked actually seeing a bit more of the awkward dinner between the Donaghy clan and Liz, but the bits and pieces we did get were largely a joy that also made better use of Elizabeth Banks as Avery Jessup than any episode so far this season. Milton and Jack's exchange of "Listen to me, dammit, I'm a doctor!" "Of history! In what emergency would you be necessary, if someone wanted to know whether the 60s were awesome or not?!" "They were!" was my biggest laugh of the episode by far.

I'm not entirely sure whether Tracy's subplot was a tribute to or an unintentional knockoff of Sullivan's Travels, but I liked it for no other reason than that I largely agree with its thesis statement that critical society undervalues comedy as meaningful art while propping up manufactured "drama." As someone who believes Forgetting Sarah Marshall to be a greater film than The Reader in every meaningful metric, I appreciate 30 Rock for agreeing that sometimes comedy is just better. That, and the gag where Tracy's Kenneth voiceover was revealed to just be Kenneth standing off to the side. But Jenna and Paul's subplot again left me stony-faced (outside of the scene between Liz and Paul in the tranny restaurant, anyway). 30 Rock, I beg of you, stop, stop, stop trying to make me laugh with Jane Krakowski singing. I absolutely promise you it is never going to happen. Just let it go.

General midseason thoughts: 30 Rock is the TV equivalent of a warm and pleasant but somewhat stale long-term relationship at this point. There ain't much fire between us anymore and it hasn't been hot and heavy since 2007 or early 2008, but at the same time I have no interest in ending things — we still have good times and some regular laughs, so why would I?

I admit there was a point at the tail end of last season, when it seemed every other episode sunk half its time into the virtually-never-funny Jack / Nancy / Avery love triangle, where I briefly considered whether or not I even wanted to keep watching. It was a bleak era. But once Avery got pregnant and Jack committed to her the show felt like it had been let out of funniness prison and this season has been a stark, unmistakable improvement from the word go. I don't expect 30 Rock to start dazzling me on a week in, week out basis any time soon (or for the rest of its run), but there remains a lot of funny people behind the scenes coming up with a handful of great jokes every week, which is pretty much exactly what the show promised from the get go. I'm in it for the long haul.

There is an interesting elephant in the room, though, one that The Office is currently in the midst of confronting: Alec Baldwin recently stated his intention to give up acting in 2012, which would be at the end of 30 Rock's sixth season (which it has already been renewed for). There are three ways this can play out: one, he changes his mind, which is by no means out of the question if they flash him some fat green. Two, they end the show, which won't happen. Or three, they continue on for a seventh season without him. Although he may not be the protagonist, 30 Rock without Baldwin in my opinion leaves even more of a gaping hole in the show's heart than The Office without Steve Carell, so let's hope NBC offers him a raise, because the alternative would be hard to watch.

Community, Season 2 Episode 11 — "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas"

In terms of pure laugh count it's true that "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" falls clearly short of last season's blisteringly brilliant Christmas episode "Comparative Religion" (as well as The Office's "Classy Christmas"). Too much of the show's comedy is contained in the actors' facial expressions, especially Donald Glover's, for it to truly cross over uncompromised into the claymation medium. But I still loved this episode for no other reason than that it showed once again how creative and how incredibly ambitious Community is compared to every other sitcom on television. Absolutely nothing else would have the brass balls to try something like this, or the zombie episode, or the Apollo 13 episode, or most of this season's episodes. Make no mistake, Dan Harmon and the rest of Community's writing staff are going balls to the wall with every out-there idea they've ever had, holding back nothing, and it's awesome.

In a way I think this episode was sort of the thematic sequel to the third episode of the series, "Introduction to Film." Both revolved around Abed's issues with his parents (although more specifically his mother in this case), filtering them through pop culture as Britta tries her best to help him and is largely brushed aside for her efforts. Difference being that the study group is much closer and much more a family by this point, and fittingly the entire crew is involved in Abed's crisis this time rather than just Britta and Jeff. In fact, I thought it was interesting that the episode dispensed with Community's official protagonist Jeff (plus Shirley) fairly quickly after they reached Planet Abed, with Pierce surprisingly being the only one to make it to the end of Abed's mindtrip.

The resolution went for a sort of gooey heartwarmingness that I admit I'd probably cringe at if they insisted on ending every episode in such an emotionally blunt fashion, but hey, it's Christmas, and it seems to be a one-time thing. I'll let it slide. Using the Lost DVD a metaphor to represent "lack of payoff" won my heart as well. "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" may not join Die Hard or Home Alone on my list of Christmas classics the way I felt "Epidemiology" was an instant classic work of horror-comedy able to stand with some of the best ever, but nonetheless, nice show, Community.

General midseason thoughts: Not only is Community still the best sitcom on television, it's reached the point where it's insane to me that anyone would argue otherwise. The ambition approaches Arrested Development and the unreal chemistry of the cast approaches Friends week by week. True, this semester saw what I feel is probably the worst episode of the series, "Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples," but almost every single other episode has been one degree or another of fantastic.

Yeah, there's been a lot of high concept pop culture parodies, with zombies, 70s conspiracy thrillers, Apollo 13, Mean Girls, The Secret Garden, and now Rankin/Bass claymation Christmas specials all getting riffed on, but most of these have been so terrific I couldn't possibly criticize the show for it. Not to mention that other episodes like "Anthropology 101," "Accounting for Lawyers," "Cooperative Calligraphy," and "Mixology Certification" have been parody-free and outstanding, with the lattermost being understated and sad in a way that I didn't know this show had it in itself to pull off.

To go on would just decline into me listing a bunch of favorite moments from the season thus far, so I'll just say that "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" cemented Annie as my favorite character, I'm feverishly anticipating the show's return next year, and leave it at that. It's one of my favorite shows of all time, and my heart can barely take the notion that low ratings could lead to its cancellation next spring, especially if $#*! My Dad Says and Mike & Molly continue to shamble on, mocking television with their existence.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ranking Community Season 1

For years I went back and forth every other day on whether the best stretch of post-Arrested Development TV comedy was the first two seasons of 30 Rock or the second and third seasons of The Office. Try as I might, it was an impregnable quandary. But in fall of 2009 Dan Harmon and the Russo brothers came along and made an impossible decision very easy: the best post-Arrested Development TV comedy, and a very real contender for my second favorite sitcom of all time, is NBC's Community. I mean, I love The Office. I love 30 Rock. Never missed an episode of either, never plan to. But I'd see both of them and every other non-Community sitcom on TV canceled and yanked off the air today if it would guarantee Harmon a few more seasons to do his thing.

An insanely likable cast with massive chemistry, clever and ambitious storytelling, sly subversion of sitcom tropes, strong filmmaking, flat-out sublime joke writing and more make it clear that Community is operating on a level unrivaled by any other comedy on television (and only one or two dramas, to be honest). I never thought a half-hour college comedy would trump Judd Apatow's Undeclared, but Community does so within its first ten episodes and just keeps on improving. It's so good it's almost ruined the genre of comedy for me. I saw dozens of comedy films in theaters in 2010, and even liked some, but with the exceptions of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and possibly MacGruber I was always left thinking, "well, that had fewer laughs than any given twenty-two minutes of Community, and Community is free."

I recently picked up and rewatched the first season on DVD, seeing most of the episodes for the first time since they originally aired, and just had to talk about how much I love this show. But rather than doing a straight-up review I decided to go through the entire season and and rank each episode from #25 to #1, along with some brief discussion of and favorite moments from each. Keep in mind that unlike my best of the year movie lists, which I try to write as readable and coherent even if you haven't seen a single movie discussed, I'm writing this more for the already-iniated, because I want to highlight specific jokes. But enough foreplay, let's get streets ahead.

25. Episode 2 - "Spanish 101"

I'll say first thing that there's not a single episode of this season that I consider bad television (the only Community to date which I actively dislike is season two's "Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples"), but "Spanish 101" does, like several of the first six episodes, demonstrate some growing pains. It's somewhat fun to watch Senor Chang's intro and Jeff and Pierce's presentation, but Annie and Shirley's protest subplot is dead in the comedic water. I'm not saying any newbies should skip "Spanish 101" — it's still better than a solid half of 30 Rock season four — but I will say to power through and not think too hard about it.

Best Moment: "La Biblioteca," of course.

24. Episode 14 - "Interpretive Dance"

Again, not a bad episode by any means, but it seems like they were going for a "Debate 109" or "Comparative Religion"-level set piece with Britta and Troy's dance at the end, which it in no way measures up to. The exposure of Jeff and Slater's secret relationship is more entertaining.

Best Moment: Honestly, I'd have to go with Annie's gasp of shock and betrayal when Britta announces that she and Troy have something to tell everyone. Not because it's a particularly brilliant joke as written but because Alison Brie is the best.

23. Episode 5 - "Advanced Criminal Law"

The A-plot with the poolside trial is pretty good stuff and among the earliest hints at how bizarre and creative Community would eventually become, although I will say that Britta using a cheat sheet initially soured me on her character. Still, hard to deny the greatness of John Oliver. The subplot with Pierce's song is a bit flat and anticlimactic but fortunately Pierce's musical career would be put to much better use a mere three episodes later.

Best Moment: Probably Leonard getting "busted" for not wearing a bathing suit, because Leonard is hilarious.

22. Episode 11 - "The Politics of Human Sexuality"

I love Annie's entire "reverse Porky's" subplot, and although it stretches even Community's version of reality to have a TV nerd best the former high school quarterback, Abed and Troy's battle of athleticism is worth some chuckles. But while I appreciate Jeff coming to respect women (or at least Britta) as essential character development, I do think they could have found a way to make it a little funnier.

Best Moment: Either Annie's traumatic backstory about losing her virginity, the guidance counselor insisting that everyone say "penis," or any time the phrase "reverse Porky's" is uttered. Annie's whole subplot, really.

21. Episode 1 - "Pilot"

Sitcom pilots are the first dates of television — they're rough, awkward, mostly consist of feeling things out, and your chances of walking away satisfied are slim to nonexistent, but at the same time they're a necessary evil to get to the good stuff. Comedic rhythm between actors takes time to develop and it's almost never all there within one episode, and Community is no exception (neither is Arrested Development, for that matter, for which the pilot is probably one of the top five weakest episodes of the series). Annie and Troy are written slightly but noticeably differently than they would eventually become and Jeff's manipulative speech at the end runs a good half-minute long. However, it does a good job setting up the world of Greendale, Winger's character, and winning some laughs along the way, and I loved the John Hughes / Breakfast Club tributes.

Best Moment: "You know, I thought you were like Bill Murray in any of his films, but you're more like Michael Douglas in any of his films." "Yeah?" "Yeah." "Well you have Asperger's." "...what does that mean?" "Ass burger." "It's a serious disorder." "It really is." "If it's so serious why don't they call it... meningitis? Asperger's!" "Burger for yo' ass."

20. Episode 25 - "Pascal's Triangle Revisited"

This is a good episode but, I admit, a little bit disappointing as a season finale in that it isn't a great episode. It really is just a sitcom love triangle — one with characters I'm actually invested in and jokes that are actually funny (the Dean's dalmatian fetish, Troy's cookie, people at the Tranny Dance shouting which "team" they're on, anything with John Oliver, etc.) — but on the basic story level it really doesn't attempt to subvert, parody, or rise above the traditional sitcom love triangle in any way. It's almost like something out of latter-era Friends. I also thought Britta's desperate, lovesick characterization was off.

Best Moment: Either the closing credits tag, where we see a whole different side of Greendale who neither know nor like our heroes, or Troy angrily telling Abed that there was a Happy Days where a guy literally jumped over a shark, and it was the best one.

19. Episode 20 - "The Science of Illusion"

Now here's where we start getting into the unambiguously good stuff. Britta's April Fools prank gone awry has amusing slapstick value even if cadaver humor is a little tired these days, and the Dean bringing in the corpse's family one by one to talk to Chang's Spanish class about their memories of him is hilarious, but the true magic of "The Science of Illusion" is in Shirley and Annie's bad cop / badder cop routine, with Abed always watching and occasionally playing their no-nonsense African-American police chief who's too old for this shit.

Best Moment: Annie macing herself.

18. Episode 6 - "Football, Feminism, and You"

The ladies' room etiquette subplot is a bit hit-or-miss, but any episode with a big emphasis on Donald Glover can't really go wrong, not to mention the introduction of the Greendale Human Being.

Best Moment: Troy's politically conservative high school shamefully outdated fight rap.

17. Episode 24 - "English as a Second Language"

Kind of interesting how both of the final two episodes of the season have such heavy emphasis on Annie, but on the other hand Annie is one of my favorite characters on television so I can hardly complain. The revelation of how poorly-taught the class has been for an entire year is hysterical, and while Troy's Good Will Hunting subplot is bizarre and arbitrary even by Community standards (and peaks ten seconds in when he steals the chalk instead of solving the equation), it's still pretty funny in its absurdity. I also like that it's Pierce who saves the day in the end.

Best Moment: Either the class realizing how in over their heads they are after a minute of their new Spanish teacher, Chang destroying Jeff's car followed by Jeff and Chang being tased together, or Star-Burns leading everyone out in a show of support for "Hannah." Tough call.

16. Episode 15 - "Romantic Expressionism"

This is definitely an episode where the B-plot trumps the A-plot. Not that the A-plot is bad (indeed, both of my best moments below stem from it), but while Jeff and Britta trying to break up Annie and Vaughn may amuse, Pierce's attempts at winning bad movie night are classic. Watching him bomb during Kickpuncher is awkward comedy done right, his hiring of a community college sketch comedy troupe (played by Derrick Comedy) to write him a series of homophobic jokes is one of the funniest Pierce bits of the season, and capping things off with Troy and Abed's own homoerotic Kickpuncher sequel makes for a great episode.

Best Moment: Either Troy having the weirdest boner or Jeff and Leonard shouting at each other over the macaroni.

15. Episode 4 - "Social Psychology"

Another episode where I feel the B-plot dominates. "Social Psychology" does a good job developing Jeff and Shirley's friendship (and one thing I like about Community is that there's a lot more variety to the nature of the cast's relationships than in something like Friends; everyone isn't just equal-footing buddies) and no one can deny that Eric Christian Olsen throws himself into the role of tiny-nippled Vaughn. But the real highlight is the titular psych experiment with Annie, Abed, and Professor Ian. Everyone's freakouts as the experiment goes on are classic (especially Troy crawling out of the room like a wounded animal). Annie and Abed are my two favorites so any plot that puts them together I'm pretty much guaranteed to love.

Best Moment: Abed telling Annie that he "figured we were more like Chandler and Phoebe, they never really had stories together," explaining to her that he stayed because he thought they were friends, or her apologizing to him with a gift of Indiana Jones... any Abed and Annie moment, really. The ending tag is great too.

14. Episode 16 - "Communication Studies"

Minor classic territory now, and the first episode on this list I feel basically every aspect of works completely. The level to which the main drunk dial storyline digs into Jeff, Britta, and Abed is brilliant, making room for pathos, awkwardness, power plays, Britta looking incredibly sexy dressed up for the Valentine's dance, and an absurdist Breakfast Club-styled drinking montage. Mix with Troy and Pierce's humiliation in the B-plot and the Greendale Human Being's transformation into the Cupid Being and you have great fucking television.

Best Moment: Three-way tie between Jeff and Abed's drinking montage, Troy dancing full-heartedly with his body while crying with his face, and Jeff looking back at Britta as he and Slater leave the dance.

13. Episode 13 - "Investigative Journalism"

This one seemed a little controversial on forums I read due to the way Jack Black takes over the show, but as a television junkie I thought it was a kind of brilliant parody of unwelcome guest stars stepping into and taking over sitcoms (remember Brad Pitt and a million other Friends guest spots?). I mean, obviously the character he's playing is annoying and unwelcome. That's the point, and the way he sneaks into the group hug at the beginning makes me laugh every time. In a way, "Investigative Journalism" is as much a pop culture parody as "Modern Warfare" or season two's "Epidemiology," it's just a parody of something much more niche and specific. Factor in all the flavorful M*A*S*H references and I think this episode rules.

Best Moment: Senor Chang's fake death, resurrection, and rap (although the most classic line is "Annie's pretty young, we try not to sexualize her.").

12. Episode 18 - "Basic Genealogy"

Okay, I'll admit that neither Abed's dad and Shirley's kids or Jeff trying to sleep with Pierce's stepdaughter just blow the roof off of contemporary comedy, but, seriously, Britta getting spanked by Troy's grandma while Troy sobs in the background is one of the absolute funniest things to be broadcast on television in 2010. It's just so beautifully, sublimely absurdist, and I suspect no actor on earth cries funnier than Donald Glover. When I first saw "Basic Genealogy" I was still thinking back to the spanking scene and laughing a week later. I still laugh thinking about it today.

Best Moment: Britta's spanking, of course. (Although a solid silver for second has to go to Jeff sobbing to Pierce about how much he hates Glee.)

11. Episode 3 - "Introduction to Film"

After funny but not quite revelatory first and second episodes, this was the Community that startled me with how much more I enjoyed it than any recent Office or 30 Rock and assured the show a permanent place on my viewing schedule, and is easily the best of the first six. John Michael Higgins (Wayne Jarvis on Arrested Development... what a pro) is hilarious as the professor who challenges Jeff more than expected with his supposedly blow-off "seize the day" class, but the episode's heart and soul is unquestionably Abed and the film project he's made for his father. I don't know that I've ever seen a non-lead sitcom character take shape so quickly and distinctly.

Best Moment: Abed's film.

10. Episode 7 - "Introduction to Statistics"

If "Introduction to Film" is the episode where I truly became a Community fan, "Introduction to Statistics" is the episode where Community truly became Community: the characters have taken shape and the unique, self-aware tone and the pop culture references are charging full-speed ahead. Sure, drug trips are a little bit generic for college comedy, but this was where I really started feeling for Annie (way more than after her guilt trips in "Football, Feminism, and You"), and although Abed-Batman saving Jeff and Pierce from the collapsing chair fort may pale compared to "Modern Warfare" (from the same episode director as this one, Justin Lin of Better Luck Tomorrow fame), it was unexpected and absolutely hilarious at the time.

Best Moment: Either Abed saving Jeff and Pierce or his Batman monologue on the roof immediately after.

9. Episode 8 - "Home Economics"

Every element rocks. Annie's unrequited passion for Troy which comes to involve a visit to the school nurse played by Patton Oswalt, Jeff becoming homeless, moving in with Abed, and absorbing his lifestyle, and especially Pierce and Vaughn's musical collaboration and then rivalry with Britta caught in the crossfire. I just had a grin on my face after watching, which is what a sitcom episode should aspire to.

Best Moment: All three insult songs ("Getting Rid of Britta," "Pierce You're a B," and "Pierce's Rap") are hilarious, but the first is definitely the best. Pierce's nasal "She's a G.D.B.!" just can't be beat, especially coupled with Britta's expression at the end.

8. Episode 22 - "The Art of Discourse"

Jeff and Britta's plot to achieve vengeance against the high schoolers by having Jeff sleep with the ringleader's mom would be enough to hold up a really funny episode all on its own (some people didn't like the "DUH!" climax, but it made me laugh my ass off), but when you mix in Abed and Troy going on a mission to work through Abed's first year of college checklist, culminating with Animal House "where are they now?" subtitles, and especially Shirley and Pierce's feud, you have one of the funniest TV episodes of 2010. Definitely the best Shirley / Pierce story of the series to date.

Best Moment: Easily Pierce offering flowers and an apology to the wrong middle-aged black woman. Absolutely fucking hilarious.

7. Episode 17 - "Physical Education"

Another all-brilliant all-the-time piece of work and a particularly great episode for Jeff and Abed, with a revealing and spectacular climax. I like how this episode and "Beginner Pottery" show that Jeff isn't pure cool and has his own absurd, self-conscious side just waiting to be unleashed.

Best Moment: I really can't choose. Naked billiards is hysterical and a choice I'd be comfortable with, but Britta's mispronunciation of "bagel," the revelation of white Abed, and Abed doing "Don Draper from Mad Men" and nearly kissing Annie are also goddamn classic.

6. Episode 19 - "Beginner Pottery"

You'd think that Tony Hale of Arrested Development fame stepping in to teach a class at Greendale would easily dominate the episode comedically, and the way it sends Jeff into a Goldblumming psychosis is indeed really funny (I also like that Hale is playing a character who has nothing in common with Buster Bluth), but for my money Shirley, Pierce, Britta, and Troy's boating B-plot is even better. The tragedy, the drama, the triumph of it; simply sublime.

Best Moment: Shirley sending the ship across the parking lot to rescue Pierce scored to epic adventure music, but "the hilarious guy-on-guy" followed by Tony Hale pointing to and then defending his anti-Swayze poster comes damn close.

5. Episode 10 - "Environmental Science"

I absolutely love these top five episodes. "Environmental Science" unapologetically spends its entire duration building up to Troy and Abed's rat-luring song sequence which is used to underscore the resolution of every story, but good lord does it really, really work. It almost has a season finale feel to it, when it wasn't even the winter finale. Community don't fuck around.

Best Moment: "Somewhere Out There" is the moment that Community officially became one of my favorite shows.

4. Episode 12 - "Comparative Religion"

First off, Anthony Michael Hall's guest spot basically couldn't be any funnier. Every moment he spends onscreen as Greendale's resident bully is gold (not to mention that Hall and Chevy Chase together makes this a National Lampoon's Vacation reunion, even if they never interact). But I also think the way the episode approaches the topic of religion is deft and funny (especially Pierce labeling Jeff a "lazy man's atheist"), not preaching one way or another and having it all come down to a mass brawl in the quad anyway. Part of the reason I disliked season two's "Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples" so much is that it handled bluntly and awkwardly what "Comparative Religion" already had with subtlety and care, but it doesn't change this being one of my favorite sitcom Christmas specials of all time.

Best Moment: You'd think the final brawl, and it'd be a good guess, but in truth the moment that made me laugh hardest was Pierce kicking Troy in the shin followed by Troy spitting "WHY SHE HAFTA BE BLACK?!" I couldn't breathe.

3. Episode 9 - "Debate 109"

The B-plots with Abed's eerily accurate student films and Britta's hypnotherapy are extremely solid (especially Chevy Chase's slow, agonizing pratfall into the drums as he attempts to escape the music room), but the A-plot dominates here and I think it's definitely the strongest Annie episode of the entire series to date as well as the one where I decided she's my favorite character. Something about Greendale vs. City College just really lets the comedy flow (also seen in season two's "Basic Rocket Science") and my only disappointment is that antagonist Jeremy Simmons has yet to make a return appearance.

Best Moment: This is gonna seem like a very shipper thing to say, but Annie kissing Jeff and forcing him to drop Jeremy Simmons to win the debate was probably the most perfect imaginable climax for the episode.

2. Episode 21 - "Contemporary American Poultry"

I love Goodfellas and I love The Godfather and I love Abed — hell, I even love chicken fingers — so it should come as no surprise that I consider this episode a masterpiece and, as with "Debate 109" and Annie, Abed's all-time high. Every aspect of crime cinema, from the initial elimination of Star-Burns that allows them in the game, to the establishment of their chicken finger criminal empire, to the period of wealth and prosperity, followed by greed, betrayal, and finally downfall, is somehow squeezed into twenty-two perfect minutes (less, not counting the ending tag). How'd they do it? I dunno, but I think "Contemporary American Poultry" is one of my favorite sitcom episodes of all time, something that truly shows how ambitious Community is compared to every other comedy on television. I should note that Emily Cutler wrote both this and the next and final episode on this list, which in my opinion makes her one of the best comedy writers on the planet.

Best Moment: The Godfather homage when Troy closes the door on Jeff while Abed's hand is being kissed just fucking slays me. That's how you do a pop culture reference, Seth MacFarlane.

1. Episode 23 - "Modern Warfare"

This is such a cliché pick for favorite Community episode, yet impossible to escape from. My jaw was on the floor after I watched "Modern Warfare." It helps that Die Hard is one of my all-time top ten favorite films and I love 80s action in general, but I don't think the ambition and scale of something like "Modern Warfare" has ever been attempted in the sitcom medium prior to 2010. It's just brilliant, breathtaking, and hilarious, and I love, love, love that they upped the emotional stakes to match the apocalyptic settings by choosing this episode to have Jeff and Britta finally hook up. Honestly, other sitcom producers should look at "Modern Warfare," something Dan Harmon put together in his first goddamn year as a TV showrunner (with the help of Justin Lin and Emily Cutler), and feel profound shame. This episode raised the bar, and while I can't read the future and say that nothing will ever be the same, I hope it won't be. This is the shit television was invented for.

Best Moment: Senor Chang's entire John Woo-flavored scene in the library with Jeff and Britta should be studied by TV writers, directors, and producers for years to come, and I'm not kidding or exaggerating in the slightest when I say that. It's two minutes of perfection.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ranking Fall 2010's New TV Series FINALE

Okay, time for the final update to my rankings of fall 2010's new TV shows in light of the season finales of Boardwalk Empire and The Walking Dead and what turned out to be the series finale of FX's now sadly canceled Terriers.

First off, Terriers, which was an original, compelling, dark, supremely well-acted and often unexpectedly hilarious mystery show through its first eleven episodes, abruptly became fucking incredible in its two-part series finale. Like, holding-your-breath, heart-thumping-as-it-goes-to-commercial, saying-"holy shit!"-right-out-loud incredible. I had ranked it #2 behind Boardwalk Empire through most of the season, considering the two shows more or less tied, but after the finale there was no longer any contest. I'll stop here because I wanna do a more elaborate full series review later, so let's just say Terriers was the greatest new show of 2010 and leave it at that.

That leaves Boardwalk Empire and The Walking Dead fighting it out for #2. It's no secret by this point that Boardwalk turned out not to be the Sopranos-in-the-1920s-style gangster show they marketed it as and most people wanted it to be, instead being a show about business and politics at a time when business and politics were slightly rougher and may have occasionally involved a murder or two. And hey, I love political shows — The West Wing is one of my all-time favorites — so that's basically okay with me. I said at the beginning of the season and I say again today that the gorgeous and wildly expensive production values are probably the show's highlight and I look forward to season two if only to spend more time in the Prohibition-era Atlantic City they've created.

The Walking Dead is a rawer, more visceral and immediate pleasure which delivers exactly on the promise of its advertising: zombies, zombies, and more zombies. I think it has the potential to become a greater show than Boardwalk if the second season evolves in interesting and unexpected directions, but I did find the first season finale to be filler-esque and not the highest note to end on. It would have been a perfectly good sixth episode of a twelve or thirteen-episode season, but as a season finale it definitely wasn't a pockmark on Terriers' ass. Still, I look forward to more Georgia zombie adventures. As I said last month about a different show, consider The Walking Dead and Boardwalk Empire for all practical purposes tied. Now if they combined them into The Boardwalking Dead Empire, we may have the greatest show of all time.

As for the shows in my watchable tier, The Event and No Ordinary Family are alike in that I've grown a bit warmer on the positive aspects of each but colder still on the negatives. I continue to admire The Event's extremely tight serialization and the big picture has taken shape a little with the revelation of Hal Holbrook as the main antagonist of the 24-style half of the show, but the alien pod people that provide the main narrative impetus for the Lost-style half of the show have grown silly and I no longer find them intimidating or particularly interesting. The Event's better than most of what premiered this fall but I could never, ever describe these first ten episodes as good television with a straight face.

Meanwhile, over on No Ordinary Family, the main story with the husband and wife has developed nicely as they've grown into their superpowers, fought some crime, and deepened their partnerships with their sidekicks while a villain has taken shape and there's even been an unexpected death or two among the supporting cast. Unfortunately every episode has its runtime clogged with useless, episodic storylines involving the son and the daughter where they use their powers to do high school stuff. One recent episode involved the mom and dad trying to catch a pyrokinetic supervillain and coping with accidentally killing him in self-defense while the son and daughter, I shit you not, tried to fix a statue they'd accidentally knocked off a table at home. It was like that episode of Saved by the Bell where they break the Elvis statue at Screech's parents' house had been spliced in by accident. Talk about your fucking mood whiplash.

I dropped Mitch Hurwitz's new and rapidly dying sitcom Running Wilde down below No Ordinary Family, because when Fox announced its soft cancellation (they aren't yanking it from the air and will let it play out the season, but it's definitely done and will not be be renewed) I didn't have the slightest reaction of disappointment. I just kind of shrugged and was like "welp, saw that coming." I think even No Ordinary Family's cancellation would provoke more of a response from me than that. Running Wilde gave me some chuckles and even a legitimate laugh or three, but we didn't exactly have a torrid love affair.

Lastly, no show below Running Wilde has changed ranks, because I haven't watched any more episodes of them, so how could they?

Day 1: Outlaw, Boardwalk Empire, Chase, The Event, Lone Star
Day 2: Detroit 1-8-7, Raising Hope, Running Wilde, Better With You, Undercovers
Day 3: My Generation, Outsourced, No Ordinary Family, Law & Order: Los Angeles
Day 4: Blue Bloods, The Defenders, Hawaii Five-0, Mike & Molly, $#*! My Dad Says
Day 5: Hellcats, Terriers, Nikita, The Whole Truth
Day 6: The Walking Dead
October 16th Rankings
November 15th Rankings

Beyond the jump, the rankings!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

NBC Sitcom Roundup — "China," "Chain Reaction of Mental Anguish," & "Mixology Certification"

Apologies for being rather late with and terse in my sitcom roundup this week, but with the midseason finales just around the corner I'm holding off to post more elaborate thoughts on the general status of all three shows sometime in the next few days. But in the interest of not missing a week lemme bust out some quick and dirty minireviews on last Thursday's new episodes.

The Office, Season 7 Episode 10 — "China"

Just as "" seemingly served to wrap up Michael and Ryan's relationship, this episode seems to put a cap on Michael and Oscar by letting Michael intellectually one-up Oscar for the first and presumably only time ever. I was cringing when their storyline began with Michael's red scare paranoia, because one thing The Office is not deft in is broad sociopolitical issues, but once it softened into a mental duel between Michael and Oscar it became much more enjoyable. I wasn't exactly rolling with laughter, but it amused.

Far better was the other duel going on in the episode's B-plot between Dwight and Pam. Very funny, brought out the best in both characters, and ended on a legitimately sweet note (as opposed to the faux-sweetness of the Erin / Andy and Dwight / Angela romances I find tedious) by showing that at some level Dwight really does care about Pam. Mix in the ice cream pigeon credits sequence and Erin being well-written once again (this time as paranoid and possibly a little sociopathic) and you have the best Office since Halloween, as well as the first one since then to trump the 30 Rock it aired up against.

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 9 — "Chain Reaction of Mental Anguish"

After four consecutive strong episodes, 30 Rock slipped up last Thursday. I had exactly one huge belly laugh in the episode, which ironically involved one of the characters I've grown most tired of: I of course refer to the flashback revealing that Kenneth was forced to eat the pig he regarded as a father (including its face). That was hilarious dark comedy and one of the biggest laughs I had all week.

Shame then that the rest of the episode was mostly dead air. Other than assigning already-trademarked names to his various cockamamie business schemes the subplot with Tracy's "son" was a bust, especially the odd comedic monologue by Jack involving proteins that was about 95% odd and only about 5% comedic. Liz's psychoanalysis felt like a poor man's version of her confessing her dark sexual history in "Reaganing" just a couple months back and the less said about Jenna and her cross-dressing boyfriend's desperately unfunny subplot the better. Arguably the weakest episode of the season outside of the premiere and the live show.

Community, Season 2 Episode 10 — "Mixology Certification"

Community has tried its hand at many genres in 2010 — action with "Modern Warfare," horror with "Epidemiology," and thriller with "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" just last week — so it only makes sense that they now take a shot at drama. A comedic drama, of course, just as "Modern Warfare" was comedic action, "Epidemiology" was comedic horror, and "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" was a comedic thriller, but drama nonetheless.

"Mixology Certification" was a quiet, understated, and vaguely sad episode by Community standards that cemented exactly why this show is so amazing: I genuinely like the characters. As people, I mean, not as sitcom types. That's something that can't really be said about The Office or 30 Rock or Arrested Development or Curb Your Enthusiasm or Always Sunny. It's part of what made Friends so popular back in the day and it's the reason that, even after all the recent high concept episodes raised the bar, we can still just watch the cast hang out in The Ballroom for twenty minutes and it's fairly riveting stuff. The scene with Annie and Troy in Annie's apartment at the end did not in any way look or feel like a scene from a broadcast sitcom; it felt like something from an indie film, a good indie film.

This episode also again proved that Annie, Abed, and Troy, while not the official protagonists, are the show's holy trinity and some of the most likable sitcom characters of all time. Have I mentioned lately that I love this show?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tim's Trailer Talk: Game of Thrones Edition

In lieu of an ordinary Tim's Trailer Talk I thought this week I'd highlight the teaser for Game of Thrones, HBO's upcoming adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. I've been looking forward to this series since they first announced it a couple years back so it's exciting to finally see some footage. I'd also recommend the novels to any fantasy fans who haven't read them, with the important caveat that Martin seems to have some horrific writer's block and hasn't published a book in five years, leaving us stuck on a multitude of cliffhangers. But the books we do have are some of the finest pulp I've ever read, eschewing the evil overlord, heroic quest, and magical MacGuffins of traditional fantasy in favor of a lot of moral ambiguity, political intrigue, plot twists, sudden deaths, sex, and bloodshed.

I actually read the pilot script that was floating around Hollywood a couple years back, which shifts and truncates some dialogue but is an otherwise incredibly accurate scene-for-scene recreation of the first hundred or so pages of the first book. This teaser is equally reassuring, with almost every shot recognizable as a moment from the novel. Sure, nerds will nitpick over hair color and facial hair and exact wording of dialogue and other bullshit that isn't particularly important, but all that would be skirting the fact that this seems poised to become the most accurate book adaptation in the history of television. The city of King's Landing looks sunnier and less traditionally western European than I pictured it, but as long as the political intrigue and deaths that go on there remain intact that's no problem.

Sean Bean's performance looks predictably excellent (even if his politician character being all "I was trained to kill," while technically accurate coming from a former soldier, will gravely disappoint anyone who tunes in hoping for Boromir-brand badassery — there'll be plenty of violence, but Bean the instigator of very little of it), but the real X factor is the litany of unknowns playing the younger characters such as Arya, Robb, Bran, Sansa, Dany, Jon, and Joffrey, who are not window dressing but largely drive the plot. This other miniature promo seems to mostly highlight Sean Bean as Eddard Stark, Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark, Kit Harington as Jon Snow, Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, and Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, which seems about right for the first season. Hopefully Harington and Clarke are up to the task.

I'm not gonna start counting chickens before they hatch because lord knows I've been let down by film and TV projects I've been excited about before, but the actors look spot-on and the production values gorgeous and expensive and if they stick to the text and keep the content harsh (which, seeing as this is HBO, should be no problem) then I think this teaser could be the prelude to an awesome series. Hey, last time they adapted a fantasy epic of this magnitude we got The Lord of the Rings, which I thought turned out pretty damn well.