Thursday, May 20, 2010

Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office, and 30 Rock: NBC Sitcom Year-in-Review

NBC-logo-RGB-pos_270x269_thumb Last year, I wrote a piece about NBC’s Thursday night sitcoms. All were reliable bastions of scripted comedy in what has been a messy year for NBC, given the mess that was the Jay Leno-Conan-Tonight Show thing.

Tonight, all four of these shows will air their respective season finales and disappear for three or four months as writers recuperate and actors try in vain to launch movie careers.

These shows are all coming back next season (unlike some), so I thought that now would be a good time to sit down and look at them, praising them and bitching about them in equal measure depending on what I feel they’ve earned.

Who’s ready for some OPINIONS?!

Community

NBCCommunityLogo_thumb[1] My goodness, what a pleasant surprise this show has been. A cast of unknowns and a guy from The Soup have somehow banded together to form one of my favorite shows this year.

Ensemble comedies only work with talented ensembles, and luckily the cast of Community have gotten over some early-season awkwardness to really gel well – Abed and Troy’s adorable friendship steals every show it’s in. It’s also fostering some funny recurring characters in Starburns, a guy who spends much of his time forming his mutton chops into perfectly shaped stars, and Leonard, Community’s answer to funny old people who swear.

Luckily, Community has been picked up for another season – it’s the kind of funny but low-profile show that sometimes isn’t given a second chance, but I guess NBC is hard up for ratings hits lately. My principal worries about the show are that (1) a show set in a community college has a natural shelf life of three or four years at best, and (2) its late-season reliance on movie parodies may grow tiresome if overused. For now, though, bring it on – this could be the best second season a show has had since Arrested Development. And speaking of shows with great sophomore years…

Parks and Recreation

Parks_and_recreation_title_thumb[1] Another surprise, given how little I liked this show last year. In my earlier piece I talked about how the show was finding its legs, but by the end of the season they were pretty consistently turning in episodes that were Thursday night highlights.

As I mentioned in the previous write-up, the show benefited immensely from shining the spotlight on other characters – true, Amy Poehler is a wonderful lead, and her character has really developed its own unique identity this year, but Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) and Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) are two of the funniest characters on television right now, and the show’s writers deserve full credit for making Aziz Ansari’s douchey shtick downright palatable. The unrequited love that Andy shares with April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) is one of the most unexpectedly endearing relationships on TV.

Thank God, this one has been renewed as well – I can’t wait to see more of this show. My sole complaint with the season has been addressed as of a couple of episodes ago – Rashida Jones’ character was completely wasted on her very very boring relationship with Paul Schneider’s character. Schneider’s still looks fated to be boring, but at least Jones is now free to be pretty and funny elsewhere.

The Office

The_Office_US_title_thumb And now we get into shakier territory. I don’t think that The Office is capable of being a truly bad show – it’s produced, directed, shot, written and performed by too many talented people for that. Episodes of The Office remain consistently funny, which is to its credit after six years on the air.

Where the show currently suffers is in Big Picture story arcs. In past seasons, there have been several episode-spanning plot arcs, both major and minor, that have sustained audience interest and made the world of The Office more relatable and believable. Let’s count the number of potentially entertaining plot arcs that have been introduced this year that have fizzled after only a few episodes, failing to fulfill any of their promise:

  • Jim becomes co-boss of the office. By mid-season, he is back where he was. During his tenure, he once shut Ryan in a closet, and that was pretty much it.
  • Ryan and Dwight team up to take boss-Jim down. This is literally the most infuriating of all this season’s loose ends, because it could have been hilarious. What we got instead was nothing – it is dismissed offhandedly by Dwight in a later monologue, and Jim soon steps down anyway. What.
  • Jim and Pam had a baby. Like most sitcom babies, it is mentioned on-screen only when needed for a punchline.
  • Pam is a salesperson. Do we see her and Jim team up to make sales? Do we see her grow as a person, now that she has been freed of her hated receptionist job? Do we see her selling anything, ever? No, no, and no.
  • Dwight and Angela sign a contract to make a baby. Nothing comes of it for episodes and episodes, though it pops up more often than any of the above examples.
  • Dwight sleeps with and forms a budding relationship with one of Pam’s bridesmaids, much to Angela’s chagrin. Again, this has been given only the barest amount of screen time.
  • Dunder Mifflin’s corporate office goes under due to mismanagement. Luckily, this affects only the jobs of rarely seen ancillary characters, and business continues as usual in Scranton.

I think that’s a fairly comprehensive list. This season, individual episodes have shone (wedding episode, baby episode, a few others), individual gags have elicited laughs, and some characters never get old (thank you, Kevin), but the Big Picture has suffered.

Where, I ask, is something to replace the beautiful implosion of the Jan Levinson character? Where is the awkward-yet-heartwarming Michael/Holly or Angela/Dwight-type relationship? Yes, the show is still funny, but creatively it seems to be running out of steam.

30 Rock

30_rock_logo_thumb Tina Fey’s absurdist cult-favorite is still sharp in its fourth season, though to my mind it has been slightly less consistent than in the past.

I probably have the least to say about this one, maybe because it has been the most unsurprising – it has neither burst onto the scene with refreshing, unexpected comedy, nor has it been as maddeningly uneven as The Office has been this year. One liners, ridiculous situations, and madcap cutaways have always taken precedence over story on 30 Rock, so it’s less likely as a show to veer off the rails – it has never been on any rails, thank you.

My main gripe is that Liz and Jack have found less consistently hilarious romantic partners this season, but few could top Jon Hamm or Salma Hayek’s performances last year. Current contenders Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, and Michael Sheen hold their own well enough, I simply like last year’s crop better. Also, where’s Will Arnett?

30 Rock is still going pretty well heading into its fifth season (remember when no one thought it’d ever get a second?) – I’m on board.

Watch these shows end on NBC between 8:00 and 10:00 PM EST tonight.

doooo iiiit