Thursday, October 29, 2009

NBC’s Thursday Comedy Block: What’s the Deal With That?

NBC-logo-RGB-pos_270x269 Every Thursday, I sit down in front of my glowing magic picture-box for two hours because it makes me laugh.

NBC has had a hell of a time keeping four funny shows playing on Thursday nights since their mid-to-late-90s dominance of prime time, but this year I think they’ve got some good things going. None of their shows burn up the Nielsen boxes, but with the rise of Hulu and TV-on-DVD, ratings aren’t the only thing that keep TV shows on the air these days.

There’s really not much reason to keep vamping. This is a look at four comedies that air on NBC between 8:00 and 10:00 PM on Thursday nights: Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office and 30 Rock.

Hit the jump already, geez. I’m getting uncomfortable up here.

NBCCommunityLogo Community This one’s about a group of people who, for one reason or another, end up in a Spanish study group together at their local community college.

An unlikely ensemble cast is the first thing you’ll notice if you tune into Community. Let’s round up the regulars: we have Joel “The Guy From The Soup” McHale as our male lead, opposite relative unknown Gillian Jacobs as his principal love interest. Next, a guy best known for his appearance in a McDonald’s commercial, the woman who worked at that Staples with Dwight in The Office’s third season, a writer from 30 Rock, the always lovely Alison “Trudy from Mad Men” Brie, and last and arguably (and surprisingly) least, Chevy Chase as The Old Guy. The British Stephen Colbert bats cleanup.

That cast does not go together on paper. Like, at all. And the cast has not yet gelled on-screen yet, either – so far, the show seems mostly content with putting different combinations of people into situations and letting things happen, which works better some weeks than others.

Give Community a couple of episodes, though, and it may just grow on you – the will-they-or-won’t-they thing between the two leads is stale and a bit forced, but the comedic chemistry between other characters is often pleasantly surprising. If Community can survive its first season (word has it that is has been picked up for a full 22 episodes this year), it may just develop into a solid comedy.

Parks_and_recreation_title Parks and RecreationThis one used to be The Office Lite, but has blossomed of late.

Speaking of shows that barely survived their first seasons, Amy Poehler’s The Office sort-of-spin-off Parks and Recreation suffered critically and in the ratings in last year’s truncated six-episode season. Based purely on my thoughts about that first season (and excepting the pretty-good finale, which finally got around to showing some potential), Parks was renewed based mostly on the strength of its parent show.

It’s good that it was renewed, though, because in its second season Parks has found its legs. Letting the camera do something other than look at Amy Poehler the whole time is a good start, not because she’s unfunny but because there are plenty of excellent, understated performances on the show that deserve to be highlighted. Nick Offerman (as Amy Poehler’s boss Ron Swanson) in particular has a straight-faced delivery that makes every scene that he’s in.

Also a joy to watch is Chris Pratt as Rashida Jones’ ex-boyfriend Andy, who lives in a pit and regularly delivers one-liners that would make Homer Simpson jealous. “Listen, are we gonna talk about anything other than the lies that I told you?”

The_Office_US_title The OfficeThis one used to be about working in a boring office for a bad boss, but it isn’t really about that anymore.

For all of Michael Scott’s foibles and flaws, he seems to run a pretty tight office – show me a mid-range paper supply company that hasn’t lost any employees in six years and I’ll show you a statistical improbability. People leave and they get fired and they get promoted but they always come back. This job can’t pay that well.

Coming off of their solid but sometimes inconsistent fifth season, The Office is still funny but cracks are beginning to show. Central to the show’s slight “off-ness” of late is the writing staff’s war with the status quo. Like I said, it’s extremely unlikely that all of these people would still be working in the same office after six years, and the writers keep trying to cover this up with plotlines that make you feel like the times are a-changing when really they’re not. Said plotlines sometimes deliver a hefty comedic payload (the Michael Scott Paper Company arc) and some don’t (Pam goes to art school in New York, depriving the series of one of its regulars for six or seven long weeks).

In the end, what’s hurting The Office the most is not that Jim and Pam are in a happy committed relationship, or that Michael’s antics have gotten too over-the-top, but rather that fewer and fewer of The Office’s episodes actually involve the principal cast working in an office, interacting with one another in the context of doing things that one might actually do in an office. It is wandering too far away from its original premise.

Pam is now a paper salesman instead of a receptionist. There’s a new receptionist, who has been around for a ton of episodes without being developed much beyond “new cute girl.” Jim is now a manager, and one of the people he manages is his wife. These are just a few of the inter-office relationships that the show could mine for material, though I have a sinking feeling that the very-much-out-of-the-office-and-unthinkably-improbable tryst between Michael and Pam’s mother is going to get more screen time.

You’re a very funny show, The Office. Let’s just keep it from going off the tracks, okay?

30_rock_logo 30 RockThis one has Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin in it.

This one just came back two weeks ago, and it’s hard to tell where it’s going to go. The season premiere was a little lackluster, featuring what felt like a hodgepodge of B-stories designed to give every character screen time instead of picking a strong A-story to focus on. Last week’s episode fared much better, bringing back the perennially hilarious Will Arnett in his recurring role as Jack Donaghy’s chief rival Devon Banks. “Bum bum buuuum!”

My bet is that 30 Rock will stay funny for as long as it’s on, but that it won’t make it past its fifth or maybe its sixth year. It’s one of those shows, like my much-beloved Arrested Development, that racks up the critical acclaim but never really finds firm footing in the ratings. Its star power keeps it above Arrested’s ratings level, but it’s just not the sort of show that stays on forever. We can only hope that something equally funny replaces it when its time comes.

All of these shows regularly air on NBC between 8:00 and 10:00 PM EST on Thursday evenings in the order in which they were written about. Is… is that even a sentence?