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
The most popular misconception of this column is that it’s merely a front for a season-long campaign by my editors to break me, Marathon Man-style, thanks to a steady diet of Whitney Cummings relationship jokes and Christina Applegate baby-angst. The second most popular misconception is that the ranking corresponds to quality. Despite the presence of a disclaimer, most still think that there are weeks when I actually prefer The Office to 30 Rock — when, in reality, it’s just that the former often provides a more newsworthy or interesting hook, particularly in this, its season of slow, often agonizing decline.
But in the midst of this nine-month slog (wait a second ... nine months? That seals it: I’m going to write a spec comedy script about a guy who thinks he’s hip but suddenly finds himself gestating a sitcom column for 37 weeks and is forced to deal with the realization that life is about more than “seeing one’s spouse” and “not knowing who Chris D’Elia is”; I shall call it Up All Thursday Night!), there are occasional Fridays where there is very little new or noteworthy to say, when the four NBC shows, for good or ill, all hew closely to their 2012 playbooks. At that point, yes, it becomes about quality. And that’s where the 30 Rock/Parks debate kicks in.
30 Rock was once again so good last night that I’m tempted just to submit three single-spaced pages of transcribed jokes: “I’ll defrost an ox for you,” “We can’t say Dick Wolf on TV!” “I get all my news from the radio on Grand Theft Auto.” But funny — and time-saving! — as that would be, it would also be a disservice to what a phenomenal job Tina Fey and her crew are doing this year using their seemingly endless stockpile of zingers as the foundation for cleverly constructed stories. “Alexis Goodlooking and the Case of the Missing Whisky” balanced three wildly diverging plots, and all were, in the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, choice. In the titular adventure, Jenna dug deep to her past pilot parts — she notes, quite sagely, that “every blonde actress in the business has done a pilot about a tough-yet-pretty cop with special abilities” — and reassumed the role of Alexis Goodlooking, a detective who was easy on the eyes and also was “good at looking for clues.” Her goal was finding those responsible for secretly quaffing Pete’s birthday whiskey, which is crucial fuel for campfire sing-alongs and the subsequent retelling of Phil Donahue stories that definitely happened to Pete and not his cousin. Tracy is also present (when not pining for his car), offering the sort of content-free inspiration he learned while playing a wise black dude “who gets white folks to do things.” The Law & Order-y business was aces — particularly the sight of Lutz pointlessly moving piles of paper from one shelf to another because, you know, why would anyone stop doing anything when being interviewed by cops? — but it was also an excellent showcase for Jane Krakowski. Her performance was so sly it reminded me that the much-maligned Jenna has been outstanding all season long, a more fully realized and entertaining vision of nightmarish neediness and celebrity coprophilia.
Also strong was the sight of Liz and, by extension, Frank caught between the age-inappropriately sexy, wrinkled arms of Patti LuPone and the increasingly GILF-y Susan Sarandon. And the ongoing struggle for the immortal soul — or at least the current employment — of Kenneth Ellen Parcell contributed to 30 Rock’s greatest ongoing feat, poking humanizing holes in the infallible capitalist Sheetrock that is Jack Donaghy. It seems that having a one-night stand with Nikki Finke wasn’t the only mistake in his no-doubt leather-bound back pages: In the go-go days of GE, between doing bowling-ball bags' worth of blow, Jack systematically annihilated a young rival (played by Stanley Tucci with an elderly squirrel on his head). In the midst of counseling Kenneth to do the same to Bradley, a well-haired colleague in the Standards and Practices Department (it seems that Bradley, in addition to being dismissive of Asians, fell a few credits shy of his degree in Bro Studies at Tulane), Jack is visited by the ghost of corporate-warfare past. Time hasn’t been kind to Tucci’s Henry Warren Chang. He dresses in tweed, married “a very bossy Chinese lady,” and both of his sons are magicians. But he does have fond memories of going candleing with Jack in Sturbridge Village — memories not even an ancient pizza demon like the Noid can take away from him.
As ever the show pranced along with its own manic logic, dropping lines lesser shows would kill for as if they were spare change (“that sofa is made from Seabiscuit,” “the sight of these people plus the 10 crayons I ate earlier is making me sick”). There may be trendier picks, but 30 Rock is unquestionably the funniest show on television right now, operating on such a high level that 8:30 leaves me winded from laughing, exhausted in a way I haven’t been since the time I got that parasite from eating sushi on Amtrak.
2. Parks and Recreation
There were a number of deep, parasitic belly laughs to be found in Parks and Recreation last night as well. The delightful return of merry idiot Perd Hapley and the existence of his straight politics show, The Final Word with Perderick L. Hapley, was inspired lunacy. (“When I say your name I want you to respond.” “Our next segment, which will be a commercial.”) And there was nothing better in any of the four shows than the introduction of the peerless Carl Reiner as local senior citizen god-grandfather Ned Jones. Three weeks shy of his 90th birthday, the comedy legend fit right in with Pawnee’s cracked crowd, showcasing perfect timing in an inspired improvised jag about his “flat” younger brother Leslie and smacking whippersnappers with his magic shtick (he canceled a 5 p.m. meeting because “I don’t talk politics after dinner”). But is funny the end-all and be-all of a sitcom?
Mike Schur’s humor is very different from Tina Fey’s. And so while “Campaign Shake-Up” was a relatively manic 30 minutes by Indiana standards, it still mined its LOLs from subtle character interactions, not the shoving of delicious meatballs into unwilling-yet-kissable mouths. Think Ron’s slow-building fury over being forced to do government work or know Ann’s name, April’s respect for her survivalist boss outstripping her lack of respect for anything else on Planet Earth, or Leslie’s ongoing, borderline-creepy fetishization of Adam Scott’s “taut, narrow frame,” which she likens to that of “a sexy elf king” (!). (OK, there was also a kamikaze water balloon fight, but that felt like an outlier.) Even the zippy presence of Kathryn Hahn as overpaid political chess master Jennifer Barkley, while pitched just north of zany, was played relatively straight. Barkley may be phoning it in (and investing in copper cappuccino makers that would be the envy of any Nancy Meyers flick), but she’s still a legitimate threat, her expert counsel almost as dangerous as the landmines Leslie Knope so brutally supports.
The slow-building plots of Parks earn huge and rewarding laughs — not to mention fan loyalty. I’ve said before that this season of the show will play even better on Netflix, when the well-constructed storylines can ebb and flow in normal time. 30 Rock, in comparison, plays a much more dangerous game, working itself up into a finely honed delirium week after week, like a spinning top on a tightrope. Last night, it was 30 Rock that won out, but it could also be a quirk of scheduling: Watching Liz Lemon’s joke tsunami at 8 p.m. before savoring the more understated, steady drizzle of Parks is a bit like following Sichuan hot pot with a delicate consommé (we’re nothing if not soup-conscious around here. Both delicious, one’s just a little noisier.
3. The Office
At the start there was no comedy more situation-driven than The Office. It was right there in the title. Early seasons kept the humor decidedly small-bore, as precise and quotidian as the staplers, calculators, and Xerox machines that dominated the opening credits. But as time has worn on, the boundaries of the Dunder-Mifflin office have proven to be as constricting as the documentary construct itself. The show long ago gave up on any consistency with the latter — why was Jim so nervous last week about being in a room with Cathy when there were two anonymous dudes with RED cams there, too? — and the recent sojourn to Tallahassee has now blown out the former.
This isn’t meant as a complaint, mind you. No show has been more in need of a restorative blast of Florida sun than The Office. As noted in this space last week, the explosion of plot and unfamiliar character pairings, some good and some less so, has been a long-overdue shot of adrenaline to a faltering, potentially terminal patient. But “Test the Store” was a reminder that whatever ascetic purity once existed in the backwaters of Scranton has long since fallen by the wayside. Now the situation is created purely to serve the jokes and, when possible, to wring the last droplets of story out of a series that has mostly gone dry.
Case in point was the sudden opening of the Sabre Store, only a few short weeks after the motley crew was assembled to brainstorm it. There was plenty to find amusing here, as there often is in a Mindy Kaling-scripted episode. Of particular note were Erin, dressed as a droog M.I.A. faux-hipster, and Toby’s halfhearted self-defense class (which only Creed seemed to take seriously). But the rest of the Panhandle plot seemed overbaked: Why are these sad-sack drones from Northeastern Pennsylvania opening retail shops and peddling triangular Zunes again? And while I honestly appreciated the lengths the show is going to reframe and challenge Jim and Dwight’s frenemyship, the sight of Cool Hand Halpert crammed into a white suit and eyeliner was as awkward for the audience as it was for him.
Yesterday, showrunner Paul Lieberstein gave an optimistic interview to Vulture about the state of The Office and his hope for another season, one that definitely will not include James Spader and will most likely be without Mindy Kaling, too. (John Krasinski, Rainn Wilson, and Ed Helms are all reportedly negotiating new deals.) Episodes like last night’s prove that there’s a potential road map for the show if it were to move away from the obvious limitations of its titular setting: Good actors and smart writers can make almost anything sing. But as the Sabre Arrowhead taught us, is there really a point to something that’s just a pale imitation of a better product? It might be wiser to be like Ryan and look to the pyramids, potentially finding a future in the past. But then I’m reminded of another fun fact about the pyramids: They were really just fancy, enduring monuments to something already declared dead.
4. Up All Night
For the entire first half of the season I railed bitterly against Whitney, and I don’t regret it: Whitney was and continues to be an unpleasant, old-fashioned, and hacky sitcom built around an unlikable lead. But, to its credit, Whitney rarely attempted to be anything but an unpleasant and old-fashioned sitcom. It knew what it was and seemed to take a perverse pride in living it up — or down, as the case may be.
With Whitney now on Wednesdays, safely removed from my critical eye, I find myself almost respecting its sour self-awareness. Because its replacement, Up All Night, is many things — too many things, in fact — but self-aware is certainly not among them. Just one week after toying with a reasonable comedic POV, the show leaped right back into the blender last night, uncomfortably morphing into 30 Rock-style wackiness with predictably disastrous results. Can anyone tell me what last night was about? Maya Rudolph is pining over a suddenly disappeared Jason Lee and cedes her show’s lady business to an alpha-female but no, actually her war-hero surrogate? I watched the entire episode, notepad at the ready, and honestly didn’t understand for a minute what we were meant to be feeling or just what the hell was going on. Whatever it was, it was screechy and sloppy, marred by Maya Rudolph’s relentless mugging. Her tonally insane performance had a whiff of desperation to it, a late-night veteran’s devotion to selling a joke that’s long past its expiration date that was matched by the broad flailing of fellow SNL-er Will Forte. Not that I blame the two sketchy types for trying to inject some personality into this tepid show. It’s just that they were completely incongruous with what had come before and, inevitably, what came after: a smiley celebration of Reagan’s self-absorbed megalomania and a standing ovation. It’s gone beyond saying whether I even like Up All Night. Who can tell when it so clearly doesn’t like, let alone know, itself?