Wednesday, May 18, 2011

NBC Sitcom Roundup for 5/12/11

The Office, Season 7 Episode 24 — "Dwight K. Schrute, (Acting) Manager"

Now that the great Will Ferrell experiment is behind us, we can start getting a more clear picture of what the post-Michael days of Dunder Mifflin are going to look like. And based off this episode, they may actually hold some promise! No one's going to pretend that the Carell-sized hole is a small one, but it shouldn't obscure over a dozen talented and funny stars left behind, several of whom have led big screen movies of their own (even if a few of said movies were spectacular bombs). This won't go down as one of the series' classic episodes by any stretch, but it was funny and completely worth its weight in network time, which, Michael or no, still places The Office well within the 95th percentile of television.

Except for a couple of Erin / Andy / Gabe scenes (which we'll come back to in a minute), this episode was sharply focused on Dwight's stewardship of the office — understandably, since it seems that they've crammed the entirety of that subplot into these 22 minutes. And, despite Dwight's dictatorial and weaponry-heavy managerial style being pretty predictable, it was fun to watch. It gave Jim a good chance to screw with Dwight without seeming like a bully, and everyone holding Dwight's gun mishap over his head with Jo at the end added some very funny tension.

As for Andy and Erin, I stand by what I've been saying for over a year now: love both actors. Ed Helms, great. Ellie Kemper, amazing. But I have zero emotional investment in their romance. If they never get together my heart shan't ache, and the show just isn't going to change that. However, I still laughed at how grossed out and anxious to leave Andy was when Gabe cornered him in the conference room, and Gabe trying to swallow his tears as he left.

Funniest Moment: I'm torn too close to call between Kevin's reaction to the piranha in the toilet and the scene where he forces Dwight to give him a disquietingly intimate deep tissue massage in the middle of the office. "Knead it like a pizza! But don't eat it!"

Parks and Recreation, Season 3 Episode 13 — "The Fight"

Ann Perkins is this season's Mark Brendanawicz. I hate to say it, since I think Rashida Jones is as cool and likable as just about any actress out there right now, but it's clearer by the episode how little of a place Ann has in this ensemble outside of being a straight woman for Leslie to bounce dialogue off of. So this episode suffered a bit on account of its Ann A-plot, even if there were good jokes spread throughout it. I mean, we got the return of The Douche, so that's something. We'll see if Ann's hiring at the city government can allow them to integrate her less awkwardly moving forward.

Everything going on under the main plot, however, was unambiguously great: Andy and April again assuming their alter egos of FBI agent Burt Macklin and wealthy widow Janet Snakehole (I'm reminded of Phoebe's alter ego Regina Phalange on Friends); Jean Ralphio's various botched attempts at rapping; Tom's new booze at the Snakehole; and of course anything and everything with Adam Scott, because Adam Scott is the greatest. One of the things that makes Parks so damn good is that anyone in the ensemble except Ann can hold down the fort comedy-wise all on their own if need be. 30 Rock would do well to take some inspiration from it in that regard.

Funniest Moment: If I'm being 100% honest, my biggest laugh was Andy puking on Kyle. That may sound pretty lowest common denominator, but sometimes a perfectly timed physical grossout gag just hits the spot.

Parks and Recreation, Season 3 Episode 14 — "Road Trip"

And so we tackle the "will they or won't they?" story head-on, and if I do say so myself, really well. I'm still not feeling the erotic charge between Leslie and Ben that the show wants me to be feeling, but Amy Poehler and Adam Scott are so funny and likable that, eh, what the hell, right? I also like that they didn't save Leslie and Ben finally kissing for the season finale. Seems fair — the third-to-last episodes of TV seasons need love too. I'm more curious about the fallout than the kiss itself anyway.

There was a bit of a schism in the secondary subplots, however. Andy and April getting into a fight during Tom's fake game show and then making up was a perfect combination of funny and sweet that really showed Parks at its bright, optimistic best and actually overshadowed the main Leslie / Ben story for me. Gotta love those two crazy kids.

Ron Swanson becoming political mentor to a wayward grade school girl didn't work, though. There just wasn't any punchline to it except, "Hey, remember how Ron is a libertarian?", which I don't think anyone who watches this show forgot. Unless he's on a quest for all the bacon and eggs a diner has, Ron needs someone else in the main cast to bounce his crazy off of.

Funniest Moment: Andy holding up his sign for Tom's "favorite place to smush" question and reading "at the Neutral Milk Hotel" was fucking hysterical, largely due to Chris Pratt's brilliantly low-key delivery. I'm already preemptively angry at Pratt not being nominated for an Emmy.

Community, Season 2 Finale — "For a Few Paintballs More"

Across the internet, it seems people are eager to compare the collective whole of "A Fistful of Paintballs" and "For a Few Paintballs More" to last season's magnum opus "Modern Warfare." But I say, what's the point? Far more fun to compare Community to every other sitcom on television and see how incredibly short they all fall in comparison. Community is one of the greatest television shows of all time — sitcom or drama, broadcast or cable — and episodes this alive, ambitious, and creative show exactly why.

When I said last week that I found 30 Rock's season finale to be disappointingly sedate and anticlimactic, I didn't really offer a comparison point for what a sitcom season finale should be. Well, here it is. This is a season finale. I'd effortlessly call it one of the top five sitcom season finales ever made, and even that may be selling it short.

How did I love "For a Few Paintballs More"? Let me count the ways: I loved the villainous Dean of City College making his return. I loved how tons of Greendale supporting characters spanning two seasons got moments to shine (Star-burns, Leonard, Vicki, Garrett, Magnitude, even Quendra with a Q-U!). I loved the return of Troy's plumbing skills. I loved the scene of the Greendale survivors planning their battle strategy over a diorama of the school (no doubt applying the skills they picked up over the year in Anthro 101). I loved Annie and Han Solo's miniature romance. I loved how cinematic and beautifully-shot the whole episode was. And I loved what they did with Pierce at the end.

Who knows what the show's plans for Pierce are next year — he could become a teacher, start a rival study group, or simply rejoin Jeff and the gang a few episodes in — but I admire the show so much for not ignoring how villainous they were making Pierce for the sake of comedy and truly confronting the issue as the culmination of a season-spanning character arc. Longform character arcs not centered around romances aren't something sitcoms outside of Arrested Development do often, but I think Community may now be the gold standard for such a thing. Chevy Chase has never been asked to do emotion on the show, not even when Pierce's mother died, but he gave genuine weight to that final scene.

But let's not dwell too much on the heaviness of human emotion — just like "Modern Warfare," this two-part finale was notable for making its action movie parody more exciting and energetic than a pretty good fraction of actual theatrically-released action movies. Troy's team setting up and executing the library trap was great, but Britta and Shirley's final drive-by paintballing was spectacular. I also like that Jeff wasn't the last man standing this year.

I don't know whether or not Community will have the balls to try to pull off yet another paintball extravaganza in season three, but they already have all the kudos I have to offer for making a sequel to the greatest episode of their first season and actually having it measure up. I'm going to have a lot more to say about the sheer ambition and unrivaled genius of Community in my full season wrap-up, so I'll stop here with the final comment that this season finale lived up to everything I wanted it to be and hoped it could be.

Funniest Moment: "Pop? Pop what? Pop what? What is he trying to say?! Pop what, Magnitude?!!"

Weekly Power Rankings: 1. Community 2. Parks and Recreation "The Fight" 3. Parks and Recreation "Road Trip" 4. The Office

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

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

NBC Sitcom Roundup for 4/28/11

For fairly obvious reasons, I have more to say about The Office this week than anything else, so I'll keep my thoughts on 30 Rock, Parks, and Community on the brief side. Which isn't intended as disparagement of any of their episodes, all three of which I thought were pretty good.

The Office, Season 7 Episode 22 — "Goodbye, Michael"

This really is a series finale in a sense. I mean, The Office will go on for probably two or three more years and I'll keep watching until the end, but this iteration of the show is done. Steve Carell was one cast member in a huge ensemble, but he was unmistakably the core, the linchpin. Quite a few characters were primarily defined by their relationships with him and will have to carve out new roles on the show. The energy and the vibe of Dunder Mifflin is irreparably altered and will never be the same again. We're now in (remembering to count the British original) The Office 3.

But that's something to discuss over the next month and in the fall — for now, let's just focus on Steve Carell / Michael Scott's pretty great farewell episode. Absolutely no one can say that Carell phoned it in on account of being out the door. He nailed it, beautifully capturing the emotion of his long goodbye, sharing a nice scene with almost every character, and depicting every facet of Michael from his childlike vulnerability to his obliviousness to a surprising self-awareness, particularly in the talking head where he finally acknowledged, sputtering with laughter, how little respect Oscar has for him. Not that the Emmys are relevant, but maybe this episode can finally give Carell a shot at winning one, rescuing the Emmys from the embarrassment of letting one of the most iconic sitcom protagonists of all time go unrecognized.

I also loved how, in contrast to the overly schmaltzy "Seasons of Love" riff in the last episode, the bulk of this episode was quite subtle and understated. Michael not telling anyone it was his last day both made sense for the character (I think back to how hard he tried to avoid confrontation with Stanley in "Did I Stutter?" a few years back) and was a brilliant way to avoid the clichés of a farewell episode in favor of something that actually wound up being more emotional. Rather than oozing with forced TV tears, the vibe was a slightly disquieting mix of hope, warmth and inevitable sadness that will stick with me for much longer than any Rent parody ever could.

This was best encapsulated in Michael's final scene with Pam. In a way it seemed odd that the show treated Michael's relationship with Pam as his most important (I mean, he did fuck her mom), but when actually watching it I was surprised by how correct it felt. There's always been a level of sarcastic disconnect between Jim and Michael, Dwight is too goofy to have the final emotional farewell, Erin too new. Michael and Pam's relationship has, at its best, been rather sweet, such as when she quit to help him found the Michael Scott Paper Company and when he negotiated her her job at Dunder Mifflin back several episodes later. The final airport scene was near perfect, and having Michael Scott's final lines inaudible and related to us by Pam later a masterstroke.

I do have to say that I didn't buy how emotional Jim was getting in his final scene with Michael, which put a crack in the wonderfully understated vibe. Telling Michael he was a great boss and wishing him well with un-Jimlike sincerity, sure. Awesome. Tearing up? No. That just wouldn't happen. Jim has spent the entire series exasperated by and struggling to tolerate Michael, including in this very same episode when Michael gave Andy all of his top clients. But viewed in the light of doubling as John Krasinski's farewell to Steve Carell, I suppose it's excusable.

On the more indefensible downside (and I toyed with not even mentioning this subplot, but I guess I have to), Will Ferrell's character has in two episodes devolved from surprisingly likable to being every single thing I feared he would be and more. Acting wacky, going crazy, being stupid, shouting, the whole Will Ferrell nine. After "Training Day" I was hoping that Ferrell could actually stick around longer than was initially planned; now he can't be gone fast enough. Let's hope the barrage of guest stars in the season finale is less obtrusive, although I can't say I'm holding my breath.

Funniest Moment: "Goodbye, Michael" mostly went for poignancy as opposed to laughs when it came to Michael himself, but there were a lot of great moments surrounding him. Take your pick from Jim noting with a degree of real irritation that they've started filming people going to the bathroom now, Phyllis' relief that Michael didn't reveal her abandoned baby, and the introduction of the terrifying Rory Flenderson, implying that the specter of Toby will haunt Michael across time and space.

Parks and Recreation, Season 3 Episode 11 — "Jerry's Painting"

This was a pretty solid little episode. I mean, pointing out that Parks and Recreation is good is kind of like pointing out that water is wet at this point, but still. I will say that I actually preferred the B-plot to the main, titular story. I liked Leslie's protectiveness of the painting and especially Chris's feeble attempts at resolving things ("But I am not in the nude now, am I? Because we're in a government building, and that would be inappropriate."). The returns of Perd Hapley and the repellant Marcia Langman were welcome. But even if a somewhat high-ranking (by Pawnee standards) government employee not being able to find his own apartment makes no sense, I still preferred the story about Ben moving in with April and Andy. That's a three-way collision of awesome characters, and Adam Scott could make me laugh by reading the ingredients off a cereal box.

Funniest Moment: Leslie Knope and Brandi Maxxxx on Ya' Heard? with Perd was classic, but I still laughed harder at Ben's exasperation with Andy and April. Adam Scott deserves all the comedy Emmys for his delivery of the line, "No. Do you know what cute means?"

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 22 — "Everything Sunny All the Time Always"

While inevitably not as strong as the previous week's fantastic series-spanning 30 Rock tribute "100" (probably my favorite episode of the season), this was a brisk, amusing 22 minutes solidly focused on the big three of Liz, Jack, and Tracy. Liz's subplot didn't amount to much (although I did love the "sometimes, we use a song to move a story along" montage), but Jack's and Tracy's were a bit more clever and out there. Anyone who's ever been stuck on the outside of an inside joke should admire Tracy's heroism. I also appreciate them introducing a seemingly ongoing storyline with Avery and Kim Jong-un, because that's something 30 Rock normally avoids, barring Tracy's disappearance. However, even for a politician, Condi Rice is a startlingly horrible actor.

Funniest Moment: Grizz's "You wouldn't expect a movie called Somewhere... to go absolutely nowhere," on account of it probably making no sense to the vast majority of the show's audience yet also being hilariously accurate. I mean, if your giant blockbuster movie gets burned on a sitcom, that's par for the course, but if your tiny indie movie gets burned, some writer must have really hated it.

Community, Season 2 Episode 22 — "Applied Anthropology and Culinary Arts"

The birth episode is among the most ancient and cliché of all TV traditions, but I still loved what Community did with it. For one, no hospital. In fact, it turned out to be a full-blown bottle episode (although without calling attention to it the way the classic "Cooperative Calligraphy" did), set entirely in the anthropology classroom. They didn't feel the need to make it double-length either, and still found plenty of room for non-Shirley subplots, such as Britta's angst over her hypocrisy, the Dean struggling to make a good impression, Pierce buying the rights to Troy and Abed's coolness move, and even a hint of romance between Vicki and Neil. It was consistently funny and incredibly fast-paced. No gimmicks, no movie spoofs, just traditional sitcom greatness. Yep, Community rules. (I should note that Shirley's baby being born healthy and not having to spend months in an NICU at this point makes absolutely no sense, but whatever. I mean, it's a wacky comedy. Just gotta accept it and move on.)

Funniest Moment: Obviously Pierce forcing Abed and Troy to mark his announcement of "Betty Grable" with their patented coolness-signifying chest slap / high five, because no actor on earth cries funnier than Donald Glover. But the close-up of Britta under Shirley's skirt was also rather grand.

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