Every week in this space, Grantland pop culture correspondent Andy Greenwald will run down the happenings and mishappenings in NBC’s Thursday comedy night done mostly right. (Note: The order reflects newsworthiness, not quality. Although occasionally the two just might overlap.)
1. 30 Rock
There’s been plenty of hand-wringing around these parts of late about the fate of aging sitcoms. It’s a standard predicament: As the seasons pile up, the LOLs tend to decrease in direct proportion. Even mighty 30 Rock, beginning its sixth season, isn’t immune from the ravages of time. When it returned last week, I took pains to praise the show for its “casual” brilliance, the way the episode’s jokes felt “dependable” and were delivered with sly “familiarity.” This was positive, sure, but it was also patronizing, like congratulating your grandfather for finishing his soup. As beloved sitcoms head toward hospice care it becomes tempting to overly celebrate their diminishing returns, to applaud warning-track power because it reminds us of past home runs.
But last night’s 30 Rock deserved no such coddling. This was no canned victory lap, another opportunity for NBC to applaud a senior citizen just for getting old. “Idiots Are People Two!” was shockingly, hilariously alive, an unexpected jolt of youthful mania that hearkened back to 30 Rock’s golden pregolden years. Sure, the show has always been funny, but last night had an inspired zip that’s been missing since the end of the Bush administration. Did the writer’s room take a field trip to Germany or were they merely attempting to reacquire that advertiser-coveted demographic of “funky hipsters” (as opposed to the potpourri of “black nerds, JetBlue passengers who fall asleep with the TVs on, and pets whose owners have died” who usually tune in)? Regardless, it was exciting to see 30 Rock once again capable of not only finishing its soup but opening its very own organic gourmet hot dog truck.
Beginning with a Frasier-featuring flash-forward, “Idiots” concerned the very meta mess TGS finds itself in when Tracy’s homophobic ranting goes viral. With a gaggle of fabulous protesters occupying Rockefeller Center (and saving some of their glamorous ire for Liz’s terrible choices in hats and handbags), the show is losing sponsors left and right. (It turns out that Snuggles the fabric softener bear is out, proud, and in a committed partnership with the Charmin cub.) Even though Liz’s jaw has stopped popping, her headache only gets worse. First, Tracy doubles down on his faux pas, calling the wrong Glad and stubbornly ignoring the damage he’s done to a group so organized it makes the Japanese look like the Greeks. Instead he stages a spirited counterprotest of NBC (“You can't take our freedom unless you take our lives!") for its bias against the “so-called idiot community” (including “frat guy DJs, loud-mouthed old bitches ... and people who won’t shut up about scuba diving” — oh, and also Denise Richards, whose glazed expression is either tremendously clever or worryingly sad). Then Jack, feeling petulant for being left out of Liz’s personal life, gets into her head about the shortcomings of her latest moronic Adonis. Criss (played by good-natured Ken doll James Marsden), may not wear pants with regularity and have questionable credit with Sunglass Hut, but he does know how to decorate a homemade pancake with toppings in the shape of the German flag. Meanwhile, Jenna, in search of the soft copper lighting necessary to her status as a B-list celebrity (Teri Polo and Ving Rhames called to welcome her to the club), winds up roping Kenneth and a bus-riding, tuxedoed Kelsey Grammer into disposing of what she thinks is Pete’s dead body, but really he just mixed up a secret spicy cocktail of Ambien, whiskey, and self-loathing. (In what can only be interpreted as a preemptive strike against Whitney, this plot also featured the world’s first-ever recorded instance of a vaginal prolapse joke in the 8 p.m. “family hour.")
The fact that the episode ended with a “To Be Continued” (and the sight of Kelsey Grammer karate-chopping a bear) makes me hopeful that this creative renaissance won’t be short-lived. Everyone loves the flashy rookie, but we always cheer loudest for the crafty vet.
2. Parks & Recreation
The quasi-surprise appearance of Paul Rudd as nepotistic City Council striver Bobby Newport will dominate discussion of the very strong “Campaign Ad” — and with good reason. Rudd tackled the role of the entitled scion to Pawnee’s candy fortune (for a depressed Midwestern burgh, Pawnee certainly has a robust snacks industry) like he was making a mixtape of past parts: the lazy arrogance of Andy from Wet Hot American Summer, the moronic bluster of Anchorman’s Brian Fantana, the idiot brother from ... well, you know. It was a pleasure to watch this dopey 1-percenter bump up against the frenzied striving of “Miss Lope — or just Nesnie?” and especially Rudd’s real-life bromantic partner, Adam Scott. Of course not even Bobby’s love of dogs (especially his own, Raclette, a Persian greyhound given to him by his friend, the pretender to the throne of Alsace-Lorraine) will be able to hold off the tsunami of ambition that is Leslie Knope, not with her commitment to legalizing Korean and tendency to paint the garages of her friends without asking. But he’s a smart foil for the increasingly entertaining campaign. Sure, Bobby’s a silly cartoon, with nothing but John Cougar Mellencamp’s phone number and unlimited candy bars to help sustain his 70-point lead in the polls. But his masculine, old-moneyed privilege is exactly the sort of antagonist that brings out the best in Leslie Knope, transforming her from a careerist crazy who made better campaign ads as a preadolescent than she does now to a downright inspiring feminist crusader.
But to focus on the big names would lose the big picture. To my mind, the best work in the episode was done by Chris Pratt and Aubrey Plaza as Andy and April went on a medical insurance spending spree straight out of Eric Cantor’s worst nightmares. It takes an enormous amount of smarts to successfully play stupid, and no one does dumb better than Pratt; there were no bigger laughs in the episode than the sight of him sneezing his head into a wall and running face-first into an ambulance (and then, inevitably, calling out for one — but not that one). But his boundless physicality brings out the best in Plaza and has slowly softened April’s cerebral snark. Together, their Lion and Tin Man-esque path toward the Oz of adulthood has turned out to be one of Parks’ best story engines, and the perfect, sweetly comic counterpoint to Leslie and Ben’s more grown-up romance. “Fix me!” Andy bellows after admitting he ate a Twix bar wrapper once and somehow managed to fracture his thumb on the way to the hospital. But you can’t fix what isn’t broken.
3. The Office
This week, during the portion of our podcast devoted to dinging The Office, Chris Ryan and I spent some time discussing the sad decline of Jim Halpert, from winking audience surrogate to ambition-free suburban drone. After watching last night’s soggy “Pool Party,” I’m beginning to think we weren’t quite fair to Dwight’s eternal nemesis. It’s possible that Jim is as much our fictional stand-in as ever. Last night, when faced with the increasingly inappropriate behavior of Robert California as he threw open the doors of his orgy-ready McMansion, Jim was the only one of the swimsuited Scrantonites to act with any semblance of logic. Which is to say, he was desperate to leave.
Look, I’m not an unfeeling meatball — or a hilarious, free one, like Stanley prefers. Any episode built on the (exposed) back of Ellie Kemper’s Erin is automatically a win in my book. While the central conceit of her inevitable conquest of Andy still rankles — why is it a better idea for him to find love with his secretary than his normal, attractive girlfriend? Is this a paper company or a doomsday cult? — her flirtatious pursuit of the regional manager was charming. When her guileful suggestions of going to a duck pond and “maybe” getting stuck in the rain fall on deaf ears (Andy is, after all, planning to propose to Jessica; it’s been years since he last popped the question) she recruits a more-modulated Dwight to help her make Andy jealous. Chicken fights and feelings ensue and Erin’s retrieval of the missing engagement ring (she recognized it because of her familiarity with the “Bernard family seal”) landed with all the subtlety of a Darryl cannonball. But Kemper’s sweetness is as buoyant as one of Robert’s pool noodles. It’s a welcome reminder of what The Office used to be.
4. Up All Night
It’s a fairly safe rule of thumb that comedy, like vampire slaying, improves when the stakes get bigger. Unfortunately, this is not a viewpoint shared by the writers of Up All Night, a sitcom that aims so small it’s a wonder it ever hits the target. Founded on a limited premise — 30-somethings have a baby, are challenged — the show has only doubled down on its myopia, seemingly only interested in appealing to the same community of NPR-listening Bugaboo pushers it attempts to portray. Last night’s humor stemmed from the burning couple-tension caused by Will Arnett’s Chris watching an episode of Friday Night Lights with another woman. There were a number of drooling references to Venice Beach hipster canteen Gjelina. One can only assume the B plots, about rookie pickling mistakes and agonizing over lapsed New Yorker subscriptions, were cut for time. Up All Night is blessed with a stellar cast and the apparent faith of its network, but it’s foundering, evolving into a mass-market Portlandia that celebrates instead of satirizes. But not even the invigorating presence of sitcom steroid Megan Mullally could elevate “Rivals” into anything other than an uninspired take on “Shit Yuppies Say.”